A/N: I am routinely frustrated by the lack of sympathy everyone seems to have for Ben. I mean, honestly, yes it's scary that he may be a skitter GPS and not know it but don't you think it's scarier for him? It bugs me. So I decided to give Ben an ally. This is an OC story but it's going to include a LOT of the major characters making regular appearances. Nothing frustrates me more than a poorly developed OC so, I, Ebi Pers, solemnly swear to NEVER create a Mary-Sue or otherwise obnoxiously perfect character, but rather to create a character as near to human as possible and as consistent with the quality of the actual show writers as possible. So, without further ado, read, review, enjoy! And yes, the title is named after the Taylor Swift song. Don't judge me. It's both relevant to the show and not a bad song in and of itself. (This coming from a guy who normally stays away from 'country' music.) PS: This is set after Jimmy's death and before the fourth episode. And then it'll go from there, with OC being written in at points within the canon plotlines. I own nothing except the aforementioned OC and any other OCs that will inevitably crop up for minor appearances. All other credit is due to the wonderful writers of the series, DreamWorks, and TNT.
It was yet another unbearable day for Ben Mason. A day full of disapproving glares, distrustful looks, whispered conversations that he just knew were about him even without hearing them. Because the people of the 2nd Mass seemed to have a genuine hatred of him. And why shouldn't they? You're a razorback freak after all, aren't you?
And lately, after everything that he'd caused, he wasn't sure if he even trusted himself. What had he done since they'd unharnessed him? He'd almost killed his dad, he had killed his best friend or at least gotten him killed. And with Pope running around out there somewhere, spreading his anti-'razorback' rhetoric to God-only-knows-who, it was just a matter of time before someone got wise and decided to end him. Or, perhaps worse, until he turned into a skitter himself. After all, why else would those dry patches of skin be forming on his back?
But the worst part, the absolute worst part of being one of these newly-unharnessed kids, besides being caught in between two species, was the unending loneliness. No one wanted to be friends with a razorback. No one wanted to speak to one, be caught near one. Matt was scared of him, Hal could barely look at him without some form of judgment in his eyes, and his dad just couldn't defend him all the time. His only friend in the entire group had gotten killed because of him. So, with no one to talk to, he just sat and polished his gun.
The thought struck him suddenly. How odd that at only fifteen he was polishing the barrel of a gun. Before the invasion, before this hell, he would only read about people polishing the barrels of guns. He would read all of the action novels he wanted—the Alex Rider series, the Percy Jackson series, and the Harry Potter series was his absolute favorite. But now…he was living a life that combined the excitement of all three. What no author ever mentioned was the constant fear that came with it. The fear that, at any point, he could lose everything. He peered up with green eyes at the passing civilians, most of whom either pointedly ignored him or cast him dirty looks. He responded the only way he knew how: stoically, putting on a mask of indifference to hide the pangs of pain that each judgmental glance would elicit. I want to help these people! Why can't any of them see it?
And more than anything he longed for an ally in all of this. He longed for his mother. He once heard it said that only a mother's love can be truly unconditional. And now he understood. Because no matter how many times Hal defended him, he knew that his older brother was secretly wary of him. No matter how many times Matt put on a brave face and sat on the cot across from him, he knew how afraid his younger brother truly was. And no matter how often his dad offered a hug or some comforting words, he knew that deep down inside, his dad was worried about what he would become. But his mother wouldn't have done any of that. His mother would have folded him up in her arms and held him close to her. She would have stood up to anyone who dared make a disparaging remark about him. And every night she would have whispered 'I love you, Benny-boy' to him before bed, just like she did all those nights she was still alive.
But of course, now his mom wasn't there anymore, never would be there again. He fought back the tears that threatened every time he envisioned her. His memory of her was fading, lost in a sea of new and far more traumatic ones. He could see her blonde hair, long and silky like his, and he could see her green eyes that held such warmth. And he could feel her arms around him, squeezing him tight to her like only mothers can do. He could feel her ruffling his hair and kissing his forehead. And he missed his mom so, so much now. So much. She would have understood his hardships, she wouldn't have blamed him for what had happened. And now the tears were really welling up but he forced them back, refused to cry in front of all of these people because then they would win. They would be convinced that they'd made him cry. And he would never, ever give them that satisfaction.
And he sat and continued to polish his gun until it was positively gleaming and still he continued to wipe it down if only to have something to do, something to keep busy, keep his mind off of everything that was troubling him.
The sound of motorcycle engines caused him to look up and he watched as the two red Honda bikes drew up, Hal on one and Maggie on the other, a cloud of dust following them. Hal had an urgent look on his face as people began to approach him, hopefully awaiting any news.
Ben watched as his brother glanced uneasily to Maggie. The pickup truck that had gone out with them was approaching now, Dai at the wheel. He could see his father riding the bed, talking to someone, which was odd since the scouting party had only left with four members.
And then, when the tailgate dropped and his dad hopped out, he spotted her. She made him do a double take because her olive skin tone, her long, dark, wavy hair—it was all so familiar to him. He was immediately reminded of summertime years ago, when he and his entire family would head down to Martha's Vineyard to stay at the vacation home of a close friend of his father's…what was his name? Carter! Timothy Carter! And his wife Elisabeth. They had two children, a boy about Hal's age and a girl that was two weeks younger than Ben was. That was who this girl reminded him of. If only he could remember what the Carter girl's name was—it had been such a long time. Personal lives had gotten in the way and the most contact Tim Carter and his dad had in the past few years had been over the telephone or occasional lunch meetings. He hadn't seen their family in ages, hadn't even thought of them in ages.
Slowly, before he knew what he was doing, he found himself approaching the area where a small crowd had gathered. Weaver was talking to the four scouts in a small circle and no one noticed Ben approaching. This mysterious new girl stood off to one side, back turned to him but she whirled around suddenly and he saw her face and his mind suddenly snapped into focus. Alexandra. Her name was Alexandra and she wasthe very same Alexandra that he had spent those summers with, from when he was five to when he was eleven. It was that familiar face that brought a smile to his lips before he could suppress it.
He and Alex Carter had been close during those summers. It was only natural—they were both the same age, had similar interests and experiences. And their families spent all summer together down at the house in Martha's Vineyard. It was impossible not to get close. He and Alex would discuss recent books they'd read or gripe about teachers or (more often) older brothers. But then the teenage years took over, high school took over, increased responsibility took over and they lost touch. Recognition flashed in her brown eyes and she was suddenly running toward him.
"Ben Mason?" she gasped as she drew to a halt in front of him. She was considerably shorter than him, at least by a head. The last time they'd seen one another in person, they had been almost the same height. "Oh my God…"
"I can't believe it…I mean, I recognized your dad when he found me but…I just can't believe it!"
"Me neither…" he was still in shock, still in awe because just minutes ago he had been wishing for a friend and now, seemingly out of nowhere, one had appeared. She moved to hug him and that was when he was also painfully reminded that things weren't the same anymore. You can't let her find out about the spikes.
He pushed her hands away, trying to be gentle about it but she looked hurt anyway, muttering an apology and shifting awkwardly from one foot to the other.
"So…uh…h-how did my dad…y'know find you?" It really didn't matter to him, but he felt he should ask, felt like he should find out. And he would do anything to clear the awkward air that had now settled between them. He was careful to keep himself angled toward her in a way that rendered his back completely invisible from her perspective. A thought suddenly occurred to him. What if Dad already told her? Or Hal? Or one of the others? But he cleared the thought from his mind quickly. He knew Alex, knew she wouldn't act so naturally if she knew what had transpired. So no one had sold him out. Which was a good thing. He intended to keep the truth hidden for as long as possible, build up to it, give her time to adjust before springing something like this on her. It was for her own good. But…it's not. It's for your own good, really. He couldn't handle any more rejection.
"Oh I was…" Alex was interrupted as Weaver approached the two now. The crowd had dispersed at this point, having determined the girl was of no obvious threat. She isn't the one with knives sticking out of her spine, Ben reminded himself.
"Dr. Glass would like to examine you, Ms. Carter," Weaver was saying, glancing from Alex to Ben and back. "Just to make sure you're alright." Anne was approaching them now, as well, a friendly but somewhat tight smile on her face.
"I'm Anne Glass," she introduced herself to the girl. "I'm a medic. If you don't mind, I'd like to check you out—standard procedure…"
"Not at all," Alex nodded her consent. "I'll…catch you later?" She glanced to Ben uncertainly and the boy nodded. And then she was following Anne off to the med bus and disappearing from sight.
"How'd you find her, Dad? Where did you find her?" It was the first question he asked his dad when they got back to the tent. Matt was sitting on the cot, knees curled up to his chest. He'd heard of the sudden addition to the 2nd Mass and was, by all accounts, anxious to see their old family friend. He had been quite little the last time they'd seen each other, but he could still describe Alex clearly enough to make it apparent that he remembered her. Hal had gone off to give his report to Weaver.
"She was on her own," his father said from his seat on his own cot. "Hiding in a hospital that we stopped to check out. I recognized her as soon as I saw her."
"What about her parents?"
Tom shook his head sadly. "Tim and Elisabeth died in the first few days of the invasion. Marc was looking after her until he disappeared…"
"You mean…harnessed?" Ben asked. Alex hadn't made it clear what had become of her older brother but he had assumed that Marc's fate was similar to his own.
"Not sure," his dad replied. "She wouldn't say and I didn't want to press her on it…but you must be glad she's here. You guys used to be such good friends," he noted.
Ben nodded slowly. "We were." Were being the operative word in that statement. Under any other circumstances, he was certain they would have reconnected easily, picked up right where they'd left off in their friendship. But he wasn't so sure how she'd react once she found out about…those things.
Tom seemed to pick up on his son's usage of the past tense. "I'm sure you guys will reconnect in time." Ben nodded again, without enthusiasm, without certainty. The Mason patriarch rose slowly. "I should probably go talk to Weaver about the rest of our recon mission. I'll be back later, alright?"
Both Ben and Matt nodded and watched as their dad left.
"When can I see her?" Matt asked, turning to his older brother. "I wanna see Alex again!"
Ben smiled weakly. "I'm sure she can't wait to see you either. But I think Anne's still examining her right now." Matt looked a little let-down, prompting his brother to nudge him encouragingly. "But don't worry. I'll ask her to stop by when she gets out, just to say hi." Matt seemed to perk up at this. There was a pause in the conversation for a while, both boys clearly lost in what memories they had of those summers. Ben was aware that Matt's were probably far less detailed. "I'm…gonna go check on her," he excused himself from his little brother's company.
Lourdes was quietly stacking pill bottles into a cupboard near the back but she caught Ben's movement out of her peripheral vision, setting down an orange-tinted tube and turning to face him. He looked about, trying to locate Alex.
"Anne stepped out," Lourdes told him. "Do you need something?"
It took a minute for her words to register. "I was…uh…just looking for Alex," he said, now well aware that the girl wasn't in the room.
The assistant medic nodded understandingly. "Anne checked her out. She's doing alright, no worse for wear. I think she said she's a bit underweight but then again, we all are…"
Ben was relieved to hear that his friend was relatively healthy at least. "Do you know where she went?"
Lourdes shook her head. "Sorry," she apologized. "She left and went off in that direction," she pointed out the window at the tree line at the border of camp. "But she didn't say where she was going."
"Thanks," Ben said quickly, already dashing down the steps before Lourdes could reply. He suddenly wanted to talk to Alex very, very badly. He wanted to catch up, wanted to hear what had gone on with her. More than anything he wanted to feel like he had a friend.
It wasn't too hard to find her. With the harness came new skills and abilities, one of which was sharpened vision. Alex's footprints in the damp soil made it easy to follow her path into the woods. He finally found her sitting on the bank of a creek. They'd been using it to bring in fresh water for a few days now. She looked up when she heard him coming.
"Hey," she smiled.
"Hi." Ben sat himself down facing her, obscuring his side and his back from her view. There was a long pause between them. "So…what're you doing out here?"
"I dunno," Alex replied, an almost wistful tone in her voice. "I just…I wanted some space. Some place to think, you know?"
Did he ever. "Yeah, I get it."
"Hey…I wanted to ask you something…" Alex looked up at him and he waited for her to go on. "Earlier while I was in the med bus…there was another patient there. He said some stuff about you…" a frown appeared on her face. "He called you some name…I think he said razorback or something like that and then Dr. Glass' assistant shooed him out…what did he mean that—what he said, I mean?"
Ben's heart dropped into his stomach. At the very least, it appeared the guy hadn't elaborated on what the term meant. "It's…nothing. Just…a nickname, that's all."
Alex's eyes narrowed suspiciously and she shook her head. "I don't think so. The way he said it sounded like it was a…a bad thing."
"Can I ask you something?" Ben was looking directly into her brown eyes now, holding her gaze, trying to convey just how important his question would be. You have to at least hint at it. Maybe if she could figure it out on her own, she'd be more tolerant of his deformity.
"You know the aliens are taking kids right? Taking people our age and even younger?" Alex nodded. "D-do…do you know what they do to the kids afterwards?"
"Yeah…Marc and I ran into some of the taken kids before. They had these…these monsters on their backs. Did the aliens put those things on them?"
Ben nodded, cringing a bit at her terminology. "Harnesses," he corrected. "And we call the aliens 'skitters.'"
The girl paused to let the new names sink in. "Well…what do the harnesses do to the kids? Why do these 'skitters' put them on them?"
Ben hesitated, trying to phrase things so that Alex could understand without making it obvious that he knew exactly what they did to the kids. "They…control them. They…they mess with the kids' minds so that they follow the skitters' commands. And you can't take them off or it kills the kids." There was no point in bringing up the rest, about the communication through radio frequencies or the overlords controlling the skitters themselves or the fact that there was a way to remove the harness, though the side-effects remained undetermined. This explanation would suffice.
"That must be awful," Alex mused.
You don't know the half of it. "Is that what happened to Marc?" Ben asked. "Did they harness him?"
Alex shook her head. "No. No…if they tried, Marc would have fought them until he died. When he disappeared, I worried that they'd gotten to him but…I just know that he wouldn't have let that happen." She laughed humorlessly. "If currency still had any value I'd put money on it."
"So he's…dead?" Ben pressed, wanting to know for sure.
The girl nodded slowly, her eyes suddenly glassy and she brushed a strand of dark hair away from her face. Ben slid over next to her. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I know how you feel though…they killed my mom, too."
It was obvious that his mother had never occurred to her and he knew that no one had told her from the way her eyes widened and she gasped shortly. "Oh, Ben…" She reached out, he felt her hand contact his back once, ready to lend a comforting rub. He tensed immediately at the contact as she hissed in pain and withdrew her hand. And there, in the semi-darkness, he could see that the poke from the spine had drawn blood. He cursed himself immediately for being so stupid as to slide next to her. But she still hadn't noticed. "Are you okay?" he asked, trying to play it off like it was nothing.
"Yeah," she was still glancing at her palm. "Just…something pricked me." And then she turned and caught sight of the three spike-tips peeking out from his shirt. "Ben? W-what's…what's that on your neck?" She reached out again but he grabbed her wrist to stop her.
"Just listen, Alex," he hissed urgently. "I'll…I'll explain but don't be mad and please don't be scared…" She nodded vigorously. "Remember how I told you that the skitters were kidnapping kids?" She nodded again, realization suddenly flashed in her eyes.
He nodded sadly. "I got kidnapped by them…and they put one of those harnesses on me. But Dr. Glass managed to get it off of me. "
"How?" Alex gasped. "I thought you said it kills them…"
Ben had to think a moment about how to explain it. "They…they burn them off like leaches," he finally said, drawing the best analogy he could. "The harness delivers a chemical to the kids' bodies…it's like a drug. So they have to use morphine to help stop kids from dying of withdrawal. But when it's all over, they're free. The spikes are embedded in my spine so they won't ever come out but…"
"That's what he meant by razorback," she mused aloud. Ben nodded again. "Ben, why didn't you tell me?"
He looked at her seriously now, almost desperately. "I didn't want you to be afraid of me…I didn't want you to avoid me all the time like everyone else around here." It was embarrassing to admit that he felt insecure, vulnerable, especially since he'd never told anyone before. But something about Alex's non-judgmental look put him at ease. She looked sympathetic, almost pained by what had been done to him.
"Ben…you know me better than that…" Her hand returned to his back, this time careful to avoid touching the spikes. They sat like that, silent, for what seemed like ages before Alex spoke again. "Did it hurt?"
He looked at her questioningly.
"The harness. Did it hurt when they put it on you?"
Ben chuckled mildly. "A lot. And they hurt sometimes now, too but…I'm getting used to it."
"So what did it do to you?" she asked, looking back out at the creek, taking up a small stone and skimming it across the water.
"What do you mean?" Ben asked, picking up a stone and sending it skipping across the stream as well. He was once again reminded of the summers spent with Alex, how they used to skim stones on the beach. It was always a contest—whose rock would skip the furthest. Alex almost always won but this time his rock traveled to the other side of the water before sinking.
Alex smirked, picking up a second stone and skipping it to the other side of the water as well. "I mean…you said the harness messes with your head. How did it…do that?"
Ben shrugged, fingering his second rock but not throwing it. "I mean…it just…it makes you do whatever they want you to do. It's almost like you're there and…you're not. You'd…you'd hurt your own family and friends if they told you to." He suddenly couldn't meet her eyes anymore, couldn't even look at her without feeling somewhat ashamed. He had hurt his family and friends after all. He'd taken Karen away from Hal, he'd shot his dad, he'd brought Hal to his knees and he'd basically led Jimmy straight to his death.
"But they can't make you do that now, right?" Concern flashed in her eyes and she ducked her head so that she could see his face clearly.
"No. I'm not connected to them anymore." Ben replied. You can't tell her about Red-Eye. She wouldn't understand. You'll only freak her out more. "I just wish everyone else would understand that," he added.
Alex smiled sadly at him. "People are afraid of what's different—we should know that more than anyone else, I mean our dads were history professors after all. Look at…at the civil rights movement or what the Nazis did. But…why do they think you're still connected to the aliens if they took the harness off?"
Ben shook his head and scoffed, shifting so that his arm was resting on top of his knee and staring at the water. "Some of the others still…acted like they were connected to them, I guess. And sometimes it seems like they're trying to get to me but…I figured out how to beat them."
"How?" It was clear that she was intrigued.
"Hate," he whispered. "Look what they did to me, to my mom, to your parents and Marc…I hate them. And if I hate them enough then they can't control me."
A look of indescribable sadness flashed across Alex's features.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
She shook her head, dark locks swaying from side to side. "It's just that…the Ben Mason I spent all those summers with down at the beach and…talking about Harry Potter books…he wouldn't have said something like that."
"What do you mean?"
She sighed. "Did you ever think that maybe that's how they control you?" Ben frowned and shook his head, confused. "These…skitters. Seems like all they know is hate. They took over our planet and they're trying to kill us and it seems like they're doing it because they hate us…Maybe by hating them, you're actually becoming more like them. Maybe it's…love that keeps us human."
"They don't love, do they? But we do. Love is…love is what makes us different from them. If we lose that then we're just like them…not all skitters come in hideous, brown packages."
Ben froze. Alex's words almost perfectly echoed those of his father. Only…this time it almost made sense.
Alex shook her head again and spoke up, shattering the silence. "But that's just me thinking out loud."
He nodded slowly, rising and offering her a hand. "We should probably get back…it's late. Did they give you a place to stay?"
She shook her head. "Not yet."
Ben couldn't help but smirk. "I'd offer you a place in our tent but I don't think you'd wanna share with four guys."
Alex made a face and laughed. "It was barely tolerable with my brother around. Race you back?"
Ben shook his head. "I'm warning you, that harness made me faster, too."
She stuck her tongue out and took off running. "Then the head-start will make it fair!"
He took off running after her, picking his way carefully through the path. And for just those few, fleeting moments before reaching the rest of the 2nd Mass, it seemed almost like old times. Everything felt normal. Everything felt…right.
A/N: Of course, lots of interesting ways to factor Alex in. I apologize for the choppiness but I really wanted some exposition in this chapter. We'll see more of that as time wears on and I hope you'll stick with this story because what I've got planned will make it much, much better I promise. As for tonight's episode, well Karen may seem like an ally but she reminds me so much of Isabelle Fuhrman in Orphan. There's something wrong with her… Anyway, I'd appreciate some reviews. I hope Alex doesn't come across as two-dimensional. I'll be giving her more introspection next chapter so you can see how she really thinks and how she's really reacting to Ben's reveal. Thanks for reading!