A/N My thanks to Devoted2Supernatural, who handed me this delightful jackalope at DragonCon last year, to the1hobbit and Chinese Fox for their assistance, and to Cybra and Deserthaze just because.
Part the First: Can You Lose Something You Never Had?
". . . idea of what happened?"
"Not really. The alarms went off and -"
"Why do I keep finding popcorn in his collar?"
"Because he was buried in about three feet of it when I opened the door to the lab he was working in."
"Give or take."
"Of popcorn. Yes. I can get you an exact measurement if you think it will help."
"What the heck was the owner of DexCorp doing buried in three feet of popcorn?"
"Practicing being unconscious, Doctor. How's he doing?"
"Waking up. I think he was just stunned. See? Life."
Dexter stirred, unable to keep from groaning a little as he woke up to two white blurs, one with black hair and one with gray. Gentle hands helped him to sit up and he shielded his aching eyes, the motion dislodging more popcorn stuck in his elbow-length gloves.
He grumbled something, in no mood or condition to speak, so Utonium just let him be for now and busied himself with picking bits of popcorn out of Dexter's hair. Dr. Cardon was examining him, and Dexter winced as light was shined in his eyes.
"Did you hit your head?"
Dexter shook said head, distinctly remembering his fall being cushioned.
"Shock wave?" suggested the Professor, able to guess (in part) what had knocked his ward for a loop.
He nodded this time, rather horrified to realize he'd been hospitalized by . . . popcorn. Done in by snack food. Ben would never let him live this down.
"Well, you've got a minor concussion, young man," announced Cardon. "No more work today or tomorrow. You need to rest. And I mean rest, not sit on your duff and work."
Spoilsport, Dexter thought viciously, knowing Cardon wouldn't care what epithets might be thrown his way (even though the Professor would). The man had no notion of how unutterably boring rest could be.
Dexter closed his eyes at the colorful distortion that was his physics tutor. Even from a distance he could see that Kilroy Green was smiling broadly in triumph, showing off pointed yellow teeth as he brandished a bowl in one hand a pair of glasses in the other.
"Where'd it come from?" asked Utonium suspiciously, taking a handful.
"The electronics lab. I stopped to get Dexter's glasses like you asked and for some reason it's full of popcorn. I had Computress scan it. It's fine. Actually, it's delicious. All it needs is some salt."
"Ask the nurse," advised Cardon, still prodding at his impatient patient.
"But why all the popcorn?" was the demon's innocent inquiry, eating some more. He looked down in surprise as he stepped on something that crunched.
"Good question," the Professor said, reaching out to rub Dexter's back as he cast his employee a significant look. Green caught sight of Dexter's general state of disarray and the pieces of popcorn stuck in the boy's hair and scattered about on the examination table and floor. Hastily he looked away, setting the popcorn down and forcing himself not to laugh as he came to many of the same conclusions that Utonium had.
Dexter groaned, wishing he could lapse back into unconsciousness until this was all over (and the lab was cleaned up). Kilroy leaned over to smile at him.
"I think these are yours."
Sitting up, he took the proffered glasses gratefully, the motion spilling more popcorn onto his lap as he said, "Yes, thank you, Mr. Green."
He slid the glasses onto his face, finally able to see clearly. He blinked in surprise to see his guardian, his teacher, and his doctor all staring at him in speechless astonishment. Dexter looked from one man to the next, wondering what they were about. Cardon was frozen in place, gaping. Kilroy's hand was paused in mid air, the popcorn he was about to eat falling from his fingers. The Professor wore a look of wonder and amazement.
"What?" he asked, suddenly self-conscious. "What's wrong? Why are you staring? What, have I turned blue? No offense to your cousin, Mr. Green."
They kept staring. He stared back.
"Say that again," instructed the Professor.
"Anything? What – what on earth is wrong with me?" He felt panic rise and he put a hand to his chest. With a growl of annoyance he reached into his lab coat and pulled out a few stray pieces of popcorn, which he threw to the floor in disgust. He sounded . . . strange. Off. Incorrect. His own ears could hear the weird pronunciations rolling off his tongue. What had happened? Why couldn't he speak properly? "Dad – what's wrong with my voice?"
Utonium looked at the doctor and the physicist standing with him, then back to Dexter. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Dexter, you're just speaking without your accent."
He stared at the man, unable to comprehend his meaning. "Accent? I've never had an accent." His eyes grew huge as realization hit him and he clapped his hands to his head, instantly regretting the impact against his sore skull. "Until now!"
"No, no, Dexter," the Professor said calmly as he tried to soothe the young teen. "You had an accent. Now you're speaking normally."
"No I'm not!" he insisted, hardly able to believe his own ears. "Listen to me! I can hear it! This is not normal! There's something seriously wrong with the way I'm speaking!" he said, unaware that he was speaking perfectly clearly and without the least hint of that over-the-top mad scientist accent that marked his normal pronunciation. "It must be the concussion. I'm losing the ability to communicate. Perhaps I'm bleeding in my brain, or swelling is interfering with the Broca area of my brain and inhibiting my ability to speak. I think a CT scan would be in order, Doctor."
"Help me," muttered the President of DexCorp International to his patently useless cohorts. Neither Green nor Cardon seemed to have blinked once since Dexter first opened his mouth. "Dexter, there's nothing wrong with the way you're speaking."
He looked at his beloved guardian, the man he called his father, and said, "You don't have to placate me, Dad. I can tell there's something completely off with the way I'm enunciating my vowels and the inflection I'm somehow using right now is putting emphasis and stresses on words where they clearly don't belong. I must sound as if I'm speaking absolute gibberish to you gentlemen and right now all I can do is offer my abject apologies since clearly you're having so much difficulty understanding what I'm saying."
It was so strange to hear the redhead speaking as if he came from the Mid West (which he did) and not the Soviet Bloc (which he didn't) that the Professor was momentarily stunned to realize that Dexter was absolutely right – he was having difficulty understanding him. So used was he to that inexplicable Eastern European twang that he found himself inserting h's and w's at various intervals where his brain expected to hear them. Dexter gazed at him sadly and pretended not to notice as Utonium smacked Kilroy Green in the arm to rouse and rally him, and Green passed the smack on to Cardon. Sadness gave way to moping and mentally cursing popcorn and his own curiosity as he prepared himself for a life of lonely silence and being misunderstood. He'd already isolated himself from most of the world as it was. He'd make a clean break of it and never talk again . . .
"I have the presentation for the Army Air Corp and the Air Force tomorrow!" Dexter gasped, his horror overriding his short-lived vow of silence. He panicked at the notion of having to address a crowd of high-ranking officers and contractors with such a crippling speech impediment. "The targeting system we developed for the Navy! I can't do this! I'll be a laughing stock! No one will know what I'm saying!"
"I'll never be able to sell another weapons system or hover board or Dexbot or any hockey gear!"
"I'm ruined! Ruined!"
"Stop it. You're raving."
He clammed up instantly, realizing his father was (as always and ever) absolutely right and he was overreacting and jumping to extreme conclusions, not to mention making a fool of himself prematurely.
"You make hockey gear?" asked Cardon, surprised. He backed off when Utonium gave him a sour look as if to say now was not the time. Green retrieved his bowl of popcorn and hugged it possessively, sneaking more pieces as the drama - it it could be called that - unfolded.
"Are you listening?"
"Good. That's all I want you to do for a moment, okay?"
He nodded, taking his father at his word.
"First, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the way you're talking right now. Yes," he allowed, gesturing with both hands, "your inflection and pronunciation are a bit off, but we understand you perfectly well."
A skeptical right eyebrow was arched at him.
"Second, your imagined speech impediment is no barrier to your financial success."
Dexter's left eyebrow joined its companion.
"Third, there's nothing to indicate that this condition is permanent or will impact your ability to communicate effectively. Say something in French."
"Quelque chose en français."
He could hear it. Foreign languages were not exempt from this sudden shift between being able to enunciate properly and sounding as if he had outstayed his visa. It was evident the Professor heard the difference, too, because he quickly moved on.
"Do you understand? There's nothing wrong with your speech."
He took that as permission to resume two-way communication. "Perhaps it's my hearing, then."
Utonium tried a different tack. "Dexter, something about . . . whatever it is you did with all that popcorn has made you lose your accent."
"What? Dad, there was nothing to lose."
Utonium sighed and hung his head in defeat.
"Everyone has an accent, Dexter," Mr. Green volunteered diplomatically, still clinging to his bowl of popped corn. "Yours was a little more . . . pronounced than most."
Dexter faced them patiently. "Gentlemen, please. It comes as a shock, yes, but I'm sure with years of therapy and disciplined practice I'll be able to overcome this hurdle and resume normal speech. Until then I ask that you cease these attempts to mollify or appease me. I'm not a child. I can deal with this setback."
The Professor clapped a hand to his already hanging head. Cardon took the opportunity to backtrack.
"Okay, let's not martyr ourselves yet. I need to know what knocked you silly in the first place, Boss."
Dexter made a little sound of, "Ah," and shifted uncomfortably, not in any way eager to put so silly a situation on display, especially in front of these three. The only saving grace was that his chief of security, Chip Morton, wasn't present. "Well -"
"Excuse me, sirs," said Sgt. Morton, rounding the corner and insuring that Dexter's humiliation was complete. He carried a clipboard as if he'd been born with it in his hand. "We're finishing up our initial report on the . . . well, the lab's not actually damaged, it's just full of popcorn."
"One hundred, twenty-six pounds of it," muttered Dexter.
Chip blinked, staring at his young employer and wondering if he'd heard aright.
"Don't ask," ordered Utonium.
The former Navy lieutenant commander managed to backpedal with more grace than the other men. "Right you are, sir. I'll get a clean-up crew and we can pull the security recordings for that laboristhatnotagoodidea?" he finished in a rapid mutter as Dexter let out a sound of anguished embarrassment.
DexLabs standard operating procedure required that all incidents be investigated and reported upon - and a large part of the investigations were based on the recordings taken in every lab and hall and work station. Almost every inch of the place was recorded 24x7, and the electronics lab where Dexter had been working on his latest pet project was no exception to that rule. He knew exactly what they would see on the video, and if he had the least clue that this was going to happen, he would have ordered Computress to turn all the cameras off.
He hid his curiosity beneath the veneer of professionalism and he faced the billionaire owner of DexCorp International with a perfectly straight face. "Yes, sir?"
"I want an exact count of how many unpopped kernels you find."
Not even Charles Phillip Morton could maintain his game face in light of a request so ridiculous. There was a long pause as incredulous looks were exchanged, and then the head of DexLabs Security managed to keep his voice from squeaking as he said,
"Yes, sir. Uh, want us to save any unpopped corn we find?"
For a moment Dexter considered, his gloved hand pressed to his mouth. "Good idea," he finally decided. "See to it, Mr. Morton."
The sergeant blinked and then realized he was being given an escape route. "Right away, sir."