I don't remember what originally inspired this fic, just that I knew that I had to write it, somehow. Thus this was born. It's one of my few non-crossover stories, gasp!
Major warnings for this fic! It has an M rating for a reason. Watch out for Xeno, rape, yaoi, attempted rape, and Albedo being nice. Well, that last really isn't a warning. I'm just trying to spin a dark story humorously.
Also, a note before you read: This fic switches back and forth from Albedo to Ben. There are things Ben does that Albedo doesn't - for example, Albedo calls alien races by their proper names, not by Ben's alien nicknames for them. Conversely, there are things Albedo knows that Ben doesn't, and vice-versa. If you notice inconsistencies with terminology, think on who's speaking first. Then go ahead and point them out so I can fix them. Also, this operates on the "Timeline? What Timeline?" mentality; it takes place sometime during Alien Force, and Ultimate Alien's canon is pretty much trashed because of it.
Lastly, many thanks to Eria for enduring my incessant chatting about this fic. She beta'd the first two parts but not the rest of it, so if you notice errors, please point them out!
Disclaimer: I don't own Ben 10 or any recognizable aliens. I did, however, make up the Filamans (imagine long incadescent light bulbs when you picture them) and pretty much the entirety of Albedo's descriptions of Galvans.
Tropes attempted: Blue and Orange Morality.
An omnipresent hum hung in the air; it was the backdrop of all speech, the base of all rhythms. It sang through bones and brains, hung in the very air itself. It was inescapable and wonderful, the sign of a vessel working properly and a vessel that was, to its owner, home.
Albedo skipped through his ship, a happy smile on his face. His white hair was slightly mussed, nothing near the neat image he tried to cultivate, and his red eyes shone with merriness. His pale hands cradled a precious item, the item that he'd been seeking for what seemed like forever. Now it was time, he mused, to work on fixing that horrendous mistake that left him in his current form and get back to a normal, sane life.
As he slid into the chair in his ship's lab, he flipped on a nearby monitor and tuned it to a local broadcast station. There was only one thing that would complete his moment of victory…
… and the sight of his nemesis, Ben Tennyson, tied down in the middle of an arena full of screaming sentients was icing on the cake. The other boy looked just like him, save that his hair was brown and his eyes were green. At the moment he didn't seem to be doing anything, his head lolling onto his shoulders. Albedo wondered if they'd drugged him; it'd serve him right. That human – and he sneered as he thought the word – needed to be taught some humility.
Volume loud enough to be heard over the ship's operational humming, Albedo turned to his prize and waited for the fun to begin. The Omnitrix was inert in his hands, waiting for a wrist to be bound to, a host to use it to its full potential. Albedo, as he selected a tool, was absolutely certain that he was that host. He was older than that fool of a human, had more experience, and was much more intelligent. If there was anyone to wield the Omnitrix against the forces of evil, it was him.
Brandishing his tool, the white-haired boy frowned at the innocent-looking watch in his hand. All he needed to do was break the accursed lock that the device had on it. If he could just do that, he could shed this ridiculous human form once and for all.
Poking the tender innards of the machine, Albedo grinned. Finally, he could be done with the disgusting food cravings, with the inappropriate urges that kept assaulting him at inopportune moments. He would finally be able to look at the world from its right angle, no longer towering at such a ridiculous height. He was looking forward to being done with tripping over his own feet and having to deal with hair. Hair! Such a laughable evolution, neither fur nor feathers. He'd kept it short not out of any human sense of neatness, but because it had begun to get in his eyes and distract him.
A roar from the monitor caught his attention; Albedo glanced up and grinned. Looked like the fun was just about to start. The host of the event, a Pyronite the color of dark brick veined with white-hot magma, had a microphone in his hand and was waxing poetic about the justice that the intergalactic underworld would finally see. Through it all Ben was still limp, not even twitching when a boiling hot hand passed mere inches in front of his face.
"It took a lot of thought to find an appropriate punishment for our human adversary," the Pyronite grinned, waving at the human trapped at his mercy. "It took hours of researching stolen human databases to find the perfect vengeance. In his species," and his grin turned dark, sinister, "they have a concept of physical love. They don't mate just for procreation, but for pleasure and love. When one human forces himself on another… they call that act rape. It is, according to my research, one of the worst things that can happen to a human of any gender. Pain, torture, deprivation… a human can recover from those acts more easily than having their body violated." There was a snort of derision; as in Albedo's species, there was no such word as rape to a Pyronite. A person either mated, or didn't.
On the screen, Ben twitched.
"So, I've found volunteers! For your pleasure, my gracious patrons, Benjamin Tennyson, alias Ben 10, shall be raped, violated, and ultimately broken by members of the audience. These are common sentients, picked as they walked in, and this will prove that anyone can beat Ben 10. We will no longer need to fear him!"
Albedo grinned, one eye on the screen even as he reached for another tool. A Vulpimancer leaped out of the door the host withdrew through, long brown fur streaked with white from numerous scars. One fang jutting out of his slavering mouth was at least a foot shorter than the other.
Right behind the Vulpimancer was an Arachnichimp, four arms decked in stiff leather armor and body clothed in a loose cotton shirt. Behind the Arachnichimp was a Petrosapian, and behind him was another Vulpimancer, and then behind that one was an alien Albedo had never seen but thought was called a Filiman, a species made of long, thin tubes that formed the vaguest shape of a bipedal sentient. As it walked some of the tubes rearranged themselves; Albedo's curiosity was piqued. He made a note in his journal: study Filimans.
Ben staggered to his feet, though his hands were chained together with the chains driven into a spike at the center of the arena. He managed to dodge the scarred Vulpimancer, then the Filiman, but the Arachnichimp caught him and pinned him to the ground. Omnitrix forgotten, Albedo watched gleefully as green leather was shredded, jeans were tattered, and Ben was finally getting what he so rightfully deserved.
At least, that's what Albedo was trying to convince himself. The grin slowly faded from his face as he watched, stomach sinking in a reaction he'd learned was… what was that again? Ah yes, nausea. There was no joy that he felt in seeing Ben at the mercy of creatures twice as big as he was. Nothing had even properly started yet; the two Vulpimancers were growling at each other, the Arachnichimp was spinning a web, and the Petrosapien was scrutinizing Ben, looking a bit confused.
Albedo set down his tool and swallowed hard, unable to tear his eyes away. Finally the two Vulpimancers had settled their disagreement; the scarred one growled the Petrosapien away and took his position…
Ben's scream sent a shiver through the white-haired boy. No longer caring to pretend, he ran for the toilet.
Stomach cleared of all its recent contents, Albedo leaned against the wall. He didn't want to go back into the lab, not with the TV still showing its horrifying images, but he knew he had to. It was… it was something he had to do. At the same time, the part of his brain that still clung to intellect and reason was laughing at him. There was no reason to fear what was happening; there was no way it would ever happen to him, right? Galvans like himself didn't mate for pleasure, so why would he have to worry about it?
But it was his human body that was betraying him, his stupid human emotions that were a pain in his neck. Steeling himself, Albedo walked back into his lab, reaching for the tool he'd so carelessly discarded. He had an Omnitrix to unlock, after all –
Ben was still screaming. Albedo's hand shook as he tried to poke the delicate inner workings of the Omnitrix and he scowled. "Idiotic monitor," he snapped, muting the blasted thing. He made the mistake of looking at it as he did so.
What he saw had him retching again, though thankfully nothing came out. He set his fever-warm forehead against the cool lab table, gulping air like he'd suddenly run a mile. He felt drops of water hit his knees and wondered when he'd spilled something.
It only took him a moment to realize that the drops were falling from his eyes. How odd. He'd never cried before as a human. Galvans could cry, but they did so in a different manner. He wiped the tears away impatiently, trying to place the emotion weighing down his stomach. What was it again…
Guilt. He hadn't realized that what he'd done was so awful, but hadn't Ben deserved it? He'd stolen what was rightfully his, trapped him in a horrid human body, ridiculed and shamed him. Didn't he deserve to know that what he'd done would have consequences?
… "No," Albedo whispered, levering himself upright and drying the last of his tears. "This is… this is wrong. No matter what he's done, he didn't deserve this." Though he wasn't sure just why he felt this way all of a sudden, knew with such frightening certainty. Blasted human emotions; he'd be glad to be rid of this form soon enough.
Jaw set, he remotely contacted the helm controls and set his course. He didn't know how much time he'd have before… before it would be too late. But he'd do what he could, and what he could do…
He didn't care about unlocking the Omnitrix anymore, not with another goal in his head.
Ben had long ago given up trying to track everything that was going on around him. His eyes were swollen nearly shut, and there was hardly an inch of skin that wasn't sliced open or bruised. He'd screamed himself hoarse ages ago, copper a bitter taste at the back of his throat.
The worst part, though, the worst part of this whole ordeal was the sick, painful feeling of things moving inside him. The first had felt as if he'd been split in two, and each one after that had added to the disgusting… stuff that he could feel.
A hard hand gripped his hair and dragged him upright. He didn't even have the energy to resist, limbs dangling limply. He wanted to shudder at the feel of slimy fluids dripping down his legs; he tried to tell himself that it was only blood and not… things he didn't want to think about. He couldn't think about it, because if he did, he'd start screaming again. He just had to hold on, hold on, and pray for Gwen and Kevin to find him. They had to find him, they had to!
Only he was beginning to fear that they wouldn't. How long had he been here? Time had become meaningless after the third time he'd been split apart, after he'd lost his voice and begun whimpering instead. If they were going to find him, wouldn't they have come by now? That was how it usually worked, wasn't it? One of them would be in peril and just inches away from a fate worse than death, and then the other two would burst in and kick some serious alien tail. They'd never been too late before, never… and it was definitely too late for Ben.
The hand dropped him and all he could do was crumple to the ground. He tried to crawl away, but his limbs weren't answering him anymore. His fingers just twitched, arms shaking.
The announcer's voice caught his ear, and he managed to turn his face towards it. He'd long since passed fear and shock on the emotion scale; he listened, impassively, for the next torture to come.
"I think all of our volunteers have had their turn, is that right? Now for our grand finale!" What felt like an entire country's worth of furnaces moved to Ben, a burning fingertip tracing tracks of tears down the teen's cheek. "Don't turn away from this!"
Suddenly Ben realized what was going to happen and that he was powerless to stop it. The pain he'd felt before would be nothing, his entire body crumbling to ashes from the inside out. It would finally be over…
"No other takers? No one?"
Yes, let there be someone else! It wasn't time for him to go, he still had so much to do. He had to get the Omnitrix back, he had to stop the aliens that were once again trying to destroy everyone he cared about. If there were someone else then he would live for that much longer, have that much more of a chance for someone, anyone, to save him.
Please, let there be someone…
"It's my turn!" a new voice declared, one that Ben knew. It wasn't a good voice, though. It was a dark mirror of his own, used by a being that wore his form. This voice shattered any hope that the teen might have had of rescue, despair sapping the scant traces of energy he'd even thought he might have had. Unbidden, new tears started to fall, stinging in cuts and the fresh burn on his cheek.
"Yes, you should get a turn," the host agreed. "Everyone, I give you the one who has given us this most precious gift! This is-!"
"They don't need to know that," Albedo's voice cut the announcer off, the sound of it growing louder with every word. Ben tried to turn his head, tried to force bruised eyes open to glare at the cause of all of his suffering. All he succeeded in doing was twitching. A shadow fell over him, and he tensed for the expected pain. Every being here had taken hits at him before doing… those things Ben was trying not to think of. Why should Albedo be no different?
Gentle fingers brushed the tears on his cheek, even as Albedo's cold voice continued. "I should have gotten here sooner. This is all there is left? Almost not even worth bothering with."
Of course not, his friends must have thought so too. Why else would they have left him here?
He heard the shifting of dirt around him, then felt a presence hovering over him. It was a human-sized presence, in just the right position to-
"But I must do this," and Albedo's voice was no longer strong and cold. It was faint, a drop falling onto Ben's cheek. It burned the way his tears had.
A flash of light worked its way through his swollen eyelids, and suddenly his entire body was wrapped in soothing cool. It was the exact opposite of what he'd expected, and his already shocked system was numb. What was going on? If only that tube alien hadn't decided to sock him in both his eyes, he would know. He wished he knew. So much had happened that he didn't know how much more he could take.
Albedo cradled the frighteningly still form in his arms, Necrofriggian wings stretched out to catch the breeze. He was intangible, but that didn't matter. There were plenty of other sentients around that could beat him to a shiny pulp in this form and he had to keep moving. He had to get Ben someplace safe, someplace where he could start to undo some of the damage he'd wrought.
His risky and hasty plan had worked; there was no sign of pursuit so far. Phasing through the floor with Ben safely in his keeping had stunned everyone enough that he had a healthy lead. Now he was only a few corridors away from his ship, which was ready to take off just as soon as it registered life forms aboard.
A turn, a skid, and a mad dash…
Success! Albedo careened into the loading bay of his ship, which obligingly intensified its hum. He didn't do anything as undignified as crash and roll. Instead he slowed his pace and became tangible again, finally able to take the time to catalogue Ben's injuries. They were numerous and worrying, a steady drip of red following them down the otherwise pristine hallway.
Necrofriggians didn't have an involuntary vomit reflex, thank goodness. That was the only thing that let him keep his composure as he reached the lab he'd hastily converted into a medical bay and set his charge down on the padded table. Rather than lose the chill calm afforded him by his current form, Albedo chose to begin the arduous process of patching Ben up immediately.
He didn't know how long he stood there, his world devolving into shades of red and silver as he worked. Through it all Ben was so still, not moving a muscle or making a sound. It was almost as if he'd given up.
Finally, though, finally all of his wounds were sealed save for the worst. Albedo regarded the mess that had been a human rectum, still glad that his current form could not act on the nausea roiling around in his gut. There were so many different types of fluids there, blood and others, and most of it had gone dry by this time. When he tried to rub some of it away, his fingers found that it was smooth as ice and hard as stone. There would be no way he'd be able to get it off without hurting Ben.
Albedo had to sit down for a moment, stumped, wondering what he could do. Then he remembered a little factoid he'd picked up in a not-so-savory dive and grinned.
Five minutes later Ben was sitting in a large tub of warm orange juice up to his waist, the rest of him wrapped in blankets to ward off shipboard chill. Not knowing how long it would take, Albedo finally set about doing what he realized should have been his first thing and found some medicine.
"Here," he said gruffly when Ben turned to look at him. Thanks to Albedo's efforts the swelling in his eyes had gone down, though it was up for grabs if he could see more than blurry shapes. "Some pain medicine, and something for infection. Some of those species… who knows what goes on in their biologies and I don't want to find out what it does to a human. "
Ben didn't move to take the pills, and Albedo shrugged. "Hey, if you want to die of something harmless to Vulpimancers like, I dunno, fur rot, that's on you. I didn't risk my neck to get you out for you to die on me."
Ben's lips moved but no words came out.
"Listen, you can call me what you want afterwards. Beat me to a pulp, leave me on some forgotten hellhole of a planet, invite me to your house, whatever. But first," and Albedo brandished his secret weapon: a glass of water. "First, you have to survive long enough to do that."
Pills dissolved in the water (which had nanites in it to help Ben's throat, as well), Albedo lifted the glass to Ben's lips. "Slowly," he ordered.
At first he thought Ben would stupidly refuse his help and he'd have to resort to other drastic measures, but then the other's eyes closed and he opened his mouth obligingly.
It was finally around that time that the Omnitrix decided that Albedo didn't have to lean on Necrofriggian chill and timed out. Albedo had to swallow, hard, to keep from throwing up in Ben's face. He felt so sick, and he hadn't even been the one to get hurt like this. Idiot human body.
After ten minutes, when the orange juice had finally cooled off and was no longer bright orange, Albedo decided that most of the gunk had been dissolved away. He went and found a floating stretcher since his human body wasn't strong enough to carry something as heavy as another person, then slowly helped Ben out of the tub.
Once again in the medical bay, Albedo steeled himself, telling his traitorous body that it could void all of its contents later. First, he had to get through this last stretch.
It took him hours. Hours of mixing nanite solutions to apply to the wounds, hours of rinsing them away when they were spent and applying fresh batches to… the wounds, he wouldn't think of the proper words for what he was trying to patch together. Towards the end he was running on pure will and caffeine that a machine kept dispensing; he didn't know just when a coffee machine had ended up in his care. It was put to good use, however, Albedo gulping down cups whenever he had a moment to breathe.
Finally, though, finally he was done. Ben wasn't bleeding anymore and had apparently passed out somewhere between the orange juice bath and the long hours of work. Albedo was covered in fluids and stray bits of nanite solutions and felt ten shades of unclean, but he felt victorious. Ben wouldn't die before Albedo could get him to a proper physician to get checked out and that was the most important thing of all.
With the internal communication system on so Albedo could listen for anything alarming, he headed for the shower, bundle of clean clothes held at arm's length. With the warm water running over his head and washing away blood that wasn't his, he finally allowed himself to feel the lump in his throat. His breath hitched, guilt and worry and shame and scores of other human emotions he'd never even realized the species was capable of leeching the strength from his legs.
He didn't know what was warm bath water and what was tears; all he knew was that he felt miserable and wondered why. On his knees in the shower cubicle, he bawled, emotions and thoughts chasing themselves around in his head.
How long was he like that? He had no clue. The water had gone cold by the time his wretched human emotions settled themselves into a fragile peace and he could find the strength to drag himself upright and towards the towels he had remembered to get out beforehand. Warm again, dry, and clothed, he stopped by the kitchen for a cup of something warm and liquid. His stomach was still not sure it wanted food at that very moment but his insides still felt a bit chill.
A steaming mug of tea in his hand, Albedo returned to the newly christened medical bay to check on his patient. Ben was still out cold, though his groans were proof that the nanites were working on his throat. None of the bandages that covered nearly every inch of his skin showed the dull silver of used nanites needing to be changed. It was a good sign. Albedo had only the first aid knowledge taught to every Galvan child in his first century, limited knowledge of the human anatomy, and a machine replicating more nanites for him to use at this very moment. None of those did a trained doctor make and he'd been so afraid that he'd screwed something up.
At least he'd have a second opinion in a few hours. Tea drunk and feeling a bit less like a wrung-out cat, Albedo settled into a corner with a blanket over his shoulders to wait. The computer would signal him when they were near their destination and it had been a long day.
He thought he could be forgiven for drifting off to sleep.
"Based on the scans I've taken of your body and his, I would have to say that you've done well in treating his outermost injuries," the Kineceleran physician noted, flipping through a stack of papers. "He has a crushed pelvis – that is what humans call that bone, right, the one connecting the legs to the torso?"
"Right. One wrist is broken, his ribs are bruised, and all of his limbs have at least one fractured bone. Until I get the bone structure analysis back I won't be able to synthesize the compound to begin knitting those bones together, so I have set the broken bones for now." She set the stack of papers to the side and glared at him. "Some of us respectable types do watch some unsavory television every once in a while, so I have no need to ask just how this happened."
There was no need to respond to that.
"If you plan on returning Ben 10 to the creatures that did this to him in the first place, I will have to endeavor to stop you."
Albedo flinched and swallowed. "I… don't. I just want him in one piece so I can take him home." Out of sight, out of mind, as the humans would say. Once Ben was in one piece and back with his friends he could settle down and figure out the Omnitrix. There was no more need to seek his pain; Albedo had had more than enough of that.
Stupid human emotions. Now that he'd had a good night's sleep he was starting to get a handle on them again, but the guilt and worry he couldn't quite suppress was annoying.
The Kineceleran nodded. "In that case, I'll keep Ben here until I can get his bones healed. While we're waiting for that, let's get the matter of your payment settled."
Mind dragged back to the task of intergalactic commerce, Albedo nodded. "I'm limited on funds, but I have some medical nanites I can bear to part with…"
An hour later and light ten gallons of nanites and the activating gel, Ben was once again ensconced in the converted lab that the Kineceleran physician had made some slight alterations to. Albedo was scrutinizing a list while the doctor named some conditions and tasks that the former Galvan had to carry out.
"He is not to eat any solids until his wounds are healed," she instructed firmly. "Liquids only, and then soft food after that. Make sure he takes the prescribed pain medicine and vitamin supplements; his new bone will grow on its own, but it will go a lot faster if his diet includes lots of calcium. And please, for the love of the Maker, do not let him get up. He is not to put weight on any of his limbs for at least a week, and even then you make sure you're right there to catch him."
Albedo nodded, seeing those requirements on the list. "How long until he's healed?"
"Most of the damage should be gone within the week. Since I had to rebuild his pelvis from scratch, I'd say give that two weeks just to make sure everything healed up properly. After a week make sure he walks at least a little bit each day so his body can get used to the everyday stresses he'll be putting on it again."
"Right. I'll remain nearby in case I'm in need of your services again," Albedo affirmed. Then he hesitated. "And… Thank you. I really can't thank you enough for this."
The doctor grinned, long tail swishing behind her as she turned to the door. "You're all right, Albedo. You may act like an arrogant, heartless jerk, but there's hope for you yet."
Then she was gone, leaving Albedo to scowl and ponder her hidden meaning. He wasn't doing this to be nice. It was just what he owed Ben for being the cause of his injuries in the first place.
And there was that damnable twinge of guilt again. There, he'd admitted he was guilty. Now if only those feelings would just go on their merry way he'd be quite happily done with them.
Albedo jumped when a quiet voice broke the silence. "Albedo? What's going on?"
The white-haired teen turned to see an awake brunette glaring at him from the bed. The physician had set up a harness to keep Ben as immobile as possible while his bones were healing, meaning that he was currently suspended in the air with his weight distributed between the least-damaged joints in his body. It didn't look comfortable.
Albedo stuck the list to a random metal surface with an equally random magnet. "How long have you been awake?"
"About when that doctor was telling you not to let me get up."
So he'd heard pretty much the extent of his injuries, then. Good, there was no need to explain. "Then you know I'm not going to hurt you. Just lie there and I'll get you back home in a few weeks."
"I don't get it, what happened? The last I remember you and me were fighting, then you managed to get the Omnitrix, and then…" His eyes widened. "And then…"
"It was a horrible mistake," Albedo cut him off bluntly. "I should never have left you in the care of those with questionable morals. Let's leave it at that."
Ben's eyes were starting to tear up. He'd started to remember, all right, and if Albedo had had a minor breakdown just from watching…
"I'm going to go figure out a recipe for chicken soup or something," he said hurriedly, backing out of the room. "Just give me a call when you're ready for something."
He forgot to turn off the in-ship communication system. Ben's sobs haunted him all the way to the galley, where he sat in a chair and stared blankly at the wall. The now-familiar sensation of tears traced itself down his own cheek.
Ben didn't know how long he was lost in memories, how long he relived that hellish day. By the time he gained control of himself again Albedo was back, a cup of something warm and thick in one hand and a tissue in the other.
"Get away from me!" the brunette yelled, thrashing in the contraption holding him. "You're the one that got me into that… that…" He felt sick and wanted nothing to do with the monster wearing his face.
"I'm also the one that got you out, if you don't recall," Albedo retorted, but he stayed out of reach until Ben stilled. "I don't have any excuses and I know apologies won't be enough. Just tolerate me until you're in one piece and then you never have to see me again."
Ben couldn't stop the tears that once again were streaming down his cheeks. "But you gave me to them!" he shouted angrily, breath hitching at the pain in his chest. "You didn't know what they were going to do?"
"I had no idea," Albedo replied just as angrily. "All I asked was for them to humiliate you. I didn't realize what that meant!"
"And how could you not know?" Ben retorted. "You didn't ask?"
"Why would I? I didn't think…" Albedo was pretty good at faking a guilty face and he swallowed. "I didn't know it would be so horrible."
"Why not? Rape is rape," Ben challenged. "You didn't know it was a bad thing?"
"No!" Albedo exploded, liquid sloshing everywhere. "I'm saying, I didn't know that that's what they were going to do! I thought they'd, I don't know, strip you and whip you and beat you up until they left you a bloody pile on the floor for your friends to scrape up. Not that that's better, but it's not as bad as what I saw on that monitor."
Ben ached everywhere and felt like a wrung-out dishrag clinging to its last threads. Suddenly tired, he went limp in his bonds. "Whatever." He wasn't fine with this at all, but he had no choice in the matter until Gwen and Kevin found him. "It's not like I can do anything about it right now. Do what you want."
Albedo dutifully wiped his face off with a damp tissue, then brought the mostly-full mug to bear. "Here. There's no chicken in this part of space, but I think I found something that approximated it. Hope you like soup."
The broth tasted nothing like chicken soup, but it was thick and tasty and warmed Ben to the core. He hadn't realized just how hungry he'd been until that moment. Albedo didn't try to drown him, either; his hand was steady and paused when it seemed he was having trouble.
That was the start of the longest week of Ben's life. He had to rely on Albedo for everything from eating to using the restroom, and given that he couldn't move… he was embarrassed the first couple of times. To his surprise, Albedo made no comments about it. He expected at least a few snarks about how human anatomy sucked or something, but there was nothing of the sort.
Albedo was acting… nice. It was baffling. Oh, his wit was still sharp as ever and he spared no expense when it came to Ben's friends. But when it came to Ben himself, there were no harsh words. Only questions about how he was feeling, if he felt any pain, and orders to call Albedo if there was anything he needed at all.
At first it wasn't so bad. He got a bit of amusement from having Albedo at his beck and call. Then night inevitably came and he was left alone in a room whose lighting was obligingly dimmed to facilitate sleep.
Ben woke up screaming, limbs straining against the harness holding him. His dreams had been filled with growls and too-warm bodies and pain. Luckily for him Albedo didn't make an appearance; he didn't want to have to explain.
He spent the rest of the night staring up at the dimly lit ceiling, no longer wanting to sleep.
He endured three days of being waited on hand and foot before he thought he was going to go crazy. He couldn't sleep at night for the nightmares, and during the day all he was able to do was stare at the same ceiling and wait for Albedo to wander in and out. He was bored out of his mind and all he could think of to do was… think.
Boredom made him think strange thoughts. He found himself analyzing Albedo's actions, comparing them to the image he'd held of an arrogant alien psychopath who was willing to do anything to get what he wanted. Albedo's gentleness, his willingness to do something so simple as wipe the tears from Ben's cheeks, didn't exactly mesh with that image.
Ben, frankly, was baffled. All he could do was hang there and wait and see what was going to happen.
Finally boredom got the better of him. Albedo was removing the last bandage covering him, white cloth stained with dull grey, and he blurted, "What's with the grey stuff?"
Albedo discarded the bandage. "It's a nanite solution. Tiny robots that are inert until they're mixed with a certain gel, which gives them the energy to complete their tasks. Once they're out of energy they turn that dull grey color to show that they need to be replaced. It's Galvan technology."
"Ah." He thought he understood most of that. "So I've had tiny robots crawling all over me."
"They're programmed not to leave the gel. Don't worry, they've been confined to your wounds." Albedo wrung out a washcloth and wiped down where a large gash courtesy of arm-length fangs had been mere days ago. Ben tried not to shiver at the touch, well aware that with him in this contraption, Albedo had been unable to do much more than toss a blanket to cover him.
"That's cool then," he managed to say. Then, "When do you think I can get some clothes?"
Albedo glanced over at the list, still where he'd carelessly stuck it days ago. "The worst of your breaks still haven't healed, and your pelvis is nowhere near ready to take your weight." Then he looked thoughtful. "I might be able to throw something together. You mind skirts?"
Ben choked. "What?"
"Hey, I still have to get the rest of the nanites from your rectum. Those should be finished by the time I'm supposed to get you out of this torture implement, so it'll only be, what, four more days?" His offhand demeanor almost hid the wince at the first part of that statement.
Ben was almost convinced that he actually felt guilty. Then he remembered that this was Albedo. All the white-haired boy cared about was the Omnitrix Ben could see on his wrist.
He wanted to know why Albedo was helping him. He wanted to know why Albedo was pretending to be nice when he had what he wanted. He wondered if the former Galvan was secretly enjoying his pain and that was why he was helping him.
"Why don't you just drop me off at home?" he asked after Albedo had set the washcloth aside and had moved someplace Ben really didn't want to pay attention to. He clenched his fists, the only movement he was capable of besides turning his head, and looked determinedly at the ceiling. "Why are you going to all this trouble?"
Albedo didn't pause. "Besides self-preservation? Even if I took you home now, they'd take one look at the fact that you're injured. I wouldn't walk away from that. But if I get you patched up enough to make it home on your own, that saves my skin."
"Oh of course," Ben sighed bitterly. "You can't just do something to be a decent person, can you?"
"I could have just stuck you in an escape pod bleeding and broken," Albedo snapped back. "You wouldn't have made it without Galvan and Kineceleran medicine. Why do you think that I can't seem to do anything selfless?"
"Because you're you?" Ben pointed out. "All you've done is, let's see, attack me once blaming me for something that isn't my fault. Then you attack me again and dump me someplace to get beaten up and assaulted. Not a good track record there."
"You forget that I rescued you, putting my human neck on the line just to make sure I got to you, and then spent days making sure you didn't fall apart on me," Albedo countered. "If you don't like me, fine. Just tolerate me for another week."
A week was going to be forever.
Ben sat up under his own power for the first time in a week with a grateful wince, a newly healed wrist supporting his weight. His hips weren't happy with the arrangement at all, aching and shooting pain up his spine with every heartbeat. He almost didn't mind, however; he was out of that torture device that Albedo had had him in and it was worth any amount of pain to be able to move again.
Albedo was hovering within easy grabbing distance. "How do you feel?" he asked, a bundle of cloth in his arms. "Any pain in your limbs?"
Ben flexed everything he could think of, his legs and his arms and his wrists. "Everything seems to be in working order," he confirmed, preparing to jump off of the table. Albedo must have guessed at what he was getting ready to do because he was there, clothes discarded on the table, an arm around his waist for support.
"I can walk," Ben said irritably, but secretly he was glad. As he eased his weight onto his legs his hips started to protest louder, a deep ache in his lower abdomen telling him that something wasn't right. Albedo's grip was steady, the white-haired boy taking most of his weight on his own shoulders and lessening the pain that Ben realized was his still-healing pelvis protesting.
"You could, but how far?" Albedo asked, and there was the lightest note of teasing in his voice. Ben thought about getting angry, then sighed.
"Just get me to the bathroom and back and we're square."
Trip done, Ben surveyed the clothes that Albedo had managed to procure for him. He'd gone without for the whole week, unwilling to suffer the indignity of wearing a skirt, and he was looking forward to feeling decent again.
"Now that you're out of that torture implement," Albedo was saying while Ben struggled to get dressed without help, "I've tracked down some entertainment for you. I know it's been boring so I've tuned the monitor to Earth channels and found a whole library of books." The white-haired boy wheeled a small table with what looked like an Ipad on it over to Ben's bedside. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go see what I can make that fits the description of soft food."
After drinking broth and medicine for a week Ben was looking forward to it. "Okay. And… thanks."
Albedo paused on his way out, then scowled. "I'm not doing this for you."
Of course not. But Ben grinned anyway. Maybe it was the forced extended contact he'd had to endure, but he thought maybe he was starting to understand his nemesis-turned-nursemaid a little bit. He was still angry over his attack; no one could get over being assaulted in only a week. However, he was beginning to see past Albedo's prickly exterior to something that might actually be likeable.
Albedo was on a hunt in the ship's slowly dwindling storeroom. Face set in a scowl of concentration, he shoved slightly dusty boxes and cans out of the way in search of something he knew he'd picked up on his last trip to Earth. It was the only thing he could think of that would be soft enough to fit the doctor's orders, and it was quick and easy…
"Aha!" he exclaimed, seeing the box tucked in an out of the way corner. He grabbed it and made sure none of the dust it had been sitting in had gotten into the box. "Let's see, just add water right?"
Prize in hand, he found his way back to the kitchen and made a note to clean out the storeroom while Ben was eating.
By the time he was done making the instant mashed potatoes he'd found Ben was dressed and reclining on the pillows Albedo had tracked down for him. The brunette had found a pair of loose black pants and a grey t-shirt and was busy poking the mobile terminal Albedo had set up for him.
"I can't read some of these books," Ben informed him. Albedo glanced at the screen and found the translation option.
"Most of these can be converted to American English," the white-haired boy told him, drawing Ben's attention to the buttons at the bottom of the screen. "This option won't be highlighted if it can't be." Then he set the bowl of mashed potatoes down in front of Ben. "I added some salt, I don't have anything else. If you don't like it I'll find something else."
Ben set the terminal aside and attacked the bowl of potatoes, his face lighting up after the first bite. "Man, these are the best potatoes ever!"
"It's just because you haven't had anything solid in a week," Albedo told him brusquely. This week had been challenging for him, more challenging than he'd let on to Ben. When he'd been around the injured boy he'd made sure none of his emotions showed, but in the privacy of his cabin or the bridge he was swamped by guilt. His nights, when he couldn't sleep for the nightmares that plagued him, were punctuated by screams from Ben's room. He hadn't even tried to crack open the Omnitrix at all the whole week.
On his way back to the storeroom and its promised cleaning, he had a rather poetic thought. Ben Tennyson, he mused, had succeeded where Azmuth hadn't. Albedo had finally found what humans would call his conscience. It was a damnable thing, but the consequences of his actions had been too big to ignore. Even playing nursemaid for a week had done nothing to assuage his guilt.
Two hours, a layer of grime, and one clean storeroom later, Albedo took a grateful shower and planned his next move. Once Ben was gone back to his friends, in one piece , what would Albedo do?
He thought he wanted to be a proper Galvan again, but hard thought had him realizing that… no, he really didn't. As a Galvan he'd been miserable and underappreciated, which had driven him to this horrendous course of action. As a human… he felt better. Humans had a greater capacity for expression and it fit him so much better than the coldly and sometimes cruelly logical Galvan society. Azmuth's main motivation for building the Omnitrix had been to let his companions experience the joys and sorrows that the wider universe felt on a daily basis.
If he'd become a Galvan again, he'd have been right back where he started. He'd have still been an outsider in proper society, and he would have once again grown angry and done things that would have had Azmuth trapping him as a human. Again.
In the process of rinsing out his hair (which was still a funny evolution), Albedo realized that, despite all of his grumpiness and groaning… he was happy. It wasn't having Ben at his mercy that had him feeling that way, either. Maybe, he thought as he turned off the hot water and stepped out of the shower, he should stay as a human.
But where would he go? He couldn't stay on Earth after he dropped Ben off; Kevin and Gwen would ensure that he was miserable or joined them on their heroic escapades. As a human, the only powers that Albedo could claim were the amazing ability to down chili fries at superhuman speeds. So not only would he be a third wheel, he wouldn't put it past Kevin to pull an "oops."
He really didn't want to end up as collateral damage.
So he'd have to find his place in the universe. That would involve probably years of drifting around in his ship, alone, until he found a world that was friendly to humans and wouldn't be overly dangerous for him. He wasn't too worried about finding an occupation wherever he decided to end up. He was still a scientist and had centuries of experience, so he was sure someone would want his knowledge of Galvan science. The only downside to this was that his human form had a greatly reduced life span. An average of eighty years was a fraction of a Galvan's normal span of nearly a millennium. However, he mused once he was dressed and heading to the bridge to set a course for the nearest trading outpost, it was a lot better than some species in the universe. He couldn't imagine having only two decades to live a full life. And maybe, when he was older and wiser, Ben would let him return to his birth form. Elderly Galvans still had several centuries to live and perhaps by then he'd have someplace he could call home.
Thinking of the future was depressing, Albedo realized once he reached the bridge. He wasn't exactly sure why, but the prospect of living alone was suddenly… scary. Sliding into the pilot's seat, he scanned for beacons that would indicate a trading outpost within a few hours' flight.
It occurred to him, when they were almost at the trading outpost, that all of his thoughts on the future never once included the Omnitrix. When had he decided to give it back to Ben? He wasn't entirely sure, but he glanced at the watch on his wrist and imagined that it was pleased with his decision. Of course it made no sound, the interface ready for him to choose an alien. Still…
At least, Albedo decided as he negotiated the Petrosapien docking protocols and got his clearance to dock, he could ensure Ben had every tool at his disposal. Shopping list in hand, he told Ben that he was going to restock the ship and to lock the lab doors, then set out in search of necessities. Food, power cell refueling, life support checks… There were many things he had to think about to keep his little home in working condition.
It took him nearly a whole day to get everything he needed loaded onto the ship. He not only had to figure out a way to trade for everything, he had to arrange to have the physical goods loaded and get it organized in the hold. A couple of times he made sure to stop in and check on Ben, but the brunette had found a channel on the local broadcast stations. He waved Albedo away with a smile; he actually seemed to be having fun.
Bemused, Albedo went back to overseeing the restocking. He flew away the next morning feeling sleep-deprived and short a good number of intergalactic credits, but he was equipped now for several months alone in space.
"There!" Albedo crowed, reassembling the Omnitrix again with a pleased grin on his face. Relocated to a heavily-padded seat, Ben crooked an eyebrow up at him.
"What'd you do?" the brunette asked, shifting so he could set his tablet aside and lean forward. "Please tell me you didn't break it."
"Don't be an idiot," Albedo grumbled, setting aside his tools and clutching the watch in his hand. He'd taken it off to work on it and hadn't missed Ben's longing look at it, but his darker-colored clone didn't seem interested in asking for it back. He probably thought Albedo would kick his butt, the albino thought darkly. Pity he hadn't taken the time to enlighten Ben on any of his plans. Oh well. "I just re-enabled the first list of aliens. The Tetramand, Pyronite… Galvan, all of those forms are active again."
Ben noticed his hesitation and scowled. He didn't seem as pleased as Albedo was. "So you've finally done it. You can become a Galvan again." He picked up his tablet again and pretended to read it, but Albedo wasn't fooled.
It was tempting. It was a dark feeling in the pit of his stomach, an ache that he hadn't expected to be so painful. He'd already accepted that he wasn't going to go back to Galvan Prime as a member of his birth species. With the Omnitrix in his hand, it would be so easy though. All he had to do was put it on…
He steeled himself and stepped towards the teenager still pretending to be interested in the tablet in his hand. Albedo tried to remember, was Ben right or left-handed?
Ah well. He could fix it later if he needed to. He nabbed the arm that Ben was using to hold the tablet and, ignoring the indignant yelp, he slapped the Omnitrix onto the other boy's wrist. Ben, for his part, was stunned.
"I- wha- you-," he stuttered, eyes wide. His other hand went to grip the Omnitrix like he couldn't quite believe it was there.
"When you were lying there," Albedo tried to put his conflicted feelings into words. "No… before that, when I saw what my actions had wrought. I hadn't realized just what sort of miserable sentient I really was. I was such a petty fool, and I didn't realize. I had a long time to think while you were recovering, and I decided… Azmuth was right. I'm a sorry excuse for a Galvan and I make a much better human."
"Hey," Ben objected after a beat.
Albedo grinned. "Sorry, I didn't mean to say it like that. I mean, I wasn't a very good Galvan to begin with, and Azmuth, in his twisted way, finally figured out a way to show me."
"How am I supposed to take that in a positive way?" Ben asked.
"Well, your species has emotional creativity," Albedo shrugged. "Galvans have scientific creativity. Imagine…" He tried to put it into words. "Imagine that you lived in a university where your peers were the geniuses and your teachers were the gods, intellectually speaking. Imagine that every day you wanted something different, something more, and you didn't know what. You teachers don't know what it is, and your peers scoff at you." He cast his eyes downwards, scowling. "I was so angry and I never realized why."
"You didn't fit in?" Ben guessed.
"Oh, I was just as smart as them," Albedo mused. "I thought circles around them. That in itself is nothing new; our leaders are the most intelligent of our species. Everyone thought I was on the way up, all the way to the top. But… I didn't want that. That's when Azmuth came to me, promised me that I could find that thing I was missing. He told me that what he was working on could show our species that there was more than science, more than our own minds."
Ben nodded. "He promised to let you have the Omnitrix."
"Not have. He said he'd let me use it, experience what it was to be another species, but it wasn't ever supposed to be a weapon. It was merely a tool, that those who could otherwise find no common ground would understand each other. It was Vilgax that thought of it as a weapon." Albedo shrugged and dragged his thoughts back to the present. "Anyway, the point is, I'd be miserable as a Galvan. Azmuth wouldn't trust me again, and no one on Galvan Prime would understand. I'd get angry again, and then I do something stupid. No, as a human I think I've finally found that thing I was missing." He grinned at Ben.
"And what is that?" the brunette asked. The tablet had long since been discarded.
"Humans, despite their idiotic cravings and silly evolutions, have a greater capacity to feel emotion. I think that's what I was missing back on Galvan Prime. Everyone there was so blank, so focused, and I felt like I was going to burst with all of these things I was feeling." Albedo nodded. "So, that's why I'm not going to go back to being a Galvan."
"So why give me back the Omnitrix? It's what you've been wanting this whole time," Ben asked. He didn't seem too worried about that, though, his fingers still tracing familiar metal.
Albedo shrugged. "It's no good in my hands. I only wanted it to become a Galvan again, and since I'm going to be a human for the foreseeable future… I'm not interested in risking my neck for the greater universe."
Ben nodded. "So… when you take me back home. What are you going to do after?"
The white-haired boy snorted, moving over to his reclaimed lab table. He started putting his tools back in their proper places, trying to ignore the lonely feeling just thinking of his future evoked.
"I'll be here and there," he shrugged. "I certainly won't fit in on Earth, so I'll have to wander a bit, I suppose. I can leave you my communication frequency if you want, in case you ever want to talk to me again. I don't see why you would, though, not after what I did to you…"
They both winced at the reminder.
"Well, it's only a few more days," Ben said a bit too cheerfully. "Since you've effectively dismantled my bed, think you can take me to the place I'll call home for a few days?"
The peace was too good to last. The very next day, Albedo staggered his way to the bridge to silence screaming alarms and figure out just what was trying to smash his ship into paste. He'd wasted precious minutes securing Ben in his quarters, and by the time he made it his vessel shuddered. He stared at the glaring red graphic showing just where a boarding cable had sliced through the top of his ship and the life forms that were currently invading it. Internal video feed let Albedo see the sentients that were tromping straight towards the few crew quarters on board; Albedo's ship was meant to hold a crew of eight, with each bunk holding two members. Albedo's bunk was the closest to the stairs, with Ben's directly next to it.
The white-haired boy's first reaction was to seal the door to Ben's bunk. The other teen was still limping badly, though he could walk unassisted, and any injuries he had would be translated to his alien forms. Ben wouldn't be able to fight off the two figures that were headed his way.
Then, swallowing hard and knowing just how idiotically human he was being, Albedo ran out of the bridge and down the stairs, gaining his full speed in the short corridor that skirted the lab and the kitchen. He was going so fast that he actually careened into the growling form that had just reached the stairs reaching into the lowest level of the vessel, where the cabins, loading bay, and storerooms were located.
"Well, well," a familiar voice crooned, and Albedo found himself staring up into the dark red face of the Pyronite that had, so long ago, orchestrated the rape of Ben Tennyson. Now he grinned down at Albedo with a predatory smile. "Here's the little magma drop that stole my prey. What do you think we should do with him?"
A growl, and the scarred Vulpimancer from before wiggled out from under Albedo and pinned the white-haired boy to the ground. "What is the meaning of this?" Albedo demanded, but his voice came out more of a wheeze.
The Pyronite chuckled. "You've stolen something from me," he purred. "Thanks to you, I've gone from the top all the way down. Now that I have you, I can reclaim my throne."
Albedo wanted to laugh at fate, or destiny, or whatever it was humans believed in. He should have known that he wouldn't be able to just fade away into the background once Ben was back home. He should have known that, and yet he was surprised at this turn of events.
"You'll always be at the bottom of the intergalactic food chain," was out of his traitorous mouth before he could stop himself. So it seemed humans never gave up. It certainly explained so much about Ben. "Go ahead and do what you want. Ben Ten will be after you soon enough."
"You seem to think that he'll care about you," the Pyronite sneered, and he grabbed Albedo's arm and yanked him to his feet. The pain was immediate and immense; the cry of pain wrenched itself out of his throat before he could even think to stifle it. "Come on, get a move on. We need someplace with lots of room."
Albedo was clutching his seared arm, tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. He hadn't felt so much pain… well, ever. "This is a small ship," he said stubbornly. "The largest room is my lab." And the loading bay, but he didn't think about that at the moment. Honestly, when he wasn't using it, he forgot he had it on board.
"It'll have to do," the Pyronite decided. "After you." He gestured ahead of him, hands smoking.
With the threat of another burn impending, Albedo nodded. Vulpimancer growling at his heels, he led the way back down the corridor. "Here," he said, making no move to open the door. "This is my lab."
The Vulpimancer pawed at the door controls and shoved him forwards. It was the second-largest room on the ship but it was still incredibly small, and the force of that shove had him crossing the few feet to his lab table. His burned arm screamed when he automatically planted his hands to keep from tumbling clear across the table, but he managed not to whimper this time.
"What are you planning?" Albedo demanded, turning to face the two who had him trapped in his own ship. He only hoped that Ben hadn't managed to break out of his cabin yet. He hoped that Ben would have the sense to stay put until the two vile creatures had done what they wanted and left.
The Pyronite produced a multi-band camera, capable of transmitting across vast distances on its own. He'd probably planted an antenna at the edge of the camera's transmission range to boost the signal, knowing his showboating mind.
"What am I planning? Oh, let's see. You want to be a human? We'll treat you just like one."
A cold feeling grew in Albedo's stomach. "I'm a Galvan, if you didn't get the memo," he tried to retort. "Logic, calculation? This is meaningless."
"Well, we'll see. No matter how I work this, it'll be enough to get my sponsors back. I'll get my arena back, and you'll be nothing but a bitter memory." The Pyronite grinned. "All I have to do is get this on datachip."
The Vulpimancer reared up on two legs, front paw shoving Albedo backwards onto the table. The breath was knocked out of the white-haired boy, and as he struggled to breath he felt claws digging into his chest. He stared up at the beast, mind trying to come up with a way, any way, out of this. His brilliant mind, capable of running several complex calculations a minute, was blank. He couldn't think of anything.
The Vulpimancer shredded his jeans, the cloth drifting to the floor in wispy shreds. Albedo clenched his eyes shut and gripped the paw pinning him. His pitiful human arms didn't even shift it a centimeter. "This won't accomplish anything," he said desperately. "I'm not human! This is nothing to me!"
"Oh yeah?" the Pyronite taunted. "Then why are you crying?"
He hadn't even realized there were tears on his cheeks until then. He didn't have a witty retort to that, and all he could do was tense his muscles and wait. It was only fitting, he thought around the paralyzing fear. He'd feel the same pain that he'd inflicted on Ben. That was Galvan justice all around.
Even when he was trying to resign himself to not being Galvan again, he couldn't get away from it. Galvan justice was swift and brutal; humans had a phrase for it. An eye for an eye. What was done, was felt in return. A rape was repaid with a rape.
Albedo could have appreciated the irony if he wasn't currently pinned under a Vulpimancer, waiting for the splitting pain that he gifted upon Ben what felt like so long ago.
Without warning there was the sound of an explosion and the air was suddenly thick with the smell of methane. Albedo wrinkled his nose at the overpowering scent. The Vulpimancer turned towards the source of the noise, its paw loosening ever so slightly, and the white-haired boy wasn't stunned enough to miss the opportunity. He rolled out from under the paw, feeling the scrape of metal table on bleeding scratches all over his hips, and scampered as far from the Vulpimancer as he could. He wouldn't admit that he was hiding under the table; he still had his pride.
The fight, such as it was, was over in a matter of minutes. Ben, as a plant alien that Albedo couldn't readily identify, drove the Vulpimancer and Pyronite back onto their own ship. There was a minor hiccup when the explosive decompression of the ship detaching its boarding cable damaged Albedo's ship's engines, but the hull breach was in a part of the ship easily contained. The only sacrifice that they ended up with was the laundry, which was right above the kitchen.
Albedo couldn't bring himself to move while Ben was taking care of making sure the ship was in one piece. He was still under the table when the brunette, once again a human, crouched down to check on him.
"You okay?" he asked.
Red eyes closed, tears still leaking from them. "I don't know," Albedo whispered. "He didn't… I'm not…" He tried to get his mind into working order, but he was still caught up in a tangle of emotions. He didn't quite comprehend that what he had feared hadn't come to pass.
Ben's shoulders slumped. "I'm glad," he breathed. "I'm so glad… I wouldn't want that to happen to anyone." He reached out a hand. "Come on. You're bleeding."
Albedo took his hand. Ben helped him out from under the table and onto its surface, then went in search of the nanite solution. All the while Albedo sat there, his mind blank. He still hadn't quite wrapped his mind around the fact that he was mostly in one piece; he knew his arm was burned and that he had gashes along his lower body, but he didn't feel them. He was numb.
"Come on, show me how to mix this," Ben coaxed him, drawing his attention to the bowl of gelatin and bottle of silver nanites he'd dug out of some storage cupboard. Woodenly he recited the proper formula, watching as Ben followed his instructions precisely.
The hard part was when Ben needed him to lie down. He had to close his eyes as Ben, in a strange role reversal, applied the cool solution to the wounds that, strangely, still didn't hurt. He couldn't stop his hands from shaking, fingers curling into fists, because he didn't want to feel anyone touching him. He opened his eyes so he could see that it was Ben, not alien claws, tracing gently over his skin this time.
Once the solution was applied, Ben had to go in search of bandages. Albedo just looked up at the ceiling and listened, tracking Ben's progress by sound and the intimate familiarity he had with his ship.
Ben returned and, chatting lightly the whole time, wound bits of white gauze around his upper thighs, around his hips, and finally around his lower abdomen. Next he paid attention to the burn on Albedo's arm, more solution being rubbed over it to soothe the fire that was working its way past the numbness. A few last feet of gauze and Ben was finished.
"We've lost the laundry room, so the only clothes we have are what's in the cabins," the brunette sighed. "I'll go get you a pair of pants."
Albedo's hand shot out before he could stop himself, his shaking fingers closing over Ben's. "Don't," he whispered. He didn't know why he didn't want Ben to leave. He just knew that if he lost the other boy's presence, then something bad would happen. He didn't know what would happen, just that he was still frightened and it was Ben's presence that kept him from losing control.
Ben nodded. "All right. I'm not going to leave the room. Let me just get you a blanket, it's cold in here…"
Albedo watched him dig in a storage cabinet this time and come up with a plain brown blanket. It wasn't particularly pretty but it was warm, and Ben draped it over the white-haired boy's legs. He stood there awkwardly when he was done. For his part Albedo was starting to lose some of the numbness, the pain working its way into his awareness. The sharp stinging of the cuts across his hips was a lighter counterpoint to the dark throbbing of his arm and, unbidden, tears started prickling in his eyes.
"What is it?" Ben asked, concerned.
"It hurts," Albedo admitted, hand over the bandages on his arm. "There should be pain medicine in one of the cabinets. Lower left, if I'm remembering right."
Ben went off in search of the pills. While he was doing that, Albedo dragged himself upright. He wasn't that badly hurt, he told himself fiercely, and if he was moving then his emotions wouldn't be able to overwhelm him. That was a little lesson he'd learned when it had been Ben in his position. Hands clutching the blanket to him, he tried to get to his feet.
The slashes across his lower body protested so loudly that he had to drop right where he was on the floor. He couldn't quite curl up in a ball, not with the bandages impeding his movements, but he ended up drawing his legs up to his chest as far as he could and wrapped his arms around himself. Unbidden, the tears he'd been trying to hold back fell freely.
"Albedo, where… what happened?" Ben's surprised voice startled him. Albedo tucked his chin in towards his chest and tried to ignore the screaming pain from his wounds. "Can you get up?"
"No," the white-haired boy admitted. "I tried to get up and it hurt too much." Suddenly he felt tired. All he wanted to do was get back to his bunk and sleep. He tried to push the tiredness away, though; his ship needed him, and he needed to make sure his ship was in one piece. He couldn't hear the usual humming that told him his ship was working, and it worried him.
"Well, I found the pain medicine. There's no water in here, though, so unless you want to swallow them dry I'll have to go to the kitchen to get some water. Want me to help you up first?" Ben was crouched next to him, though he wasn't close enough to make him uncomfortable.
"Medicine," Albedo requested. He wanted to be able to move on his own, and for that he'd need to not be in pain anymore. He could stand to sit on the floor for a few minutes.
Ben nodded and stood. As soon as he was out of Albedo's line of sight the former Galvan felt his chest tightening. He knew that Ben was coming right back, he knew that, and yet he couldn't help his sudden surge of fear. It was an irrational fear, and he hated that he was letting something like that control him. But Ben wasn't gone long and it seemed only a few seconds had passed before he was once again crouched next to Albedo, pills in one hand and glass of water in the other.
The medicine worked quickly; a few minutes after taking the medicine Albedo was able to drag himself upright and back onto the table. He didn't take Ben's offered help. He wasn't sure if it was because he was ashamed, or because he didn't want to be touched again. No matter the case, Ben stayed a respectful distance away while he settled the blanket back over his legs.
"So," Albedo said once he was settled on the hard table. He forced his thoughts away from his discomfort and to practical matters. "You said we lost the laundry room and the engines are offline. Is there any other damage to the ship?"
Ben shrugged. "I'm no expert, but I didn't see anything else. We're just drifting right now, though."
With the engines offline, that was to be expected. If Albedo remembered right, they were in a relatively empty part of space. There were no planets within easy distance, and ships rarely passed this way. It was fortunate, Albedo mused, that he'd restocked the day before.
"We can do without the laundry room," he said after a moment. "Our major concern right now is getting the engines back online. Once I can stand I'll be able to get working on that. As long as our life support keeps working we'll be fine." He dared to look up at Ben. "I don't know how long it'll take to fix the engines. It depends on what went wrong and if we have the parts to fix it. We could be here for a while."
Ben didn't seem to mind. "I can wait a little longer."
Albedo's physical wounds, such as they were, healed up in two days. He was able to hobble around on his own and refused Ben's help, though once he got to his bunk he stayed there. He didn't sleep well, though; he expected the nightmares but couldn't do much about them aside from try not to sleep. He knew that wouldn't work so all he could do was endure them.
Once he was healed up, he set to work right away. His engine room was at the top of his ship, right behind the bridge, with the engines themselves worked into the back of the ship in two long lines. The laundry room, where the Pyronite had barged his way into his ship, was right under one of those engines. The explosive decompression had damaged that engine and sent a power surge through the whole system.
"We could be here a month, maybe two," Albedo relayed once he'd finished with his assessment. They were in the loading bay at the moment; it was the only place large enough for Ben to run around in. The brunette, now that he could move around, couldn't seem to stay still. He'd converted the loading bay into a makeshift soccer field, found something to approximate a soccer ball, and started kicking it around.
Even now he was balancing the ball on one knee. "What about communications? Can't we just call for help?"
Albedo shook his head. "I already have a distress signal broadcasting on all frequencies. This is a rather remote part of space, and the likelihood of someone hearing us isn't too large. If someone does get our distress signal, that would be great. Until then, I'll keep working on the engines."
Ben, in between running circles around the loading bay and improvising a washing machine in one of the spare cabins' showers, found himself watching Albedo. His white-haired clone obviously wasn't sleeping well, if the dark circles under his eyes were any indication, and he would sometimes work well into… well, there wasn't any night in space. But Albedo would still work for ridiculous lengths of time, sometimes forgetting to eat unless Ben actually went and dragged him off.
It was, frankly, worrying.
One day Ben brought Albedo a fresh pitcher of water and found the other boy curled up around a couple of random tools, fast asleep. It wasn't a peaceful sleep, however; Albedo was twitching, his breath hitching, and his clothes were damp with sweat. He was breathing hard and little noises were being wrought from the back of his throat. Ben had the pitcher set aside and was immediately crouched down next to the white-haired boy, though he wasn't sure what to do.
When Albedo began to thrash in earnest, however, Ben didn't hesitate. He grabbed Albedo's shoulder and shook it lightly, calling the other boy's name. Albedo tensed under his hand, whimpering, before he tried to twist away. Ben tightened his grip instead, yelling louder for Albedo to wake up, damn it. Albedo was too deeply asleep, however, too caught up in his nightmare to awaken yet.
Desperately, Ben reached for the one thing that could help: the pitcher of water. He splashed it over Albedo's face and was rewarded by the vibrant red eyes snapping open. Albedo, though he was awake, didn't seem to quite know where he was yet, but there were drops of water around his eyes that had nothing to do with the cold water dripping around his neck. He did the last thing Ben ever expected.
Fast as lightning, Ben found himself dealing with an armful of white-haired boy. Albedo was silent, clutching Ben's shirt like it was the last lifeline, but as soon as Ben automatically wrapped his arms around him all the tension left his body. Just that quickly he was asleep again, damp hair tucked up against Ben's shoulder and his entire body relaxed.
Ben just sat there a moment, blinking. This… wasn't what he'd expected. At all. At least Albedo was sleeping peacefully, though it was frankly weird looking down at that face that was a mirror of his own from so close. With Albedo once again sleeping Ben decided that maybe he should just leave him alone and check up on him later. With that decided, he tried to pry Albedo's hands out of his shirt with no luck. He worked for a good five minutes on that, scooting backwards as he did so, and only succeeded in loosing a few fingers from the fabric. When he was just a pinky and a thumb away from being free, the white-haired boy whimpered and pressed himself more firmly into Ben's arms.
Sighing, Ben scooted the last foot so he was sitting against the wall of the engine room so he could make himself a bit comfortable. He didn't know what to make of his current predicament. It wasn't uncomfortable, exactly. It felt strangely cozy to be curled up like this, a warm body in his arms and warding off the chill of the ship. If he closed his eyes he could almost pretend it wasn't the boy he'd once hated so much in his keeping. Yet… in the blackness behind his eyelids, he couldn't come up with another face to substitute for Albedo's. And, strangely… he didn't want to.
Suddenly disturbed, Ben opened his eyes and stared down at Albedo. The other boy, though he was sleeping peacefully, didn't look very well at all. The dark circles under his eyes were more pronounced than before, and if he wasn't mistaken he looked far paler than he could have thought possible. His cheekbones seemed more prominent as well. That had Ben wondering just how much the other boy was eating; sure, Ben had made certain that he brought Albedo food when the other boy forgot. He'd never actually stayed to make sure he actually ate it.
He would have to ask Albedo about it, Ben decided. He would have to find out just what was bothering the other boy so much, and maybe he could work on undoing the damage Albedo was inflicting on himself.
Ben must have dozed off, comfortable with Albedo in his arms. The next thing he knew, he was curled up on the floor with a blanket over him, blinking confusedly and wondering just how he ended up like that. It took a moment for the details to filter back, but once they did he shot upright and looked around for any sign of white hair. The engine room was empty save for him.
Yawning, he made his way to the lab. That was where he found Albedo. The white-haired boy was curled up in a chair, staring blankly into a cup of tea.
Ben opened his mouth, then realized he didn't know what to say. He felt a bit awkward, to tell the truth. He and the other boy had shared a moment that felt far too intimate for Ben's comfort and he didn't know how to react to that.
It was Albedo that broke the silence. "You want an explanation, no doubt." His voice held just a touch of chill, and his fingers tightened around the cup in his hands. He looked like a cornered cat, his entire body tensed as if he expected Ben to attack him.
For his part the brunette shrugged. "Well, you weren't sleeping well, so I tried to wake you up," he tried to explain lamely. "Sorry about that. I splashed you with water."
Albedo might have smiled at that, he wasn't sure. "Given that I don't have a cold, you can be forgiven for that. That wasn't quite what I meant."
"You mean to say that you weren't having such a horrible nightmare that your only comfort was treating me like a giant teddy bear?" Ben asked with more cheer than he really felt. "Only that's not so bad, really."
"I was dreaming about that day," Albedo admitted. "With the Pyronite and Vulpimancer. I've been having that same dream almost every night. I'd be cornered in a dark place that was unbearably warm, my arm screaming in pain, and all I could hear was growling. No matter how hard I ran I was still in that place, just waiting for the pain to come."
Ben winced. Albedo's nightmare was incredibly similar to his own, the only difference that Ben did relive that horrendous pain. Since that night, when he'd faced his fears and beaten the cause of his pain, his nightmares hadn't come nearly as often. When he did have those nightmares, though… he preferred not to think about it.
Albedo, it seemed, hadn't done the same. Rather, Ben mused, he hadn't had the chance to do the same. With the pounding the brunette had dished out, the likelihood of those two figures returning was nearly zero.
The white-haired boy shrunk in on himself. "I haven't been sleeping well, though I'm sure you've noticed. Every time I sleep… I can't get away from that dream. Earlier, though, when I was running… I dreamt that once again you'd saved me. You stood between me and that terror, and it was such a relief. I didn't realize that…" and he glanced away, a bit of pink rising in his cheeks. "I do apologize. I'll make sure it doesn't happen again."
Ben shrugged. "It wasn't too terrible," he admitted grudgingly. "And if it helps you to sleep… you're the only one who can fix the ship. You can't do that if you're not sleeping or eating."
By the white-haired boy's suddenly guilty look, Ben knew he was right.
"So!" Turning towards the door, Ben held up a warning finger. "You are going to stay right there while I go find something quick to heat up. Once you do that, you are heading back to your bunk. If you have nightmares, you will let me know."
Albedo looked a bit bemused, but he nodded his assent. "I accept your terms," he said graciously.
Five minutes later Ben returned, bowl of instant mashed potatoes in one hand and cup of orange-flavored drink in the other. Albedo had his attention focused on a mobile terminal, a frown on his face while he wrote unintelligible symbols with his fingers. He looked up when the bowl and cup thunked to the table next to him.
Ben sat next to him and made sure he ate every bit of reconstituted potato. He found himself watching Albedo's mouth and had to shake his head, hard; Albedo shot him an odd look but continued until the bowl was empty. He then knocked back the orange drink and stood obligingly.
"Good night," Ben said, suddenly feeling a bit sheepish. He only then realized that he'd done what he teased Gwen endlessly for. He'd gone into 'mom mode'. He thought he was going to die from the embarrassment.
Despite his embarrassment, he found himself outside of Albedo's door. The white-haired boy hadn't allowed the automatic door to close all of the way, and Ben suspected that Albedo had expected Ben's current activity. Ben had to try to rationalize why he was sitting outside of the other boy's door, listening intently. His ultimate reason was the same one he'd given Albedo before. Without Albedo, Ben was stuck in the middle of deep space alone. He wasn't really interested in being alone.
He tried to ignore the eagerness simmering in the back of his brain. He wasn't looking forward to snuggling up with Albedo again, he told himself firmly. Despite how comfortable it'd been before, he didn't want to spend his nights cuddling with another guy. And it wasn't just any other guy, either. This was Albedo Ben was thinking about. Albedo looked just like him, despite the altered colors. It felt a bit narcissistic to-
Ben's head shot up from where it had been drooping towards his chest. Just what had he been about to think? He had not been about to describe Albedo as attractive. Suddenly all he wanted to do was get as far away from the other boy as the confined quarters on board allowed. Sure, Ben knew that he himself was good looking. He'd gotten countless Valentines over the years, and at least once a week he had to tell some poor heartbroken girl and the occasional guy that sorry, he wasn't interested. It was just disturbing to attribute that same feeling to an entirely different person, much less a boy.
Ben had never, ever questioned his sexuality quite like this before. He'd had the occasional bouts of admiration for his same gender before, and more than one of them had resulted in a few pointed questions. This, though…
With a sigh, he let his head thunk to the metal behind him with just a tad more force than he'd intended. "It's just the close quarters," he muttered to himself. "Once I get home things will go back to normal and we can never, ever talk about this again."
He didn't know just long he sat there, things he'd rather not think about forcing their way into the forefront of his thoughts. Despite this, he heard the first telltale whimper from the other room and was on his feet immediately. One impatient jab at the door controls and he was in the other room, kicking off his shoes and reaching for the other boy without hesitation.
There was no fight from Albedo this time. As soon as Ben touched his shoulder he sighed, relaxing into the mattress. Ben was able to nudge him over to the far side of the bed and slip in; before he was settled he had to contend with a white-haired boy trying his hardest to squeeze him into oblivion.
A traitorous part of Ben's brain was purring contentedly with the current turn of events. The majority of his brain, however, told that other part to go take a hike. He was just doing this to make sure that Albedo could get them home.
He fell asleep with record speed, despite his nap earlier.
Albedo… didn't quite know how to feel about Ben's sudden tenderness. He was admittedly less than familiar with humans and so didn't know if this was normal. Did humans comfort each other like this on a regular basis? Was it just an accepted part of human behavior?
Despite his questions, he had to admit that he was feeling a lot better. Now that he was sleeping at night he was able to better focus on the painstaking task of fixing the engines. When he took a break, he preferred to stay out of Ben's way; he took his meals in his cabin and had his mobile terminal at hand. With no human looking over his shoulder, Albedo felt a lot better about researching human behavior without feeling much like an idiot. His research… was enlightening, to say the least.
He didn't know what was more disturbing. Was it the fact that Ben was acting like he was in love with him, or was it the fact that Albedo was certain it wasn't an act? No matter how Ben seemed to justify keeping his nightmares at bay as wanting Albedo in top shape to fix the ship, the white-haired boy didn't miss the small smile on his face every morning. The times when Albedo awoke before Ben, he didn't miss the contented look on the other's face.
Albedo's research didn't overlook the fact that, to humans, a relationship between two males was frowned upon. From a logical point of view, Albedo understood; a species that didn't multiply didn't survive. However, he learned after a few hard days of searching through the borrowed human archives, humans weren't logical at all. That was to be expected, what with Albedo's own firsthand experience with human emotions. It only stood to reason that such an illogical emotion as love could allow for such illogical relationships.
One more damper on any potential relationship he could have with the other boy, Albedo groused one day while he was elbow-deep in machinery, was that he didn't know anything about human mating. He was reluctant to delve further into the archives than he already had; most of what he had focused on the more practical male/female relationship. At a loss for how to try and engage Ben in a candid and probably embarrassing discussion, Albedo could only accept his nightly presence.
The worst part was that Albedo was making good time with his repairs. Once he replaced all of the blown fuses and fried wires, all that would be needed was to repair the engine itself. He knew that once he was finished, once he got Ben back to his home planet, there would be no more chances.
Albedo would be alone.
He shuddered at the thought, then resolved himself. He would get Ben to explain things, and maybe admit to the same feelings that Albedo was certain he was feeling. Now if only he could figure out how.
Ben was spending his day in his makeshift soccer field, determinedly kicking his makeshift ball around and ignoring his concern for Albedo. He knew what being in love felt like; he was in love with Julie, had been in love with Kai all that time ago. He was not, he told himself fiercely, in love with Albedo. He couldn't be in love with his lighter-colored clone. That was just something that couldn't be allowed. Once he got home he could get with Julie and maybe take their relationship to the next level. He tried to focus on that, and not on the fact that once he was home, it was likely he'd never see Albedo again.
He kicked the ball a bit too hard and it rebounded off his makeshift goalpost. It headed straight for the door, where a white-haired head had just poked itself into the loading bay.
"Look out!" was out of Ben's mouth before he could react. Albedo saw the projectile and ducked; the ball soared over his head and into the corridor leading to the cabins.
"Sorry about that," Ben said sheepishly, jogging over to the door. He wanted to get his ball and keep playing, but Albedo didn't move out of his way. The white-haired boy was staring at the ground, mouth set into a small frown. It looked like he wanted to say something, but didn't seem to know how to start. "Is there something you need help with?"
"What's a kiss feel like?" Albedo blurted. He immediately reddened and turned away from Ben to stare at the doorframe. "I mean… I've been doing some reading," he admitted, "and humans seem to place an inordinate amount of importance on kissing. Given that I'm not likely to see another human again, this seemed like the best opportunity."
Ben could feel that his own face was hot and he couldn't quite raise his eyes to Albedo's face. "Er," was all he could think of to say. No matter how he tried to deny it, if he kissed Albedo, he wouldn't be able to help himself. How could he get out of it?
"If you don't want to, it's no matter. I'm sure I can sneak back to Earth in a few years and find out then," Albedo muttered, though he didn't move. "I just thought at maybe, you know…" He finally looked at Ben hopefully. The brunette couldn't deny the longing in red eyes, no matter how Albedo tried to mask it behind indifference.
Ben felt like he was moving in slow motion. Despite the fact that he wasn't in love with Albedo, he couldn't be in love with Albedo, his body acted on its own. "A kiss is hard to describe," he admitted, stepping towards the other boy. "It's not just about the actual act. You can kiss a door and it just won't feel the same as kissing another person." Had he really just said that? "It's an emotional reaction too. When you have the right person, a kiss can easily be the best thing you'll ever feel."
"So?" Albedo asked, not seeming to mind when Ben stepped far into his personal space. "What does it feel like?"
Ben swallowed, hard. He couldn't believe what he was going to do. Emotions rolled around his gut, his want and disbelief warring with his deep-seated feeling that this was wrong. He couldn't deny this, though, couldn't deny that this was what he'd been wanting for weeks.
He touched Albedo's chin gently, leaned forwards. That first touch of their lips was electrifying, Ben's heart feeling as if it skipped a beat. His hands went to Albedo's shoulders without him consciously making the action; one moment they were standing there and the next Albedo was flush against the wall, hands cradling Ben's face tenderly. After a few quickened heartbeats Ben had to force himself to pull away. He took a few steps back, putting distance between them, a hand on his chest as if to force his heart to slow by will alone.
Albedo stood where Ben left him, eyes still closed and mouth partially open. He blinked after a moment, looking a bit lost but utterly happy at the same time. His mouth worked for a bit, opening and closing, while one hand reached up to trace his lips, before he nodded. "Yes. I can see just what humans get out of this." Then, daringly, he stepped forward towards Ben.
"Don't," was out of Ben's mouth before he could control it. "We shouldn't…"
Albedo rolled his eyes and unconcernedly and wrapped his arms around Ben's waist. "I can list all of the reasons why we should," he said dryly. "We understand each other, and we know just what we've been through. There won't be any awkward moments when we flashback – and believe me, we will. You may not think about it, but when you get home and try to be intimate with someone… they may do something. You might not even realize that it's going to trigger an emotional response. But it will happen, and it'll be better that we have each other to help us through it."
"But what about when we get to Earth?" Ben tried to object. "People won't understand…"
"Who cares?" was Albedo's simple response. "I can stay in orbit in my ship, and you can be doing your hero thing. When we want each other…"
"When the nightmares get bad," Ben said softly. He hadn't realized before now, but those nights where he'd been sleeping with Albedo had been the best nights of sleep he'd had in a while. The thought of sleeping alone, with only his nightmares, suddenly wasn't very appealing at all.
"… we'll be able to see each other." Albedo looked like he was trying to smile; it looked more like a smirk, but it was nice all the same. "And there's nothing saying you have to stay on Earth. I happen to own a spaceship, if you hadn't heard. You, me, the big wide universe…"
Ben shook his head, laughing despite himself. "Hey hey, one step at a time. You haven't even met my parents yet and you want me to move in with you?" He ruffled Albedo's hair teasingly. "Let's not move too fast, all right?"
Albedo nodded and stepped away, though he didn't quite let go of Ben's sleeve. "Quite right," he agreed. "Let's not move too quickly. You're still young, and these horrendous teenaged bodies will lead us into things we might regret." Unlike all the other times when he was insulting human anatomy, he was smiling and Ben realized Albedo was trying to make a joke.
"Yes, yes, us teenagers," the brunette grinned. They stood there smiling together for a moment, a moment that Ben didn't want to end. Sadly, Albedo turned towards the stairs that led up into the ship.
"Well, I'm going to go back to work. I'll meet you in the lab for dinner." With a glance back to see Ben's affirming nod, the white-haired boy walked off.
Bemused, it took Ben a moment to remember just what he'd come into the hallway for. Once he had his ball back, however, he didn't feel like kicking it around. Instead he used it as a makeshift chair. Sitting in the middle of the large room, Ben wondered if he was doing the right thing. Albedo had been the bad guy, had hurt him so terribly… but hadn't Kevin been the same? Kevin had once been an enemy, had tried his hardest to kill him, but now Ben trusted him as much as Gwen or Grandpa.
However, the brunette mused wryly, he didn't want to make out with Kevin. Now that Ben wasn't trying to block those feelings he wanted to go up to the engine room and wrap his arms around Albedo. He wasn't sure what they'd do then, but he just wanted to be in the other boy's presence. It wasn't too horrible of a feeling, Ben thought.
Maybe this whole thing could work out after all.
That night was a bit more awkward than Ben would have liked, despite the fact that for several weeks now he'd been sleeping with Albedo. After dinner, which they ate together for the first time in who knew how long, they split up to take care of their respective evening rituals. By the time Ben stepped out of the shower, Albedo was in his room waiting for him.
"I'm ready for bed," he announced, dressed in his usual sleeping shorts and t-shirt. Ben's makeshift laundry room had kept them in clean clothes, which both boys were secretly glad for.
Considering Ben was only wearing a towel, the brunette thought he could be forgiven for ducking back into the bathroom. "Don't invite yourself into other people's rooms!" he spluttered indignantly.
Albedo's voice was exasperated when he said, "Well, you were taking too long. I'm tired."
Clutching the towel to his waist, Ben tried to will away his red face. "Just toss me some clothes, then."
A pair of shorts and a t-shirt sailed into the room and narrowly missed a puddle of water. Ben rescued them and dressed quickly, then stalked out to glare at his lighter clone.
"Something about humans you should know," he said dryly. "We don't like dressing and undressing in front of people."
Albedo shrugged. "Forgive my intrusion then, but I really am tired."
Ben was glad Albedo hadn't mentioned the week Ben had been essentially naked in the other boy's keeping. That wasn't a comfortable memory.
"Then get into bed," the brunette yawned. He was tired too. "I'll be there in a second."
Ben finished tossing his dirty clothes where he'd been keeping them and then joined Albedo, slipping into his bed with an ease he'd gained after doing so for so long. It was a practiced movement between the two of them, Albedo shifting aside so Ben could lie comfortably.
He should have expected that the white-haired boy wouldn't just fall to sleep. After curling up into Ben's arms just like he had before, he leaned up and pressed a kiss to the unsuspecting boy's lips.
He seemed amused by Ben's surprise. "I've read of the human tradition of a good night kiss," he explained. "It seemed appropriate, especially if we're going to pursue a relationship."
Ben just nodded agreeably, brain still a few seconds in the past and the tingling he could still feel on his lips. "Good night," he said, the only thing he'd heard out of Albedo's statement.
The next day, instead of working on the engines, Albedo decided he needed a day off. He'd managed to get Ben at least willing to pursue a relationship with him, which was a victory in and of itself, but where to go from that was a complete mystery. Sure, he liked kissing, but he knew that the true pinnacle of human relationships was something far more than that.
It wasn't as if he wanted to have sex with Ben, exactly. All he'd read about human relationships, though, said that that's what they were focused on. A relationship could me made or broken depending on the sexual aspect of that relationship. If he didn't get Ben to do something, then he wasn't sure that, when they got back to Earth, Ben would continue this fledgling relationship. Albedo wanted this relationship to continue; when he was with Ben, or thinking about him, he felt a lot better about himself. Knowing that Ben had forgiven him and was willing to stay with him did a lot to assuage that pesky conscience of his.
Instead of working on the engines, Albedo decided, he was going to work on getting Ben past that awkward new relationship stage and into something more than a few kisses. It was with that in mind that he went down to the loading bay to watch the other boy play his pretend games of soccer.
Ben didn't notice his presence for a good half an hour; it was when the ball bounced off the wall and rolled over to where Albedo was sitting that the brunette finally realized.
"Shouldn't you be working on the engines?" Ben asked as he bent to retrieve the ball. "Or did you decide to take a break?"
"I decided to take a day off," Albedo announced. "I've been working too hard and I need a break. Since there's nothing else to do on this ship, I decided to see what you find so entertaining about this activity."
Ben rolled his eyes. "Then get up and kick it around yourself."
Albedo barely caught the ball Ben tossed at him, but he blinked down at the object, then up at Ben. "So you just… kick it?"
Ben nodded. "Try to kick it into that goal over there."
Albedo rose and placed the ball on the ground. "I'm not allowed to use my hands, I presume." He hadn't seen Ben use his hands during his practice sessions, except when he had to retrieve the ball. "It doesn't seem too hard."
Ben grinned wickedly. "You have to get past me first."
An hour passed before Albedo realized it. He did kick the ball towards the goal, only to have Ben block him and run circles around him. When that happened he had to try and get the ball back, which was an act that was easier said than done.
Albedo wasn't used to such extended activity, and it wasn't long before he had to collapse to the floor and try to regain his breath. Ben kicked the ball over to the goal and dropped down next to him, not nearly as winded.
"So? You see how it's fun?" the brunette asked teasingly.
"I can see," Albedo agreed. "It's like a battle, you against your opponent. You're just not trying to kill him."
Ben laughed at that. "Kind of. Soccer is about teamwork and outmaneuvering your opponents to score. It's… well, exhilarating."
Albedo looked over at Ben, his breathing slower but not nearly back to normal, and followed his instinct to reach over and grab the other boy's hand. Ben's fingers tensed but relaxed just as quickly, letting Albedo thread their fingers together.
"I think I'd like to play soccer again," the white-haired boy sighed. "It's surprisingly fun."
They stayed like that for far longer than necessary, basking in each other's presence. After an indeterminate length of time Ben rolled over to face Albedo.
"You really didn't come down here to watch me play soccer, did you?" he asked, though there wasn't an accusatory tone in his voice. He sounded quite content.
"I did, actually, but there was an ulterior motive," Albedo agreed. "I want to learn more about humans, about sex. My species had nothing of the sort so all of this is new to me."
Ben spluttered. "You don't just out and say it like that!" he exclaimed, face red from embarrassment. Then, to change the topic, he blurted, "How did Galvans procreate, then?"
Albedo shrugged. "We're more like your human frogs than most of us would like to admit. We don't have tadpoles, but we do deposit our eggs and sperm into a wet environment and let them mature there. In ancient times paired couples would have to guard their nest until the eggs hatched, but now we have giant breeding pools. Males and females deposit their genetic material when they reach a certain age and go on their way. The young climb out and are taken in by designated parental units, where they are raised until they're adults."
"Wait," Ben said, his grip on Albedo's hand tightening. "You mean you don't know who your parents are?"
The white-haired boy shrugged. "I had a parent to raise me. It didn't matter that they aren't biologically related to me." Then he looked wistful. "In all actuality, I never did get around to depositing my genetic material. I was supposed to do that when I turned three hundred."
Ben shook his head. "Galvans are weird."
"To us, humans are weird," Albedo returned. "You spend so much time and energy on procreating, and we don't understand the purpose. But that's just the differences in our species. I'm human now, and I must learn how humans do things."
Ben reddened again. "You're really determined, huh?"
"Of course. I wouldn't have mentioned it if I weren't. However, I do realize that those things take a certain sort of emotional state, so I'm not asking for us to mate at this very second." Albedo's face went red but he didn't seem to regret his words in the slightest.
Ben rolled back so he could stare at the ceiling and thus not at Albedo. "But you do want us to mate. Eventually."
"Hopefully before we get back to Earth," Albedo agreed. "That way we don't have to explain anything awkward to anyone. The deed will be done and all they can do is stare and deal with it."
"That won't be awkward at all," Ben deadpanned. They both laughed at that.
After a moment they quieted. It was cozy like this, Albedo reflected. They were just lying there holding hands, but it was comfortable.
Ben sighed. "Well, to get into the right emotional state," he said, stumbling awkwardly over the words, "it doesn't take much. Kissing is actually a part of it, usually."
"So if we kiss enough, we'll get into the mood to mate," Albedo surmised. Then he grinned, rolling over so he was straddling Ben, though he didn't let go of the other's hand. "Kissing sounds like a good idea."
Ben… didn't look as thrilled. His grip tightened so that it was almost painful, and he started breathing heavily. "Albedo, get off," he whispered. His voice was shaking.
Albedo understood immediately. This was one of the flashbacks he'd predicted, and he knew just what his error was. He'd straddled Ben just like this before saving him all that time ago. Without further protest he rolled off, resuming his previous position and clutching Ben's hand. "I'm sorry. I'm here, don't worry."
Ben trembled, turning so he could grip Albedo's hand in both of his. It was a few moments before his breathing settled, though he didn't quite stop shaking. "I see your point about the flashbacks," he said.
Albedo took that as his cue and scooted close enough to let Ben wrap himself into his arms. He rubbed Ben's back soothingly, letting the other boy know that he was there for him without words. He wouldn't know what he would say, anyway.
They stayed like that for a long while, until Albedo realized that he was uncomfortably sweaty. "Are you okay for now?" he asked Ben.
A nod against his chest, and Ben pulled away. They sat up, Albedo pretending not to see the tears Ben scrubbed away.
"I'm going to take a shower," the white-haired boy said. "Soccer is fun, but it leaves you very dirty."
"Yeah, me too. I think I'm done for today anyway." Ben stood and reached down to help Albedo up. "And… I think our showers are big enough for two of us." He looked embarrassed, but his grip was steady.
"Are you sure?" Albedo asked. "I mean, considering what happened just now…"
"I'm sure. Now come on before we get anymore gross."
Albedo stripped a bit self-consciously in Ben's room, suddenly understanding Ben's discomfort from the other day. Ben waited until he was fully unclothed before following suit, then stepped into the bathroom and left the door open. Albedo had to wait just a moment more, wondering just what Ben's ulterior motive was, but soon enough he felt too grungy to care.
Ben had already soaped up his hair by the time Albedo joined him. The white-haired boy decided to just pretend that Ben wasn't there and reached for the shampoo.
"You're so interested in human mating practices," Ben said after they stood in steaming heat for a few minutes. "Have you ever tried anything with yourself?"
Albedo shook his head. "I've only been researching this for the past few weeks. Before then, I had no reason to." Nudging Ben aside, he leaned forward so the water could rinse the shampoo from his hair.
Ben's arms were around him suddenly, pulling him back against a slippery but firm body. "Then why are you so interested?" Ben asked.
"You know why," Albedo said uncomfortably. One of Ben's hands went lower. "It's because I want us to be a pair." Ben's hand closed around Albedo, and the white-haired boy tried not to shiver. "What are you up to?" he asked, trying and failing to put on an unconcerned face. The feeling of Ben's fingers around him was strangely good, and that nice feeling only increased with every passing second.
"It's something that all teenaged males of my species do," Ben purred in his ear. "You wanted to know about it, right?"
Albedo couldn't argue with that, and Ben's fingers around him were only serving to distract him, as well as starting an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach. "This is a part of human mating?" he asked, a bit embarrassed when halfway through his sentence he gasped. Ben laughed in his ear, a constant warm presence at his back. Contrary to what he would have thought, having Ben with him only seemed to enhance the pleasure coursing through his system.
"Well, not really. This part is something we usually do on our own." Ben's voice in his ear sent shivers down his spine, counterpoint to the electricity racing up it. "We call it masturbation… though it's not technically masturbation right now, since I'm doing it for you."
Albedo gasped again, arching into the touch. He hadn't quite believed where the male reproductive organ was, thought that what he'd read certainly couldn't have been right. What sort of species evolved that way? But he couldn't deny the fact that he felt so very good. One of his hands went to cover Ben's while his head settled back against the other's shoulder. "It feels good," he said breathlessly. "Really good."
The pace picked up, and he could hardly contain himself. He hadn't expected this level of pleasure, it wasn't anything like he'd ever experienced before. He just felt like he was being submersed in the most pleasurable warmth ever, all centered on one specific spot.
Before he knew it the feeling in his gut exploded and he couldn't help his cry as his entire body tensed. His hand on Ben's clenched, and Ben's arm around his waist tightened, just in time to keep him from sliding to the floor of the shower. Suddenly his entire body felt contentedly boneless and he turned his head to Ben, a small grin on his face.
It took a moment for him to find his voice again, but once he did he said, "I can see why your species enjoys mating."
Ben laughed. "Yeah, that part is pretty awesome. Feel like you can stand up again?"
The grin never left Albedo's face, even after they finished cleaning themselves up and raided Ben's dresser for clothes. He felt remarkably relaxed and cheerful. In fact, he flopped on Ben's bed once he was dressed and, when the other went to make some food, he decided to try it for himself.
While he was changing the sheets on Ben's bed, he had to laugh at himself. This, surely, was something a teenaged human had dealt with before. Judging by Ben's expertise with the activity, he had no doubt that this was something the other had a lot of experience with.
Ben didn't comment later that night when they snuggled into bed together. They shared another kiss, and then they retreated into the world of dreams together.
Albedo awoke the next morning with something hard poking him in the back. He turned to investigate, managing not to awake the still-sleeping brunette pressed against him, and found a prominent bulge in the other's shorts.
An eyebrow crooked up at that. "Whatever can you be dreaming of?" he whispered, feeling decidedly wicked.
Ten minutes later Ben awoke with a cry, hands buried in Albedo's hair and other bits of him in places he hadn't thought the Galvan would ever think of using, ever. The intensity of his orgasm had him panting and tensed for a good few minutes before he finally slumped to the bed, though he glared daggers at the white-haired boy still licking his lips.
"More experimentation?" Ben managed to ask when he was sure his voice wouldn't squeak embarrassingly. His anger gave way to contentment when Albedo snuggled against him again.
"I woke up to the most unpleasant sensation of being poked in the back," Albedo sighed. "I decided to see what I could do to rectify the situation."
"And your mouth?" Ben wanted to know.
The tips of Albedo's ears went pink, though the other boy determinedly didn't look up. "That… wasn't planned. It was an instinct I chose to follow. You just looked… tasty."
Ben laughed at that. "I'm not complaining! I just didn't expect it."
Albedo looked up then, and grinned. "It wasn't at tasty as it looked," he felt he had to inform the other boy. "In fact, I think I might need to go brush my teeth very soon."
Ben hadn't ever tasted another man, so he really didn't know what to say to that. Albedo's lips were still red, though, and those did look tasty. Without really thinking he kissed Albedo hard. The white-haired boy gasped and his parted lips allowed Ben to dive in there. This was his first French kiss ever, and he had no idea what he was doing, but he followed his instincts. It felt so good, and the way Albedo was clinging to him and whimpering, it must have felt good from his end too.
The kiss ended with Ben pinning Albedo to the bed. When had they shifted positions? He really couldn't remember, but with the way Albedo was looking up at him…
"I believe the mood is right," the other boy observed. "If you want to."
A few days later, after Albedo's soreness had faded and he didn't have to glare at Ben when the other boy laughed at him, they were once again in bed together doing fun things when the intercom bleeped. Considering that the two boys were the only ones on the ship, they understandably paused and looked at each other.
"That sounded like the intercom," Ben said, deadpan.
"Hmm. So it did. The ship must have picked up something on sensors. I'm not exactly in a state to go anywhere, so perhaps you should look into it." Albedo pushed Ben up, but the brunette didn't move.
"It can wait five minutes."
Five minutes and a lot happier later, Ben left the cabin and headed for the stairs going up to the bridge when he heard a sound down the corridor, in the direction of the loading bay. He paused, listening just in case it was something he'd kicked loose finally falling over. There was another sound, a metallic thunk that reverberated through the ship.
Now thoroughly alarmed, Ben began switching through aliens on the Omnitrix, hoping that he would have enough time to find the one he wanted even as he inched down the corridor.
He stayed out of sight of the doorway, hand poised to press the Omntrix's dial, as the small door for inter-ship travel opened and familiar voices spilled into the ship. Those were the first voices Ben had heard in a long time that wasn't him or Albedo and it felt strangely odd, like someone was intruding into his space. Then, with a shock, he realized that the voices were ones he knew.
"Kevin, we shouldn't just barge in like this," a familiar female voice was saying as the boarders crossed what was probably an enclosed walkway. "For all we know everyone was asleep and we're trespassing."
"Gwen, I told you already. They were broadcasting a distress call, probably because their engines are shot, which means that we can board. That's intergalactic boarding regulation… well, I forgot the exact one. But it's in there, somewhere. They'll understand." Kevin sounded like he was explaining this for the fifth or sixth time.
"It still doesn't feel right," Gwen said.
Ben suddenly felt drained and he slipped to his knees, all thoughts of alien transformations gone. He was still out of sight of the loading bay, so they didn't see him when they finally stepped foot onto the ship. He knew he should be running to them, exclaiming at the awesome luck, but he had such an incredible sense of dread in the pit of his stomach that he couldn't bring himself to move.
"Well, looks like somebody's been busy down here," Kevin commented, and Ben heard a clang that was probably the older boy kicking aside some random scrap metal Ben had shoved to the outer edges of the room to clear a space for his makeshift soccer field. "We could probably use some of this stuff."
"Kevin!" Gwen scolded.
"Hey, it's the truth... where's the intercom in this place?" The footsteps grew closer, as the intercom was directly by the door, and Ben tensed. He knew he had to move, but his limbs felt like lead. Why didn't he want to move? He forced some activity into his limbs, propped himself on the wall while he dragged himself upright. He just wasn't sure if he was getting up to go to his friends, or run away. Which was silly, when he thought about it. Why would he want to run away from his friends?
Finally on his feet, Ben took a few breaths to steady himself. Then he forced his feet to take that one step that would show his friends that he was in one piece, even as his instincts screamed at him that he should run far away.
Kevin, hand right on the intercom, was naturally the first one to see him. "Ben!" he blurted, hand sliding away from the panel on the wall. "Dude, you're all right! Where have you been?"
Gwen whirled from where she'd been examining Ben's makeshift goalpost. "Ben!" she echoed, darting forward and around all of the junk on the floor. She made to throw her arms around him and he jerked back reflexively.
"What's wrong?" she asked, hands up. "Ben, what happened?"
"I-" His voice failed him. His hands were trembling and all he wanted to do was run somewhere, anywhere. He tried to force some words out, but what could he say? "I- You-"
He couldn't stand it anymore and he finally gave into the urge to flee. He ran down the hall, Kevin and Gwen calling after him, and he skidded around the corner and took the stairs two at a time. He heard them following after him and his heart nearly stopped, but he ducked into the lab-turned-dining room-turned-rec room and fell to the floor, back pressed against the wall and his arms around his knees. Only now did he realize he was crying, tears soaking through the fabric of his jeans. He felt… ashamed, scared, confused, though he didn't know why.
And then he realized that his friends didn't know what had happened to him. They didn't know that he'd been raped and nearly killed. That was the source of his shame, that he'd allowed himself to be abused that way. Just the thought of it caused his tears to intensify and he sobbed. He wished Albedo was there.
It was Gwen that found him first. He'd forgotten to lock the door, he realized between shuddering breaths. "Ben! What's wrong? You can tell me…" She kneeled next to him, looking the same as ever with her long red hair and concerned green eyes. She reached out for him and he flinched; the only person that had touched him since the incident had been Albedo.
He shook his head and buried his face deeper into his knees. This should have been a happy reunion and he was ruining it with his stupid emotional instability.
Kevin's voice had his head shooting up in alarm. "Stop right there, Albedo!"
His friends didn't know that Albedo wasn't evil anymore, and Kevin sounded downright murderous. Without thinking, only knowing that he had to protect Albedo, he shot upright. Gwen had to scramble backwards before he ran her over and dashed into the hallway.
Kevin had Albedo by the throat, the former Galvan looking an unhealthy shade of pink, and pressed against the wall. Ben didn't waste any time; the Omnitrix was still in ready position with the alien he'd chosen and he slammed the dial home.
Ken staggered backwards from the force of Four-Arms' blow, looking downright shocked. "What's the big idea?" he spluttered. Gwen was in the lab's doorway, also looking confused.
Ben ignored them, his lower set of arms cradling Albedo protectively. "Are you okay?" he asked, new voice rumbling out from his throat. He hadn't been Four-Arms in years and he was taken aback by the feel of his voice, but he drew his attention away from that.
Albedo coughed a couple of time, hand feeling the bruises around his throat. "I'll live. Mind telling me what's going on here?" He sounded a lot more cheerful than Ben knew he was; they'd both been dreading this day.
"We have a couple of boarders," Ben said. If he didn't look at Gwen and Kevin then he could keep his emotions in check. "They… I couldn't tell them… I don't want to see them!" he managed to get out. He wasn't sure if Four-Arms could cry.
There was a stunned silence for a minute before Albedo nodded. "Necrofriggian. Now," he ordered. "That species makes it easy to deal with your emotions. When you're calm, we'll tell them."
Ben obligingly switched forms, felt the cool chill descend on his mind. He stopped trembling and eased Albedo to his feet, not missing the wince as his full weight rested on his hips. He had a wing wrapped protectively around him, though; he didn't want Gwen or Kevin to hurt him again.
"I can see that there's a long story for this," Gwen said after a moment. "Is there someplace we can sit down?"
Albedo ducked off to get something for them all to drink while Ben waved his friends back into the lab. There were only a few chairs, but Ben didn't want to sit down anyway. He wasn't panicking, not with Big Chill's icy calm blanketing his emotions, but he was restless still.
Finally Gwen spoke. "How did you change into Four-Arms?" she asked interestedly. "I thought that the first list of aliens was still locked."
That question wasn't alarming, so he answered, "Albedo unlocked that list. It was after we got stuck in space, so I haven't actually had a chance to use them all yet." A wisp of frost joined his words in the air.
Thankfully Albedo returned and the humans settled around the table. Ben stuck close to Albedo, a clawed hand not quite resting on his shoulder. "All right," Albedo said, fingers curled around the steaming mug. "A lot has happened since the last time we all saw each other. I expect it's best I start from the beginning."
"We want to hear it from Ben," Gwen said. She turned to look at him. "What happened?"
Thank goodness for Big Chill. Ben's fingers curled, claws glinting dangerously in the light, but he was able to state flatly, "Albedo sold me off to be raped, and then he rescued me when he realized what he'd done."
"He did what?" Gwen yelped. "And you're sitting here with him?"
"Yes," Ben asserted. "He took care of me, healed my wounds. He gave me back the Omnitrix. I don't hate him anymore." Now he did rest a hand on Albedo's shoulder, glancing down at the white-haired boy. "The aliens that raped me came back and tried to assault Albedo as well. We ran them off-"
"You ran them off," Albedo corrected. "I was hiding under the table."
"-and their ship damaged the engines. We've been drifting for… over a month, maybe even two." He had to think on that. "I lost track. We were well stocked on food so Albedo was fixing the engines, I was taking care of other stuff like cooking. Oh and we're mated now," he added as an afterthought. He felt only a hint of embarrassment.
Albedo's head thunked to the table. "That is not the most eloquent way you could have put that," he said wryly, lifting his head back up to rub at the red mark. "If they didn't want to kill me before, I'm certain they do now."
Kevin only looked a bit ill. "You… and you?" he asked, pointing to the two of them. "No offense, but…"
"That's not important!" Gwen shook him off. "Ben, you ran off because you were ashamed that you were raped, right?"
He nodded. "Yes." He was still ashamed, but now that they knew and hadn't pushed him away it was ebbing away. "You all showed up so unexpectedly…" He bowed his head. "I'm sorry about that."
Now that the worst part was over, the Omnitrix decided to time out. Suddenly human again, he had all those emotions crashing down on him and it was only Albedo's quick action that kept him from crashing to the floor. The white-haired boy jumped up and pushed Ben into the newly vacated seat, where he wrapped his arms around himself.
"That thing," Albedo said wryly, "had the worst timing I've ever seen."
Gwen went to Ben's side and hesitantly reached out. He tensed but didn't try to back away, and he could feel the tears coming again that he couldn't stop. Gwen's arms around him didn't feel horrible, and he leaned into her embrace gratefully. He felt Albedo's arms go around them both but Gwen didn't seem to notice; instead she was whispering into Ben's ear that it would all be okay, that she wouldn't ever let anything like that happen again. He heard Kevin say something but didn't pay any attention, so relieved that he had his friends back with him that he didn't pay any mind.
It was a surprise, then, when a steaming mug was waved in front of his face. "I found the kitchen," Kevin said wryly. "Who's been using it, a psycho panda?"
"Hey," Ben objected weakly, though he accepted the cup gratefully. It smelled like the odd tea Albedo had picked up on their last stop, from some bizarre world that Ben couldn't think of right now. It was delicious, though, and he took a sip immediately. He managed to grin. "I've been doing the cooking since Albedo's been taking care of the ship. With you guys here, though, you can just tow it someplace and someone else can fix it for us."
"For us?" Albedo echoed. "Now that your friends are here, you surely want to return with them." Not that he looked happy about it. Ben shrugged.
"I hadn't thought about it. Besides, I've been here for so long I rather like this heap," he managed to joke. "At the very least Albedo's going to need it up and running again."
"We'll get started on towing it back to Earth, then. And Ben?" Gwen gave him one last hug. "If you ever want to talk about anything, ever, you know you can talk to me, right?"
"Leave me out of it," Kevin told them. "I don't do sappy and mushy."
Ben stepped out onto solid earth for the first time in nearly three months and took a breath of air that wasn't recycled. It was… strange, he decided. The ship's air was scentless except when there was food on the stove, so smelling grass on the breeze was a shock. Albedo stepped out next to him, a hand not quite closing around Ben's. They'd landed in a deserted area a few miles outside of the town where Ben lived, so there was no one to question the opposite-colored twins.
"Your mom's going to be so happy to see you," Gwen said, disembarking behind them. "Albedo, you know you can come with us if you want. We could use you on the team."
"I'm useless and you know it." Albedo took Ben's hand. "You'll be okay?"
"I think you should stay," was out of Ben's mouth before he could stop it. He'd meant to tell his… boyfriend, that was weird to think of, to go on his merry way. But his hand tightened around Albedo's anyway. "I mean, just for a little while. You've been on that ship as long as I have and I know you've got to be dying for some fresh air. Plus," and he grinned, "didn't you say you wanted to learn to play soccer?"
Albedo scowled. "I don't think it'll be best for both of us. What could I possibly contribute, besides my wonderful personality?"
"You're pretty smart, and I know you'll be able to do something amazing with our primitive computers. We could use a tech guy on the team," Ben reasoned. "Plus, this whole boyfriend thing won't work well unless we're close. At least until we can sleep at night."
That was entirely too logical of an excuse. Albedo sniffed. "Fine, you win, I'll stay here. However, how will you explain things to your parents?"
"We'll tell them the truth!" Ben said cheerfully. He was quite happy that Albedo had agreed. "Then you can hack whatever computer you need to in order to get yourself into school, and then you'll see what it's like to have human parents."
"Your parents aren't going to like you both sleeping together," Kevin observed. When three pairs of eyes turned to glare at him he shrugged. "Just saying. Good luck."
Ben grinned. "What's the worst they can do? Kick me out? Albedo has this awesome spaceship, it can take us anywhere!" Though he really hoped it didn't come to that.
The white-haired boy shrugged. "There is that, I suppose. What harm could it do to give it a try?" He leaned in and gave Ben a firm kiss. "At least I'll have your idiotic hormonal self."
"And I'll have my grumpy former alien," Ben teased him back. "Now come on, I'm starved!"
Hand in hand they walked over to Kevin's car, which would take them home. No matter what battles might lie ahead, so long as they had each other they could face them.