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Thaw

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Kevin is not a big fan of Antarctica.

For one thing, most of the rock in Antarctica is buried under millennia-old layers of glacier, out of his reach. He's never absorbed ice or snow before and doesn't planning on trying; it'd be too fragile to be much good in a fight, plus he worries about frostbite. So fighting there is a pain.

Not to mention, Antarctica is freaking cold, and the summer sun glinting off the ice hurts his eyes, and also it seems bound and determined to kill Ben Tennyson. Seeing as Ben is kind of his best friend, not to mention the beloved cousin of his girlfriend, Kevin takes exception to the whole homicidal continent.

It was such a boring mission, too. Plumbers from the Outer Arm had sent word of water robbers spotted in the vicinity of Earth's solar system. With Gwen off helping her grandfather with a property dispute on one of Jupiter's moons, Kevin went along with Ben to stop the bad guys.

H2O poachers tend to go for polar ice caps when stealing fresh water, as they're usually less guarded, since most sentient species are smart enough to evolve in nice comfortable tropical or temperate zones. These poachers, Iniquids by the looks of their tech, had set down their giant collection ship on the western Antarctic shore and started lasering off mile-wide chunks of ice, enough to throw off the climate patterns of most of the hemisphere if they get away with it.

Kevin and Ben don't waste time on elaborate plans. With the Rustbucket III parked safely inland, Ben makes a distraction with a mid-air attack, dive-bombing their weapons array and counting on Jetray's speed to keep himself safe. Meanwhile Kevin sneaks aboard the ship to release the ice already collected back into the sea.

Then, with Ben having so much fun doing laser-stimulated loop-de-loops outside, Kevin decides what the heck, suits up and sets to smashing the engine for good measure. That'll keep these poachers from going back into business any time soon. The ship's running on a decrepit parallax drive, and by the time he puts a metal fist through the last transposition ring, every alarm the ship's equipped with is going off.

The Iniquid poachers decide to cut their losses and take off in their escape pod, just a twinkling star in the clear blue sky by the time Kevin sees it outside a port window. That was fast, he thinks; funny that they didn't even try to put up a fight...

Then he takes a closer look at the alarms, especially the jury-rigged ones.

"Ben, we gotta get out of here!" he hollers, and dives for the bay doors. As soon as he's visible, Jetray swoops in and grabs Kevin by the arms, hauling him off the ship.

"Fly faster!" Kevin advises as he dangles from the alien bat's talons, twisting around to get a look at the poacher's enormous collection vessel. The ship is listing heavily starboard, its stabilizers already submerged.

"I could if you weren't so heavy—can't you lose the metal?" Jetray whines, flapping hard.

"It's zero degrees, no way!" Kevin argues back. He has the cover courtesy of the ship's titanialloy, but even armored up he can feel the polar winds whipping his cheeks.

"Don't you have your insulation suit?"

"It's in my pocket, I don't want to drop it!" They're over the iceberg-strewn ocean, gliding low enough to see the white caps of the waves below.

Kevin feels as much as hears the rising throb of the ship's engine change. "There it goes!" he cries warning, raising his arms to cover his head, just as the ship explodes. The shockwave hits them head-on, tossing them end-over-end like a grasshopper in a wind tunnel, and smashing them into the sea.

They were high enough up that hitting the water is like running headfirst into a brick wall; Kevin feels the impact through his metal coating. Then he's underwater, blurry blue and freezing cold and he kicks and thrashes his way to the surface, shedding his absorbed skin in a hurry. Titanialloy's a lightweight metal, but still denser than water; it would drag him straight to the bottom.

Free of the metal, his head finally breaks the surface—damn but it's cold, the waves slapping his face like a whip, and inhaling is like breathing in needles. Huge white chunks of ice bob in the water around him—but no darker shape silhouetted against the snow and sea; no sign of wings or horns—"Ben!" Kevin hollers, as loud as he can. He gets a mouthful of icy saltwater, but no response.

His fingers cramping with cold, he fumbles for the little case in his pocket, pulls it out and triggers the button. The Plumber-grade insulation suit balloons around him, displacing the water as it spreads its gold membrane skin-tight over his clothes and hands and face. With his clothes already soaked it's still freezing cold, but at least the waves splashing him feel more like water and less like flails.

The membrane over his face is transparent and oxygen-permeable. Kevin draws the deepest breath he can through it, then dives, forcing his eyes open to peer through the water. Submerged, it's shockingly, endlessly blue. Then he sees a flutter of red through the ice and froth, and swims deeper as he reaches out for that faint glimpse of hope. By the time his fingers bump into leathery skin, his lungs are aching. He grabs the nearest talon and hauls ass for the surface, kicking for all he's worth, exploding up out of the water gasping for air.

Paddling over to the nearest iceberg, he claws his way out of the water onto the ice, dragging Jetray up alongside him. The alien bat is awfully heavy for a flying creature, and after he gets him out of the water, for a moment it's all Kevin can do to flop there, panting and shivering as he wheezes out, "Geeze, Tennyson, and you were whining about me having a few pounds of metal?"

Ben doesn't answer. Ben isn't saying anything, or moving—he wasn't moving in the water, either, even though Jetray can swim like a fish. Or ray. Whatever. He can last for a good long while without air, either, so he really shouldn't have drowned in the couple minutes he was under. But he's not moving, and Kevin can't tell if he's breathing either, and oh, hell—

Kevin doesn't know Jetray's physiology well enough to check him for injuries, but there's a way around that. He slams his hand down on the Ultimatrix symbol on Jetray's chest, and the maroon-skinned winged alien dissolves in green, reforms as a human kid, stretched out supine on the ice. Eyes closed and frost already crystalizing on his dripping clothes; small and pale and still not moving, not even to shiver in the cold.

Not even breathing, as far as Kevin can tell, and he grabs Ben by the shoulders, swearing, "Dammit, Ben, don't do this, man, don't make me give you mouth-to-mouth—" which really isn't a joke. It's not even that it'd be embarrassing to look the guy in the eye after a liplock, but Kevin wasn't paying as much attention as he should have been in that first aid class Gwen insisted they take. Which he's now seriously regretting, because Ben isn't breathing and they're floating on an iceberg a thousand miles from the closest hospital and freaking hell, he hates Antarctica—

Then Ben shudders and coughs and hacks up about a gallon of water. Kevin rolls him onto his side so he doesn't choke—has to, because Ben doesn't sit himself up; his eyes are still closed, the coughing a reflex. Kevin notices the blood then, a smear of red against the white skin at Ben's temple. When he pokes at the spot there's a bump swelling there. Must've been some blow to concuss Jetray's ridged skull—shrapnel from the ship, maybe.

At least it's not bleeding much—probably because it's starting to freeze. Kevin swears again, pats down the pockets of Ben's jacket until he finds Ben's own encased insulation suit and triggers it around him before he gets any colder. Then Kevin deactivates his own suit long enough to get out his Plumber's badge. Just a second without the insulation is rough, with the wind blowing over the sea; he's shivering too hard to stop by the time he brings it back on.

On the other hand, Ben isn't shivering, not really—he's shaking, but it's erratic, occasional shudders that don't wake him up. Definitely not good; Kevin doesn't need to remember the first aid class to know that much. He's not sure but Jetray's maybe coldblooded, so Ben would've come out of the water that much colder, not having been generating his own warmth.

Kevin opens the communication channel on his badge, totally blanks on the standard intergalactic distress signals and opts for, "Mayday, SOS, superhero down!" counting on the badge to translate. Really he's counting on Gwen and Max to be the first to pick up the signal anyway.

Only there's no answer, just static, even when he widens the channel's range. Interference from the parallax drive going boom, Kevin realizes—there's no smoke in the blue sky, but the whole electromagnetic spectrum will be scrambled in the area for the next few days.

No problem, though; Gwen and Max are due back on Earth anytime now, and as soon as Gwen realizes they're out of touch she'll come track them. The Rustbucket III might be outside the interference, and besides spectrum scrambling shouldn't screw up her mana detection. They just have to sit tight and wait for a pickup. It's not like the iceberg they're on is going to melt anytime soon. As long as Antarctica doesn't send a leopard seal after them—Kevin saw a special on them, big-ass seals who like to eat penguins, and really, Ben's not much bigger than a penguin. But otherwise they should be okay.

Except Ben's still not waking up. Or shivering. The insulation suit will keep him from getting any colder, but it's straightforward temperature regulation, no heating included, and that's a bigger problem than a hungry seal. A rescue's no good if it comes too late. Ben needs to warm up, but it's not like they have a space heater, or anything to fuel a fire even if Kevin had a match; they're floating on a chunk of ice in the middle of the freaking ocean.

There is one heat source on the iceberg, though. It's not Kevin's first, second or third choice, but it's still infinitely better than imagining Gwen finding them too late. Kevin sits down on the ice, settles his back against a pile of snow and props Ben between his legs, shoulders slumped against Kevin's chest and his head tipped against Kevin's shoulder. It's not really comfortable, but it's not too bad. He just hopes Ben doesn't wake up anytime soon.

There's not going to be any heat transfer between the insulation suits, though. Kevin takes a breath to brace himself for the cold, then retracts his suit and Ben's both. Shuddering at the wind chill, he puts his arm across Ben's chest and reactivates his own suit, covering the both of them in its microlayer insulation, wrapping them together like two little kids both squeezing into a pair of their dad's trousers. The golden membrane is elastic enough not to be uncomfortably tight, but it is close; Kevin can't move without shifting Ben, too, their arms and legs effectively tied together.

Not to mention, without any insulating layer between them except their damp clothes, Kevin can feel just how cold Ben really is. It feels like he's hugging a lump of ice, a snowman instead of a human being. "Come on, hero," Kevin says, "you're supposed to be the warm-hearted one," which is a dumb joke but he's cold, and Ben's colder, and Kevin takes a second to wish really, really hard for Gwen to hurry it up. Who knows, she might be able to pick up on it, if he's desperate enough, and he is pretty damn desperate right about now.

At least Ben's breathing, his chest rising and falling under Kevin's arm; but slowly, and his skin feels like a bottle of soda just taken out of the fridge. Maybe he's getting a little warmer—or maybe Kevin's that much colder; he's shivering again. Heat's like any other kind of energy: it doesn't come from nowhere; you have to make it, or take it. Or give it. Ben's cooling Kevin down as much as he's warming Ben up, though luckily Ben's shorter and scrawnier, when he's a human, anyway.

The Ultimatrix on Ben's wrist is flashing, a measured pulsing green, like it's impatiently tapping its foot. "You don't like it, then fix him already," Kevin growls at it, then shuts his mouth, wondering how far gone he is to be talking to a wayward piece of alien tech.

Maybe the watch hears him, though, or else Ben does, because he groans, turns his head against Kevin's shoulder. "Hey, you with me?" Kevin demands.

"K-kevin?" Ben's finally starting to shiver for real now, his teeth chattering, and his voice is faint, thready. So it's weird that Kevin feels warmer hearing it.

"You done being a popsicle?" Kevin asks him. "Because it's not one of your better transformations. Just saying."

"C-cold," Ben replies, showing a stunning grasp of the situation.

"Yeah, I noticed," Kevin sighs. Ben tries to move, all skinny sharp angles and elbows jabbing Kevin in the ribs. "Ow," Kevin says, "cut it out," and he wraps his arms a little tighter around his friend, to hold him still. "Calm down, we're okay." Which is a totally blatant lie, but Ben's maybe too far gone to notice—definitely too far gone, because he does like Kevin says and relaxes without questioning it.

After another minute it does occur to him to ask, "K-kevin, w-where are w-we?"

"Antarctica, remember?" Kevin tells him. "The ship blew up, we splashed down, you got conked out and then deep-freezed."

"Oh."

"How's your head? Hurts?"

"K-kind of..."

Kevin tries to remember what you're supposed to do for a concussion. Other than get the victim to the hospital. First aid classes aren't especially tailored for alien superhero lifestyles. "You know my name, that's good. You know your name?"

"B-ben?" Ben offers after a moment.

With Ben's teeth chattering Kevin can't tell if that was honest curiosity or sarcasm. The latter, he hopes. "Yeah, good...umm, and what's the date?"

"Th-Thursday."

"That's the day, not the date." Not that Kevin is sure himself what the date is, now that he thinks about it. The third? Or the fourth...had they crossed the international dateline flying down here? And if they had, did that make it yesterday, or tomorrow, or...

Ben goes to move again, trying to sit up, but the insulation suit binding them together stops him. "K-kevin, why are y-you holding me?" he asks, and his tone now is completely and genuinely bewildered.

"Because I'm trying out for a job as a teddy bear," Kevin says.

"Huh?"

Kevin sighs again. "Because you were going to freeze to death, and I thought that maybe you wouldn't want to."

"Oh."

Kevin shifts, trying to find an angle where Ben's elbow isn't digging into his side. One of his legs is starting to fall asleep and he wiggles his toes. They're all prickly from the cold anyway, so he can't tell if it helps. "Sorry it's not more comfortable. I would've just built a fire or something if I could've."

"No, s'okay..." Ben's voice is fading, like someone's turning down the volume on his stereo, and his head flops heavily back against Kevin's shoulder again.

"Hey, Tennyson!" Kevin jostles him. "Stay with me here!"

"T-tired," Ben mutters, hardly even a whisper.

Kevin is damned if he's going to let Ben check out after all this. "Wake up!"

Ben doesn't even answer that. "Come on, Ben," Kevin shouts at him, "don't do this to me, you jerk—don't do this to Gwen, she's going to find us soon and it better be in time, or else she's never going to forgive me, or herself, and that'll completely suck—"

Ben's body is weirdly heavy for such a scrawny guy, totally limp in Kevin's arms even when shaken, and Kevin's so busy trying to get Tennyson's stupid terrifying deadweight to respond that he doesn't even hear the ship's engines until it's right overhead, shadowing the sun.

Kevin looks up, through the churning ice mist frothing under the gusts from the Rustbucket Mark III's atmos-repeller generators. A silhouette leans out of the back hatch, stretching a hand down to them—bundled in a parka, but the hood's down and her ponytail is streaming out behind her like a pennant, red against the ship's green, and she's got to be about the most beautiful thing Kevin's ever seen.

 


 

Gwen has this thing, when she's been really, really worried, that she wants to both hug someone within an inch of their life and yell at them at the top of her lungs. Kevin can recognize the signs; the trick, he's learned, is to make sure you're the one who gets the hugs and not the yelling. The problem is that Ben knows that trick, too, and he's got years' more experience with hugs.

Ben's out of it now, though, sitting in the corner of the ship's cockpit wrapped in two electric blankets, with his grandpa taping up the cut on his head. So when Gwen comes back from getting another couple blankets from the bay, Kevin takes preemptive action, goes, "Hey, Gwen, thanks for the save there," and opens his arms.

Gwen charges into his embrace right on cue, with enough force to rock Kevin back on his heels. She loops her arms around his waist, presses her face against his chest and says, muffled by his shirt, "You guys can't even take down a few thieves without me? Come on, now!"

"Hey, we were doing great until Ben went and got himself knocked out," Kevin argues back, putting his arms around her. He's still cold enough to be shivering, even in the warmth of the cockpit, but Gwen's hug is better than any blanket. He doesn't even care that it's coming with yelling, especially since he knows how Gwen feels. Being worried sucks.

"Would he have gotten knocked out if you hadn't blown up the ship?" Gwen demands.

"Um," Kevin says eloquently. "...I mean, how do you know I was the one who blew it up?"

Gwen snorts, lets go of his waist to lean back and cross her arms. "Yeah, because Ben would really plan to explode the bad guys."

"I wasn't planning to blow them up," Kevin says honestly—the collection vessel had been outdated, but there must have been some tech on it worth scavenging. "I didn't realize how makeshift their safety system was, is all. And they didn't get exploded anyway; they all got away." Which is bad, because now the poachers are just going to get a new ship and steal again from some other world, and while he should be able to write it off as not his problem, it wouldn't be anyone's if he and Ben had managed to catch them.

But Gwen grins, says, "No, they didn't. We picked up their escape pod on the way out of the system. They're down in the hold now."

"Seriously? Awesome!" and he hugs Gwen again, mostly impulsive, maybe because he's still a little chilly.

Gwen makes a surprised noise but readily squeezes him back, gives him a peck on the cheek for good measure and then tosses the blanket draped on her arm across his shoulders. "You must be cold," she says.

"Yeah," Kevin says, "but not as bad as Ben." Then he wishes he hadn't said it, because Gwen's smile vanishes with a guilty start, and she turns and hurries back over to her cousin and grandfather. Kevin trails after her, pulling the blanket around himself like a cape.

"How is he, Grandpa?" Gwen asks anxiously.

Max's relieved smile is answer enough. "He'll be fine, as soon as he warms up. Minus the headache, of course," and he pats his grandson's shoulder sympathetically as he stands, giving them room to crowd in around the bench while he goes to check on the autopilot's navigation.

"Ben?" Gwen asks.

"Yeah," Ben says, lifting up his head to look at them, squinting like the cockpit's overhead lights are too bright. "I'm okay." His smile is sickly, and he's still pale, but he sounds way better than he did. He's not shivering as hard as he was, either, Kevin feels, when he puts his hand on Ben's shoulder.

"Glad to hear it, man," he says. Ben glances up at him, his eyes looking even greener with his face so wan, and smiles a little stronger.

"You really scared me," Gwen says. "As we were coming in—when I saw you lying on that iceberg—don't do that again!" but she spoils the effect of the reprimand by throwing her arms around her cousin, blankets and all. Ben hugs her back, looking relieved to have dodged a yelling, and a bit surprised. Of course Ben didn't see himself on the iceberg, all motionless and pale and cold as a corpse.

"We're almost back to Bellwood," Max reports, coming up beside them. Then he goes on, "Kevin."

Kevin starts, then says, "Yeah?" and makes himself turn to face the man. It's not really that he's afraid that Gwen's grandfather could give a scolding any worse than hers. But this is Max Tennyson, a legend even among the legendary Plumbers. And he nearly got Max Tennyson's grandson killed today.

Max doesn't look angry, though; he's smiling. "That was some good thinking, out on the ice. If you hadn't done that for Ben, he...it could've been bad."

It had been bad, as far as Kevin's concerned; but true that it could've been worse. "Uh, sure," he says awkwardly. "No problem."

"You should take it easy for the next couple of days," Max says. "It'll take you a bit to recover from that energy transfer, and you were hypothermic, too."

"Energy transfer?"

"Ben wouldn't be in this good shape without it," Max says, and holds out his hand. "Thank you, Kevin, for helping him."

Kevin doesn't quite get it, but he accepts the handshake. Max's grip is firm, and Kevin's fingers are still cold enough that he doesn't want to let go. He sticks his hands in his pockets instead, though that's not really warm enough.

Max pats Gwen's shoulder. "You take care of this boy tonight, Gwen," he tells her. "Make sure he rests well."

Kevin nearly chokes at that, even though Gwen only says, "I will," so innocently that Kevin wonders if maybe it's just him. Ben's looking away, though, and his ears might be pinker than they were. So maybe not.

"If we're at Bellwood, then I should take us down," Kevin says. Really the autopilot can handle basic atmospheric maneuvers, but it gives him an excuse to duck away before things get any more embarrassing.

 


 

They drop Max off at his RV, but since neither Ben's nor Gwen's parents have a high-velo descent platform in their attics, Kevin gives them both a lift home after landing. Ben's house is closer, so that's the first stop. He needs to get home anyway; he's not so pale now that he's dry and warmed up, but he's still looking wiped, curled up with a blanket in the back seat .

When Kevin pulls up to the curb, Gwen gets out of the car and gives her cousin a hand out. Ben stops before she closes the passenger door, though, leans back into the car again. His jacket's zipped all the way with the collar turned up and he's got his hands jammed in the pockets. "Hey, Kevin," he says through the collar. "Thanks for the rescue."

"Yeah," Kevin says, shrugging. "Anytime." He doesn't get what the big deal is. It's not like they haven't saved each other's lives before.

Gwen walks her cousin up to his house while Kevin waits in his car. Max called ahead; Ben's mom and dad are hovering at the door, anxiously ushering their son inside. With the windows rolled down, Kevin can hear their exclamations, not the words, but the distress and relief in their voices carries clearly until the door shuts.

It should be a balmy night, but the draft through the window is nippy. Kevin rolls up the window, crosses his arms to rub his biceps. He wasn't so cold driving, but sitting still now he can't forget that he was in Antarctica a few hours ago. Ben left the blanket in a pile on the backseat; Kevin swipes it and drapes it over his head like a hood to warm up his ears.

"Kevin?" The passenger side door opens and Gwen gets back in the car. Kevin hastily pulls down the blanket, but it's too late; Gwen is looking at him oddly. "Are you okay?" she asks.

"F-fine," Kevin says. He feels his teeth start to chatter, clamps them together as he tosses the blanket in back and starts the car. "It's chilly tonight."

"No, it isn't," Gwen says. She puts her hand over Kevin's, frowns. "But you're still cold."

"Just remembering being on the ice," Kevin says. "I'm okay." He pulls his car out into the street. "Next stop, drop you off home?"

"Wait," Gwen says. She takes out her cell phone, dials. "Hey, Mom? It's me. Yeah, we're back—yeah, Ben's fine. We're all fine. But kind of shaken up—is it okay if I stay overnight? ...Okay. Love you, good night." She hangs up and puts the phone back in her pocket.

Kevin glances at her sidelong. "Did you just lie to your mom?"

"No," Gwen says. "She didn't ask where I'd be staying." She takes Kevin's hand again, chafes it between her own. "You're freezing..."

Gwen's hands are usually cooler than his, but not tonight; he can feel the heat of each slender finger curled around his, bands of warmth sinking into his cold skin. He squeezes her fingers back, glad he can. For a while there, when he was stuck as a mixed-media freak, he'd only dared to hold hands gingerly, worried a metal or stone grip might crush her bones. But he's got regular human hands now, and he's not afraid to interlace his fingers with hers. She sets her other hand over his, pressing it between the warmth of her palms, driving away the aching chill lingering in his bones.

Kevin drives them back to the garage. He should give his mother a call tomorrow—it's too late tonight, and much too late to drive up to her place; it's over an hour away and he's tired. Besides, the mattress on the fold-out couch in the garage is pretty good. It used to be crap, but Gwen complained about the springs poking her until Kevin went and got a new one, supplemented with a Hedomite mallea-fiber pad, not even an inch thick but better support than anything available on Earth. Hedomites might build lousy spaceships, but they make damn fine beds.

Gwen's never stayed the night in the garage, though, and Kevin wonders if maybe he should sleep in the car—but as soon as he takes the key out of the ignition, Gwen leans across the seat, puts her hand to his cheek to turn his head and guide his face into a kiss that's better than a bonfire, the way it heats his blood.

Kevin can only blink at her dazedly when she's done. "Uh...what was that for?"

Gwen smiles at him, still leaning close, kneeling up on the seat with her arm around his shoulders. "A thank you, I guess."

Kevin grins back. "I should save Ben more often."

"Not for that," Gwen says. "For you."

"For me?"

Gwen feels so warm that Kevin's surprised to feel her shiver. "When we were coming into the atmosphere, looking at the scanner—you and Ben were so close together, there was only one heat signature showing. Only one life-sign in all that ice, and we didn't know whose..."

"Couldn't you sense our mana?" Kevin asks.

"Not from that far away. And I was having a hard time focusing." Gwen closes her eyes, tips her head forward so her forehead's pressed to Kevin's. "So. Thank you for being okay."

"Yeah," Kevin says. "Well, thank you for the rescue. Feels so good to be off that ice cube and warming up, you got no idea."

Gwen leans back but doesn't open the car door to get out. "Yeah, it's about time you warmed up." She smiles at him across the seat. It's the slow, suggestive smile, approximately as hot as the surface of the sun, the one that maybe only Kevin gets to see. It would probably flash-fry Tennyson's brain if he ever guessed his cousin could smile like that.

"I am still a little cold," Kevin says. He's not lying—his toes are a bit chilly.

"Actually, so am I," Gwen says.

From the flush in her cheeks, Kevin's pretty sure she is lying. He doesn't mind. "So should we warm each other up?"

"Sounds like a plan," Gwen says, and leans over to kiss him again.

 


 

In the middle of the night Kevin jerks awake with a gasp, heart pounding and lungs aching like he's inhaled freezing water. He can taste salt on his tongue. It's dark, though, no glimmer of moonlight on snow or white-capped waves; and the air doesn't smell of brine but vulcanized rubber and motor oil. For a moment he just breathes it in, relaxing in the garage's familiarity.

But he's still cold, shivering even under the blankets—he piled them on the couch, the comforter he picked up for two bucks at a yard sale, the afghan from his grandmother that his mom made him take back to the garage; but they're not enough now. Like the temperature in the dream was real even if nothing else was. Kevin curls up, pulling the blankets closer, and it's only after he's tugged them loose of the obstruction on the other side of the mattress that he remembers he's supposed to be sharing them.

Dislodged, Gwen snuffles in her sleep, rolls over and reaches blindly for her pillow. She gets Kevin's arm instead, apparently good enough, since she nestles her head on his elbow without waking up.

Her hair smells like some kind of fruit. Kevin's never gotten why you'd want to wash with food. He asked Gwen once, but she just rolled her eyes and said, "Boys!" But it's a good smell, even if it makes him hungry.

Not hungry enough to get up, though. Under the covers their bare legs are tangled together, and Kevin tucks his chilly toes under Gwen's smooth calf. Her sweet-scented hair's tickling his nose, and his arm's starting to fall asleep, and Gwen drools in her sleep sometimes. It's so weird, sleeping with someone—actually sleeping, not the other stuff.

Weird, but it's warm. And Kevin thinks he could get used to it. Thinks that maybe he wants to, and some other night that might have freaked him out, but tonight...tonight he falls back asleep hoping that maybe Gwen wants to, too.

 


 

"I swear," Ben says, noisily sucking down the last of his cup, "no ice skating rinks, no walk-in freezers—no sno-cones!"

"Says the guy who just polished off two frozen berry smoothies," Kevin remarks. Though really he takes Ben's point. Even two days later, sitting out here in the shining California sun, thinking of ice makes him shiver. He's not going to be planning a snowboarding trip anytime soon, that's for sure.

"I needed the sugar," Ben says, and that's probably true; he's still looking kind of wan, tired even though they haven't done anything all day. He sounds like his old whiny self, though, as he insists, "But seriously, I mean it. I don't care if Vilgax teams up with Dr. Animo and starts breeding dinosaurs down there—I am never going to Antarctica again. Or the Arctic. Heck, I'm never going Big Chill again!"

"Unless the Omnitrix decides otherwise," Gwen says, taking the lid off her lemonade to idly stir it with her straw.

"So, no letter to Santa this year?" Kevin asks.

Ben makes a face at him. "Only to tell him to bring you a super-sized lump of coal."

The picnic bench outside the smoothie place has been in the sun all day, painted surface baked warm when Kevin lays his hand against it. He doesn't usually bother absorbing wood; it's harder but not that much tougher than flesh, not compared to stone or metal. But he likes the feel of it, the smoothness of the paint over the textured wood grain.

And wood isn't that sturdy, but it's resilient enough, that when Kevin glimpses a shimmer of magenta out of the corner of his eye, he absorbs the table's protection automatically. Just in time—when Gwen releases her magical grip, the ice cube bounces harmlessly off his now-wooden back.

Ben isn't so lucky; the ice cube she was magically levitating behind him drops under his t-shirt's collar to slide down his spine. Ben jumps up with a shriek that would do a marmoset proud, pawing frantically at his back. "Yow! Get it out! That's cold!"

"No, really?" Gwen says, all wide-eyed astonishment. She picks another sliver of ice out of her drink—with her fingers this time, not magic—and pops it into her mouth.

Ben is boogieing around the table, wriggling and squirming as he tries to shake out the ice. "You are evil," Kevin tells Gwen admiringly, as he lets go of the shielding wood.

"And you absorb too fast," Gwen replies, flicking the ice water on her fingers at him.

"You get this smirk when you're trying something," Kevin says. "Gives it away."

"You could've warned me," Ben accuses. Dance of the ice cube completed, he sits back down at the table next to Kevin, shoulders hunched warily as he turns his most aggrieved puppy-dog eyes on his cousin. "What was that for? Kevin probably deserved it, but what'd I do?"

"Just making sure you weren't getting a weakness," Gwen says cheerfully. "It'd be embarrassing if the bad guys could ward you off with an ice cream cone. But the ice didn't scar you, so I think we're okay."

"You were only thinking of the good of the team," Kevin says, nodding wisely.

"Of course," Gwen says, nodding back.

"I hate you all," Ben says, fingering his t-shirt's damp collar.

"Aww, don't give us the cold shoulder, Tennyson," Kevin says, and slings an arm around Ben's shoulders. "Just play it cool."

"Ow," Gwen says. "Painful. Seriously."

"Chill out?"

"Watch it, dude, you're on thin ice," Ben says—and Kevin can read his smirk almost as easily as he reads Gwen, but he's not expecting a counterattack yet. So he doesn't react quickly enough, when Ben ducks out from under his grab, seizes his other arm and pulls them both behind his back. Hands off the table, nothing to absorb, and Ben says, "Hey, Gwen, you better test Kevin's freeze-phobia, too—for the team, right?"

"No—Gwen—wait!" Kevin tries to wrestle away, but Ben's been practicing holds with Gwen and this one's pretty solid. Even with his regular human strength, Kevin could break it easy, but not without hurting either Ben or himself. So all he can do is shake his head desperately, as Gwen picks up her cup with her wickedest grin, scoops up her last handful of ice and dumps it down the back of Kevin's shirt.

Three cubes skitter down his bare skin, laying freezing trails. Ben has to let go as Kevin jerks free, twists around tugging at his shirt to get the ice to slide out faster, as he shouts—totally not a shriek, a manly holler—"I am gonna kill you!"

Neither Ben nor Gwen are intimidated by this extremely genuine threat, however; they're both laughing out loud. "You mean, you're gonna ice us?" Ben says, and he might be a dead man but he's anything but lifeless now, and Gwen's grinning her huge hot grin, and for all the ice water dripping down Kevin's back, Antarctica feels like a million miles away.

Chapter Text

Kevin used to like the Forever Knights. They've got a long-standing interest in alien tech, and both the funds and the poor judgment to shell out for overpriced space junk. Once upon a time they were one of his preferred clients.

Not so much nowadays. If they ever held a Most Annoying Bad Guys competition, the Forever Knights would win it, hands down. They're not particularly dangerous, or good at what they do (whatever the hell it is this week) but they're as irritating as a mosquito you can't see, constantly whining in your ear but gone when you go to swat it.

This evening's goal is taking out Ben 10, an oldie but goodie, and it seems they've been shopping from someone other than Kevin. The semi-spherical giant robot Ben's tussling with now looks an awful lot like the one the crazy TV pundit guy sent after him those months back, plus some modifications, in particular an electric field that cancels out Nano-Mech's usefulness. Ben's got his hands full—all four of them, and Fourarms is holding his own, but he's taking his sweet time cleaning up. Kevin sometimes suspects that Ben likes playing with the Knights; stomping them is an ego boost.

He'd point this out if he wasn't preoccupied himself at the moment. The Knights are running a three-pronged strategy, two higher than Kevin would've guessed they could count. While the robot targets Ben, a couple of additional squads of armored Knights have been deployed. One group is keeping Gwen occupied with particle beam artillery—primitive mass-produced stuff, barely above Earth-level tech, and nothing she can't handle, but there's enough bolts flying about that she can't spare Ben any magic.

The other squad's going after Kevin, which was fun while it lasted. A convenient wall gave him the advantage—concrete's one of his favorites for fighting; it's rock-hard but resilient, and it makes a really satisfying clang when he hammers on the Knights' armor. Leaves a nice dent, too, even in the graphene-steel alloy. Half of the dozen Knights attacking him are down by now; the others are playing hard to get, keeping their distance and dodging Kevin's charges.

If that's the way they want to do it, fine. Kevin shrugs and goes for the robot instead. Not that Ben needs the help, but once their prize is smashed the Knights will hopefully take the rest of their toys and go home, in time for him and Gwen to make the late show.

The squad on him has their orders, though, because as soon as Kevin starts for the robot, one of the still-standing guys leaps in his way. "We're not done with you!" he announces, in an accent that Kevin's pretty sure he learned from Monty Python. Pretentious jerk.

An armed jerk—Kevin doesn't recognize with what, though. Not a weapon he's ever sold. Alien tech, definitely, by the emerald sheen of the casing and its awkward fit in a human hand, probably designed for a three-fingered grip. But not a gun, with that barrel, too short and wide for aiming. It looks more like a space-age salt shaker.

It also looks smashable. Kevin balls his fist, swings it up as he expands the absorbed concrete into a club, and lets the momentum of its mass carry him forward into the blow. The Knight yelps and ducks, waving around his whatever-it-is, but not fast enough; Kevin's temporary hammer smashes into the gadget, pulverizing it into a fine green mist.

Kevin shakes off the few oily droplets settling on him—probably acid or poison; his concrete skin is impervious anyway—and brings up his expanded fist again. The Knight is sprawled on his butt, looking up at Kevin. Can't read his expression through the helmet's visor, but his armored knees clink as they knock together, and Kevin grins with concrete lips and drops the hammer.

He misses; the Knight rolls aside at the last minute. Kevin twists around to swing at him again, only something's wrong. It's harder to move than it should be; his elbow's stiff, not bending right, even with the counterweight of his hammer-fist. Overbalanced, Kevin stumbles, starts to fall and shrinks his fist back to normal size to catch himself—but that's harder, too, and when he forces open his fingers there's a grinding sound, like stone crumbling. His hand looks okay, the lines of knuckles and joints and tendons etched in gray concrete—but there's a few fine cracks, too, running through the rocky texture.

"How are you feeling?" the Knight asks, his fake-accented voice distorted by the helmet, but he doesn't sound scared. More like gloating.

Kevin jerks around to look at him—or tries to; but he hears the grinding again, louder, as he strains to turn his head, and his neck hurts, like he's pulled a muscle. When he stops moving, it stops hurting, but he still feels stiff. And when he tries to straighten up, he can't—not that it hurts, but he can't move. Feet, legs, spine, everything's frozen. His muscles are straining, but lowering his hand even an inch is like trying to swim through wet cement. The effort makes him gasp for breath, and his chest is tight, like his lungs don't have enough room to expand when he inhales.

"What'd you do?" Kevin hollers, or tries to—his tongue and vocal chords still work okay, but he can't take a deep enough breath to shout, and his jaw is locked shut, like he's been muzzled.

"So the catalyst's effective?" Deeper voice, different accent. Kevin hears the clank of armor as the other Knight approaches, but he can't turn his head to see.

"Looks like," the Knight he was fighting says.

Kevin can see the guy out of the corner of his eye, but he can't do a damn thing except snarl, "Oh, don't you dare, you asshole!" as the Knight raises his gauntleted hands. He sets them to Kevin's shoulder—he can feel the pressure of that metal touch, through the concrete—and shoves hard, and Kevin topples to the side.

He can't catch himself, can't even tuck in his arms and roll with it; his stance stays fixed, crouched with his arms down, as he goes over, falling on his side with one bent leg awkwardly extended in the air, his shoulder thudding on the pavement. The impact makes his head ring, and the change in orientation means that now he can't see anything but the ground and the metal boots of the Knight standing before him.

One of those boots draws back to kick him in the face, and Kevin would like to close his eyes but he can't even manage that. "I will so kick your ass for this!" he spits out through his clamped teeth.

"Oh, how scary, an angry statue," the Knight says, out of sight above Kevin, and the boot's metal toe drives toward his nose—

Only to ram into a barrier of glimmering magenta power. Kevin's now looking at the world through rose-colored mana. It's a much better view. Somewhere behind him, Gwen asks, "Kevin? Are you okay?"

Kevin would grin if he could, but his face is as immobilized as the rest of him. Instead he growls, "Never mind—she'll kick your ass!"

These Knights are about as dense as their armor—either that, or they haven't paid attention to their group's incident reports, because one of them actually dares to say, "Stay out of this; we don't want to hurt you, girl," with just the wrong amount of insulting patronization.

Kevin doesn't need to see Gwen to know how her eyes will be narrowing. He'd duck if he could, but as movement's not an option he merely relaxes and watches as a wall of magic as broad as a pickup truck slams down, flattening the Knights to the pavement. This puts them eye-to-eye with Kevin, or eye-to-visor anyway, so he's got a good angle to see the one groping for the holster on his hip.

The pistol the guy pulls out is Earth-made, unfashionably low-tech for a Knight, but bullets are bullets whether they're launched by a magneccelerator or plain old powder combustion. "Look out!" Kevin shouts, as loud as he can through concrete lips. "He's got a gun!"

Before the Knight can pull the trigger, a lash of magic smacks the pistol out of his hands, then curls around the man, picks him up, armor and all, and tosses him aside—out of Kevin's line of sight, though he hears the gratifying crash of metal on asphalt as the guy comes down.

He feels a touch on his shoulder, muted, like he's wearing a heavy coat. "Kevin?" Gwen asks, sounding anxious.

"I'm okay," Kevin says, or really 'I'n' since he can't quite manage an 'm' without movable lips, but hopefully he gets the point across. "I just can't nove." He tries to wiggle his fingers as he says it, grunting with the strain, but nothing doing; they might as well be trapped in a block of set concrete.

"What happened?" Gwen asks, walking around to his front and squatting to look at his face. Even sideways Kevin can see her worried look. "What'd they do—"

She's got a magic shield up, shimmering pink behind her; but then he hears the humming whine of a narrow-focus particle beam, and the mana shatters. The coruscating yellow burst hits Gwen, its corona flaring like a firework around her silhouette, knocking her down.

"Gwen!" Kevin hollers, fighting to sit up, at least to turn his head enough to see her, but even with his heart pounding like a jackhammer in his ears, his stupid paralyzed body doesn't so much as tremble. All he can move is his tongue. "Gwen, are you okay, please be okay—"

"I'm okay," Gwen assures him, getting up. When she's standing he can't see her head, but he can see her hands as she brushes dirt off her skirt, and he can also see the magic blazing around her, as bright as the particle bolt.

"Ben!" Gwen yells over his head. "Kevin's in trouble, quit goofing off!" She raises her hands and steps up on a platform of magic, over Kevin's head and out of sight.

For the next couple of minutes Kevin can't see anything but random flashes of light reflecting off the warehouse walls and the armor of the Knights lying scattered and groaning in front of him. He listens intently to the crashes and thuds and shouts behind him, trying to guess which are the Knights and the robot and Gwen and Ben.

Through all of it there's this buzzing noise, like a turbine engine in overdrive, that Kevin thinks he should recognize but doesn't, not until Ben actually touches down in front of him, four faceted eyes twisting on their stalks towards Kevin.

"Whoa, Stink'ly?" Kevin asks. "Really?"

"Couldn't you smell him?" Gwen says, sounding like she's holding her nose.

"No," Kevin says. "I can't." Concrete must not be too good at picking up odors. Remembering Stinkfly, he doesn't miss that loss.

"I needed a form the robot didn't know," Stinkfly buzzes. With a flash of green Ben is crouched before Kevin, peering down at him. "You can't smell, that's your problem?"

"That, and I'm totally 'ucking 'aralyzed!" Kevin snarls through his involuntarily gritted teeth.

"Huh," Ben says, tilting his head to match the angle of Kevin's. "I thought that looked like an uncomfortable position."

"Let's stand him up," Gwen says. Kevin faintly feels the grip of her hands on his arms. Ben hooks his fingers under Kevin's shoulder and heaves as his cousin pulls, and they tip Kevin back onto his feet.

He's still facing away from the battlefield. "What ha'ened to the Knights? And the ro'ot?"

"The robot's in lots of little pieces," Gwen reports.

"And the Knights are clearing out," Ben adds, stepping aside to let Kevin see the last remaining Knights drag a fallen cohort into the back of a van that's already rolling, fishtailing as they pull out.

They hadn't even tried to enter the warehouse, and aren't bothering now. "So, what, it was just a tra'?" Kevin asks.

"A trap? Yeah, looks like," Ben says. "At least they didn't steal anything, in the end."

"They were after us," Gwen says. "All of us..."

"'ut I'm the only one they caught," Kevin says, and he can't smell, but he can taste bitterness just fine.

"You just got unlucky," Gwen says. "It could've been any of us. And it might not be anything serious; maybe it'll wear off on its own..."

"They actually thought they could take me out with just a robot?" Ben says. "One I'd already beaten, even? Amateurs!"

Gwen elbows her cousin in the ribs. "Help me get Kevin into the car," she says. "He should fit in the backseat, I think." She puts her hand on Kevin's shoulder. "We'll figure this out back at the garage, okay?"

"I'll go bring the car around," Ben volunteers.

"You are not—" driving my car, Kevin goes to say. Then he realizes that since he's not going to be driving it himself, if Ben doesn't drive, that leaves Gwen, and that... "...May'e we can wait here 'til it wears off?"

"Don't worry, I've gotten way better at driving stick," Ben says. "Just give me the keys, and...hmm." He frowns at Kevin's pockets and the layer of solid concrete over them. "Uh, Kevin, how exactly do you hotwire a car?"

 


 

"So you still can't move at all? Not anything?" Ben taps his knuckles on Kevin's concrete forehead. It makes a soft clunk, echoing through the garage.

"Nothing now," Kevin growls through his teeth, "'ut do that again and when I can move, I will end you."

"Sorry," Ben says, putting down his hand. "At least you can still talk, right?"

"Yes," Gwen says. "You can move your tongue. And breathe, too. That's lucky."

Good point. "My tongue and my lungs aren't concrete," he says. "Usually I just a'sor' a sur'ace layer." He'd be a lot more uncomfortable now if he had gone for solid absorption. Or not so much uncomfortable as...what? Somehow he doubts that concrete neurons would work any better than concrete lungs or a concrete heart. He's been accused of having rocks for brains before, but he's not too keen on actually putting it to the test.

"So one of the Knights had a weird weapon," Gwen says. "You're sure you don't know what it was?"

"Ne'er saw one 'efore," Kevin confirms. "They said something a'out a catalyst. I'm guessing some kind of chemical com'ound, must 'e designed to counter my 'ower, initiating a chemical reaction to harden the concrete I'd already a'sor'ed, and alter its mallea'ility to 'revent mani'ulation."

Gwen and Ben are both staring at him. "What?" Kevin says, wondering if his words are making sense, what with the missing consonants. How was he supposed to know he should have studied ventriloquism?

Ben glances at his cousin. "You're sure that's actually Kevin in there?" he whispers, loud enough that Kevin could've heard him from the other side of the garage. "And not Albedo or something?"

"It's him, I can feel his aura," Gwen confirms.

"Yeah, it's me!" Kevin hisses, since he can't snap. It wasn't like he hadn't had the whole car-ride back to think about this. Better that than listening to Ben strip the gears of his ride. A zap courtesy of Brainstorm had started it up fine even without the keys, but after that Kevin had done his best not to pay attention. He hadn't even been able to look out the window, since the only way they'd managed to fit him into the backseat had left his eyes pointing at the ceiling.

He's gone over in his head all the various alien compounds, enzymes, and glues he's ever heard of, but he doesn't know of any that react with Osmosian abilities. Truth is, Kevin doesn't know all that much about Osmosian abilities. And he's not sure his bag of tricks is true Osmosian anyway. Interspecies hybrids sometimes come out screwy, and then who knows what the long-term effects might be of absorbing all that Omnitrix energy as a kid. Not to mention the Ultimatrix energy—but he tries not to think about that.

For all Kevin knows, this is something that happens to his species all the time, and he's just been lucky so far. As long as it's not Osmosian puberty; he went through the worst of the human type in the Null Void and doesn't plan on repeating it, ever.

"If you still can't move, then it doesn't seem like it's getting better," Gwen says, her brow furrowing with thought. "And magical dispersion didn't do anything." She'd tried a few purification spells in the car. "So what are we going to do?"

Ben scratches his chin. "Get one of those wire baffles to keep the pigeons off?"

"Ben." Gwen glares at her cousin.

"I'm serious—you don't want pigeons crapping on you, do you, Kevin? Then we could get a pedestal—or I know, a little fountain!—and set you up in a nice spot in the park downtown..."

"So killing you, Tennyson," Kevin vows.

"Not if I beat you to it," Gwen says.

"I'm just kidding," Ben sulks.

"What if it was your watch that got screwed up, and you were stuck like this?" Gwen asks. "Would you like it if Kevin were making fun of you?"

"No, but he would anyway," Ben says.

"Yeah, I totally would," Kevin concedes.

"But you'd still help me out," Ben goes on. "Like we're going to help you."

"Great," Kevin says. "How?"

"I got an idea," Ben says. "You said it's only the surface, right? That's how you can still talk. So why don't we break off that layer?"

"Break off his skin?" Gwen demands.

"Not his skin, just the concrete." Ben raises his wrist with the Ultimatrix. "Humungasaur could smash through it, easy."

"Uh," Kevin says, because while it's true that Humungasaur could easily punch his giant reptilian fists through a few feet of concrete, he's less than eager to have those fists pounding his actual body.

Neither does Gwen, apparently, because she puts her hand over the Ultimatrix before Ben can activate it, says, "No, we don't want to smash up Kevin, too."

"I'd be careful!" Ben objects, and from there they dissolve into bickering as only cousins can, interrupted when finally Kevin mumble-yells at them to shut up.

"I think some of the tech I got here could 'reak it," he says. "Safer than Humungasaur, anyway. Can we hurry u' and try? I'm getting really sick of 'eing stuck like this. And I kind of have to go—" He remembers Gwen is there. "—To the. You know."

"The—oh," Ben says. "Right, yeah, I guess you can't really, in there...or could you, in your...?"

"Ben, don't be gross," Gwen says. "And Kevin, don't..."

She trails off, her face stilling into a mask as expressionless as Kevin suspects his own looks like—almost the same color, too, an unnatural gray.

"Gwen?" Ben asks, confused.

"Kevin, if you have to—if he—that means your metabolism is still..."

"Obviously, since he's talking, he must be breathing, so—oh." Ben's mouth snaps shut. He stares at Gwen in dismay as his own face drains like hers—nice little trio of statues they make, except that the Tennysons still can move. Both of them turn to Kevin in creepy synchronicity, matching green eyes wide and horrified.

"Yeah, I can't eat or drink like this, I know," Kevin says—he figured that out in the car ride, too. "That's why I'm going to get out of this, 'efore I get thirsty or hungry or 'ee in my 'ants. Like, tonight. Right?"

Gwen and Ben look at each other and then back to him, nod in coordinated determination and chorus, "Right!"

They drag Kevin over to his equipment, positioning him at the best angle to see the controls over their shoulders. The gleam from the overhead light gets in his eyes, makes it hard to see, until Gwen thinks to stick a baseball cap on his head. And glares at Ben before he can snicker, because she's awesome like that.

Once Kevin's situated, Gwen summons her spell books and retreats to the couch to research other solutions—just out of Kevin's view, annoyingly, though if he listens he can hear her turning the pages. That leaves Ben to work the equipment. Kevin figures the material phase permutator is probably his best chance—liquefy the concrete and it should slough right off—but unfortunately his permutator is slapdash, parts thrown together from a few different second-hand models, and finicky. Kevin knows how to cajole results from it, but the technique's difficult to explain, especially when he can't talk clearly through his stone-stiff lips. And figuring the phase frequency of a composite is something of an art form anyway.

They're reduced to testing every frequency, incrementing by mere kilohertzes at a time, which by Kevin's best guess will take them...months, to work through every possibility. So, not really an option unless his luck's really had an upswing, but he doesn't tell them that. It gives Ben something to do, anyway, running through the frequencies while Kevin thinks.

Ben starts out eager, doing his best rubber-ball impression as he bounces from console to Kevin and back again. The monotony soon gets to him, though; he turns the dial, hits the button, asks, "So?" and waits for Kevin's inevitable, "No," with his hand already on the dial.

After about half an hour even their monosyllabic communication trails off into weary silence. Ben yawns while turning the dial, tapping his foot, finally pulls out his cell phone and starts playing a game between trials. Kevin occupies himself with imagining increasingly horrific ways to take revenge—on the stupid Forever Knights, and materials chemistry, and Ben while he's at is. Kevin would kill to be able to play a game right now. Hell, he's reaching the point that he'd kill to be able to tap his foot.

Listening to Ben's idly tapping foot—idly, all that freedom and he doesn't even appreciate it—and the counterpoint rhythm of Gwen's turning pages, all in discordant harmony with the phase permutator's intermittent humming, makes Kevin want to scream like an idiot. He clenches his teeth and concentrates on listening to his own breathing instead.

But swallowing the scream just means it's inside him, echoing within his skull, ricocheting off the concrete walls trapping him in his own body. Getting louder and louder, until he can't hear anything else, can't think of anything else, and it's driving him insane.

Not a figure of speech. Kevin's gone off the deep end enough times to know what it's like, and this chafing skin-too-tight—stone-too-tight—can't-be-scratched itch filling his mind terrifies him. He should've screamed after all, harmlessly let it out, but it's too late now—can't scream when he can't open his mouth, jaw cemented shut. Not enough breath to scream anyway, his throat closing and his lungs aching, squeezed tight, locked in. He can't even see—his eyes were open, concrete lids shouldn't have been able to shut, couldn't even blink; but it's dark now, pitch-black. The abyss, and he's fallen in, like he swore he'd never do again, not again, not again

"—Kevin? Kevin!"

Gwen's voice is like getting a bucket of water poured over his head, dousing his flaring panic. The darkness lifts—is lifted, pulled off his head; the baseball hat had slipped down over his eyes, but now Kevin can see again.

Best of all is Gwen's hands on his cheeks—the smoothness of her skin is lost to the concrete, but he can feel the warmth, melting away the dread lodged like ice in his throat and freezing his lungs, so he can breathe again.

"Kevin?" Gwen asks, peering into his eyes, so close he could kiss her, if he could just move. "Are you okay?"

"Y-yeah," Kevin gets out, and for a second he's almost glad for the concrete; statues can't cry with relief.

"It sounded like you were having trouble breathing," Gwen says, stern, like she's scolding him. When she lets of Kevin's face and lowers her hands he can see Ben hovering behind her, his face gone all pale and worried again.

"I'm okay," Kevin says, as clear and steadily as he can. "Forgot I can't take dee' 'reaths now, that's all."

"Yeah," Ben says with a nervous giggle, "save the deep breathing for when you're pregnant, right?"

Kevin growls at him as best he can. Gwen doesn't reprimand her cousin, though; she's studying Kevin, green eyes searching his face, though there's nothing for her to see in his stone expression. Or maybe she's looking with more than her eyes; the warmth Kevin can feel spreading through him might be her mana, probing him—and there's a dirty joke there but he's not up for making it. Not now, when all he wants to do is close his eyes and touch Gwen back, put his arms around her and know that he's still himself, still sane. Gwen would never let him hold her if he wasn't.

Except he can't, can't hug her or touch her when he can't move, and there's the scream again, rising in his throat like acid—

"All right," Gwen says, decided. "That's enough, you're getting out of this. Tonight."

"Great, but how?" Ben asks. "You were just saying you couldn't find any spells—"

Gwen's hands are planted on her hips. "Not magic—we're not going to fix it," she says, and almost smiles, not very nicely. "The Forever Knights did this to you—they should know how to undo it. All we have to do is get them to tell us how."

"What?" Kevin says, straining to roll his eyes to see the clock on the far wall. He's lost track of the exact time, but it's got to be going on one AM, maybe approaching two, for Gwen to be talking like this. Gwen gets exponentially more reckless for every hour past midnight. Like some kind of Anodite Gremlin. Usually he doesn't mind, but usually he can go along with her. "Hold on—"

"Now you're talking!" Ben says. "We should've done that to start with—let's go!" He punches his fist into his opposite palm, eager to kick some faux-British ass.

"No," Gwen says, holding up her hand. "I'll take care of this—you stay here with Kevin."

"No way, 'ery 'ad idea—!"

"You can't go up against them alone," Ben argues, louder and more coherently than Kevin's concrete-garbled protest.

"Oh yes I can," Gwen says. She's smiling for real now, and nice isn't even in the same galaxy. "And someone needs to stay with Kevin, in case he—forgets how to breathe again."

"I didn't—" Kevin says, but Gwen stops him with her fingers on his concrete lips.

"I'll be back before you know it," she promises, and leans in to kiss him—he can feel the pressure on her lips on his if not their softness, strains to return it.

Then it's over and she's gone, out of his limited range of sight. He can hear the tap of her retreating heels on the concrete floor. Then a car door closing, the growl of his car's engine turning over with a clunk of protesting gears, and the squeal of brakes as it tears out of the garage.

"Did she just take my ride?" Kevin squawks.

"Um." Ben fidgets before Kevin's stony glare. "...Kind of?"

"Go after her," Kevin orders him.

Ben rolls his eyes. "Dude, your car will be fine. Or else you can put it back together—not like you haven't before—"

"Screw the car, Tennyson; go after Gwen! Now!"

Ben looks somewhat more sympathetic to that. "She'll be fine," he says reassuringly. "It's just the Forever Knights. Not like they can do anything to her. She's not you, you know," and he grins.

"I know," Kevin growls. "I'm not worried a'out what they can do to her."

"Then what..." Ben opens his mouth like a goldfish, shuts it again. "What she can do to...right." He casts a look towards the garage's exit. "Gwen was looking pretty...um. Maybe I should go make sure..." He takes a step, then falters, glancing back to Kevin. "Though she did tell me..."

"I'll 'e fine," Kevin says, with as much certainty as he can force it through his concrete lips. "Get going 'efore you lose her."

"You better be," Ben mutters, "don't want to think about what she could do to me...!" He pats Kevin's shoulder and then takes off running, sneakers pounding on the floor. Green Ultimatrix light flashes in the corner of Kevin's eye, there's the flapping of leathery wings, and Ben is gone.

After a minute it occurs to Kevin that he could've asked Ben to turn on the radio before he left. His Plumber's badge is trapped inside his concrete shell, no way to contact his friends, but at least he could have some music.

Paradoxically it's easier to stave off freaking out about his situation when he's got other things to freak out about. Like whether Gwen's found the Knights yet, and whether Ben's found her in time. Not that Ben is exactly a master of self-control himself—he doesn't get angry like Gwen can get angry, but he wasn't too happy about this whole thing, either.

Neither is Kevin, of course. And if he had the Forever Knights in front of him, and could swing his fist, he wouldn't have any compunctions about pounding them into the ground until he got whatever he needed out of them—hell, he'd enjoy it.

But he's not Ben or Gwen. They're the good guys, and even if they're mad enough to cross some lines now, they'd regret it later. Kevin maybe doesn't quite get why they would—not like the stupid Knights didn't have it coming—but he knows that they would, and that knowledge sits in his gut like a lump of rock.

Or maybe he's just hungry—the burgers he scarfed for dinner are long gone; his stomach's growling. And his mouth's dry, throat parched; he could really use a sip of water. If he'd been frozen with his mouth open he could at least drink. What is he going to do if he can't get out of this—if the Knights don't have an antidote—if Gwen and Ben don't come back—

Trapped here, alone, can't move, can't find out what's going on, can't go help his friends—if they don't come back from this, it's all because of him. There's nothing he can do, for himself or for them, and Kevin feels the scream bubbling up in his chest again, hammering against his rib cage like a living thing trying to break out. He struggles to breathe around it, inhale evenly, not too deeply and not too fast—though with breaths this shallow he's not getting enough air; he's dizzy and his stomach is churning. Oh freaking hell he better not throw up, when he can't open his mouth; that would be beyond gross, not to mention he could choke and wouldn't that be fantastic, the Tennysons get back and find he's gone and died on them...

The scream is chasing his mind around the inside of his head, around and around and he's running for his life, or his sanity, madness nipping at his heels and if he falls it's all over. Maybe it's better that he dies—better dead then the monster again, lost in his hatred and rage and all the other bad stuff that's piled high in the dark places in his head. So many dark places, more shadows than in this garage, and he's trapped here inside with all of them, nowhere to escape and they're getting nearer, higher—going to bury him, inside the tomb of his frozen body—

"Kevin? Hey, Kevin, we're back—you in there?"

A hand waves in front of his eyes—Ben's hand, and his green Tennyson eyes behind it, peering at Kevin with a worry that's getting annoyingly familiar. "We're both back—Gwen, too," Ben adds quickly, answering the question Kevin can't ask—if he tries to talk the scream's going to get out, he knows it will. "And we've got help, maybe. We picked up a Knight, some kind of tech-guy. He doesn't know exactly how to fix you, but he's got an idea for countering the catalyst or whatever. He brought a doohickey, and Gwen is, um, persuading him to use it. Don't worry, though, he's smart enough to go along..."

"G-good," Kevin grates out, hoarse in his dry throat.

Ben nods, grinning to have gotten a response. "So this'll all be over soon, and then we can get some sleep," and he stretches with a yawn that would do Humungasaur proud. "Though you were probably sleep anyway, huh, not much else you could be doing..."

Except sleep's not so easy when you can't close your eyes, Kevin would say—not to mention when you're trying to run away from your own worst nightmares; sleep now and they might catch up. Would say it, but the scream's still in his throat, and he doesn't want to freak Ben out. Especially not when Gwen may be close enough to hear. He doesn't want to lose it in front of them—please don't lose it—just a little longer, he can do this—

"Kevin?" Ben leans closer again. "Are you okay? You're awful quiet," and he puts his hand on Kevin's shoulder as if to shake Kevin out of his funk, only of course he can't shake a solid statue.

It helps, though, that he tries—warm hand on Kevin's cold shoulder, reminding him that he's still got a body, even if he can't move it. That he's not alone, not buried and not lost after all, and the scream subsides, dwindling into a lump in this throat small enough to swallow. "Okay," Kevin gets out around it. "I'm okay now."

Ben frowns sympathetically. "Must be no fun, not being able to move. It'd drive me nuts! But hang in there." He pats Kevin's concrete shoulder, starts to turn away, "Maybe I can go—"

"No!" Kevin says before he can help himself.

Ben turns back. "Huh?"

"I..." Kevin would grit his teeth, except they're already gritted. He doesn't want to say it—can't say it, he almost decides.

Except that Ben goes, "Kevin? If there's something I can do..."

"Stay," Kevin says, the word dragged out of him. "Near." He probably should tack on a please—but no; this is hard enough.

"Near?" Ben repeats, confused; then something seems to occur to him, because his eyes clear up and he nods. "Stay near you, you mean?"

"It's 'etter. When someone's near," Kevin says reluctantly. "Feels like...I'm not so stuck. Like, even though I can't touch anything—it's 'etter, knowing someone can touch me."

"Huh. That makes sense, I guess," Ben says. Experimentally he reaches out and puts his hand on Kevin's shoulder again. Kevin tries to suppress his sigh of relief, but he's not quite sure he managed, by the thoughtful look Ben gets.

"Can you hold on one second?" Ben says. "I'll be right back, I promise," and he disappears from Kevin's line of sight.

He's back before Kevin can draw a breath to shout, setting a metal folding chair on the floor with a clatter, and drops down into the seat with the gratified sigh of an old man resting his aging bones. Then he reaches over and touches Kevin's hand, not clasping it, just resting his own hand on top of Kevin's curled-in, concrete-coated fingers.

"How about that?" Ben asks, looking up at Kevin. "That okay?"

Ben's hand is warm, living skin against the concrete, and it's hard to think of anything better than that contact, the absolute proof that he's not alone.

"Yeah," Kevin says. "That's okay."

They stay that way for a bit, Ben fidgeting in the chair while Kevin enjoys being not terrified and relatively sane, for him, even if he can't move.

Once he's calming down, Kevin starts to feel embarrassed—not so much that he wants Ben to stop, but seriously. They're practically holding hands—Ben is holding hands with a statue—any way you see it, they must look ridiculous.

Weird that Ben hasn't said anything. "So what's with the silent routine, Tennyson? Taking time to come u' with a really good one?" Ben could take as long as he needed; it's not like Kevin can do anything but wait for it. "Or are you giving u'? Too easy?"

Ben glances up at him without pulling away or breaking contact. "Oh, I'm totally going to make fun of you. I'm never going to let this go. Just...not now."

Kevin considers this. "Not heroic to kick a guy when he's down?"

"Or frozen in stone. Yeah, something like that." Ben sits up in his seat. "Hey! I just remembered, there's a new trailer for the next Sumo Slammers movie up. I've only had the chance to watch it a couple of times, I need to see it more times to catch everything. Apparently Kenkou goes evil again and is fighting Ishiyama—"

Ben's got his phone out and is searching for vids one-handed and there's not a thing Kevin can do to stop him, so he doesn't even try. Just sighs and breathes and hopes excessive geekery isn't contagious by touch.

 


 

It feels like hours—but the preview's only two minutes long, and they haven't watched it a dozen times yet, so it's probably not even half an hour—when Gwen reappears. Kevin is so glad to see her he can hardly speak. Also because his mouth is getting dry enough that his tongue is sticking to the roof and talking's uncomfortable.

She looks great, not tired but defiant, her hair all fiery like a torch as she ushers forward the Forever Knight scientist. He's a tall, skinny guy with thinning hair and a squint; no glasses, though, and no white coat. He's also missing the patented Forever Knight smirk; his look is more hunted, peering nervously over his shoulder at Gwen as he sidles up to Kevin.

"Do it," Gwen commands, waving her hand like a boss as Ben stands up and steps back. "Fix him."

The Knight gets out his doohickey—some kind of miniaturized resonation amplifier, it looks like to Kevin, so he was on the right track with the permutator after all—puts the central cylinder to Kevin's concrete chest and activates it. There's a piercing whine, like a dentist's drill, that Kevin feels all the way down to his bones; his toes would be curling if they could move.

Then it cuts off and the Knight steps back. "There, that should do it."

Both Gwen and Ben frown, though Gwen is the one the guy shies back from. "I told you to get the concrete off him," she says, all kinds of razor-sharp angles in her voice, like daggers and smashed glass.

"It doesn't look like you did anything," Ben says on the guy's other side, not as sharp but strong, the kind of voice that reminds you who Ben Tennyson really is, what kind of power he's got, even if he looks like a regular kid.

"I—I—" stammers the Knight. When he moves his head there are reflections in his eyes, rose-colored glimmers of magic. "It should've worked, but—it won't disperse the absorbed material; it simply negates the effect of the catalyst, so the alien's enzymatic reactions can resume deliquescence—"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ben demands, but Kevin was following.

"He's saying I should just be able to drop the concrete now, like normal," Kevin explains, and maybe he could—but this isn't normal; he's still worked up and tense, and it's hard to let down those instinctive defenses, shed this safe shell, as awful as it is.

Gwen understands, even without him saying so. "It's all right, Kevin," she says, and there's no edge in her voice now, no daggers in her eyes on him. "You can do it—here, absorb my skin," and she reaches out to take one of his unmovable hands, pressing it between her palms as if to warm it up. "Like this—this is what it's supposed to feel like. What you're supposed to feel like."

"Yeah," Ben says, getting it now. "Just crack that rock—aren't you tired of being a statue?" His tone's sarcastic, teasing, but he takes Kevin's other hand, holding it again without any jokes or questions.

Kevin breathes in, as deep as he can with his rock-bound lungs, breathes out, and the concrete shifts and grinds—and then is gone, becoming human skin once more. Pliable and soft, sensitive—he shivers in the draft from the open window.

His legs are stiff, knees creaking in protest when he tries to straighten them, then giving up and out and dumping Kevin on his butt on the floor. Still holding onto Gwen and Ben's hands, he nearly pulls them down with him. They squawk, bump shoulders and catch their balance just in time to avoid falling on top of him.

The Forever Knight is standing there, holding his resonator and gaping at them. Gwen and Ben don't let go, though, neither of them, not until Kevin does.

Chapter Text

Kevin's a little worried about the consequences of the whole Forever Knight concrete-statue disaster. The researcher who Gwen and Ben knight-napped swears there shouldn't be any long-term effects from the catalyst, but he'd say anything to keep Gwen from glaring at him. Not that any of them really hold a grudge—well, Kevin does, but his motion to stick the Knight in cement overshoes and set him up as a statue in the Bellwood park is vetoed by his two heroic friends. They bring the guy to the police instead, to rat out his comrades-in-alien-arms. Or go to prison for industrial burglary. Whichever.

The next time Kevin absorbs he's cautious, only covering a single finger at first. Then one hand, then his arm, and it goes fine, but he doesn't feel up for the full body. Not until they get ambushed by another bounty hunter after Ben—before either Tennyson has recovered, Kevin suits up in solid iron from a manhole cover and punches the alien into next week. It feels great, and he doesn't freeze up mentally or physically; as Gwen and Ben watch in surreptitious concern he sheds the metal, back to skin, easy as Osmosian pie. He gives them a thumbs' up, and they grin back at him, and everything's back to normal.

Or almost normal. Kevin doesn't catch on to the change right away, because it's not that much of one. And it seems to have nothing to do with his abilities, or anything else he's looking out for.

Just, after the bounty hunter incident, Ben transforms back sprawled out on the street, and Kevin goes over and automatically offers him a hand up. Then slaps him on the back, saying, "Good job there, Tennyson, distracting the dude by pretending to be a flipped-over turtle."

Naturally Ben smacks him back for that, and they scuffle until Kevin gets Ben in an armlock to give him a noogie, while Gwen rolls her eyes and says, "Come on, haven't you had enough stupid fights for tonight? If we get back home now we can get almost five hours of sleep."

Ben makes a face, and Kevin grins and throws one arm over his girlfriend's shoulders and the other over his friend's, and they all head back to the car together.

And okay, that's all normal. So is fist-bumping with Ben after scoring tickets to the Monster Truck rally, and tweaking Ben's nose when he's fallen asleep in the back of the car, and patting Ben on the shoulder when he's flunked his latest physics test. All of that's normal—became normal, somewhere along the line. So that Kevin doesn't even register it.

Not until Ben comes bouncing into the garage to announce that he's sent in his official recommendation for Julie to the Plumber's Academy, one step closer to getting her and Ship full Plumber-status, and Kevin says, "Awesome, man!" and goes in for a hug without thinking about it.

He realizes what he's doing barely in time, twists to turn it into an awkward shoulder-bump instead. Ben, being Ben, doesn't notice, babbling on about how to tell Julie and whether he should keep it secret until he knows for sure, oblivious to Kevin's distraction. He pays zero attention to Ben's chatter; all that's going through his head is, What the hell was that!?

What it is, Kevin realizes later, after Ben's gone off to tell Julie—something, or everything, or nothing; Kevin missed the conclusion of Tennyson's one-man debate—what it is, is that he's been...touching Ben. A lot. Maybe deliberately—unconsciously, or subconsciously? What's the difference? Is there a difference? Not accidentally, anyway.

But what the hell does it mean, Kevin wonders. Sure, Ben's his best friend, but guys don't hug or hold hands or walk arm-in-arm the way girls do with their friends. Or guys do with their girlfriends.

Or with their boyfriends?

Except that Kevin's fairly sure he's not gay. Not that he's especially self-aware, but that's something he thinks he'd have picked up on by now. Unlike Ben, who likes superheroes an awful lot, and doesn't really seem to notice if they're guys or girls or hermaphroditic aliens or whatever. Probably gets that from his grandfather. Gwen's admitted to Kevin that she doesn't really see the difference between liking a pretty boy or a pretty girl, and makes faces at Kevin when he points out the difference is that pretty girls are hot, while pretty boys are dorks, mostly. When they're not assholes.

Ben's not either, but he's not really pretty, either, as far as Kevin can tell. Not that he's actually ugly, when he's human, anyway; but he definitely isn't Gwen, who Kevin privately believes is the ultimate standard. Sure, Jennifer Nocturne's hot and all—that body, man—but looking at her isn't like looking at Gwen. Lots of girls have cute smiles, but none of them do to him what Gwen's does. And being with Gwen, touching her...

No, touching Ben's not like that. And Kevin doesn't particularly like looking at Ben, not the way he likes looking at Gwen. He gives it a try, next time they're out for burgers—but no, looking at Gwen, smiling as she casually brushes her hair back behind her ear, is way more exciting than watching her cousin stuff his face. Kevin crosses his legs and is grateful the tables aren't transparent.

But knowing this doesn't stop him from reaching over the table to punch Ben in the arm when he says something dumb, before Kevin even realizes what he's doing. Gwen's sitting right next to him, close enough that their elbows keep bumping—which should be annoying but is more fun than it sounds—but Kevin's still touching Ben, and what hell is going on with him?

It might've started earlier, but it's definitely gotten worse since the statue incident. Could you get addicted to holding hands? Kevin's heard of contact highs, but this is just bizarre.

At least he noticed it before it got too embarrassing. And now that he's aware of it, he can stop doing it. Mind over matter, willpower over the subconscious, whatever.

Habits are hard to break, though, even dumb ones. It puts Kevin on edge, having to remind himself to keep his distance, when Ben is always right there—poking the back of his head when they're arguing, jumping on top of him in the middle of a fight when an unsheathed vorpal blade nearly takes Kevin's head off. Kevin tries not to let it distract him in combat, but the extra concentration makes him snappish. And Ben repeatedly asking him if his bed actually has a right side to get up on doesn't help any.

When they hang out Kevin starts maneuvering to always sit next to Gwen, keeping her between them. If he's holding her hand it's easier to remember not to reach over and tousle Ben's stupid hair, just for the heck of it. Though Gwen doesn't like it when Kevin plays with her hair (at least, not out in public—the real problem is that Gwen likes it too much, but Kevin's happy to keep that between them.)

Gwen is also way too perceptive. Only days after Kevin embarks on his be-a-normal-guy campaign, Gwen confronts him, "So what's up with you and Ben?"

They're alone in her room—she has a paper due tomorrow and kicked Ben out to finish writing it. Kevin got to stay, to be her reward when she's done. She's working on her second draft now, but apparently she needs a break.

"Um, nothing's up," Kevin says, looking down at her physics textbook that he was idly paging through, making like he's actually reading it. It kind of worries him that this oversimplified stuff is what the top smart kids study; no wonder Earth's tech is so far behind. "What're you talking about?"

"Kevin," Gwen says meaningfully, turning away from her computer. "Did you guys have a fight or something? You've been acting weird with him all week."

"No I haven't," Kevin denies. He was acting weird before, that was the problem. Funny she hadn't noticed that.

"Look, I know Ben can be kind of a jerk sometimes," Gwen says. "And I know you don't like talking about things. But you guys are friends; you should try to work it out. I could talk to Ben—"

"No, that's okay," Kevin says, feeling inexplicably guilty. "Ben didn't do anything. I, uh, can be a jerk sometimes, too."

"Yeah, you can," Gwen says, then smiles at him, getting up from her chair. "You make up for it, though."

Kevin puts his arms around her waist, tips back his head so she can lean down and kiss him. "You done that paper yet?"

"Almost," Gwen sighs, leaning into him, her arms looped around his shoulders. "You don't suppose that if I leave it alone, it'll edit itself?"

"You could try and find out?"

Gwen groans and hides her face on his shoulder. "I know that's a bad idea, but it sounds like such a good one now..." But to Kevin's disappointment she summons the willpower to push off him and get back to her computer.

For a few minutes, anyway, and then she's looking back to him. "But seriously, whatever's going on with you and Ben—if you don't want to talk to him about it, you could talk to me?"

"So you can work on that instead of on your paper?" Kevin says, a deliberate dodge. He may not be an expert at the whole relationship thing, but he's pretty sure 'I might have a weird kind-of-gay crush on your cousin' isn't something you should say to your girlfriend. Not if you want her to keep being your girlfriend. He gets up from the bed, says reluctantly, "Maybe I should go, give you a chance to finish before it's too late."

"Kevin, wait." Of course Gwen sees through him—she always does, like he's absorbed glass when he's with her. It's one of his favorite things about her, except when it isn't. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to push—"

"S'okay, I'm not mad," Kevin says, coming over to give her kiss goodbye. "It really is getting late for me. "

She hugs him back but she still looks unhappy, so he adds, "The thing with Ben—I'll work on it, okay? It's no big deal, it's just..."

"Guy stuff?" Gwen suggests, because she's way too easy on him.

"Yeah." Kevin and Ben are both guys, so it's as good a word for it as any. Not that Ben really counts as a regular guy; he talks about his feelings more than most girls. About as much as Gwen, anyway. He'd probably be happy to talk about this, which is the only thing Kevin can think of that would be more awkward than talking about it with Gwen. So, no.

Not that Kevin's actually a normal guy any more than Ben is. Normal guys, he's pretty sure, don't get sort-of crushes on people after holding hands. Of course normal guys don't end up trapped in concrete they'd absorbed...

Did the concrete have something to do with it? Or the catalyst? Maybe this isn't a weird guy thing, but a weird Osmosian thing?

Kevin thinks about it on the drive back to the garage. If it's Osmosian—he wanted Ben before, didn't he. Only not like that. Not a crush—and not Ben really, but what Ben had. The Omnitrix with all its energy.

Absorbing energy wasn't a good idea, not something Osmosians were supposed to do. But Kevin likes doing it anyway. Or did, when he was a kid, liked the power it gave him, different from the strength of absorbed matter. Powerful, like he could do anything; nothing could stop him, and he wanted people to try, just to show them...

...Had it had been like that this last time? Absorbing the Ultimatrix's unstoppable energy, so much greater than the hits he'd craved as a kid—Kevin doesn't really remember. Or tries not to remember, anyway.

Trapped in the concrete, he hadn't been able to absorb any matter, couldn't even shed the concrete and get back his skin, no matter how he'd tried. He hadn't tried absorbing energy, though, hadn't even thought to try.

Or had he, subconsciously, without realizing it?

Which hand had Ben held his with, the one with the Ultimatrix or the one without? Lying on the sofa-bed in the garage, staring up at the dark ceiling, Kevin tries to remember. Can't. At the time he hadn't been paying attention, hadn't cared. But maybe his subconscious did.

If he doesn't have a crush on Ben, but subconsciously wants his power—is it really a coincidence that Kevin's dating one of the most powerful energy beings in the galaxy? Mana's not electricity; it's even better...

—No. He wouldn't. Even when he'd gone completely off the rails, he'd tried to avoid that...but not forever; he'd given in eventually. What if that's what he's wanted it all along, subconsciously—not Gwen, but the power she holds...

It's a chilly night; even burrowed under the covers Kevin is shivering. It takes him a long time to fall asleep, and his dreams are bad when he finally does, cold and dark and lonely as the furthest reaches of the Null Void.

 


 

The next day, Kevin doesn't go to hang out at Mr. Smoothy's after school's out. He answers his phone when Gwen calls, but tells her he's busy.

It's not a lie. He woke up with an idea for tweaking his car; by mid-afternoon he has the Petrollian external implosion engine entirely disassembled, and the microscopically thin oxidating meta-filter will sublimate into nothing if he doesn't replace it within an hour. But the refinements should get him a three percent efficiency increase, maybe even three and a half.

Gwen doesn't sound totally convinced, but she lets it go. Ben, when he calls, just wants a race when the engine's done.

The day after that Gwen has two tests to study for and shopping for a shindig her mom's hosting. And Ben's got another alien bounty hunter on his tail—nothing he can't handle; he sends them photos on his phone afterwards, like a fisherman showing off the catch of the day.

And Kevin's got the implosion engine fitted in place, but during the installation it occurred to him that manually adjusting the manifold in the fluctuation capacitor could boost the tachyon redistribution rate. Stuck on his back under his car, he can't answer the phone; when it rings again, he lets it go to voicemail.

Two days later, Kevin's fine-tuning the conjuncture grid with a toothpick when there's a knock on the garage door. It's locked, but before he can open it there's the wrenching screech of crumpling metal and Fourarms strides through the new entrance he just pried apart.

"Come on, man, I was coming to get it!" Kevin complains, then steps back when Fourarms hits the Ultimatrix symbol on his chest, dissolving away in a glow of green light. The energy to rule the universe—Kevin lowers his hands, puts them safely behind his back. "Sorry, I can't patrol, in the middle of something here—you should've just called—"

Ben doesn't notice. Out of Fourarm's red hide he's pale, brows lowered and jaw set. "No time," he says grimly. "Gwen's in trouble."

 


 

It really was a shame, Ben says once they're in the Rustbucket III and on their way, what happened to the Leporidae home-world. The Leporidae had just been minding their business, living their quiet technologic-level-three lives, when into their solar system came a wandering planet.

It didn't hit Leporidor, not quite—but close enough. The gas giant's massive gravity well passing by two light-seconds away was enough to knock the world for a loop. In this case, an irregular orbital loop. Leporidor's year is now three times longer than it used to be, and for half that year the planet swings out far from its sun. It would be like Earth suddenly spending half its time in Jupiter's orbit, out in the frozen reaches of space. Instant ice age, permafrost in the tropics while the polar caps grow to cover half the planet.

Leporidor is now entering its third special director's cut winter. Lucky for them, the Plumbers stepped in. They offered to move the Leporidae, relocate all one billion of them to somewhere sunnier, but the Leporidae refused. People get weird about their homelands, their home-soil. Kevin doesn't quite get it—that you're alive is more important than where you're alive, right?—but the Plumbers conceded.

Now they're organizing a moving party, pushing Leporidor back where it belongs. But even with Plumber resources, planetary repositioning's no small feat; to set a stable orbit they have to wait for the planet to be properly aligned. Which means that the Leporidae have to endure another winter.

"So what'd they want with you and Gwen?" Kevin asks Ben as they head toward Leporidor. "Sounds like they'd want wool coats and cocoa more than some superheroes."

"The Leporidae leaders asked for some Plumbers to come in person and talk to their people," Ben explains. "You know, reassure them, tell them they can get through this."

Kevin forgets himself and snickers. "You were called in to lead a pep rally?"

Ben hardly has the grace to look self-conscious . "Basically. We're some of the closest Plumbers assigned to this region of space. And I think the leaders figured it would sound extra convincing coming from Ben 10."

"I can just see it—give me a B! Give me an E! Give me an N! What's that spell? Dork!"

"Yeah, yeah," Ben says, sticking out his tongue. "That's why we didn't ask you along—even if you hadn't been busy, we figured you'd bring down the mood."

"Were there pompoms? Did you have to wear a miniskirt?" It occurs to Kevin that Gwen had been along on this expedition as well. "Seriously, were there miniskirts? Did anyone video it?"

"No miniskirts! ...I don't think, anyway; I never got to do the speech," Ben says. "A little after we got there, something came up—a distress beacon from outside the system. The transmission was garbled, couldn't tell what the emergency was, so I decided to go myself, while Gwen stayed behind to give the presentation. The Leporidae leaders were okay with that; they liked Gwen—"

"'Course they did," Kevin says, about as not-smugly as he can manage, which is still pretty smug. Everyone likes Gwen, but she likes him.

"—so I took the Plumber shuttle out to check it out. By the time we got to the coordinates, though, nothing was there—some inorganic debris and radiation, that's it. I guess it was some kind of accidental cargo ship explosion? When I couldn't find anything, I went back to Leporidor to pick up Gwen. Except when I got there, they said she'd already left—"

"And you believed them?"

"They don't seem like the lying types!" Ben whines in protest. "And there was a Plumber transport shuttle she could've taken—Gwen was wanting to get back home, for her mom's thing. And she was hoping to talk to you, since you haven't been talking to her."

"...Right," Kevin says, not quite wincing. "But she never stopped by."

"She never made it back to Earth, far as I can tell," Ben says, and his whine drops into a steady seriousness, his hero's voice. "I don't know if she actually left Leporidor. I've tried calling her, but I can't get her on her phone or her badge, or locate it anywhere. And when I try contacting the Leporidae leaders, there's no answer, even though the Plumber satellite was working when I left."

"Yeah, that's not suspicious at all," Kevin says. "What do you think happened?"

"I don't know." Ben drums his fingers on the dashboard in frustration. "I don't know what the Leporidae could've done to her—this is Gwen we're talking about. She's strong enough to take on...heck, all of them! They're not that big or tough."

True, Kevin's never heard of a Leporidae universal mixed martial arts champion. A billion floppy-eared herbivores, against Gwen Tennyson...Kevin knows where he'd be putting his money in that fight. But there are a lot meaner things in the galaxy. And they have enemies—Ben's got his whole posse, but Kevin and Gwen have earned a few for themselves. If one of them found out Gwen was in the neighborhood, and caught her off guard... "Maybe the Leporidae aren't talking because they're afraid to tell you what actually happened to her?"

"I thought of that," Ben says grimly.

Kevin checks the monitors. Twelve minutes to entering Leporidor's stratosphere. The planet's definitely there, and still showing lifesigns, but there's been no contact yet—at their tech level, the Plumber satellite is the only thing the Leporidae have in orbit that could detect the Rustbucket III's approach. Ben was right to get him for this; his ship made it in half the time a shuttle would have taken.

It better have been fast enough. If anything serious has happened to Gwen... "So what's the plan, Tennyson?" Kevin asks—not that he exactly intends to go along with it, but he wants to gage how pissed Ben will be if he goes over the line.

But Ben just says, "We get down there and we ask them, and we keep asking them until they tell us what happened to her."

So, no line. He can work with that. "Got it," Kevin says, and takes them in.

 


 

The Leporidae don't even lob a courtesy missile at them, and when Kevin radios their flight command, the bay doors of their main port open right up. Though the Leporidae leaders still aren't answering Ben's calls. It doesn't make sense, for them to be so cooperatively uncooperative.

The welcoming committee at the flight port doesn't make sense, either, seeing as it's an actual genuine welcoming committee. No hidden weapons, no surprise explosives. There are children in the crowd, up in front where they can see. They have banners. Everyone cheers when Ben steps off the Rustbucket, ululating cries like delighted turkeys, big lop ears flapping.

Ben stops, blinks, then bemusedly waves at the gathered thousands. Kevin growls and gives him a shove, not quite hard enough to send him headfirst down the ramp. "You can sign autographs later—Gwen now!"

Ben nods and pulls his spine up straight—unnecessarily; even slouching he's a head taller than the biggest Leporidae in the crowd, and most of that size is fluffy fur anyhow. Suited up, Kevin could throw one of them a good fifteen, twenty meters, easy. He doesn't trust them that far, though.

When Ben raises his hands, they all obediently go quiet. Ben clears his throat, says, "Hey, hi, everybody. You know me, Ben Tennyson, and this is Kevin. We're back to pick up our friend Gwen—have any of you seen her?"

Leporidae don't shake their heads like humans to say no; instead they stamp their big long feet. When thousands are thumping it's ground-shaking. Kevin casts an uneasy look up at the ceiling, far overhead. The flight port is underground, like all the Leporidae civilization now, and if the rock roof collapses...it looks solid, though, reinforced with steel beams between the closed port doors.

Ben unzips his jacket as he and Kevin walk off the gangplank into the crowd. "At least it's warmer than it was before. I meant to tell you to bring a hat."

It is warm—Kevin was ready for the winter's chill, but it's comfortable down here, shirt-sleeves temperatures. They must have some heater, to warm up a cavern of this size. Exhaust venting from power stations? Their tech level is barely above Earth's; probably not fossil fuels anymore, but they might be using fission plants, or maybe geothermal. Kevin evaluates the electrical system as he and Ben make their way through the tunnels. Or gets a good look at their light bulbs, anyway; he has to duck under them, when he's not bumping his head on the ceiling. The tunnels are built for Leporidae; even Ben looks cramped.

No one tries to stop them from going anywhere or taking readings; they've got the run of the warren capitol city, but the thick stone walls might block a Plumber badge signal, and none of the Leporidae they talk to know anything useful about Gwen. Some of them remember seeing her yesterday, but not since. None of the Leporidae leaders have turned up yet to explain, and no one seems to know where they are, either. Or aren't talking if they do. It's hard to tell if the twitching noses and tapping feet are the nerves of a guilty liar or excitement at talking to the great Ben 10 and friend.

They've been searching for an hour when they reach the Leporidae farm. It's about the biggest cave Kevin's ever seen, up to and including hollowed-out asteroids in the Null Void, so huge that the other end curves out of sight over the horizon, and the ceiling is fogged over from the moisture in the air. The whole cavern is a giant greenhouse (or bluehouse, given the color of Leporidor foliage) with rows of tended crops stretching for miles.

Except instead of glass walls there's solid stone. And instead of sunlight, there's—what looks like sunlight, a big shining orb overhead, so bright that it hurts to look at it directly, even through the mist. Except that it can't be the sun; even if the roof were transparent, at this point in their new orbit, Leporidor's star should look like a dim golf ball, way far off in the sky.

But no electric-powered light could be this bright. Kevin shades his eyes to squint up at it. Its rays beat down, as warm on his cheeks as actual sunlight. Artificial suns are pretty advanced tech—this one might be Galvanic, or more likely a cheap Elzatsian knock-off. Clever solution to the Leporidae's problem, even if it breaks certain Plumber tech-level laws that Kevin's never been that devoted to following anyway.

What are they using to power it, though? Standard fission reactors wouldn't cut it, not for full-spectrum radiation. The light is even matched to the plants' growth, having a subtle pink hue.

A familiar hue—a shade Kevin knows as well as he knows the green glow of Omnitrix energy, or better.

Ben doesn't get it. "Nice farm," he says to the nearest Leporidae farmer. "Have you see my cous—"

Kevin interrupts before Ben can finish the question. Or, not so much interrupts as grabs the farmer by the scruff of his neck, looms over him demanding, "What did you do? That damn sun—what did you do to her?!"

"Wh-what do you mean?" squeaks the Leporidae. "Do to who?"

"Kevin!" Ben protests, "what are you doing?"

Kevin jerks his chin up at the sun. "How long has that been there?"

The Leporidae trembles and stares at him with giant liquid eyes. "F-for many months? It was installed over the summer."

Kevin lets the farmer go. He scuttles back away from them, cringes low to the ground with his nose twitching as he adds, "Though it was only activated yesterday. We had to use electrical lighting before to grow the crops; it was much less efficient," and he waves at the scaffolding and wires hanging over the fields, now dark and unused, with the sun shining brightly above.

"...Yesterday?" Ben repeats, confused. "Kevin, what's going on? What does the sun have to do with..." He looks up, and his face changes as he gets it, sees it.

He turns back to the Leporidae farmer, points up to the sun and says, in a quiet, level tone that's as powerful as any of his aliens, "Show us the way up there, now."

 


 

There are armored guards outside the control room, but not enough of them to matter. When Ben and Kevin enter, the three Leporidae at a center console jerk their heads up, one screeching, "The Plumbers were not to be admitted, we left strict orders—"

Kevin tosses the limp body of an unconscious guard onto the console. The screen cracks under the weight of his force enhancement gear, dies in a fountain of sparks, and the trio of Leporidae fall silent, staring. Ben walks in behind Kevin, pushing his sleeve back down over his watch.

"If you left orders," Kevin says, "you guys must be the leaders. We've got some talking to do." The door slides shut behind Ben, and Kevin makes a stone fist, smashes the lock panel. It'll give them some quality time together, undisturbed, even if the guards have gone for reinforcements.

The control room is shielded, but it's still even warmer than the tunnels, the dry oven-heat of a desert at high noon. Not just heat but mimicked solar energy, pulsing in electromagnetic waves. Kevin can feel the power lapping over him, washing against his skin. It's different from sunlight; the sun's power is so far away, while this is close, as concentrated as an electric generator, but so much stronger. It would be so easy to absorb a little of it—not enough to drive him nuts, no one would even know—

It makes Kevin sick to his stomach to think about it, to imagine taking any of that stolen energy for himself.

The far side of the control room is meter-thick tempered and polarized glass, the shell of the induction sphere of the Leporidae's artificial sun—an Elzatsian model, like Kevin guessed. Usually it would be hooked up to a fusion furnace, or maybe a zero-point module. But there's no generator here. Just a single glowing figure in the midst of the neutrino coils and plasma conduits, suspended in a carefully balanced null-g field—she'd burn through any material support.

It's hard to recognize a figure at all, the core blazing so brightly Kevin can barely make out any details. The vision's clearer when he blinks, floating afterimages on his retinas, a dark negative silhouette of the brilliant shape within the sphere. Deep violet outline and magenta highlights—an Anodite's living mana flame.

"Gwen?" Ben cries, hammering his fist on the transparent wall separating them from her. "Gwen!" There's no response, the figure within not moving—the wall's probably too thick for any sound to get through.

Ben turned back, asks Kevin in an undertone, "Are we sure it's not some other Anodite? Obviously we'll have to save them anyway, but..."

For a second Kevin tastes hope, but it immediately goes sour in his mouth. "No," he says, "it's her." He's still looking into the chamber—his eyes are stinging and the brightness is giving him a headache, but he can't look away. Mana is mana, the energy of all living things—but this mana, he knows this mana. He knows the slender curves of that figure within, the way she's got her arms crossed, the tilt of her head. She doesn't look like she's hurting, at least. That's how she stands when she's thinking, concentrating on a problem.

"What do we do?" Ben asks urgently. "How do we get her out of there?"

"You can't!" one of the Leporidae leaders gasps—Kevin had almost forgotten about them. "If you knew anything about this tech, the energy feedback, the chamber cooldowns, the—"

"Yeah, whatever—Kevin, where's the off-switch?"

"There isn't one," Kevin says. No need to look at the controls; he knows this model. He's sold one before, a couple years back, to some Tergindi dealers trying to grow a crop of tranceweed in a neutral, non-patrolled space between stars.

If their business went under and they'd had to sell their sun—and the Leporidae would've been willing to pay well for it; it's great selling to desperate people, they'll cough up almost any price...

"Can't just switch it off," Kevin says. "Once the solar cycle's going—" How long would that have taken? Ten hours? Fifteen? The flight out here was as fast as he could push it, but Ben had to return to Earth first. How long has Gwen been in there? "—it's a chain reaction; every cycle feeds more power back into establishing and maintaining the energy output. It'll take days to power down safely. Maybe weeks, at these levels." And they don't have weeks, or days. It might already be too late.

Ben knows this as well as Kevin does. "How about unsafely?" he asks, his hand going to his Ultimatrix. "What if we smash open this sphere-thing right now?"

"No!" the Leporidae chorus in terror.

Kevin's tempted, he really is. "The meltdown will take down this chamber for sure. Probably slag the whole farm below, too. And flood the warren with lethal radiation." He wonders what safeties they've set up. Bulkhead doors for sure; maybe emergency tunnel collapses. Will any of it be enough to save them from a miniature supernova?

But Ben blanches, says, "Okay, that's out, then." Because Gwen's his cousin, but he's still a hero.

If it's even still Gwen. Neither of them say it, but Kevin can't stop thinking it. Hours as an Anodite—even with her power being drained, siphoned off—how much of Gwen is left? She should be able to feel them out here, even through the shielding. But does she still remember who he is, or Ben? Does she care anymore?

Kevin drops his stone skin and puts his hand to the curved glass, as if he's going to absorb it, though he doesn't. It's warm under his palm, not hot for all its brilliant glow; not much above skin temperature. Gwen? he thinks, as hard as he can, shouting inside his head, are you in there? We're here, sorry we're late—can you come out of there? Come back to us? Please...

"How did you get her in there?" Ben asks, as if it matters now. "What'd you do to her?"

"Nothing!" yelps the smallest of the Leporidae, pulling herself up to her full short height to meet their eyes. "We didn't harm or threaten her. We swear, we only told her that we knew she had magic, and asked her if she would cast a spell, to start up our sun. She agreed—she willingly volunteered; she wanted to help us!"

So easy. Once the cycle was started, once her power was tapped—the immediate feedback loop would've forced Gwen to shield herself from the energy backlash, made her put out more mana. Which would've made the next cycle's backlash stronger, so she'd have defended herself with even more power, with an even worse backlash. And so on, until eventually she'd had to go full-on Anodite to survive; and then the continuous flow of mana would've stabilized the field, locked the cycle...

If Kevin had been there, he could've warned her before she cast the first spell. Or if Gwen had better understood the source, she could have stopped the backlash. Or if Ben had been with her, even not knowing what was going on, as soon as he realized Gwen was in trouble he would've started smashing stuff, broken the cycle before it was too late.

But it's not Ben's fault. And not Kevin's, either, even if he should've been here; and it sure as hell isn't Gwen's.

"Her power will save our people," another one of the Leporidae leaders says. "Our reactors weren't enough, but we knew we were saved when we heard rumors of an Anodite nearby, such a fortunate—ack!"

Not any of their faults, but he knows whose it is, and before he can think it through any further Kevin's got his hands around the Leporidae's skinny neck, cutting off his gratitude. They're so scrawny he can fit his fingers nearly all the way around, and it wouldn't take much, even without absorbing anything stronger than his own muscles—tighten his grip a little, and...

He lifts the little alien up off the ground, legs kicking wildly, arms flailing at him ineffectually. The Leporidae's fingers are tipped with blunt claws, scratching Kevin's unprotected skin. He doesn't let go, barely registers the drawn blood.

He's not mad, exactly. He doesn't know what he is. "She isn't a battery," he says, staring at his own distorted reflection in the Leporidae's bulging black eyes. "She isn't a starter engine or a reactor or a sun—she's a person—she's Gwen—"

Ben is yelling something but Kevin doesn't listen. The other two Leporidae try to stop him, pawing at him ineffectually. He shrugs them off, kicks them away, squealing like rats. The Leporidae he's grabbing doesn't make a sound, and he's not flailing so hard anymore, long legs jerking unevenly.

"Don't," Ben is saying; Kevin only hears him faintly, like he's lightyears away, "stop it, this won't help Gwen," as if Kevin doesn't know that already, doesn't know that it's too late to help her, that there's nothing he can do, except to them—

"Kevin!" and Ben's voice is suddenly loud again, right in Kevin's ear; he's got both hands on Kevin's arms, hooks under and snaps up to break his grip on the Leporidae. The little alien drops to the floor, sprawls on his hands and knees gasping, big eyes rolling in terror.

He cringes back from Kevin's glare. Ben steps between them, hands up. "Cut it out! Kevin, you can't do this!"

"Watch me," Kevin snarls, ducking around him to lunge for the cowering Leporidae.

"Okay, you shouldn't do this!" Ben says. "Even if they—I won't let you," and he's got his hand over the watch, posed to transform.

Kevin stares at him. "Are we really going to do this now? When they—when Gwen's—you know, if she's been in there too long, if she's been Anodite too long—then she may never—then she—then we—"

"I know." Ben is pale and his eyes are dark in the Anodite's bright violet sunlight; he looks simultaneously ten years old and ten thousand. "But hurting these guys won't fix what they did."

"No, but they can pay for it," and Kevin reaches up, puts his hands to the low ceiling and absorbs the cavern's stone. Crashes his rock fists together in warning and says, "Get out of my way, Ben."

"I can't," Ben says, quiet, like it hurts him to say it. He slaps the Ultimatrix, transforms in a burst of green light into Big Chill. Smart choice; he won't be hampered by the close quarters, and ice is less likely to damage the surrounding equipment than fire.

One of his hardest aliens to fight, too. Kevin charges him anyway, hoping to get a blow in before he can phase, but Ben floats out of the way, untouchable. "Stop it, Kevin," he hisses in the Necrofrigian's ghostly undertone. "As a Plumber, you can't do this—"

"Screw the Plumbers!" If they hadn't been Plumbers, if Gwen hadn't come here to help these Leporidae bastards—

Ben's out of reach, but the Leporidae leaders are huddled together in a quivering bunch in the corner. Kevin turns on them, raising his fists.

"Gwen wouldn't want you to," Ben whispers, and that stops Kevin, as completely as if Big Chill had frozen him solid with his breath. Because it's true that Gwen thinks Kevin's better than this, stronger than this. That he's not out of control; that he's not a monster. The stone-fisted man reflecting in the Leporidaes' bulging eyes, that's not the guy Gwen expects to see. Even if she won't ever be looking at him again, it still stops him.

He's still hesitating when he hears the doors behind him crash open, is too slow to turn. The Leporidae troops pouring in are outfitted in black body armor, helmets and force enhancement gear fitted to their small forms, and they've trained in it, reflexes improved by the biomechanics instead of slowed. They bound into the control room like jackrabbits on the moon and throw themselves at Kevin with the force to knock him over, even with the absorbed stone.

He throws off the first attackers, struggles back to his feet, only to be swept back over by the next wave. In the armor they're all heavier than a human man, and there are a ton of them, grabbing at his arms, his legs, piling on top of him. "Use full force!" the Leporidae leaders squeal, cowering back against the wall like they're trying to dig through it. "Take them down!"

"Good luck with that," Kevin tells them, baring his teeth in what should be a grin but feels nothing like one. There's enough of them to hold him down, but they're not going to have any luck grabbing onto Big Chill. Those that leap at the ghostly moth pass right through, smashing into the cavern wall behind him. Ben materializes long enough to ice-blast them for their trouble, the frost grinding their enhanced gear to a halt.

Until one of the armored Leporidae shrieks, "Surrender now, Plumber, or else your partner gets fried!"

He's got something aimed at Kevin's head—an ionized plasma emitter, humming its alarming overload warning hum, and big enough that the Leporidae needs both paws to hold it, even with the help of his armor's strength enhancement. It's another cheap Elsatzian model, like the artificial sun—but functional, by its hum. Probably designed for carving the tunnels, melting through the granite; it'll go through Kevin's skull easy enough, absorbed rock and all.

Big Chill pauses mid-breath, faceted eyes angling toward Kevin.

"Forget about me!" Kevin yells, trying to no avail to struggle free of the small clawed gauntlets holding him down. "Take them out—"

Too late; Ben floats down to the floor, folds his wings and returns to human form in a flash of green, his hands up in the air. "Don't hurt him," he says. "Put down the whatsit."

"Plas-Eem," Kevin says, "and don't bother; he's not going to put it down. Offing us is their only way out of this—no witnesses, right?" and he pries up his head to glare at the huddling Leporidae leaders.

"We could imprison you," the smallest says timidly. "Only for the winter—after it passes we'll free you all, but now we need the sun's light—"

"It's not the sun's light," Kevin growls, "it's Gwen's—"

"Too dangerous," another of the cringing Leporidae pipes up. "We can't risk them escaping, or reporting back to the Plumbers—we must eliminate them now, while we can."

"You don't need to eliminate anyone!" Ben protests. "We, um, we can promise not to escape, or arrest you—"

"We're already resigned to that," the Leporidae says with a sort of fatalistic dignity. "When we made this plan, we three agreed to turn ourselves in to the Plumbers afterwards, to be judged for our crimes. But until the winter's end, we must do what we can to protect our people. We'll confess to this crime, too, and return your bodies to your world. Sergeant, kill them—as quickly and painlessly as possible, please."

A plasma emitter will be pretty painless, at that; he probably won't have time to feel a thing before his brains are vaporized. "Sorry," Kevin says to Ben, with a sickly grin that Ben doesn't return.

"Wait!" Ben cries, as the Leporidae trooper in front of Kevin clicks off the last field dampener on the emitter. The hum rises to an earsplitting squeal, power-level lights along the barrel blinking so fast they're flickering. "Don't do this, you don't have to—"

Ben's charging forward, hand on his watch, but no matter how fast he transforms he can't beat plasma. Kevin shuts his eyes, as much so that he can't see Ben's desperate horrified face as to block out the plasma's blinding burn. Being the first to go sucks, but in all honesty it hurts less—

"STOP."

The plasma doesn't actually burn; doesn't feel like anything at all. Kevin was hoping for painless, but this is surprisingly unlike what he expected death to feel like. He can still breathe, can still move. Though the sudden complete silence, that's kind of deathly.

He opens his eyes. The first thing he sees is the plasma emitter, hanging harmlessly in the Leporidae's hands, barrel down. Its hum has stopped, flashing lights dark, completely inactive.

The Leporidae wielding it and all the others, the armored squad and the leaders, are staring at Ben, standing in the center of the room.

Or floating, rather, hovering a foot above the ground, arms outstretched and head thrown back, gaze sweeping over all of them. Not Ben's green-eyed gaze but a burning stare, glowing white-hot, as bright as the plasma would've been.

Not Ben's eyes. And that hadn't been Ben's voice.

"You will not hurt him," and Ben's mouth moves, but the voice coming out isn't his, amplified and resonating with raw power. "You will not touch them—let them go!"

"Gwen?" Kevin asks. He pushes himself onto his knees, climbs unsteadily to his feet. The Leporidae fall back from him like leaves brushed away. "Is that you, Gwen?"

"I won't let you hurt them—"

Ben's eyes glow even brighter, too blinding to meet or look at directly. Kevin squints as he reaches up, grabs Ben's arms—Gwen's arms? What's the right name for somebody possessed? "It's all right," Kevin says. "They didn't hurt us—yet, anyway—can you hear me, Gwen? Are you there? If you're there, then everything's good—"

"I..." Gwen's resonating, echoing intensity wavers and falters. "I don't know where I am..."

"That's okay, I do." Kevin says. Ben's arms are hot, even through his jacket and Kevin's stone hands, like he's burning up, not with a fever but like a log in a campfire. Kevin keeps holding on anyway. "You're right here, with us."

"...Kevin?"

The stone of his face nearly cracks, Kevin smiles so hard. "Yeah," he says, "I'm right here, I'm fine. Ben, too," or at least he was; he might be a little toasted, after this. "We're just worried about you—you're trapped, but we're going to get you out. You just have to hold on. Just hold on for a little while longer, Gwen—remember who you are, remember us. We'll be right here when you get out, I promise, as long as you're there, too—"

"Okay," Gwen says, "I'll be there."

The light in Ben's eyes blinks out like a magic fuse was blown, and he drops out of the air like a rock. Kevin catches him, more or less; Ben's heavier than he looks, and Kevin's grip slips. He keeps his friend's head from cracking open on the floor, at least.

Ben's still out for a moment, though, unmoving and not responding when Kevin says his name. Then all of a sudden, before Kevin can work up the strength for a real panic, he blinks and sits up, rubbing at the sweat beading on his forehead. He's shaky and flushed red, but the color's fading as he sweats it out. "Whoa," he says. "What just happened?"

"You got used as an Anodite amp," Kevin says.

Ben blinks. "So that was Gwen? I thought—but she—" He twists his head around toward the glowing sphere, where nothing has changed; the Anodite Gwen still floats, motionless and brilliant, in its core.

"She spared some juice to save our asses," Kevin says. "Now it's our turn." The control room's main display is lit up like it's an early Christmas, surge alerts flashing frantically. Kevin pushes through the Leporidae troops to the console and starts hitting buttons. Over his shoulder he hollers at the quivering huddle of Leporidae leaders, "You better call your techs in here—if she puts out that much power again, she could melt your whole set-up. So unless you want these caves to go up in smoke with all your people in 'em—"

"We'll summon the techs!" the Leporidae cry, and hop to shutting down their sun.

 


 

Ben goes back to Earth. He doesn't want to leave, but someone has to guard the planet, and besides Gwen can't hear them anyway through the sphere's shielding. And it's better for her not to make contact through him again, both for the sake of Leporidor, and Ben himself.

"You're sure you'll be all right?" Ben asks before he leaves the control room, looking between Kevin and the induction sphere.

"No sweat," Kevin assures him. "It's cycling down smoothly, it'll just take a few days. I'll make sure no one messes it up." He glares at the nearest Leporidae engineer in the control room, who cowers and scurries out of the way.

Ben nods, goes on, "By the way, Kevin, I know things have been kind of weird lately—or you've been weird, doing all that work on your own. What was up with that, are you mad at me or something?—But never mind, anyway, I just wanted to say—what I did before, stopping you from hurting these guys..." He hesitates a while, staring at the artificial sun with Gwen inside. Finally says, "I didn't want to."

"It's okay," Kevin says. "I didn't really want to hurt them."

Ben looks surprised. "You didn't?"

"All right, I did," Kevin admits, also looking at the sphere. "But I'm glad now I didn't."

Ben grins. "So we're good?"

"Yeah," Kevin says. When Ben holds out his hand, Kevin only hesitates a second before shaking it. "We're good." It does feel good, the way Ben smiles at him. Not like absorbing energy, but like the satisfaction he gets fixing a piece of tech, making something right that had been wrong. But even better. He has to stop himself from going in for a hug, especially with Ben standing there looking at him like he's almost expecting it.

Maybe Kevin's still got a crush. Or an Osmosian addiction, or whatever. But avoiding the Tennysons doesn't work; sooner or later they'll get into trouble again, and Kevin will have to come after them anyway. Easier if he just sticks close. As long as it's not too close, he'll be fine.

 


 

It takes two days of cycling down before the Anodite figure inside the sphere moves. Kevin spends the time sitting in the control room, waiting. Sometimes he talks, though Gwen can't hear him through the glass, and can't answer anyway. But she might have ways to pick him up with her powers, so he tries to give her something to listen to. "—and Ben called, he explained things to your folks—not everything, I guess, but they know you're okay. They've probably worked things out with your school, so you won't get in trouble for skipping. Hey, have you gotten that paper back yet? Did you get an A? Do you ever get anything else?—"

He might be bugging the Leporidae, but they're too resigned and/or terrified to protest. They bring him food—salads, mostly; no one on the planet's ever heard of a hamburger—and their engineers come by frequently to check on the equipment. Otherwise they leave him alone.

The Leporidae leaders have been put under arrest, to be turned over to Plumber custody. A Plumber judicial ship is scheduled to arrive in a week, along with engineers to help solve their upcoming lack of artificial solar power.

The Leporidae who tells Kevin this is one of the new leaders, a promoted vice-president or something. She claims that she and the rest of her people had no idea about any of this. The engineers were told that Gwen had volunteered to help them. They're all terrible sorry, she says.

Her ears droop in consternation when Kevin shrugs without answering. Or maybe she's also scared. Whatever. Once Gwen is out, he'll know how he feels about the Leporidae. Until then, he ignores them.

After two days the sun down to two-thirds power, noticeably dimmer, and within the sphere the Anodite's glow is slightly less blinding. Kevin, watching closely, sees her slowly turn her head towards the control room, towards him. He grins and waves and swallows a lump in his throat, like he's going to cry for some reason.

They still can't talk, but Gwen can watch him now, through the polarized glass. Kevin gestures to her his frustration and boredom and how much he wants to be in there with her, as well as what's happening with the Leporidae and the Plumbers and Ben. Which is hard to get across in charades, though when Kevin pantomimes Ben's watch screwing up, culminating in a dramatic rendition of his ass-whupping at the hands of two cub scouts, Gwen rewards him with a shower of magenta sparks that fill the sphere like a pink snow-globe, the brilliant laughter of an Anodite.

Gradually over the next day she moves more, and more easily, more naturally, like a living being instead of a girl-shaped star. Until at last she can walk over to the edge of the sphere, puts her glimmering violet hand to where Kevin's own hand is spread against the glass, and smiles at him—an Anodite's glowing, indefinite features, but it's Gwen's smile, all the way.

In another day the power core has cycled down enough to risk releasing her. Kevin does the honors, absorbing stone and putting his rock fist through the sphere. The Leporidae technicians squeak in dismay but don't try to stop him.

After half a dozen blows and a few mana attacks from the other side, the glass gives way with a satisfying crash, and Gwen steps free. She's still glowing purple but Kevin doesn't care. He pulls her crackling energy form into his stone arms, hugs her as hard as he can—it's not like his physical strength could hurt an Anodite. Gwen hugs him back, so tightly that he feels the stone over his ribs grind and start to crack.

When they let go, she's human again, smiling up at him. "Thanks," she says, "for being here."

"Anytime," Kevin promises, grinning back. He lets go of the absorbed stone and Gwen reaches up and pulls his head down for a kiss. Not gentle or sweet but like she's trying to suck his tongue out of his head, like she can't get enough. It's not until then that he really realizes that she missed this as much as he did. Or more.

Trapped for days without her human body, without being able to touch—Kevin knows too well what that's like. Well, he meant it; anytime, anything, whatever she wants or needs from him, he'll do his damnedest to give her.

Maybe his Osmosian subconscious wants her power, the Anodite's near-infinite energy. But screw his subconscious; he loves Gwen always, in any form, but this is how he loves her best, soft and warm and smart and strong, giving and taking, flesh and blood in his arms. Being human is always her choice, but this is how Kevin wants her to be, for as long as she wants it.

Chapter Text

Neither Gwen nor Ben have ever seen John Carpenter's The Thing. And okay, it was already an old movie when all of them were born, but they're still missing out. So when Max Tennyson invites his grandkids out for a night camping in the mountains—Kevin included, by that assumed honorary invitation he's never quite understood—Kevin checks the weather report and brings the DVD along. It's a nice day, but come evening it starts raining and the temperature drops; by nine they retreat into the Rustbucket II to put on the movie.

The Thing is special to Kevin, in a weird way; it's the last movie he saw before he got banished to the Null Void. After he met Ben, before he was semi-permanently monstrified. The old cheap-seats cinema down on West 50th had been showing a horror classics marathon, and he'd snuck into the back, sat in the dark between aisles and watched in gruesome delight.

Back then, when he was a (crazy sociopathic) little kid, he'd thought the characters got what was coming to them, had laughed at them for it, going somewhere humans didn't belong, thinking they understood how the universe worked when they had no clue. Watching now, Kevin remembers how cold Antarctica is, and feels sorry for the poor bastards. That's progress, he guesses.

Truth is, they've gone up against scarier aliens than the titular monster—heck, Ben can become scarier aliens—but the movie's still creepy and the Thing awesomely freakish. When it first unleashes itself against the sled dogs, Ben whimpers, "No, not the puppies!" and Gwen goes, "Now that's just gross," and their gazes are riveted to the screen, wide-eyed fascination as they both grope for the popcorn.

The one problem with watching in the Rustbucket is that it's so cramped. The squat sagging couch before the TV would be a tight fit for three, so Kevin's sitting on the floor in front of Gwen, leaning against the arm. There's a carpet, and even with the small screen it's not a bad angle; it reminds him of watching in that old cinema. He wonders if the place is still standing; as he recalls it, it would've been lucky to stay upright another month. But maybe it got refurbished. Sometimes people like saving broken things, for sentimentality or whatever.

By halfway through the movie, however, the damp cold outside has leached through the Rustbucket's floor, numbing his butt. Kevin shifts up to squat on his feet, trying to get comfortable. Gwen is leaning on the couch's arm, her fingers absently brushing Kevin's hair as they watch the movie. If he were at a better angle he could hold her hand, twine their warm fingers together. He wishes the armrest were wide enough to sit on.

His legs are cramped, squatting, so he stands up to stretch, blocking the screen. Two pairs of green Tennyson eyes are momentarily broken from the trance of the movie to look to him. "Bathroom," Kevin says, ducking out of the way. "Keep it playing, I've seen it already."

He gets back just as the Thing is about to grow spider legs from the guy's severed head, which is one of the coolest parts. Rather than break the mood getting back in place, Kevin sidles out the RV's door to the covered canopy outside, where Max, a poncho on over his Hawaiian shirt, is puttering with a saucepan on the gas grill.

"Kevin!" he says, over the dripping of rain on the tarp overhead. "What do you like on your fried gribble? Salt, pepper, vinegar? I've got some fresh squid ink—"

"Uh, none for me, thanks," Kevin says. He knows what a gribble is. "You don't like the movie?"

"Well, now," Max says. "It's not that it's a bad flick—surprisingly accurate, compared to most of what comes out of Hollywood—but some missions are better forgotten..."

Kevin has gotten to know the Tennysons' grandpa well enough to realize he has a sense of humor—an awful, wicked sense of humor that Kevin totally envies—but what makes it so dangerous is that Max's deadpan is such that you can never tell if he's invoking it or not. And Max Tennyson is the foremost Plumber in the Milky Way, and Earth has been his jurisdiction for a good few decades, and...Kevin decides he enjoys the movie too much to ask.

He crouches to get a can of soda from the cooler, just as Max goes for the vinegar bottle on the table above, and when Kevin stands up they bump shoulders. Which is only to be expected, in the tight space under the dripping canopy, and Max is not exactly a skinny guy. Kevin mumbles an excuse me and it wouldn't have mattered, except that Kevin kind of leans into it before he can help it. Not on purpose, but he's chilly from sitting on the floor and being out here in the damp, and Max is big and solid and warm, like huddling up by an iron stove—

—And damn it, what is wrong with him; this is a universally famous Plumber, not to mention Gwen and Ben's grandfather, who Kevin was just about to, what, snuggle? What the hell—

Kevin flinches—no, twitches, not anything as dumb and obvious as a flinch. But still too obvious; Max notices. He raises his eyebrows in surprise, as Kevin stammers out, "I, uh, sorry—I didn't—"

Max quirks a friendly smile—a little like Gwen's and a little like Ben's, or where they both got theirs from, more like—and remarks, "Should've known—you are your father's son, aren't you, Kevin? Here, bring it in," and he opens his arms to Kevin.

Seriously, what the hell?!

"My—my dad? You and my dad?" No way would Kevin's dad have absorbed energy from his own partner—not from Max Tennyson, who's a regular human anyway, no power to take. But if it wasn't power he was after, that means his dad—his dad and Max—they must have—must have been—Kevin scrambles backwards, all but climbing on the table; his back's to the RV, no place to escape to, as he gasps out, "Uh, no—no thanks, sir, I'm good—totally fine—it's nothing like that—really, absolutely nothing—you know, Gwen, and me, she—we're—it's—"

"Nothing like what?" Max rocks back on his heels, frowning in puzzlement, crosses his arms over his chest and asks, "Kevin, just what do you think was going on between me and your dad?"

"Um." Kevin is certain there must be a better way to put this, but nothing's coming to mind, so he just says, "Crazy monkey sex?"

Max blinks. It's the sort of blink which would be hysterical laughter or fainting dead away in another man. "Ah. That...makes more sense, then."

"So..." Kevin says quietly, processing, "no sex, then?"

Max does laugh this time, just as quietly. Though not hysterical, and not mocking, either. "No sex. I won't lie that the possibility never crossed my mind...but it wouldn't have crossed your father's. He had your mother and that was that."

"Species thing?" Kevin asks.

"As far as I know, Osmosians aren't naturally monogamous any more than humans—no, that was a Devin Levin thing." Max cocks his head. "Or maybe a Levin thing."

"But then," Kevin says, "what about—this," and he makes a vague gesture with his arms, embracing empty air. "What was that?"

Max looks at him, brows lowering in a frown—angry, Kevin thinks, until Max finally exhales in a long sigh, shaking his head. "Wish I'd known," he murmurs, more to himself than Kevin, looking away, out into the dark damp of the forest around them. "If I'd known who you were when we first met, if I'd stayed in touch with your mother...I can't help but feel that I let Devin down. Let you down, that you'd grow up like you did, without knowing, without..."

He sighs again, turns back to Kevin and says, "Now this is an Osmosian thing. Something your dad's people and us humans have in common, though it works a little differently between us. But humans and Osmosians both need contact—human contact, or person contact, rather. We need to touch others, be touched.

"For humans it's a psychological and social need, neurochemical stimulation encouraging us to strengthen the bonds between people. For your dad's people it's more directly physiological: Osmosians absorb and emit energy within social groups."

"I don't absorb energy," Kevin denies, trying to sound resolute, though it comes out more pissed and scared. "I haven't, not since—"

"Not like that," Max says. "Not electricity or raw power—I know you understand how dangerous that is. It's unhealthy because it's unnatural; Osmosians aren't evolved to handle such high energy levels. No more than humans can handle drugs that simulate abnormal levels of neurotransmitters; it throws your whole system out of whack. But limited amounts of particular energy—it's not much more than sharing body heat, like humans do. Osmosians can just direct it a little more. Get more out of it. And that's healthy and normal for Osmosians, sharing with their family, their friends.

"Not just with other Osmosians, either. Devin, your father—he kept to himself with people he didn't know. But the people he cared about, with you and your mom, with me—he was always physical. Not always hugs, but a slap on the back, arm around the shoulder. Elbow to the ribs, if I made a bad joke. The way you are, with Gwen and Ben."

Kevin gulps. "You mean I've been, what, sucking up their power when I touch them? Absorbing—stealing—what, their life force?" Gwen has enough she wouldn't even notice, but Ben's technically a regular human—physiologically speaking, at least, when he is himself—unless Kevin actually is tapping into the Ultimatrix's energy, subconsciously, and that would be so very, very bad, if he takes too much, again—

"Kevin," Max says, but Kevin barely hears him. Not until Max puts a hand on his shoulder, warm and heavy—warm because he's absorbing its heat, and Kevin tries to shrug him off. But Max's grip is solid, and Kevin doesn't want to hurt him breaking away—he is kind of an old guy. Besides, Kevin's not sure he's stronger than Max anyway, if he doesn't suit up.

"Kevin," Max repeats, firm as his grip, "you're not stealing anything. You don't take any energy that you don't cycle back later—you probably don't even realize you're doing it. You didn't in Antarctica, did you?"

"Antarctica?" Kevin says.

"When you and Ben were on that iceberg, you passed him some of your own life force," Max says. "Not much—Osmosians can't drain themselves; it's a natural self-defense mechanism. But as much as you could spare. Ben might not have made it if you hadn't."

"He—I—I did?"

Max nods. "You were shaky for a while afterwards, weren't you? That was more than the hypothermia. But you get it back, by absorbing, and naturally over time—all living things generate their own life force, simply by living."

Life force, Kevin thinks. Another word for mana, the source of Gwen's magic—he has a hunch he knows why he recovered so well, the night after Antarctica.

But Gwen hadn't seemed drained, afterwards...the opposite, if anything. Like sharing her energy with him had made her stronger, the way he felt stronger, sharing with her. With Ben, too. And Max is right; he does touch them. More now that he used to—Gwen's hand on his shoulder that first night they met again, and a little later the three of them putting their hands together in that crater, and ever since then...

"So," Kevin says slowly, "what you're saying is, Osmosians—me—I'm a cuddler?"

Max snorts. "Afraid so, son. You can try to fight it—this kind of sharing, it's not something you need to live, but..."

No, he doesn't need it. Kevin knows this. Years in the Null Void, as a freakish monster even the other monsters didn't dare approach—he'd survived. Then back on Earth, on his own, buying and selling and making his way—he hadn't touched anyone, and no one touched him. Not unless they were trying to beat something out of him or he was beating them back. And he'd been fine. When he got cold he put on a jacket.

He's still got a jacket. And he can buy a few space heaters for the garage, maybe an electric blanket; he has more than enough saved for that.

It seems dumb, though. A waste of cash, when there are cheaper options.

When Max opens his arms again, Kevin only hesitates a second before moving into the offered embrace. It's as warm as he thought it would be. Max's solid arms around him aren't too tight, but strong enough to shatter stone if they needed to. Break him out of the Forever Knights' stupid statue-catalyst.

Kevin remembers standing in the Null Void prison, Kwarrel coaching him—remembers how it felt when the monster at last cracked apart and fell away and left behind the boy. Like he'd been trapped under ice but bit by bit it had been chipped at, melting away, until it was thin enough that he could break through it. Cold draft on his bare arms and it had felt so good. But this is warm. Just as good, though.

Max doesn't say anything when they stop hugging, just smiles at Kevin and turns back to his gribble pan—smoke is coming up from under the lid; the flame was low, but from the smell they're still pretty charred. Max's smile turns into a frown and Kevin splits, escaping back inside the RV.

The movie's not over yet, and Gwen and Ben are still transfixed. Ben doesn't take his eyes off the screen long enough to look at Kevin as he says, "What took you so long, you missed some great stuff—"

"When the guy's chest opened up, with the mouth, that was amazingly disgusting!" Gwen offers with gratified enthusiasm.

"Yeah, isn't it?" Kevin agrees. He looks at them, sitting on either side of the narrow couch with the empty popcorn bowl in the middle. "Hey, can you move that?" he asks, and Gwen relocates the bowl to the floor as Kevin vaults over the back of the couch and bounces down on the cushions between the two Tennysons.

Like he thought, with three it's a tight squeeze; they're pressed hip-to-hip. Gwen leans in, shifting to curl against Kevin's side with her head resting on his shoulder. He puts his arm around her and she takes his hand, draws it into her lap to tangle their fingers together.

Meanwhile Ben cants to the other side of the couch, leaning on his elbow resting on the sofa arm. He might complain about the cramped space—but not yet, when the movie's still on. Besides, he's small enough that he can fit without being squashed. And he doesn't bother to push off Kevin's arm, draped over the couch back and on his shoulders.

Ben's other elbow is poking Kevin in the ribs, and Gwen's hair is tickling his nose—but it's a small price to pay, for something priceless. Both of them, making a space for him on the couch, freely sharing themselves with him; they're not even Osmosians, but they get this better than he does. Because yeah, he's saved their lives, but they've saved his just as much. More. It's not about that, not because they owe each other anything; it's just because.

And Kevin's maybe been in hotter places—taking Heatblast's attacks, firestorms in the Null Void, the odd surface of the sun—but he's never felt as warm as he does right here, right now.