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...Before Its Ever Even...

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To say that Kevin never saw his son would be disingenuous. Kevin saw Devlin.

He saw the boy sometimes when he would come to Plumbers HQ so he and Ben's brat could head to school together.

Originally, Gwendolyn had the boy going to the same fancy prep-school she used to attend. But the young Osmosian got kicked out of that school real quick. Now, Devlin attended Bellwood Public with Kenny Tennyson. The boys rode their hoverboards to campus together.

Kenny, mid-yawn, would peer at the older boy through sleep clouded eyes. “Why do you always dress like a bible sales man?”

And Kevin had to admit, that the way Gwendolyn dressed their son, it really did make Devlin look like a Mormon, or Jehovah's Witness, or other similar irritating solicitor that came to your door asking if you had a moment to talk about their Lord and Savior. After all, what other boy Devlin's age would wear button-down shirts and sweater vests every day? Blazers over t-shirts and jeans. His long hair all twisted up into a tight knot. Kevin's son with a man-bun. Ugh. The Osmosian knew it had to be Gwendolyn buying his clothes and dressing the boy, and Devlin had no say in the matter. But Kevin never commented. He knew he didn't have a say in the matter either.

He saw the boy sometimes at Burger Shack or Mr. Smoothy.

At the end of the day. Kevin would be on his way back to the cramped apartment he'd found since Gwendolyn wouldn't let him back in her house. The Osmosian would stop to get something to eat and there would be the boys. Sharing a textbook, presumably doing homework. Or with their phones out sharing dank memes with each other. Or Ben's brat would be playing a game while Devlin read off an e-reader.

The server would bring the boys their food and Kevin would watch Devlin reach into his school bag and pull out a number of prescription bottles, pop three different pills in his mouth, and wash it down with whatever soft-drink he had in his paper cup. The first time Kevin saw this, he was about to freak out. He thought his son was taking drugs, was ready to run up and confront the boy -Gwendolyn's command to stay away be damned! She had been through too much between the two of them. She did not need to deal with her son doing drugs on top of everything!

Luckily, the first time Kevin saw this, Ben had been with him too. The Hero of the Universe held his long standing frienemy back and explained to the Osmosian that, yeah, Devlin was taking drugs. Prescription drugs. That he had a prescription for. Several, in fact. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, and mood stabilizers. All recommended and prescribed by his psychiatrist, Dr. Borges. Devlin had to take them with food. That was why Kevin saw him washing them down right before he bit into his burger. So, calm the hell down and stop freaking out, please!

He saw the boy sometimes in the motor-pool at Headquarters.

Gwendolyn still hadn't seen fit to return his car to him, so the Osmosian had checked out a semi-permanent loaner from the motor-pool lot. He had to go in and renew it every month and sometimes Devlin would be against the far wall of the garage, where they did maintenance. Sitting at a work bench, a tool cabinet open, working on his hoverboard. Maintaining and improving his own Ride with as much care, love, and attention to detail as Kevin used to do on his car.

It was the times like that, the times when Kevin didn't just see himself in the boy, but the good parts of himself, the parts he actually liked about himself reflected in his son that Kevin really wanted to talk to him. Cross the motor-pool and meet face to face. Speak as men.

But Gwendolyn had forbidden Kevin from going anywhere near their son.

He wasn't allowed in their house. When Kevin and Gwendolyn shared their romantic rendezvous, it was at his shitty apartment or in her secret Headquarters under her library on the fold-out bed. Or in the back of backseat of Kevin's car that Gwendolyn still drove, tumbling in the backseat like awkward teenagers. He wasn't allowed at home where the boy lived. He wasn't allowed near they boy's school. When they passed each other in the Plumbers Headquarters, they were always surrounded by other. People who understood their powers, dealt with aliens every day, understood the tension of their relationship, and would not be shy about intervening between two Osmosians. Kevin didn't even know where Devlin's therapist's office was. So even if he wanted to corner the boy there, he couldn't.

Bottom line, to say that Kevin never saw his son would be disingenuous. Kevin saw Devlin.

He just didn't speak to him.

It would be disingenuous to say that Devlin never saw his father. Devlin saw Kevin.

The older man was reinstated as a Plumber and given back his old rank of Magister. So, it made sense that he was there at HQ when Devlin went there to see Kenny. And, Kevin was still riding desk duty and not allowed to carry a weapon, go out on patrol, or work open cases. So, he was always there whenever Devlin passed through the bullpen. On his way to or from school with Kenny.

Bellwood was by no means a small town anymore -certainly not compared to what it used to be when his parents were younger. So there were plenty of places to get some food fast after school or work. But Kenny and Devlin tended to frequent places that were familiar to them, places that Ben took them to. Members of Ben's Team, and just Plumbers in general, tended to frequent those same places, Kevin included. So, it was not uncommon for Devlin to see the car his father was borrowing from the motor-pool to pull into the Mr. Smoothy parking lot, or thought the Burger Shack drive through.

He might not actually see the man when he met with his mother, but Devlin always knew when they were together. His mother would text him on a Friday night informing him not to wait up for her since she would be spending the night at Kevin's place. Or when he would come home from an appointment with his therapist to an empty house and a note that there was dinner in the fridge, all he had to to was heat it up whenever he was hungry. He knew that they were probably at the lake, rolling around in the back of the car, or else in the grass under the tree that Kevin had carved their initials in. 'KL + GT Until The End of Time'

And while Devlin saw Kevin, he knew the other man saw him too.

Growing up the son of a smuggler, arms dealer, terrorist, and madman, the young Osmosian learned to develop a sort of sixth sense. He knew when he was being watched. A tension between his shoulder blades. A prickling on the back of his neck. The slight raising of goosebumps on his skin as his hindbrain and instincts told him there was danger about. Predators stalking him. Hunting him.

He felt it when he entered Plumbers HQ to see Kenny. The tension of a hard stare. A critical look. Appraising him. Sizing him up. Judging him. Devlin ran a self-conscious hand over the tight knot he twisted his hair up into. He still preferred it long, but he was keeping it neater now. Tied up and off his neck and out of his face. Just like he was dressing neater now. Button down shirts and sweater vests, or blazers over his t-shirts. Kenny could make all the comments he liked about Devlin looking like a bible salesman, but that meant he didn't look like a street urchin anymore. He was neat. Respectable. More like his mother... ...and less like his father. What did Kevin think of that?

But when the young Osmosian raised his head to chance a glance at his father, the older man was looking down. His attention back on his desk and the paperwork he was so bad at.

He watched surreptitiously over his textbook, or phone, or e-reader. The moment he heard the sound of the Plumbers car that was on loan to his father, a slightly different sound from other standard issue vehicles since Kevin had undoubtedly started modifying it himself. Devlin would keep his head down, but lift his eyes up, watching the car pull into the drive thru and back out again. As soon as Kevin was gone, he would go back to his homework, or goofing around with Kenny. Like nothing had happened. But if Kevin's car pulled into the parking, if he went in for his food, if he sat and ate there, sometimes alone, sometimes with Ben, Devlin kept his eyes on the man.

Kenny finally noticed one day and commented on it. Asking what the hell he was looking at and turning to follow his line of sight. Devlin didn't realize just how preoccupied with his father until his cousin said something. He was invested in watching Kevin watching him. He wondered what the older man thought about him. He cared about his opinion. He hoped it was positive. Devlin wanted his father's approval. The realization startled him. After everything the other Osmosian did to him, the younger man still just wanted daddy to love him.

Then Devlin went home to a dog that hated him, and got a text from his mother that she would be home late because she was fucking the man that he still wasn't even allowed to talk to. (She didn't used the word 'fucking', of course. Her exact text used the phrase 'don't wait up'.)

Heating up his dinner in the microwave, Devlin sat down at the kitchen table to eat alone. Zed wandered into the kitchen, noted that Gwendolyn was not home and was about to flee. Devlin tried offering her a cut off his meat as an incentive to get her to stay. Maybe be his friend. It would be nice if the family dog liked him. Considering the fact that Zed freaking loved Kevin, the fact that she was still utterly terrified of Devlin bothered him. A lot.

The Anubian Baskurr sniffed the air between them. Glared at the young Osmosian suspiciously. Sniffed some more. She crept closer. Paused. Took a step back. Crept closer. Stopped short. Reaching out gingerly with one paw, she knocked the bit of meat off the Osmosian's fork. Keeper her eyes on Devlin the whole time, Zed closed the distance between them, snatched the piece up in her mouth and bolted from the room. Devlin heard her eating it in the living room.

He looked down at his dinner, feeling unwanted and rejected. He knew that was factually not actually the case. His mother loved him dearly and was happy to have him back living with her. But she also loved his father too. It was because she loved him so much, understood how much his father hurt him, and wanted to protect him from his father that she was so determined to keep him insulated from her trysts with Kevin. He knew that Zed was suffering from the lasting emotional effects of her own Osmosian trauma. It wasn't that she didn't want Devlin, or hated him. She was just afraid.

But knowing these facts did not change the way he felt.

That was the reason Dr. Borges prescribed him his sertraline.

Devlin tapped his fork on the placemat and thought about his father and how severely Kevin still affected him. A year ago when he was still new to his safe, peaceful, and nurturing life with his mother the young Osmosian missed his father. His deep voice, his firm hand. Just his general presence. Kevin was what was familiar to Devlin and there was safety and comfort to be found in the familiar. Living with his mother was different. That made it strange and took getting used to. But now he was used to it and, feelings of resentment and mild depression that was lasting three years and just severe enough to merit medication aside, Devlin liked his current life. He liked it a lot.

He just wasn't sure how exactly Kevin figured into it.

Obviously, the older Osmosian wasn't the same evil and abusive monster he was when Devlin was younger. Gwendolyn exercised him of all his surplus energy and excess aliens. The things that were supposed to make Osmosians mad and mindless. Devlin wouldn't know about that. He'd never absorbed energy before -that he could remember, anyway. His father wouldn't let him. The young Osmosian grew up believing his powers were bad. Something to be ashamed of. He could control his mutant form and transform back and forth at will. But he never used his actual powers of absorption. So, Devlin wasn't really sure just how true that was.

Devlin got the distinct impression that Kevin wanted to figure back into his life.

At least, that's what he assumed it meant when his father was constantly staring at him. Watching him in the bull-pin of Plumbers Headquarters, glaring critically when he took his medications, or even going so far as to almost approach him once in the motor-pool when Devlin was using their alien tech and tools to improve his hoverboard. Kevin didn't actually approach him. But the younger Osmosian could see in his body language that he wanted to. Close the distance between them. Come over and- -and what? Devlin didn't even know what his father might want with him.

But, what was even more clear, was that no matter how much Kevin might be taking an interest in his son, or want to speak with him, he wanted Gwendolyn's continued love and respect more. Devlin's mother wanted to keep them separated so, while the older Osmosian could easily just ignore her request, cross the bull-pin, or the Burger Shack dinning room, or the motor-pool and engage with his son, he wasn't going to. Because Gwendolyn told him not to. Kevin Levin was actually respecting another person's wishes. Another person, meaning someone other than himself. That was something the Kevin 11,000 that Devlin remembered from his childhood would never do. So, clearly, his father was a different person now. But Devlin didn't know this new person.

Given his history with his father, Devlin wasn't quite sure if he wanted to know the person Kevin was now or not.

But he was willing to try.

Chapter Text

Devlin was wearing a Panic at the Disco t-shirt this morning. Black with the band's exclamation-point inside a triangle logo in white. Over it he'd thrown a snobby, elitist blazer that looked like something an old man would wear. Gray-on-gray herringbone with black bias on the collar, sleeves, and hem. Kevin never really got the whole wearing a blazer over a t-shirt fashion craze. It wasn't really his style. Now, years later, he still didn't get it, and decided that it just didn't look right on his son.

But who was he to offer an opinion? He still wasn't allowed to talk to the boy. Gwendolyn could dress him however the hell she deemed fit.

Kevin watched the younger Osmosian saunter in from street entrance to Plumbers Headquarters, his hoverboard tucked under one arm, school bag -a messenger style bag, not a backpack- thrown over his shoulder and resting against the opposite hip. It bounced slightly as he walked and Kevin had to wonder if there was really all that much school work in it. Weren't textbooks supposed to be heavy? Or was everything on e-reader now?

Tennyson's brat, Kenny, appeared from the elevator, his own hoverboard in hand. The two boys met in the middle of the bullpen.

Originally, Gwendolyn had enrolled Devlin in her old fancy prep-school. Kevin understood why, it was her alma mater, why shouldn't she send her son to the same prestigious school that sent her to collage? But, as much as Devlin was Gwendolyn's son, he was also Kevin's son, and Kevin's son did not belong in the strict, neat, appearance driven environment of a fancy private school. Devlin attended for less than a month before he was expelled.

After his expulsion there was a long hiatus in which Gwendolyn tried to home school the boy -something that did not go over well either. Not because Gwendolyn was a poor teacher or Devlin a poor student, but because Gwendolyn already worked a full-time job as the High Magus, offered her services to the Plumbers on magical cases, and also wanted to maintain some version of a social life (she wanted to see Kevin, whom she would not allow near their son). Adding home schooling Devlin into that, and she ran herself ragged. Gwendolyn might be made of energy, but even she needed to rest every now and again.

Finally, Devlin's psychiatrist found a combination of medications that seemed to work for the boy, decided he was responding well to therapy, and deemed him stable enough to return to formal schooling.

But Gwendolyn wasn't about to throw him back in her old prep-school. Instead, she enrolled him in the same public school that Tennyson's son attended. So that Devlin would already have someone he knew there, and Kenny could look out for him.

And ever since Devlin turned twelve, Gwendolyn had put some trust in the boy to get himself to anf from school everyday, and stopped driving him. Instead, She would drop Devlin off at Plumbers HQ (or he would come on his own) and the two boys would ride their hoverbords to school together. Kevin saw them together in the bullpen every morning. Like clockwork.

It was about the closest Kevin ever came to his son.

“...are you even listening to me?”

“Huh? Wut? Sorry.” The Osmosian blinked, tearing his eyes away from the boys and refocusing his attention back on the person he'd been speaking with before Devlin walked in. “What were you saying?”

Rook Blonko didn't come to Plumbers Headquarters on Earth very much anymore. His new posting was 'Warden of the Void', a relatively new title and responsibility. Rook maintained a Plumbers' presence in the Null Void, attempted to keep the criminals that were sent there in line, and protect the colonists that tried to make a life there. When he did return to this side if the divide, it was usually to give his reports in person to the Magistrata at Plumbers Command on Galvan Prime, or to visit his family on Revonnah. Since his partnership with Ben Tennyson was dissolved, there really wasn't much reason for him to come to Earth these days.

The Revonnahgander sighed, seemingly in exasperation with the Osmosian. “I was asking, since you have been reinstated to your original rank of Magister, if you would not consider taking the post in the Null Void. Keep the Rooters and their like in line.”

“Oh, uh-” Rook had asked him to return to the Null Void. How had Kevin missed that? Devlin and his idiot friend weren't that distracting. Sometimes, the Osmosian felt like he spent more of his life in the Null Void than out of it. It was not a place he was anxious to get back to. He had nothing but unpleasant memories there. Luckily -at the moment, at least- he had an excuse to get out of it. “Unfortunately, I'm only a Magister again in name. I'm still under review, and Max has me riding desk-duty until he's satisfied he can trust me in the field. So, no Null Void for me.”

Out the corner of his eye, Kevin watched Devlin and Kenny cross the bullpen heading for the exit. They hopped on their hoverboards before they were even out of the door -something the Osmosian was pretty sure Max disapproved of. But Kevin wasn't going to say anything to them about it. He still wasn't allowed to talk to Devlin and he wasn't about to do anything that would put him back on Gwendolyn's bad side.

“Of course.” Rook continued, well aware that his companion was still distracted and only half-listening. “You would need to be field certified anyway. Just... think about my offer, please. You will have ample time to consider it while you are under review.”

Yes. Ample time.

Kevin had been 'under review' for a year already. The Osmosian was actually beginning to wonder if the old man would ever allow him back in the field. Gwendolyn sure as hell wasn't allowing him back in her house. Sometimes, he feared he's never manage to earn their trust back. He screwed up too bad. Went too evil this time. Traumatized their son, and scared Gwendolyn for life. She was still willing to date him, and sleep with him, and hadn't divorced him. But... she wouldn't let him cross the threshold of her house. She wouldn't let him see their son. Kevin was under a domestic probation just as much as he was under a professional one. Both probations had lasted a year now, and he saw no signs of either of them coming to a close any time soon.

Rook was right, the Osmosian certainly had plenty of time to think about things.

There was a beat of silence between them.

“Well?” Rook prompted.

“Well, what?” Kevin growled back.

“Will you think about it?” Clarified the Revonnahgander. “Taking the post in the Null Void. Keeping the Rooters in line. I know you would be good at it, and it is not the same as being sentenced to the Null Void. You can come and go as you please. You would still be able to see Gwendolyn at your leisure.”

With a sigh, the Osmosian rested an elbow on the desk and studied his friend. “Why are you so determined to get me on the Void team?” He asked. “Have you been trying to recruit anyone else?”

Now it was the Revonnahgander's turn to blink in confusion. Golden and red cat-like eyes wide with confusion. “No one else has lived in the Null Void like you” He explained. “No one else has your experience with it.”

“My experience with the Null Void...” The Osmosian repeated. “You mean getting sent there when I was still just a kid. Having to navigate my way between criminals when I was still young and didn't even understand myself, never mind other people. Watching my only friend die, shot in the back by the Plumber appointed warden. Being lost in a landscape that changed every few hours. Having to protect myself from Vulpimancers, Way Bads, and other nasty things. Or being picked up, manipulated, and used by Servantis and the very Rooters you want me to help keep in line. Is that what you mean by my experience with the Null Void?”

Rook suppressed the urge to sigh. Sometimes, he wondered if Kevin actually enjoyed being angry and actively looked for insults where there were none just so he would have a reason to go off. But this time, the Revonnahgander had to admit indelicacy on his own part. While Kevin and Ben had reconciled and were friends again, all of the -multiple, and continued- times the Hero of the Universe had banished the Osmosian to the Null Void was still a raw and open wound. As Ben liked to say, Kevin could cut someone with that chip on his shoulder.

“I misspoke.” Rook placated. “What I meant was, no other Plumber has lived as a criminal in the Void, and no other criminal from the Void has risen to become a Plumber. You are unique, Kevin. You understand both sides. That is something that even I cannot do. That is why I think you would do well if you were posted in the Null Void.”

“You think I'd make your job easier for you, ya mean.” Kevin remained unimpressed.

Rook opened his mouth to argue further. Assure Kevin that it wasn't just about making his job easier for him, but making the Null Void safer overall. Not just safer for the settlers trying to carve out a life there, but also the criminals that had to serve out their lives there. He could insure that no one else had to go through what he went through as a child in the Null Void. But before the Revonnahgander could get out another word, from across the room, the elevator doors opened again and Ben stepped out.

Their eyes met from across the room. Rook's intense amber and crimson locking on Ben's startled but luminous emerald. They didn't really talk much. Not since their partnership was officially dissolved and Rook took his new deployment. Actually, they didn't really talk much before their partnership was dissolved. Not since Rook carelessly, and clumsily let slip the true nature of his feelings for the human changeling. They did still meet and interact professionally. Plumbers business. Fate of the universe business. Mutual friends in dire need of helping hands, a sympathetic ear, and people familiar with Osmosian and Anodite tempers business. But they did not see each other socially. They were no longer friends.

And it was not from lack of trying on Rook's part.

Ben looked away first.

Clearing his throat, Rook stood, backing up from Kevin's desk. “In any event, you clearly are in need of some time to fully process my offer. It would be field work. It will get you out from behind this desk. Think it over.”

Rook left.

Kevin could remember only a handful of times he'd seen the Revonnahgander move so quickly. Most of them were during life-or-death situations and the Osmosian had to wonder what it was that had spooked him so badly. It sure as hell wasn't his sorry attempt to goad the other man into a fist fight. Rook had put up with worse from Kevin in the past and still maintained his composure. There were only a few things on Earth that could get under Rook Blonko's skin like that.

“What was Rook doing here just now?”

And one of those things was named 'Ben Tennyson'. Kevin glared up at the younger man whom had just appeared next to his chair.

“Taking up space.” Was the Osmosian's growled response.

“Did he say anything about me?” Ben asked, and Kevin couldn't decide if that odd quiver when he asked it was from apprehension... or hope. Not that Kevin much cared about the nature of Ben and Rook's relationship -or lack there of, as the case may be- but if one or the other was going to start up some personal drama that would suck Gwendolyn in, which would in-turn suck him in, he wanted to know what he would be getting into.

“Why would he say anything about you?” The Osmosian decided that was a safe enough response. Then, because he was still an asshole, and even if they were friends again, Ben still needed reminding, “You're not the center of the universe, Tennyson.”

“Yeah, but-” Ben cut himself off, realizing he didn't actually know what to say. “Rook...”

“...Wants to bone your flat white ass with his barbed cat-dick.” Kevin decided to finish for him.

The younger man sputtered helplessly. Completely taken aback by his long time frienemy colorful and blunt statement. “W-what!? No! He just- I- How do you even know-?”

“Criminals like to talk shit, Tennyson.” The Osmosian reminded him. “Our favorite subject to talk shit about: the heroes.”

Ben opened his mouth to say something. Thought better of it. Closed it again. Finally, he sighed. “I don't even know why I'm surprised. Anyway, I was going out for a smoothy, wanna come?”

“Its seven AM.” Kevin reminded him. “Should you be having that much sugar this early in the morning?”

“Jeez, I'm not a ten-year-old.” Grumbled the younger man.

No. But he did still act ten years old sometimes. But the Osmosian chose not to make that particular comment. After thirty years, Kevin E. Levin had finally learned when to pick and choose his battles. Instead, he rested his chin in his hand, looked up at the younger man and asked an entirely different -but not wholly unrelated- question. “You have another fight with your wife, or something?”

“Why would you ask that?” That wasn't a 'no', and Ben suddenly turned defensive and insecure. That meant it was a 'yes'. He and Kai had had another spat. Considering the timing, she probably rounded on the Hero of the Universe the moment their son left with Devlin. Ben -in classic Ben fashion- found himself unable to confront his own problems and stormed away with a hissy-fit.

“I'm not used to seeing you out of your jamies this early in the morning.” The Osmosian informed him, taking another jab at his immaturity.

Ben opened his mouth to snap back, probably some scathing remark about how at least Ben actually wore pajamas. When Kevin didn't end up sleeping in the same clothes he wore that day, then he was sleeping in just his dirty underwear -or nothing at all. But, because he actually wasn't as immature and childish as the Osmosian liked to make him out to be, Ben chose not to be bated. After thirty years, he'd also learned when to pick his battles. He cleared his throat. “You still haven't told me what Rook was doing here.”

“Yeah I did. I said he was taking up space.” Kevin reminded him.

The younger man just gave him a look.

Kevin returned Ben's look with a raised eyebrow. “Why're you suddenly so interested in Rook?”

“I'm not interested in Rook!” Ben's snap back was quick and loud, and stronger than it needed to be. So much so, that even Ben himself noticed. He rushed to hastily explain. “I mean, he doesn't usually hang around here much anymore. He came back to Earth a handful of times to help Red out when she was cleaning out all your 11,000 aliens and stuff. But he just used the Void teleporter, he didn't stay to 'take up space'.”

And before that, Rook never came back to Earth after their partnership was dissolved. But Ben did not mention that part.

“So, basically, he didn't stay and hang around the place where the guy who spurned his feelings both works and lives and risk running into said guy.” The Osmosian translated. “Have you and Rook even talked in the same room since he tried to bone you.”

“He never tried to bone me.” Ben corrected. He had no idea what kind of wild and inappropriate rumors were being spread about him in the criminal world. But the most Rook ever did was kiss him while he was fading into unconscious. When Ben confronted his partner about it, Rook backed off. Rook respected his need for space and time to process the revelation. Rook respected him -which was more than Ben could say for his wife these days. But that was neither here nor there.

“Whatever.” Kevin seemed uninterested in amending his own idea of what happened between them. “Have you two ever spoken since then? I don't mean over the badge coms, or holonet. I mean, standing in the same room where one of you is physically close enough to grab the other.”

“Once.” Admitted the younger man. “After Devlin trapped you in the Null Grenade. I took you to him to ask his advice as Warden of the Void -since you keep escaping the Null Void.”


“And it was awkward.” Ben would have left it at that, but Kevin just crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. Unimpressed and expecting more. So, Ben explained. “He tried to hug me. I didn't let him.”

“And now he acts like a kicked puppy and flees the room any time you enter it.” Kevin finished. As a general rule, the Osmosian wasn't exactly the most empathetic guy in the universe -not even when he was the 'good' version of himself. But he still understood people and feelings -it was one of the things that made him such a good con-artist. Rook had his feelings rejected, then his friendship spurned. That would be enough to put anyone into 'defend and retreat' mode around the person who rejected and spurned them.

Ben look exceedingly remorseful.

Kevin took pity on him and decided to answer his question. “He was here because he wanted to offer me a field deployment and get me out from behind this desk.”

“That's great!” The younger man was suddenly enthusiastic. “I've been telling Grandpa for months that you belong out there, working the streets. You're a beat-cop, Kev, not a paper-pusher. You belong in the field.”

“It would be in the Null Void.”

“Oh.” That gave the Hero of the Universe a moment's pause. “Well. I mean. You do have more experience with the Null Void than any other active Plumber. Its... not really a bad idea...”

“You trying to send me back to the Null Void already, Tennyson.”

Ben paused a moment trying to decide if that comment was meant as a joke, just innocent banter between friends, or if Kevin was still holding onto the bitterness from his most recent banishment to the Void and was legitimately angry. The Osmosian had his 'poker face' on. An impassive mask he used to hide his true feelings. Usually, Ben only ever saw Kevin use that face when he was on a mission, bluffing, or pulling a con. Ben wasn't used to seeing the Osmosian's poker face in casual conversation.

When Kevin didn't laugh, or grin, or give any indication that he was indeed joking, Ben grew worried. “Kevin, are you mad right now?”

It was usually pretty easy to tell. Kevin Levin was not subtle with his anger. He was loud, snarly, and mean when he was angry. Ben didn't know what to do with this quiet, calm, impassive -impossible to read- Kevin.

“I'm...” The older man began to answer, but trailed off without finishing his statement. That impassive mask hiding any indication of his true feelings melted, morphing instead into an expression of deep and pensive thought. Kevin didn't actually know how he felt. He actually had to take a moment to pause and examine his own feelings before he knew what he thought. “Yeah, like I'm gonna tell you!”

There it was. That was the Kevin that Ben was used to. Deflecting his emotions and covering up his true feelings, insecurities, and fears with hostility and bravado. That was the Kevin Levin that Ben knew.

“Anyway,” the Osmosian stood, “I'm due in the range for my marksman's exam. Gotta get re-certified if I ever wanna be issued a sidearm.” Not that Kevin even used guns.

“Right.” Ben also knew that Kevin had already passed the marksman's exam. He had passed all of his re-certifications in order to be allowed to return to field work. All of them up to and except for actually being sighed off by the Magistratus and allowed back in the field. Some were beginning to wonder if Max was ever going to trust Kevin with anything ever again. Being deployed in the Null Void might actually be his only option for getting out from behind a desk and back in the field. No wonder he was conflicted.

Kevin moved to leave, but Ben stopped him. “Hey, Kevin, if, uh, will you tell me if Rook comes by again.”

The Osmosian raised that same eyebrow. He was about to ask why, but then quickly reminded himself that he did not want to get sucked into any of Ben's personal drama.

“Or, not.” The decisive and dependable Hero of the Universe quickly changed his mind. “That's cool too. Just... maybe tell him I said 'hi'?”

Gwendolyn picked him up from work at the end of the day.

She was still driving his car. The same dark blue muscle car he and Rook both worked so hard to make 'everything proof'. After the most recent time Ben sent him to the Null Void, the car was seized as evidence in the kidnapping of Devlin Tennyson-Levin. After Devlin was returned to Gwendolyn, Kevin returned to his normal self, and the case closed, the car was put into a Plumbers' auction. Kevin was prepared to buy it back. He even got into a bit of a bidding war with Rook over it.

But, in the end, Gwendolyn was the one to drive it home.

She said she would return it to him. After he earned it. With good behavior and staying out of trouble. That meant, by being an attentive and accommodating lover, and not going crazy, 'pulling a Kevin' again, and putting her, all their friends, and -most importantly- their son in danger. Well, the latter was easy to accommodate since Max wouldn't allow him back out in the field and he was always stuck in headquarters all day. The former, on the other hand... not being allowed to move back in with her and their romantic rendezvous having to be arranged, not around his schedule or hers but rather Devlin's, that was turning Kevin into an impatient and frustrated lover.

Gwendolyn smiled at him as Kevin climbed into the passenger seat.

She was still dressed for work. Not in the black pants and blue shirt with the Charms of Bezel on the arms that she usually wore on missions, but the business-casual office clothes she wore for her day-to-day work as the High Magus. A pale blue blouse under a black vest and a gray pencil skirt with stockings. Thigh-high stockings. The way she sat shifted the skirt enough for Kevin to clearly see the garter belt. A black, lacy number with silver skulls with hearts for eyes on the clips.

“Are we going to be getting dinner, or is it straight to my place?” He asked.

Hands on the steering wheel, Gwendolyn turned to offer him a mischievous smile. “I did make reservations for us, but if you prefer to go straight to your place... we could order something in.”

“No, I wanna eat out.”

That grin of hers just widened.

“I mean, I want us to have an actual date.” Clarified the Osmosian. “Dinner, some conversation, maybe a movie, then back to my place for some romance.”

If this was twenty years ago, it would have been Gwendolyn demanding to be taken out on an actual date. Dinner at a nice restaurant, out among people, polite conversation suitable for discussion in public, a show, then back to her dorm, or his apartment, or later the apartment they shared for cuddles and lovemaking. Twenty years ago, it would have been Kevin suggesting they go straight to his place, order delivery, and get right down to doing the horizontal tango. But after eleven years of estrangement, their rolls were reversed. They were starved for different things during their decade apart.

Gwendolyn always had a good support structure, close family and friends to fill her emotional needs for validation, not to mention a gallery of admirers to make her feel appreciated and wanted -wooed. But Kevin was her first, and she his. She learned what she liked in a lover with him, and he learned how to be a lover with her. Emotional support could only do so much. A gallery of suiters could only satiate her, not satisfy her. Gwendolyn missed the carnal pleasure Kevin gave her. Now that he was back, and they were back together, that was what she wanted from him most.

While Kevin, on the other hand, had spent the past eleven years living among pirates, smugglers, contraband dealers. Robbers and murderers. Criminals. The scum of the universe. Not people to be trusted. Not friends and certainly not lovers. After a decade of keeping everyone he met at an arms distance, the Osmosian wanted the feelings of safety, support, and fulfillment his old emotional connection to Gwendolyn always gave him. He wanted to feel loved.

She nodded, understanding. Gwendolyn was always understanding. “Alright. To our reservations then.”

She drove them to a semi-nice place. The kind that it was a good idea to call ahead and make a reservation at, but you really didn't need one. There were a number of people waiting at the bar for a table to be ready. Having an after-work cocktail before dinner. Kevin and Gwendolyn walked in, she dropped her name, and they were shown to a table immediately -no wait. The Osmosian couldn't decide if it was because his wife was smart and called ahead, or because she was a Tennyson. Either way, he decided he didn't care. The table was against a side wall, far enough away for them not to be bothered by the other patrons, but not so far towards the back as to make Kevin feel like Gwendolyn was trying to hide him.

A server took their drink order -wine for Gwendolyn, soda for Kevin- and they were left to study their menus in peace.

“So, what kind of conversation were you hoping for?” She asked once they were alone (or, more accurately, as alone as two people could be in a crowded restaurant). Under the table, she slipped one foot out of her sensible work heels and began massaging her toes against Kevin's boot.

He cleared his throat, trying not to look like someone was trying to play footsie with him under the table. “Its been a year.” He announced. “A year since you finished exorcising me of my surplus energy and aliens and let me out of your library.”

Under the table, her toes paused what it was doing. Oh. So he wanted serious conversation, not playful banter filled with double entendres and just barely public-appropriate sexual innuendo. Gwendolyn withdrew her foot and slipped it back into her shoe. “Oh.” A pause. “Has it already been that long?”

They were all so busy. Devlin's psychiatrist found a medication regimen that seemed to work for him and the boy could return to school. He turned twelve and insisted he was old enough to see himself to and from school every day. Kevin returned to work, had his rank of Magister returned to him and began the probationary period and recertification process that would eventually allow him to return to his old responsibilities. Meanwhile, she and Ben had their usual semi-regular missions, adventures, and misadventures. Everyone kept so busy. Time just flew by. So, it had already been a year, huh. Wow.

The server brought their wine and Gwendolyn sipped it slowly while Kevin gave their food orders. When the server was gone again, the Osmosian continued.

“Its been a year since you decided I was back to my 'usual self'.” He repeated. “But it still feels like I'm being treated like a bad guy. I have passed all the necessary certifications to get back in the field-”

“That's great, Baby!”

“-but Max won't sign off for my deployment.” Kevin continued as if she hadn't interjected. “I have a place of my own now and have been on my best behavior, but you still haven't returned my car to me, I have to check out a crappy standard-issue vehicle from the motor-pool when I need one. Hell! You won't even let me back in our house, Babe! I don't mean, move back in to live there. I get that you still wanna keep me and Devlin away from each other. I mean, you won't even let me come over when he's not there. As much as you enjoy riding my metal cock, you won't let me make love to you in our own freakin' bed!”

Come to think of it, the only one who seemed to be showing any kind of meaningful trust in him was Rook. Rook didn't just trust him to watch his back on missions, but actually wanted him there. In the Null Void. The most dangerous posting a Plumber could be deployed to. The kind of deployment where a person had to be absolutely certain of their companion's dependability. Because if you're allies decided to betray you, or even just innocently turn tail and run, you ended up dead. In an environment and situation like that, Rook trusted mercurial and inconsistent Kevin Levin more than anyone else in his life.

“Kevin, I...” She set down her wineglass. Reaching across the small table, Gwendolyn placed her hand over his. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you feel... unappreciated.” She actually wasn't sure what word applied to his statement. It wasn't like she didn't love him anymore. Gwendolyn never stopped loving him. That was why his betrayal hurt so much. But that was over now. He was back and they were together. Their reconciliation would just take more time and be a little more awkward because they had a child and his feelings needed to be considered before they made any huge or significant leaps in their own relationship. For Devlin's sake, Gwendolyn was taking their relationship slow. “If you want, the next time the boy's have a sleep-over and Devlin is out of the house, you can come spend the weekend with me. In our own bed.”

Kevin blinked at her. That was not an offer he expected to get any time soon. For her to invite him back into their home. The house they shared before Devlin was born. He took a sip of his soda to have an excuse to keep from saying anything. Gwendolyn had sort of missed his point. But he would take what he could get. She didn't trust him to move back in with her, but she did trust him to come over when their son wasn't around. It wasn't like Kevin was itching to speak to the boy anyway. There was too much between them.

He swallowed his soda. “I'd like that.”

She smiled and Kevin felt her foot sliding agains this boot again. Traveling up his shin to rub circles over his kneecap. “If it wasn't a school night, I'd send Devlin to HQ and invite you over tonight.”

“But it is a school night, so you're gonna come back to my place and ride me for a bit before slinking off while I'm in the shower.” The Osmosian concluded.

Her hand was halfway to her wineglass when she paused to look at him. “Kevin, are you mad at me?”

“No.” He assured her. “I'm just... mad. Not at anyone in particular. Just this situation.”

Gwendolyn pursed her lips. Kevin didn't need to ask what it was she was trying to keep from saying. He already knew. She was pointedly not reminding him that this situation he was so upset over was a situation of his own making. These were the consequences of betraying all his friends and the family he had married into. This was what happened when you kidnap your own child from his home in the middle of the night and disappear without a trace. This is what happens when you absorb more power than you can hold and break your mind. This is what happens when you become an intergalactic terror. You can't just come back home and expect everything to be the same and everyone to be fine with you. People will be wary. People will be cautious. People with be distrustful.

Trust was difficult to earn. Easy to break. More difficult to earn back.

Kevin didn't need Gwendolyn to tell him all this. He already knew.

“Situations aren't static.” She finally said. “They can change. Things will get better.”

“When?” Demanded the Osmsoain. Kevin never had been known for his patience.

The server brought their food and Gwendolyn unfolded her napkin and laid it in her lap. They both waited for the server to leave again before continuing.

She cut into her meat, taking her time to think about her words before answering. “I don't know. You are doing so well, Kevin. I'm actually really surprised by how long you've managed to say calm, sane, and responsible. You honestly have been doing better than everyone told me you were capable of.”

“But...?” He prompted, knowing that there was a 'but'. There was always a 'but' after so much praise and complements.

“However-” that was the same as a 'but' “-this isn't just about you. This is also about the people around you. Me, Ben, the other Plumbers in our space sector, and... and Devlin. The reason our situation feels so stagnant is because I'm still unsure about Devlin. He's been doing really well with his therapy and is adjusting to having a semi-normal life. I don't want to jeopardize all that progress by bringing you back into the house.” A pause. “And before you decide to blame Devlin for our stagnant situation, I want you to know that he doesn't know any of this. Its me. I'm the reason you feel like we're not moving forward, because I don't want our situation to spiral out of my control like it did when he was a baby. So, don't blame our son for-”

“I know.” Kevin cut her off. Scarping his own fork over his plate to scoop up a meatball. “I don't. You're a good mother, Gwendolyn. You take good care of our son. I'm sorry I'm such a shitty father. You deserve better, you both deserve better.” He popped the meatball in his mouth and barely chewed before swallowing. “I'd like to give you better. And I'm not just saying that because your toes are so far up my pants leg you can count the change in my pocket.”

She had returned to her footsie games the moment he admitted she was a good mother.

At least the sorceress was understanding enough to blush out of respect for his discomfort. Gwendolyn took a bite of her own food and a sip of wine. She also withdrew her foot from Kevin's leg.

“You don't have to stop.” He told her. “I know how much you like this body.”

The fact that he specified 'this body' bothered her a bit. Kevin always did seem determined to maintain a distinction between his baseline physical form and any mutated form he my undergo. Even if he had full control of himself and his mental faculties like he did during his Colossus Kevin mutation back when they were teens. When the only thing that changed about him was that he couldn't from the armor of wood, Taydenite, and steel his body had absorbed. Even back then, he treated his own body as if it wasn't himself.

But Gwendolyn tactfully chose not to comment on his word choice. Time and experience -and lots of trying in vein- had taught her that his feelings about his mutations and his views about himself were something that she just couldn't change. Instead, she told him, “I like more than just your body.”

“I know. I don't deserve it, but I know.” He sipped his soda. Took another bite of food. Swallowed. “After this, we'll go back to my place and I'll show you how much I still like your body too.”

She smiled. Gwendolyn liked that. Nobody was better at pleasing her body than Kevin. He could do things with his own body that no other man she'd ever had could. “And some weekend soon, I'll bring you back to the house and we can spend some time together in our own home.”

So long as their son was away with Kenny and Ben.

Chapter Text

After school, Kenny and Devlin went to Burger Shack for a snack and to do a bit of homework before the former headed home and the latter went to therapy. Usually, both boys would get their snack and stay and hang out. If not at Burger Shack or Mr. Smoothy, then at one of their respective homes. But, Devlin had therapy after school twice a week. So, for two days out of every week, they went their separate ways after snacks, heading off in opposite directions.

Devlin watched Kenny for a bit. Tracking the younger boy with his eyes to make sure his hoverboard was, in fact, heading in the direction of Plumbers HQ.

After the Osmosian had adjusted to his own life, and his primary focus was no longer his inadequacies and irrational fears, it didn't take him long to realize that the Tennysons' home-life was not as harmonious and perfect as they tried to lead others to believe. Kai spent long periods of time away from home, and when she was around, there was an undefined tension between her and Ben. It didn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that Kenny's parents weren't as happy and in love as they tried to appear. There was trouble in their marriage.

Kenny didn't talk about it, but Devlin knew that he saw it too. After all, if Devlin whom did not live with them and only ever caught an outsider's glimpse of their relationship could see it, then there was no way Kenny -their son whom lived with them- would miss the unacknowledged distance between his parents. Kenny might not talk about it, but he did look for excuses not to go home sometimes.

That was why, whenever they parted ways, Devlin always watched to make sure he did, in fact, head home.

Satisfied, that the direction his cousin was taking was at least the correct one, the Osmosian hopped on his own hoverboard and headed to Dr. Borges' office.

When his mother first arranged for him to see a psychiatrist and have regular therapy sessions, Devlin was very resistant. He'd never been psychoanalyzed before and did not like the idea of having another person in his head. He compared it to being dissected. Cut open and poked around inside of. But after attending regular sessions for a year now, the young Osmosian had to admit that therapy was actually really great. It was nice -almost cathartic, in a way- to be able to vent and unload all his frustrations and fears on another person without the fear of judgment or condemnation. Therapy was actually pretty awesome.

Devlin checked in with the receptionist and sat down in the waiting room, remembering to also text his mother that he'd gotten there safely and that she didn't have to worry about him. He tried to be a good and responsible son. Gwendolyn worried about him almost irrationally. She knew he could take care of himself. But, because of the way he was kidnapped when he was still just an infant and she couldn't track his mana to find him, the sorceress would still always be afraid of losing him again.

He was called in for his session and the Osmosian flopped down in the over stuff and unnecessarily comfy chair. “Sorry I had to miss our last session. But there was this thing smashing through downtown and Kenny and I went to help Ben.”

“I saw it on the news. You were quite the hero.” She nodded.

“Oh, I didn't really do much.” Devlin brushed off her complement. He still hadn't quite figured out how to take complements. Positivity and praise made him uncomfortable. He wasn't used to it yet.

“Why do you say that?” Dr. Borges asked. She did that a lot. Took what he said and made it into a question. Used it as a tool to help him examine himself, realize what aspects of his self-view were flawed or faulty and worked with him to change them. At first he thought it was just clever manipulation -and maybe it was- but it wasn't the bad kind of manipulation meant to control a person. It was clinical manipulation meant to improve a person's mental and emotional health. After all, without self-awareness there could be no self-improvement. Without self-improvement people stagnated.

“Well, I just protected the crowd and stuff.” The Osmosian explained. “It was Ben and Kenny that really beat the monster. I was just back-up and support.”

“I'm sure the people in the crowd you were protecting feel differently.” She told him flatly. “To them, you weren't 'back-up and support', to them you were the person who saved their lives.”

“Creature.” Devlin corrected. “I was in my mutant form. I was the creature saving their lives. And I'm pretty sure a lot of them were just as scared of me as they were of the thing tearing up downtown.”

The corners of her mouth turned downward in a slight frown. “Devlin, you are aware that you're still a person regardless of what form you're in. Your shape doesn't make you any less who you are.”

“That's great and all, Doc, but it really doesn't seem that way when people scream and cry when they see me just as much as when they see whatever flavor-of-the-week alien invader Ben is fighting.” The Osmosian informed her. He did not add the fact that he sent the first eleven years of his life being told that he actually was a monster. They talked about that enough as it was. “I really wish I had a power that I didn't have to transform to use. I wish I could stay looking like this, but still be able to fight alongside Kenny and Ben.”

For half a moment, Devlin thought she was going to remind hm that he didn't have to fight alien invaders. He was only twelve years old. Just a child, and it was -technically- 'child endangerment' for Ben (and Gwendolyn) to allow him to fight along side them during their battles. The only reason Dr. Borges hadn't yet called child protective services was because she knew that Devlin was actually much, much better off remaining with his mother whom both understood and wanted him. The Osmosian felt needed and validated, which was something severely lacking in his life prior -and the alien invader monster battles were a part of that. So, instead of saying anything, Dr. Borges waited to see if the boy was going to say more.

When it became abundantly clear that she wasn't going to interject anything, he continued. “Dad doesn't have to transform to use his powers. He knows how to absorb and copy matter. Instead of transforming he just covers himself in stuff.”

“And why can't you do that?” Asked Dr. Borges.

“Because I don't know how.” The Osmosian informed her. “Dad never taught me how, and now we don't speak.”

She didn't answer instantly. Dr. Borges tapped her stylus against her tablet. “Its been a year since you last spoke with him, hasn't it?” She finally said. “And you're mother has exorcised him of the elements that made him unstable. As I understand it, he no longer presents a physical danger to you. -However, considering the history of emotional abuse you have with him, I cannot recommend you see him.”

“But if I were to ignore what you say and confront him anyway, no one could blame you.” Devlin was Kevin Levin's son, and Kevin Levin was a contraband dealer and backroom broker. He understood the importance of nuance.

But -as usual- Dr. Borges did not appear to be playing any of the games his father taught him. “Instead, I would recommend you develop other abilities on your own. Something that might not require you to engage with your father. Speak to your mother and Ben and maybe figure out how to absorb matter without getting your Kevin involved. Or explore some other powers your father might not have even achieved yet. You never know what you're capable of until you try.”

Everyone, it seemed, was determined to keep Devlin and Kevin apart.

As usual, he was there when Devlin came to Headquarters the next morning to pick Kenny up for school.

It looked as if Kevin was just getting in as well. He entered the bullpen from the motor-pool door cutting in front of Devlin whom was coming from the pedestrian street access. Yawning loudly and holding a large paper cup -presumably coffee- in one hand. Long ebony hair swaying behind him. It struck the younger Osmosian then that -over the course of his short life- he'd seen his father's retreating back far more often than his face. Kevin was always finding excuses to get away from the boy, either work -deals to broker, product to sell, items to steal, or targets to dispatch- and if it wasn't work, then it was good ol' fashioned revenge that drew him away. Nothing to be gained but fleeting personal satisfaction.

Looking back, Devlin should have realized his father hated him sooner.

But then, Kevin hadn't been in his right mind back then. Half-insane off an overdose of power from Ben's Omnitrix the night of the kidnapping. Gwendolyn had since then cleansed the Osmosian of all the surplus energy that made him that way. Kevin Levin was a different person now -or so everyone kept insisting. Devlin wouldn't know. He hadn't spoken to the man since the night of the faithful confrontation between him and Ben at Plumbers Headquarters. That was over a year ago. Who knew which way his father's mercurial moods swung?

Across the bullpen, the lift doors parted and Kenny came stomping out, looking frustrated and upset. Either he'd just been chewed out by his mother about goofing off in school, his apparent responsibility, and being too much like his father. Or else, he had to sit and listen to a similar toned argument between his parents over breakfast. Devlin could guess either. Ben and Kai did not have the harmonious and affectionate marriage they liked to project the image of.

Kenny locked eyes with him and picked up his speed, darting across the bullpen.

Kevin paused in his step, thinking he was the one the boy was approaching. Kenny gave the older man a cautious look -he didn't quite trust the Osmosian after their first meeting- before darting behind him and grabbing Devlin by the shoulder. “Let's get the hell outta here. I don't even mind getting to school early.”

Finally noticing Devlin for the first time, Kevin spun around. He blinked at the boy. “How long were you back there.”

“Its okay, Dad, I'm used to being ignored by you.” Was all Devlin managed to say before his cousin dragged him out of the bullpen by the sleeve of his cardigan.

It was the most words they had exchanged in a year.

Devlin waited until they were outside, coasting through the air on their hoverboards before asking why Kenny seemed so anxious to get away from home -even if that meant going to school.

“You're so lucky you don't have to actually see your parents together.” The younger boy announced. “Your dad's not allowed to see you, so you don't even know if he and your mom fight. But, like, if they fight, why even stay together, ya know? Like, what's so great about staying together if you make each other so miserable all the time?”

The corners of his mouth turning downward in a contemplative frown, Devlin remained silent. His own parents had their own fair share of problems -lots of complicated problems- but they were still together. Sort of. In an unconventional sense of the word. But they were trying to make their relationship work. Because they wanted to. Because, to spite everything they did to each other, against each other, behind each other's backs, etc. at the end of the day, Gwendolyn Tennyson-Levin and Kevin Levin still wanted to be together. Devlin didn't know why Ben and Kai insisted on remaining together. He spent a good amount of time with Ben over the past year, but not as much with Kai. He didn't have as intimate an understanding of them and their relationship as he did of his own parents.

“Duty, maybe?” Devlin finally suggested after the silence between them dragged long enough.

After all, Kevin hated him more than almost anything else in the universe, but he still raised Devlin for eleven years. Not because he wanted to, but because he felt he had to. Maybe Ben and Kai stayed together for the same reason -duty, responsibility- because they had already been married for for over fourteen years, because they had a child together, because they were a celebrity couple living in the public eye and had appearances and reputations to maintain. Any one of those reasons could explain why they insisted on remaining together.

“On Zabin, marriages are arranged between Blues and Reds to help keep the peace.” Explained the Osmosian. “They don't want to marry each other, sometimes they don't even like each other. But they do it anyway. To make alliances. Protect their Houses. Keep the peace. They do it out of duty.”

Kenny glared at the older boy skeptically. Zabin had been a war-torn planet since before either of them were born. If was wasn't Reds versus Blues, then it was Blues versus Blues, or Reds versus Reds, Purples versus all of them. Each faction clawing at the others, climbing over each others corpses, burning Houses and cities to the sand just to rule over the ashes.

At least, that's what the Plumbers reports that Kenny knew he wasn't meant to overhear said.

“Does it really work, though?” He asked at length. “Keep the peace.”

Devlin thought back to his earliest memories. Back when he was still newly kidnapped, a baby, and Kevin on the run with him, it was difficult for the older Osmosian to stay on the move. Devlin was difficult and fussy. Loud. Unable to walk yet, or speak, or understand commands. Kevin needed a place to hide them, go to ground until Devlin was old enough to move on his own. The eternally war torn planet of Zabin was perfect for that. Devlin's earliest memories of his childhood were of Zabin.

They called his father the 'Armorer of the Divide' because he sold arms to all sides of the unending civil wars. He gave them weapons, armor, and shields, and in return they made him rich. Kevin profited from their strife, and if two powerful factions looked like they might sue for peace, he sabotaged their efforts. Kept his revenue stream flowing. There was no profit to be made from peace when your living was to make war. Through one means or another, all peace efforts on Zabin failed.

But that was supposed to be the old Kevin, so the young Osmosian tried to push it from his mind.

Devlin didn't answer Kenny's question.

“That's what I thought.” Nodded the other boy, interpreting his cousin's silence as the answer. “I wish my parents would just get along. I mean, they're supposed to be in love, right? They've know each other for, like, forever.”

“Just knowing each other isn't enough, though.” The Osmosian told him. “If that was all it took to make a marriage work there wouldn't be nearly as much divorce as there is. Its gotta be more than that. Like, they've gotta want the same things out of life. You're dad's really into his role of Hero of the Universe. It, like, defines him as a person, makes him who he is. Even before I ever actually met him, I knew that about him. He likes wielding the Omnitrix, being a Plumber, and fighting aliens, mutants, and monsters. That's what he wants to do with his life. While your mom...” Here Devlin paused. He didn't actually know Kai all that well. He hadn't yet had many opportunities to get to know her. She didn't actually spend that much time at Plumbers HQ -and when she did she was usually arguing with Ben, and like hell was Devlin gonna get in between that! “Your mom has other interests.”

Kenny continued to look skeptical. “Oh, yeah? They why are your parents trying to be together?” He asked. “I have never met two people with less in common than Aunt Gwendolyn and Kevin Levin. What keeps them together?”

Equally obsessive personalities and unacknowledged masochism. But the Osmosian wasn't going to say that out loud. “Sheer force of will and a complete disregard for their own mental health.” (He said this fully cognoscente of the fact that wanting to reconcile with his father might also be disregarding his own mental health.)

Shaking his head, Kenny looked like he was going to say more. Continue arguing the point with his cousin. But they had already reached the school's campus and neither of them liked discussing their home-lives at school. It being ideal fodder for gossip aside, they were both relatively high-profile children, being the sons of the Hero of the Universe and the High Magus, a casual statement overheard out of context could start a media shit-storm that neither of them wanted to be responsible for. Let the adults do as they pleased, the children would not be the ones to create any new viral hashtags.

They stashed their hoverboards in their lockers, pulled out books and headed for their first class.

“We're really early.” Kenny noted as they entered the class before anyone else was there -not even a teacher.

“You're the one that was in such a rush to get out of HQ.” Devlin reminded him.

Back when his mother had tried to get him to attend her old private school, the idea of formal education had been new and novel to Devlin. For that reason, and that reason only he had found it interesting. But unlike Bellwood Prep, Bellwood Public -the current school he attended with Kenny- was actually fun.

Not in a conventional sense, but the Osmosian found it... entertaining.

Classes had been much more structured at his old private school, with emphasis placed on respect. At his current public school, Devlin could see that the teachers tried to maintain that same discipline, and culture of respect. But, often times, that just wasn't possible. Class sizes were larger, student demographics more diverse, personalities clashed, cultures clashed, preconceived prejudices clashed. Devlin loved watching the teachers slowly degrade into desperation or apathy as the semesters wore on. He wondered if any of them were going to cry before the year's end. He hoped so.

In his geometry class, a paper airplane sailed through the air and lodged itself right in Devlin's tight twist of a man-bun. He reached up to pull the projectile out of his hair, ignoring the teachers ineffectual shouts of “Who threw that!?” and unfolded the paper to discover it was a note from another student across the room. It simply read 'Did you bring it?'

The Osmosian hastily scribbled 'Deal at lunch.' on the paper before throwing his reply back.

“I saw that, Levin!” The teacher barked, glaring as if a normal human like him could even dream of being intimidating to a kid who fought inter-planetary invaders alongside Ben 10,000. “ISS, now!”

Shrugging as if it didn't affect him -and in fact, it did not- the Devlin packed up with textbook and unused notebook, took the paper that would inform any security guards that he wasn't wandering the halls aimlessly, he was on his way to ISS (In School Suspension), a place they sent unruly children to get them out of class for a period in the hopes that their removal would lessen distractions for the rest of the class. (It had varying degrees of success.)

Most of the ISS staff knew Devlin and Kenny both pretty well by now. The Osmosian wouldn't go so far as to call them 'friends' but they were cool.

The ISS faculty member looked up from an e-reader when Devlin walked in. “Ah, I was wondering when you'd show up. You're partner-in-crime arrived just a few minutes ago.”

The Osmosian followed the adult's pointed finger to see Kenny sitting at a desk playing a game on his phone. But before Devlin could go pull an empty desk over next to where his cousin was sitting, ISS member stopped him.

“Did you bring them?” He asked, looked at the younger man expectantly.

Trying to suppress the smirk that pulled at the corners of his lips, Devlin reached into his bag and pulled out a bulky square package, wrapped in brown paper. “First editions. Original cover art. As requested.”

He placed the package on the desk.

The older man reached for it. Ripping the paper off part way, he revealed three hard-cover books. Ripping the paper off completely, the three books proclaimed themselves to be Star Wars novels with unfamiliar titles: 'Heir to the Empire', 'Dark Force Rising' and 'The Last Command'. The ISS supervisor looked like he was about to cry. “Ya know, you're too young to know this, but... before the Disney buy-out, there was this huge expanded universe of Star Wars adventures. They built up the Galaxy, filled it with so many cool characters, and new technologies, and challenging enemies. But these... Zahn's books... they were the best. Not just the best, they basically made the Expanded Universe what it was. Ya know, Tom Jung, the same artist who did the movie posters for the Original Trilogy did the cover art for the first editions. For a long time, these were widely accepted as Episodes VII, VIII, and IX.”

He caressed a hand down the front of “Heir to the Empire” -almost reverently.

It made Devlin feel a bit awkward. He read the books after he acquired them to see what the big deal was. The boy would admit, they were pretty good. Talon Karrde was pretty a cool character. But they weren't anything Earth shattering or world changing. But, like he said, the Osmosian was a generation younger than him. He cleared his throat. “Anyway... did you bring the item I asked for?”

“Oh. Right!” The older man pulled his jacket off the back of his chair and withdrew from a pocket of it a plain manila envelope. This he passed to Devlin. “As requested.”

The Osmosian opened the envelope just enough to check its contents before reclosing it and slipping it into his bag. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

Their trade concluded, he found an empty desk and dragged it over to where Kenny was so that he could sit with his cousin. Devlin was much better at brokering deals now than he was when he first came to live with his mother. It took him a while, but he finally figured out that -contrary to his father's example- it was much easier to get what you wanted out of people if you offered them what they wanted in return as opposed to threatening them with bodily injury.

“Hey, nerd.” Muttered the Osmosian. “What're you in for.”

With a sigh, Kenny paused his game and tossed it onto the scratched-up and graffitied desk. “Okay, so, I was in history and, like, we just started talking about Andrew Jackson-”

“Oh boy.” Devlin had a feeling what was coming before his cousin even began.

“And I might have disagreed with a few things mentioned in the textbook...” Kenny continued, slowing down as he spoke to consider his phrasing of this story. “...and I might have accused the publishers of being flat-out dirty, rotten, no good, liars and white supremacists.” A pause. “And I'm pretty sure I also accused Mr. Scott of casual racism.”

Yup. That sounded about right. Kenny didn't really care much for school as a general rule. But there were a few scattered details within certain subjects that he felt very, very passionately about. Native American history was one of those things, and the public school system's seemingly perpetual boner for a Euro-centric view of history and spread of civilization upset him to a degree that one could easily apply the term 'rage' to.

“I might have also stood up on my desk and shouted that Andrew Jackson was responsible for one of the largest genocides in American history and no one talks about it.” Kenny finished. “Which reminds me-” He stood, climbing onto his own chipped and gratified desk and started shouting “-I just wanna make sure everyone knows that the history books are lying to you! The founding fathers were all assholes!”

Devlin sighed. Kenny got like this sometimes. Hopefully he'd calm down by lunch.

The ISS faculty member supervising them looked up from his newly acquired Star Wars novels. “Tennyson, sit back down before you fall down and hurt yourself, and I have to fill out an incident report!”

Lunch finally rolled around and both Devlin and Kenny were released from ISS.

They made their way through the halls, headed to the cafeteria.

“Save a spot for me in line, okay.” The Osmosian patted his cousin on the shoulder just before they left the corridor. He had a meeting to get to.

Devlin saw the piece of paper before he saw the girl holding it. It still had the creases in it from when it was folded into a paper plane. 'Did you bring it?' Technically, he hadn't brought her item, but he knew that -so long as he was sent to ISS before lunch- he would have it ready for her by the time they made their trade. She was leaning against the lockers. The Osmosian came up beside her, startling her.

She jumped with a short clip of a yelp. “My gawd, Devlin, you can be so creepy!” But she composed herself quickly. Brushing her hair back behind her ear, she flashed an excited grin. “Did you bring it?”

He withdrew from his bag the same manila envelope that was given to him in ISS. She made a grab for it, but he snatched it out of her reach before she could close her hands around it. The Osmosian held it above his head where she had no hope of getting at it. Devlin was already one of the tallest kids in their grade. “Did you bring the item I asked for?”

With a huff, as if paying compensation for goods desired was an inconvenience for her, the girl turned around and began dialing in the code to her locker. When it opened, she pulled out a round metal industrial storage canister. “Its still in the testing phase, not due to be available on the market for another two years. This is one of the prototypes they're using. Things go missing from the test labs al the time. Still, if my mother knew I took this for you, she'd kill me! I don't even know how you knew about it. There haven't even been any press releases yet!”

She opened the canister so that Devlin could check the contents inside. If there was one thing everyone knew about Devlin Levin, it was that he always checked the payment before finalizing the deal. When he was satisfied, he passed her the envelope.

Opening it, she thrust her hand inside and pulled out a lanyard, and on the end of said lanyard was a backstage pass to a concert that had -supposedly- been sold out for weeks. The girl shrieked with glee and draped the lanyard around her neck. Only after she was wearing it did she check the date on the pass. “Ooh! That's tonight. I better get ready!”

She slammed her locker shut, threw her backpack over her shoulder, and sauntered down the hall in the exact opposite direction of the cafeteria. She was heading for the campus gate. Apparently, getting ready for a concert that didn't start until seven PM required her to ditch school that would have gotten out at 3:30 anyway.

But whatever. That wasn't Devlin's concern. He got what he wanted. Slipping the canister into his shoulder bag, the Osmosian sprinted to the cafeteria to find Kenny and the place in line he was saving.

“Hey, nerd.” He squeezed in next to his cousin.

“You finish your drug deal?” Kenny asked.

“I never deal in drugs.” The Osmosian assured him. Devlin was a broker. He negotiated deals and made trades, but there were two things he didn't do business with: drugs and weapons. Drugs because he himself was on several medications and understood the vital importance they played in maintaining health and sanity of daily life. He did not approve of idiots cheapening that purpose with unmoderated recreational use. He found it personally insulting. And weapons because his father dealt in weapons and Devlin was no Kevin 11,000.

But if someone wanted something else that was hard to find, or hard to get, that he could do. If someone wanted, not just a book, but a specific publication of a book, from a specific year, with specific cover art, Devlin had a connection for that. If someone wanted an all access pass to an event that was sold out, or limited access, or invitation only, Devlin knew a guy for that. And every time someone asked him for something, his network grew. A student who used his mother's library at Friedken might also have a part-time job at a used book store. A member of his school's ISS faculty might have a brother who organized events at the Bellwood Convention Center. A girl in his math class might have a parent who works as an imagineer at a company that makes commercial accessories and tech for his hoverboard. Devlin wasn't exactly 'social' in the conventional sense of the word. He didn't actually have a lot of friends. But, if you needed something, he knew a guy who knew a guy for that.

Kenny just rolled his eyes.

He waited until they got their food and were seated before asking what it was the Osmosian had brokered for this time.

With a grin that was pure, undiluted triumph, Devlin reached into his bag and pulled out the canister. He unscrewed the lid and slid out what looked like a thin sheet of rolled-up... jelly? The Osmosian unrolled it, laying the 'jelly' out on the table. “Its a Command Sensitivity Membrane.” He explained. “Its supposed to be able to recognize the slightest of shifts in weight, or foot positions on your hoverboard. Its meant for stunt boarders so they can do more complicated tricks without the rider losing control of the board. I'm gonna see if I can program it to control a weapons system instead.”

“For the love of crap, why!?” Kenny blinked at his cousin. The food on his plastic fork falling back to his tray.

The Osmosian only shrugged. “I'm sick of using my mutant transformation when we work cases with your dad. I still wanna do it, but I don't wanna use my powers. So -obviously- I need equipment to make up for it. I can equip my hoverboard with plenty of alien tech and weapons. But just putting them on doesn't mean anything if I can't actually use them. Hoverboards are hands-free, so I need a control system that will respond to my foot movements instead. Hence the CSM.”

Devlin carefully rolled the jelly-looking membrane back up and slid it back into its canister.

“Why don't you wanna fight in your mutant form, though?” Kenny asked. “You're mutant transformation is cool! You can use almost all of my powers at once and you don't have to switch bodies to do it, or worry about timing out, or waiting for a recharge.”

“Maybe I just don't like my mutant form, okay.” Devlin shot back. “Maybe I don't like my Osmosian powers. Maybe I wanna do something else.”

Chapter Text

Kevin was packing flash drives into a foam lined box, carefully ordered and meticulously labeled. He had spent the latter part of the week carefully going through each file on each drive, moving them between drives, keeping cases together, alphabetized them, and relabeled each one. The task took him three days, and he was pretty sure that someone better suited to clerical work could have gotten it done in one. It was just noting case numbers and making sure all documents with the same number made it into the asme file on the same drive. Gwendolyn probably could have gotten it done in an afternoon.

But it was done now, and Kevin could pack them back in their box -remembering to relabel it too- and take it back down to the records room in the basement.

It was as the Osmosian was just standing from his desk that Kai marched up to him. Her hands balled into fists at her sides, corners of her mouth down turned in a frown, eyes glaring daggers at anyone who attempted to make eye-contact. Kevin had pissed off enough people in his lifetime to recognize the different kinds of pissed off a person could be. On Gwendolyn that expression would have set him groveling for forgiveness. It was the expression of a lover so at odds with her partner that her anger went beyond words.

“Where's Ben?” Kai demanded when she reached the Osmosian's desk.

“Fuck if I know.” Kevin snapped back. She wasn't his wife, he had no cause to tip-toe around her feelings. If she was going to open with hostility, then he would answer with hostility. “I haven't seen him all day.”

“Professor Paradox showed up, said something about Eon and 'timebeast eggs' and they just took off!” She snapped at him, as if the Osmosian should have already known that and owed her some kind of explanation.

Kevin just matched her glare with one of her own, unimpressed. “Then he's somewhen between 2003 and 2004.”

“What makes you say that?” Kai demanded.

“Because that's when the Time War happened from that end.” The Osmosian informed her. “Apparently, this is when the Time War happens from this end.” He tried to brush past her. “Now, I've got work to do. Don't you have something to do too? Go polish a bone, or something.”

Kevin couldn't squeeze between her and his desk, so he went around the other way, heading for the lift that would take him down to the basement and Records. The Osmosian didn't look back to see if he'd insulted her, or pissed her off further. Either, or both were just as likely, but he didn't care. Kevin didn't exactly dislike Kai, but he didn't exactly like her either. He held her in the same regard he held most of the extended members of Ben's Team. She was helpful on cases, and useful in fights, but he never really wanted to hang out with her and get all buddy-buddy. The only opinion the Osmosian had of her that set her apart from the rest of Ben's Team was that Kevin never thought Ben should have married her in the first place. Sure, Tennyson liked her, and had liked her for years. But liking her did not mean she was good for him -or him for her. More than ten years of marriage seemed to have proven that assessment correct. Ben and Kai were not good for each other.

But the Osmosian wasn't going to say that out loud.

Especially not to either of their faces.

He retreated into the lift and was relieved when the door slid shut without Kai trying to follow him. The ride down to the basement was shorter than Kevin would have liked, all too soon the door seemed to be sliding open again, hitting him with a face full of cool but dry air that smelled of old paper, copper and factory fresh plastics. With a sigh, he tucked his box of flash drives under one arm and stepped out into the corridor.

Overall, the basement's main corridor was dimly lit. Off to one side though, light pored in from the server room. Easily both the brightest and also the coldest room in the whole of Plumbers Headquarters. It housed the servers for every computer in HQ, was kept well lit for the techs that maintained it, and was climate controlled to near freezing to prevent the mingled alien and terrestrial terran tech from overheating. Opposite the server room were the power generators. Kevin felt his mouth water as he passed them, his Osmosian instincts registering the power that pulsed there and how much of a temptation is could be for him. He walked faster as he passed the generators. Temptation had always been an uphill battle for him.

Records was at the end of the corridor.

A small and unassuming door with a modest placard proclaiming it for what it was. From all outward appearances, it looked more like a broom closet than a vitally important archive of Plumbers activity and history. But when the door slid open, the room widened into a cavernous chamber full of tall shelves packed with boxes. Some, no larger than the shoebox sized one Kevin now held, others the size of cardboard xerox boxes, meant for hard-copies and paper files. The Osmosian stepped up to the counter where a loan file clerk set, bent over a crossword puzzle. Kevin set his box of flash drives on the counter next to the clerk's crossword.

“Anything else Max wants me to waste my time on?”

The clerk spared him a single pitiless glance before opening the box. He took one flash drive out of the foam that held it in place, examined Kevin's messy hand writing identifying what it was and where it belonged in the order. After deciding that, while messy, it was clear enough to be read the clerk placed it back in its place and closed the box again. He jerked a thumb at a sizable stack of xerox boxes that had been pulled out of their places and off of their shelves, all piled neatly next to the counter, from the floor up to just a bit above the clerk's own head.

“Max wants these digitalized.”

Kevin suppressed the urge to groan. He grabbed the top two boxes and stomped out of the room. He'd come back for the others. The Osmosian hadn't thought to bring a dolly or anything to help him carry more than that, and paper was heavy.

He way maybe a quarter of the way into the first box, and the day wearing thin when Ben finally reappeared at Plumbers HQ. And 'reappeared' could not have been a more accurate descriptor.

A green vortex appeared in the bullpen. A circle of light in flux and bent itself around a hole in time, and out of that hole walked two figures. Professor Paradox exited first, his white lab coat almost all but obscured under layers of steampunk-style epaulets, chevrons, and panels of cog-wheel themed armor. Half a step behind the Time Walker was the Hero of the Universe -Ben 10,000.

“Well, here we are. Back in your own time.” Paradox announced, he looked at his pocket watch. “And you're not even late for dinner! Good work today, Ben, ta-ta for now.”

He disappeared back into the time vortex and was gone.

“Your wife was looking for you.” Kevin announced once the green light faded and the fabric of time and space settled back to its normal ebb and flow.

For half a second, a look of abject panic flitted across the Hero's face and the Osmosian had to wonder just how bad his relationship with his wife had gotten. For Ben to be so fearful of the mere mention of her looking for him. Then Kevin quickly reminded himself that he did not care. Tennyson's problems with his wife were just that: his problems. It was no business of Kevin's what went on (or didn't go on) between them behind the closed doors of the residential floors of Plumbers Headquarters. The Osmosian was trying to stay out of Tennyson's personal drama. Not jump headfirst into it. He had enough personal drama of his own to keep him occupied.

But the expression was there and gone in an instant. Covered up by one of Ben's patented 'Hero of the Universe smiles'. “Wanna get a drink?”

Kevin checked his watch. It was nearing the end of the day anyway. Max shouldn't mind him taking off a little early. “Sure. I could go for a smoothy.”

“No, no. I said a drink.” Ben had to clarify for him. He was more than well aware that the Osmosian did not drink alcohol. As a general rule, Kevin tried to avoid anything that loosened his hold in inhibition, or altered his mental state. All his life, sanity and stability had been uphill battles for Kevin and getting drunk never did him any favors. At best, he got a nasty hang over, at worst he absorbed something he should have, went crazy, and had to beat down by Ben and his Team. But the Hero of the Universe seemed not to be bothered by those detailed. He grabbed his frienemy by the arm. “Lets go get a beer. Grab your coat. You can be my designated driver.”

Without ever agreeing to anything, Kevin found himself being dragged to the motor-pool and shoved into the car he'd checked out for personal use. Apparently, Ben was serious about the designated driver remark. Unsure as to why he was even going along with this, Kevin drove himself and Ben to the closest bar to HQ.

Ben slammed his credit card down on the bar counter the moment they were inside. “One Tennyson Special, and a water.”

“Diet coke.” Kevin corrected. “But make sure he gets his water. I don't wanna have to hose puke out of the car because he can't hold his liquor.”

“I can hold my liquor.” Ben grumbled as the bartender placed a cup of acid-green liquid that bubbled and hissed in front of Ben. It was hard liquor mixed from terran vodka, rum, and silver tequila, but also a couple alien beverages that Kevin was pretty sure humans should not actually be consuming. They called it a Tennyson Special, or a Ben 10,000 depending on what bar you went to. Next to this hissing and bubbling concoction was placed a pitifully small glass of water. Ben ignored the water and grabbed his cup of hissing green poison. “You're the idiot who gets all weepy and starts trying to hug everyone and have public sex with your wife after just one beer!”

“I do not!” Snapped the Osmosian defensively -because he knew it was true. Kevin was an over-emotional drunk, and even worse, because he drank so rarely, he had no tolerance for alcohol and so got drunker faster on less alcohol than anyone else in their group.

Ben only scoffed. He picked up his Tennyson Special and his water from the bar counter and motioned for Kevin to follow him. They sat down at a table near the back. Out of the way and with a wall on one side so that if Kevin turned his chair, he could sit with his back to a wall -just the way the Osmosian liked it.

Kevin flopped down in his chair, rested on arm on the table, and waited for Ben to start explaining why he felt the sudden and inexplicable need to get plastered so early in the evening. Ben sat down on the opposite side from him and continued to sip his bubbling drink. Kevin sipped his soda and tapped his fingers on the table.

“Okay, so what's the deal?” The Osmosian finally had to ask. “This can't be because you're trying to hide from your nagging wife.”

“Huh? Oh, Kai. No.” Ben blinked at his companion, took another sip of his hissing beverage, set it back down and paused. He ran a finger around the rim of the glass, feeling how the mingled terrestrial and extraterrestrial ingredients prickled on his skin. “Its Rook.” He finally admitted. “He was there when Paradox and I were trying to stop Eon from getting the Time Beast eggs. Past-Rook, I mean. He was always there for me -all the time, for every adventure- until I fucked it up. Ya know, for all those time travel adventures we used to have, it was always just me and Paradox who came to the past. We never met a future-Rook. I never really thought to wonder why.”

So this was more about Rook. Kevin thought it was odd how Ben seemed to be so very interested in Rook that one time he saw the Revonnahgander talking to Kevin.

“Has Rook been by since the last time?”

“No.” The Osmosian informed him. “Unlike you, Tennyson, Rook's job actually makes demands on his time on a daily basis. He can't just goof around all day and wait for disaster to strike before making himself useful.”

Disasters in the Null Void tended to be fatal, but Kevin wasn't about to remind Ben of that fact. Maybe in conversation about himself and how unfortunate his life has been because of Ben and his habit of sending the older man to the Null Void. But not in a conversation about Rook and his job as Warden of the Void. Kevin liked to throw pity parties for himself and invite everyone else along. But Rook didn't need pity, he deserved respect.

“His job is preventing disasters.”

“Yeah, I guess you're right.” The Hero of the Universe begrudgingly admitted before taking another swig of his drink. Then another. And a third. When Ben finally paused for air his cheeks were pink. “I just miss him sometimes, ya know. He was my best friend! And I pushed him away.”

Kevin just looked at the younger man, unsympathetic.

“I mean, you're kinda my best friend too.” Ben hastily amended. “Sometimes. But you've got consistency issues. We're not always friends. But Rook and I, we were always friends, and I didn't have to worry about him absorbing my Omnitrix, or stealing Grandpa's Rust Bucket, or selling weapons to two sides of a war I was trying to stop. I could trust him. He was consistent. We were tight!” Another deep gulp of his drink, the glass was almost empty now. “Then I fucked everything up!”

Admittedly, Kevin hadn't been there at the time, but he wasn't going to argue. From what he'd heard, Ben had royally fucked up his friendship with the Revonnahgander after learning that Rook's feelings for him went beyond the platonic bonds of friendship. That was all on Ben. Kevin wasn't in the habit of reassure the obnoxious hero when he actually was the one at fault. If he didn't want to ruin his friendship with Rook, then he shouldn't have acted the way he did. (Of course, if Rook hadn't wanted to ruin his friendship with Ben, he never should have felt him up while he was laying unconscious in an ambulance. But Rook wasn't the one wallowing in self pity in front of Kevin at the moment.)

The Osmosian sipped his coke and pulled his phone out of his pocket. To text Gwendolyn that he might be late. This might take a while. Kevin hoped Ben would cry at some point before the drinks were done. That alone would make this worth his time, and his phone also had enough battery for video. Entertainment for days to come. Flagging down the bartender, Kevin indicated Ben's almost empty glass and motioned for another round. While the Osmosian still wasn't too keen on taking care of a drunk Ben, Ben was an honest drunk and he was keen on getting so new and current blackmail material on his long time frienemy.

“Drink your water.” Kevin pushed the smaller water cup closer to Ben. Because taking care of a drunk still meant that you had to take care of them and Ben would be less likely to puke in the car if it broke up his drinks with water and stayed hydrated.

“Do you think I fucked up?” Ben asked, eyes pleading for Kevin to tell him he did nothing wrong and Rook was the one that had been overreacting for the past eleven years.

Well, if that was what he wanted, then he came to the wrong friend. “I mean... I've always thought you were a fuck-up ever since we were kids, so...”

“You're mean!” Growled the younger man.

“Yeah. And?” Kevin growled back, matching Ben's tone. If he wanted someone to tip-toe around his feelings and spout niceties then he should have picked someone else to drag to the bar with him. Kevin wasn't generally in the habit of tip-toeing around feelings -especially note Ben's- and he didn't think he even knew how to say a generic nicety.

The bartender brought over Ben's second round and removed the empty glass.

Kevin continued to sip his soda slowly.

Finally, the Osmosian decided to ask the thing that really bothered him about this. “Why are you so worked up about this now? I mean, its been over ten years.”

“Well,” Ben fidgeted in his chair, “it's just that he's been showing up a lot more recently. He helped Red with you back when you were all nutty, he's been coming by to see you a lot since then-” he had come by exactly twice in the past year “-and the Time War just came around from this end and I'll be seeing a lot more of him now. Past-him, I mean. The Rook from when we were still friends. I just... It makes me think...”

“Makes you regret, you mean.” Kevin translated. “And you want me to reassure you that you did nothing wrong.”

There was a beat of silence. Ben took a sip of his new drink. The bright green fluid sputtered and hissed as it passed his lips. He set the glass back down and glared at it. As shade of green just a touch brighter than his own eyes.

“I guess I should have handled it differently.” He finally admitted. “I shouldn't have said I didn't want him around me. I was just so... So much was going on! I'm way better at taking care of strangers than I am people I actually know, people who need more than just a heroic rescue, but actual 'emotional availability'. I'm not good with that at all. But you were gone, and you took Devlin with you. Red was a mess. Kai was pregnant. And then Rook just drops that bomb on me... how the fuck was a supposed to react?”

For half a moment, Kevin thought about telling Ben how he would have reacted if someone who was not his wife had kissed him while unconscious. Due to being sent to an extra-dimensional prison at the young and impressionable age of eleven, Kevin had some very strong instincts about people touching him while he was asleep and unable to consent or fight back. If Rook had tried the same thing with him, the Revonnahgander would not have had the chance to explain himself before Kevin made sure he never did it again. So, in all honesty, the Osmosian didn't think Ben overreacted. He just thought Ben handled his reaction poorly. There was a difference. A subtle one. But a difference.

But he wasn't about to tell Ben that. The fact that he wasn't generally in the habit of coddling the obnoxious Hero aside, Kevin didn't talk about that sort of thing. Not even to Gwendolyn.

Instead of answering the younger man's question, Kevin got up from the table and crossed to the bar to order a refill of his soda. That done, he sat back down with his frienemy.

And changed the subject.

“Week's over.” He announced. It was now fifty-two consecutive weeks since Kevin was reinstated as a Magister ranked Plumber. “And Max still hasn't signed off for me to get back out in the field.”

“Ya know, in the past, if Grandpa Max set a rule we didn't agree with, we'd just bend it, or go around it, or flat out break it.” Ben reminded the older man. He was a little miffed that Kevin was changing the subject on them. He wasn't done agonizing over his lack of relationship with his former partner.

Kevin shook his head. “I promised Gwen I'd behave.”

“Then maybe you should take Rook up on his offer.” He announced, effectively swinging the conversation back to what he actually did want to talk about. “Grandpa Max is the Magistratus of this space sector, but he still answers to the High Magistrata at Galvan Prime. If she okayed your field deployment, he's have to go along with it. And your experience and talents would certainly make Rook's job easier. He might actually have time to 'goof off'.”

“Why are you always trying to send me to the Null Void, Tennyson?” Demanded the Osmosian. “Does it get you off, or something?”

“I'm not trying to 'send you to the Null Void'.” Ben took another sip from his hissing drink. “I just think its a good deployment for you. You're better equipped to handle the Void than any other active Plumber I know. Rook probably knows that too. That's why he wants you.”

“Do I need to remind you why I know the Null Void better than anyone else?” Kevin growled. “Stop using my disreputable past -a disreputable past which you caused, I might add- as an excuse for why I should help your boyfriend.”

“He's not my boyfriend!” Ben snapped, rather shrilly.

“Really?” Kevin leaned over the table to glare at the younger man. “Because you seem a lot more concerned for him than you do your actual wife -whom has been looking for you all day, by the way.”

Ben gave a small little 'hmph!' sound and grabbed his drink, spilling a bit of it on the table with the force. It bubbled on the wood and when Kevin wiped the small splash away with a napkin, some of the finish was missing. That drink really was not meant for human consumption. How did Ben even manage it? Kevin had to wonder as he watched the supposedly normal human chug what was left in the glass.

“Anyway, I'm dropping you off back at HQ.” The Osmosian stood, heading to the bar to close out Ben's tab for him. The bar tended did not even bat an eyelash when Kevin sighed the receipt for him with a near perfect forgery of the Hero of the Universe's signature. He came back to the table and yanked Ben out of his seat by the armpit. “Gwendolyn and I were planning to spend the weekend together and I don't wanna be late for that. My son will being sleeping over at your place this weekend, by the way, so please try and at least pretend to be a responsible adult. Its bad enough Devlin picked up my bad habits, he doesn't need yours too.”

The Osmosian dragged the younger man out of the bar.

Speaking of Gwendolyn and Devlin, Kevin's dark blue 'everything proof' car pulled into the motor-pool just before they did. Kevin parked next to her and Ben gave an affectionate wave, staggering a bit as he got out of the car.

“Where did you two go?” She asked. While it was true that Ben and Kevin were -more of less- friends again, they didn't really tend to do the traditional friend activities of 'hanging out and having fun' together. Their friend activities tended to lean more towards the 'try and see who can tear down the other's self-esteem faster' side of the spectrum. Either that, or just out-and-out fight. Niether of them seemed to be sporting any obvious injuries, so it probably wasn't the latter.

Kevin's eye's momentarily flicked to Devlin climbing out of the passenger seat on the opposite side and in an uncharacteristic moment of concern decided to shelter the boy. He didn't need to know the Hero of the Universe was chugging mixed poisons and bemoaning missed opportunities in life. “You know Tennyson's unquenchable thirst for smoothies.”

But Devlin looked up at that. His dark eyes meeting his father's in mild challenge. “Kenny and I didn't see you at Mr. Smoothy's after school.”

“There's more than one Mr. Smoothy in Bellwood, kiddo.” Replied the older Osmosian smoothly and seamlessly.

Ben burped.

Gwendolyn wrinkled her nose at the smell.

“Will you be okay to watch Devlin this weekend?” She demanded. Already, it was not off to the kind of start she would have liked.

Kevin vowed that if he couldn't spend the weekend with his wife because of Ben, then the Hero of the Universe would be the one to get thrown into the Null Void this time!

“Sure. I'll be fine in a few hours.” Ben assured her. “And anyway, Kai's home. She'll help out.”

“Why would it take you a few hours to be fine if all you had were smoothies?” Devlin asked. His eyes flicked back to his father, this time instead of challenging, his glare was an accusation. “What did you do to him?”

If Kevin had a comeback for that, Gwendolyn cut him off before he could even open his mouth. She flashed the disarming smile she used specifically for diffusing tense situations. After a year of keeping the two Osmosians apart for their own good, they were now just a few feet apart with nothing but a car separating them. She was not about to let one goad the other into a confrontation after all her hard work and care.

“Why don't you head upstairs.” She suggested to her son. “If Kenny's already finished his homework maybe Kai will let you play.”

Devlin cast one more challenging glare at his father before pulling his overnight bag out of the back seat and heading into Headquarters.

Gwendolyn waited until the count of ten after he was gone before rounding on both her cousin and her husband. “Okay, what the hell, you guys!? Ben, you knew I would be dropping Devlin off today so he could spend the weekend with Kenny. Kevin, you knew we were gonna have a weekend together just the two of us. What in the world possessed you to go drinking tonight?”

Kevin raised his hands in surrender. “I just want to clarify, I just had soda. I didn't drink anything.”

Her eyes flicked to her cousin. “Ben?”

“He got all emotional because Paradox took him to the past this morning, and he got to see Rook when they were still friends.” Kevin explained for him. “Now he's all angsty and depressed.”

Gwendolyn crossed her arms over her chest, not at all moved by her cousin's apparent emotional distress. “Ya know, if you miss Rook, you could just use the comm system in your Omnitrix and call him. He's in the Null Void, not dead. If you miss him, just tell him.”

Throwing his arms up in frustration, Ben just stormed out of the motor-pool to follow Devlin upstairs. “You guys just don't understand!”

Kevin and Gwendolyn were left by the cars.

The Osmosian flashed an amused smirk that might have bordered on scathing. “Its nice to see he never changes.”

“You hush.” Gwendolyn growled at him. She was glaring at the lift all the way across the bullpen where her son and Ben had just disappeared.

Kevin's scathing smirk at Ben still having the emotional maturity of a teenager melted at the concerned expression on her face. The Osmosian came around his borrowed car to wrap his arms about her in what he hoped was a comforting hug. “Ya know, if you're worried about Devlin spending the weekend with Ben, we can cancel. I'll head back to my place and Devlin can go home with you.”

Turning around in his arms, Gwendolyn stretched up on the tips of her toes to place an affectionate kiss on his lips. “The fact that you're okay with that is what makes me sure you deserve this weekend. Ben'll be fine in the morning and, besides, the boys will have fun together.”

“That, and you want us to have fun together too.” That smirk was back on his face. This time playful.

“That too.” Gwendolyn returned his smirk with one of her own.

Chapter Text

Rangings were getting harder and harder, it seemed.

Though he might technically be Warden of the Void and highest ranking Plumber officer in the Null Void, Rook took up the sentry's position while the other two Rangers that came with him planted the mapping node. Since the landscape of the Null Void changed so frequently, asteroids and land formations drifting about as they suited in the perpetually fluctuating gravity. An accurate map was hard to draft. Things weren't static. Landmarks changed -sometimes by the hour. So, instead, significant landmasses were tagged with transmitters that pinged their location every hour in order to track their movements.

As the one with the best eyes, and most versatile weapon -his proto-tool- their Warden stood sentry.

It was not out of the ordinary for the Rooters to hack a node. Either changing its frequency or bandwidth to sync with this own tracking equipment, repurposing it as their own and rendering it useless to Rook and his Plumbers. Or else hacking it to send out false signals and mess with their map, ping its location kilometers away from where it actually was and send Rook's Rangers out into empty atmosphere.

Sometimes it wasn't Rooters. There were plenty of groups and factions among the denizens of the Void that wanted to see the Plumbers fail. The Null Void was a penal colony and for every colonist that just wanted to live a quiet life, unbothered by conflict, there were three more that resented their ancestors being sent here as prisoners, or were freshly condemned prisoners themselves and out for some good ol' fashioned revenge. Rook and his Plumbers unit had no shortage of enemies. Some days, it honestly felt less like they were peace keepers sent to maintain order and stability to the pocket dimension and more like just another gang warring for territory.

That didn't even include all the monsters that lived in the Void long before any outsiders from real space came. Before explorers, or prisoners, or colonists -there were just monsters. They held no allegiance, and could not be bargained, bartered, or treated with.

Something off to the side, just barely within the peripheral of Rook's vision. The Revonnahgander thumbed his proto-tool, shifting it into a range weapon as he smoothly and fluidly spun his body to face it.

It was just an asteroid.

A small chunk of rock floating alone, just mundane flotsam drifting on its own current of gravity parallel to, but opposite of the one they were on. Rook tracked it with his eyes, making sure there wasn't anything lurking behind it, laying in wait to jump out at him and his men. When he was satisfied that the drifting asteroid was just that, a lone hunk of rock drifting in the inconsistent gravity of the Void, the Revonnahgander turned back to watching the open landscape of the larger asteroid they were on.

The most frustrating part was that Rook knew that half the factions that counted themselves the enemies of the Plumbers would vanish almost instantly if Kevin would just take him up on his offer. Accept a deployment on the Null Void task force. He was known in the Void. He had a reputation here. If he declared for the Plumbers, half of Rook's problems would disappear over night. Not just opposing factions becoming null and moot, but neutral factions coming over to his side and becoming allies. True and proper -helpful- allies. Factions like the Free and Independent Fortress of Incarcercon -formerly the Null Void prison Incarcercon.

Once it had been a jail like any other, operated under Plumber supervision. But then a few of its guards went corrupt, or perhaps always were corrupt and just stopped trying to hide it. But at some point -right under Plumbers supervision- the prison had changed from a jail into a forced labor camp mining crystals that, when ground down into a powder, became a hallucinogenic drug. Kevin had been sent there as a child. He witness the transition from jail to labor camp first hand. But, unlike most of its other inmates, he managed to escape. Years later, he returned to Incarcercon looking for revenge (naturally Ben and Gwendolyn followed him). Freeing the compound from the corrupt warden and his robot guards' control was never an objective or part of his plan. But it was a direct result of his revenge quest. The inmates that took over after he left knew that. 'Incarcercon remembers' became a bit of a slogan of thier's. Every time Ben sent him to the Null Void since, the Osmosian always had a place in Incarcercon.

If Kevin declared for the Plumbers, Incarcercon would come over to their side. They would become a significant ally against the Rooters.

But, because of what he endured as an inmate of Incarcercon, and later as an operative manipulated by the Rooters, the Osmosian refused to returned to the Void willingly. It was the setting for some of the darkest times in his life, and every time Kevin had been sent to the Null Void since it was always to be a prisoner again. Harassed by those that presumed themselves an authority, ambushed by those that wanted to make a name for themselves, never given a moment's peace to sleep, eat, or even take a shit. Rook perfectly understood Kevin's reluctance to return to the Void. That didn't mean that the Null Void wouldn't benefit from his return.

The other two stood, finished with their task of setting, and synchronizing the node.

“That wasn't hard.” Said one.

“And it didn't take long neither!” Added the other.

Rook had to agree. It was almost too easy and uneventful a mission. He shifted his proto-tool back to neutral mode, but kept it out in his hands instead of re-holstering it on his shoulder. Ranging missions that took them far out from their base were never this quiet and uneventful.

They piled into their THV, tactical hover vehicle. The only thing that made it 'tactical' was that it was armored. Aside from that, it was a standard issue Plumbers hover vehicle. Rook piloted, his proto-tool still out on the seat next to him, while the other two lounged in the back seat, trading bawdy jokes or well intended insults in their native languages.

One was a Tetramand, aggressive and loud. The other a Lewodan, soft and gentle by all outward appearance, but this deployment was not one bestowed upon the gentle and soft. He traded insults and dirty jokes, keeping pace with his companion. Not at all the tender and mild little lamb his race was generally characterized as. Rook listened to them with only half an ear. He didn't really care much for that kind of banter. Course, rude, and vulgar. He missed Ben. The Hero of the Universe's conversation tended to lean more towards the mundane or vain. But the Revonnahgander understood that it was just to distract from the weight of responsibility being wielder of the Omnitrix placed on him. Everyone needed diversion, people with heavy responsibilities more so. Rook missed hearing his complaints about whatever the newest in the long line of Sumo Slammers reboots were. Were they ever going to bring back Tommy as the Green one? Was there even still a Green Power Coin, or did they just retcon that out all together?

The Lewodan said something, Rook hadn't been following them too closely, and the Tetramand jostled him. “Oi, boss, is that true?”

“What?” The Revonnahgander did not blink or turn his head. He kept his attention on where they were going.

“What Arys said about Loboans.” Clarified the Tetramand. “That their dicks get stuck inside.”

“That is not a subject I would be knowledgeable about.” He informed them -both of them. “And it is not an appropriate subject to discuss with your commanding officer.” (Especially not while on duty, never mind out in the field and far from Base and safety.)

“Sorry, Sir.” The Lewodan, Arys, apologized quickly but without sincerity. “Its just I heard a rumor that Ben 10,000's wife likes him better as a Loboan. Brom and I were just speculating as to why.” A pause. “Hey, you used to work with Ben 10,000, right? Is it true? That she likes him better as a-”

“Once again, this is not an appropriate topic of discussion.” If Rook were from a race that colored with their emotions, his face would have been burning a right scarlet. He tried to avoid intrusive thoughts of Ben as a general rule. Thoughts of an intimate nature doubly so. He did not need the feelings such thoughts stirred in him. The bitterness and regret were bad enough, but the loneliness and longing that came fast on their heels were worse. “Ben 10,000 and his family are entitled to their privacy.”

The Tetramand, Brom, opened his mouth to say more. But before another word could be spoken the THV was hit by something.

The three were thrown hard against their crash restraints before Rook was able to take control of the vehicle again.

“Fuck was that!?” Brom demanded, two of his four arms pulled on his crash restraints where the strap was pressing uncomfortably into this neck. The other two arms going for his weapons.

Maneuvering the hover vehicle, Rook managed to get it down on the surface of another asteroid before reaching for his own proto-tool. His hand only touched the empty seat. Whatever hit them had shook the cabin enough to knock it onto the floor boards. The Revonnahgander bent down to fish it out from under the seat.

It was lucky that he did, he would have lost his head were he still siting up.

The roof of the THV was ripped violently off the top of the vehicle.

Gigantic pointed claws piercing the side, stabbing Brom in the neck, and wrenching upwards. There was the sound of strained metal and snapping cables. Then the top of their THV was just gone -and Brom's head with it.

The Tetramand's body slumped limp in his seat, still held in place by the crash restraints.

Arys wiped a speckle of blood off his cream-white cheek and glared up at the creature that had attacked them.

A Way Bad looked down at them.

Popping up from under the passenger seat, Rook pointed his proto-tool and shot the Way Bad in one of its gigantic eyes.

It roared and staggered backwards.

While the creature was distracted, the Revonnahgander shifted his proto-tool from a blaster into a knife and cut his crash restraints rather than wasting time fighting with the release catch. He then climbed over the seat-back and cut his Lewodan companion's restraints. They both jumped out of the mangled vehicle just as the Way Bad brought an over-sized hand down on it.

Both Revonnahgander and Lewodan rolled, tumbling in the dirt for several meters before the asteroid they were on ended and Rook found himself rolling off the edge. Instinctively, one hand lashed out to grip the edge, groping for anything he could close his fingers around and hold his weight. He found purchase on a sharp rock jutting out from the edge. It dug into the pad of his palm and Rook smelled the metallic tang of blood before he felt the warm liquid trickle down his wrist. His hand hurt where it was cut, but he didn't let go. His other hand lunged to catch his companion.

“Lemme go.” Arys told him. “I can fly.”

Lewodans could fly using electromagnetism.

Rook released his companion, using his now freed hand to pull himself back up into the small asteroid. Aris hovered next to him, his hand on his weapons, still in their holsters, his eyes on the Way Bad that had picked up their THV and was attempting to take a bite out of it. After a couple of fierce chomps, it decided that the metal contraption was not as appetizing as it seemed while it was moving.

“Do not move.” Rook advised the Lewodan. “If we do not attract attention to ourselves, he will leave as soon as he realizes there is nothing edible in the car.”

No sooner had the Revonnahgander said this, than the Way Bad, massive tongue slithered out. It licked Brom's bloody and lifeless Tetramand body out of the back seat. Pulling with its teeth to break the crash restraints. They couldn't hear the sound of ripping nylon, but the crunch of Plumbers armor and alien bones breaking in the massive jaw was deep and chilling. Rook felt it in the pit of his stomach. He knew Brom was already dead and, thus, could not feel pain. That didn't make the sound of his body being chomped on and swallowed any easier to hear. The Revonnahgander cringed noticeably.

“He had a family back on Khoros.” Rook muttered, more to himself than to his companion.

Arys didn't respond, keeping silent and not moving as he was commanded.

They watched the Way Bad continue to lick the insides of their ruined THV some more. Cleaning out the last drops and smatterings of blood, and looking for more meat. When the creature was sure it'd gotten all the meat it could get from its prey, the Way Bad tossed the mangled vehicle into the empty atmosphere and drifted away.

Both Rook and Arys released breaths they didn't even know they were holding in. Their muscles relaxing.

“Rangings are getting harder and harder, it seems.” Rook hadn't meant to say it out loud, but the Null Void had not been as safe ('safe' being a subjective term with varying meanings) since the mutant To'kustars were imprisoned here.

“Now how are we gonna get back to base?” Arys asked the real question.

There was no sun in the Null Void. No 'day' or 'night'. But as far as measurements of time and distance went, their Plumbers base was several 'days' journey from their current position on foot. That was not taking into account the shifts in landscape that might lengthen the journey. Place more land masses between them and their destination, or removed land they needed in order to cross, forcing them detour several kilometers out of the way to find a crossing. How were they going to get back to base, indeed?

At least their badges were equipped with trackers that would ping the base's location. At least they wouldn't have to guess at what direction to head.

Rook took out his badge. “We should start moving.”

As a general rule, walking was terribly uninteresting.

Walking in the Null Void, however, was interestingly terrible.

A person could spend several hours crossing a several kilometer long asteroid only to find that there was no where else to go once they reached the edge. At that point, a traveler has few options, either double back and search for another rout, or else climb down the edge hoping to find another asteroid that would allow them to further their journey.

Or, a person might not have the luxury of a large, several kilometer long asteroid to stroll along. Perhaps a traveler might have to leap-frog from tiny asteroid, to tiny asteroid. Some, no larger than his own body. Hope the gravity is stable. Hope his landing didn't throw it off its orbit, or send it plummeting into the empty atmosphere.

Rook and Arys must have traveled for several hours before they came to another asteroid that was large enough to hold them both, and stable enough to now bob and sway under their added mass. The Revonnahgander pulled his badge back out and checked their location. To spite all their hard travel, they hadn't made it any closer to their base. They needed a better plan. Or a better method of travel. A vehicle that could hover across the wide empty spaces, or an ally that could fly. Arys was Lewodan, he could fly. But he couldn't carry Rook back to base. He might be tough for a man that came from a race of -literal- cream puffs. But he wasn't strong enough to carry his commanding officer halfway across the Null Void.

Looking his companion up and down, Rook made an executive decision. “Fly back to base without me.”

“Sir, there is safety in numbers.” The Lewodan argued.

“And there is even more safety back at our base.” The Revonnahgander reminded him. “You can get there much faster than I can since you can fly. Return to base, and get another THV to come get me.”

“Forgive my insubordination, Sir, but how dumb are you?” Arys stared at Rook. “Any number of things could go wrong with that plan. I could get caught by something on the way and killed. You could be caught by something while waiting for me and killed. Maybe I just get back to base and decide I like it better there where its safe and I'm tired and just tell everyone else you died. The THV could get attacked again while I'm on my way back to pick you up. Its a dumb order and I'm not following it.”

He knew he should be upset at the blatant disobedience. But it was hard for Rook not to give into the slight smirk of nostalgia that pulled at his lips. Ben wouldn't have left him behind either. “It will take a very long time for us to get back to base.”

“Then this'll be the best reconnaissanced Ranging since the Plumbers decided to post a Warden in the Void.” Arys told him. “So then, Warden, shall we range?”

“Don't suppose you managed to grab any water while you were shooting the Way Bad in the eyes?” The Lewodan asked after a few more kilometers.

“I did not. You?”

“I was more focused on trying not to die.” Arys informed him. But that did not change the fact that neither of them had any water, they were still days away from their base, didn't actually know where they were, or where safe drinking water might be found. “How much of a map do we actually have?”

Rook pulled his badge back out, using it to project a hologram of navigation nodes they'd already peppered through out the void, and were still working under their control. It wasn't a very good map. There were large gaps in the project where the computer just didn't have any information to fill it in with. It didn't know if it was empty space, or filled with drifting landmasses. But of what they did have of a map...

“I believe there is a fresh water spring that way.” He pointed in a direction that took them off the edge of the asteroid they were currently on. Another asteroid hovered very near, but slightly above. They would have to climb if they wanted to get to the spring.

Well, it wasn't a problem for the Lewodan.

Reaching over his shoulder, Rook shifted his proto-tool into a grappling line, shooting the hook at the cliff's edge. He tugged on the line a few times to make sure it was secure before swinging over to the other asteroid. Once he got a firm hand hold and foot hold, he shifted the proto-tool once again, this time into a climbing hammer, and began the task of pulling himself up the uneven cliff face.

He was out of breath by the time he reached the top. Rook pulled himself up, and laid flat on his back. Breathing hard and looking up at the crimson and fuchsia mottled sky. His eyes were tracking another asteroid far off in the distance when the steely gray blade of a spear cut through his field of vision. The Revonnahgander gasped, but couldn't get up because of said spearpoint angled over his face, blade trained on his chest.

Instead, he twisted his body. Turning his head to try and see what became of his companion.

The group was small, only four of them, and comprised of different aliens. Rook didn't recognize all their species, some of them even appeared to be mixed or hybrid, so they must be Null Void settlers. Descendants of those first sentence to the Void centuries ago, or else children of people that had immigrated to the pocket dimension voluntarily for one reason or another. They wore a symbol that identified them as all being from the same settlement or group, but Rook didn't recognize it. A vertical spear piercing a star. There were no stars in the Null Void, there was no night. Whomever had decided on their tribe's sigil must have been some version of a space fairer before being confined to the Null Void.

Arys was being held by two of them, a third carried his weapons they're already stripped from him.

“Hey, Sir.” The Lewodan muttered.

Rook shifted his eyes to the one holding the spear that was trained on him.

Female. Another of mixed alien race. Blue skin and almond shaped eyes, all black without irises or pupil. High cheekbones and a square chin. Long black hair combed back from her face and falling down her back in an intricate plait. Tiny round horns, no bigger than marbles and covered in the same blue skin poked out from her dark hair just above the temples.

Still laying in the dirt, Rook spread his arms, allowing his proto-tool to roll out of his hand and show that his hands were now empty and he was no threat. “I am Magister Rook Blonko of the Plumbers.” -He did not mention that he was also Warden of the Void. Amazingly, the Warden wasn't very well liked among the natives.- “We mean you no harm.”

“We'll decide that.” She said, and kicked his proto-tool away. It skidded in the dust and came to rest at the feet of the same settler already holding Arys' weapons. Then, to Rook, she commanded, “Get up.”

The Revonnahgander stood.

The woman shoved him in the back. “Get moving.”

“To where are you taking us?” Rook demanded. Although, his demand managed to sound more like a polite inquiry.

Instead of answering, she prodded him in the back with her spear.

Rook fell into step beside Arys. His Lewodan companion shot the Warden of the Void a sardonic grin. “See, Sir, aren't you glad I didn't go ahead without you?”

If he had, the Revonnahgander would be alone during his captivity with the natives.

They were lead past a wide pool at the base of another cliff face. The water they had been seeking. Rook wondered if it was bad prisoner etiquette to ask if they could stop so he and his companion could drink. They were both so thirsty and hadn't had anything since before the Way Bad attack. His steps slowed as they passed the pool, and the Revonnahgander's unasked question was answered with another prodding of his back with the point of a spear.

At the place where water met cliff, one of their captors pressed her hand to the rock face and Rook was mildly surprised to see the stone waver like a hologram with static before disappearing all together. A false wall.

The pool, as it happened, was actually just part of a stream. Not quite wide enough to be a river. It flowed out from what looked to be a very deep cave into the cliff. Along the stream to one side was a narrow path. They had to go in single file, there not being enough space for two people to walk shoulder to shoulder. Rook and Arys each had a spear bearing guard behind them, prodding them with the point every now and again if they fell too slow, or were just board and felt their prisoners needed a sharp reminded of their situation.

Finally, the cave widened, branching off into separate tunnels. The one following the stream turned, cutting off their path. A crude bridge had been erected over it. Just two planks thrown over to waters and secured with rope woven from the scraggly grass that grew sporadically all over the Void. It was over this bridge that Rook and Arys were herded. The planks dipped with their weight as they stepped on them. The water running over the toes of the Revonnahgander's boots. Rook looked behind him at Arys. There were advantages to always hovering everywhere like a Lewodan, he at least didn't have to worry about wet fur or cold feet.

Past the bridge, the cavern lead them into a much, much wider chamber. Large enough to hold a small collection of tents and lean-tos. Non-permanent buildings. This group of settlers must be a nomadic group. That could explain why Rook was unfamiliar with their emblem. They were always moving, never in the same place twice. They had never crossed paths before on any of his Rangings. It also explained why there wasn't a note of it on his map when he and Arys chose to come this way looking for water. They weren't at the spring the last time a Plumbers unit was out this way to set the mapping node.

The tents were arranged in a semi-circle, all their flaps and entrances facing towards the center and a common area.

A great majority of the common area, at the moment, was taken up by two combatants circling each other with pols in their hands. Spear handles with the blades removed. So it wasn't a fight to the death they had just been brought in on. Considering the ages of the combatants, it was probably a training exercise.

One was significantly older, again, of a race Rook didn't recognize. A mostly humanoid shape, reddish-pink skin, human eyes with irises an unsettling shade of red, square jaw, long hair that at one time might have been black but was now an uneven pepper gray, and four small marbled sized horns protruding from a pattern receding hairline. There was just enough resemblance between him and the one that captured Rook for him to safely assume they were related. Considering their ages, most likely parent and child.

The other combatant in the center was younger. Around Ben's son Kenny's age, or maybe Gwendolyn's son Devlin's age (not that that implied any great difference). But he was not quite yet a teenager. Blue skinned, but with a face that was similar enough to the pink-skinned one he was fighting for Rook to assume they were also related.

“You're leaving yourself wide open, hatchling.” Said the pink-skinned old man -right before he knocked the kid's legs out from under him. The boy fell to his knees, dropping his spear pole to catch his fall with his hands. The old man smacked him on the back with his own staff. The boy went face-flat in the dirt. “And that's for dropping your weapon.”

Groaning, the boy picked his staff back up and climbed to his feet. It looked like he was about to bow to his instructor, but paused when he saw the party arrive with their Plumbers prisoners. Noting the boy's distraction, the old man turned to look at them.

Up close Rook thought the old alien looked vaguely familiar. They'd never met before, the Revonnahgander was sure of that. But he did look notably familiar. Considering he was in the Null Void, Rook had probably seen his face in a case file. Something he studied when he took the position of Warden of the Void, or perhaps before that when he was still at the Academy and had to study old cases as part of his training. If he was a villain of any great note it was possible the Revonnahgander might have been made to study his case. But the fact of the matter was the Rook just didn't know. He looked familiar, but he was so aged, his current appearance so removed from whatever he might have looked like in a case file, that he couldn't remember where he'd seen him before.

“And what do we have here?” He glared critically at their Plumbers uniforms and red spots. “Not Rooters.”

Rook raised his chin, meeting the older man's eyes. “We are Plumbers charged with safeguarding peace and maintaining order in the Null Void.”

The old man raised one greying eyebrow. “Oh? That so? And who decides what's 'order' for the Void?”

Lips parted to respond, but Rook quickly decided he didn't actually know what to say and clamped his mouth shut again. Lots of denizens of the Void did not appreciate the increased Plumbers presence in the Null Void. They saw them less as guardians and protectors, and more as invaders. Just another faction with better weapons and better training here to take advantage of them. Steal their crops or their livestock and force their children into labor. That was a type of order, but not one people wanted. It wasn't the kind of order Rook wanted either. But it was the kind of order that had been brought in the past. Brought by Servantis back when he was still a Proctor ranked Plumber and operating with the Magistrata's blessing. Brought by Morgg and his robotic guards in Incarcercon back when the prison was still a forced labor camp and not the free and independent fortress it was now. So, the old man's question was a valid one. Who decided what was the right kind of order for the Void? Did Rook, a non-native, have any right to even make that decision, or should the question be put to the settlers that called this place home instead?

Stepping closer, the old man crossed the space between them and peered closely at Rook. Giving the younger man a critical appraisal.

“Revonnahgander.” He finally concluded. “Not many of you working as Plumbs I heard. I imagine even fewer choosing this deployment.”

“You know a lot about Revonnahganders and Plumbers deployments, do you?” Rook growled back.

“I know that the Plumb assigned as our Warden of the Void is supposed to be a Revonnahgander.” The old man informed him.

The one that captured Rook spoke up, “He already identified himself as Rook Blonko, a Magister.”

The old man only smiled a smug smile. “Warden Rook.”

There was a growl in the back of the Revonnahgander's throat that was simmering into a feral feline hiss. But he tried to suppress it. His instincts told him this man was dangerous, but his training told him that he should remain calm and not escalate things. He and his companion were prisoners, without their weapons, surrounded by hostile natives whom -it seemed- were doing nothing more than just protecting their homes and families. Instead of allowing the hiss of hostility to escape his lips, Rook forced them into what he hoped was a friendly smile. “You have me at a disadvantage. You know who I am, but I still have no idea who you are, Mr...?”

All of their captors laughed. Even the boy still holing his training stick.

The old man grinned a malicious grin and Rook felt a stone sink into his stomach. This man was a prisoner of the Void, condemned to the Null Void for some terrible crime. He might be surrounded by a tribe that trusted him and depended on him, he might set aside his time to train children to defend themselves, but that did not mean he was a good man.

“Aggrenna,” said the old man, addressing the woman holding the spear at Rook's back. “Give our dear Warden here the proper introductions befitting his station.”

The woman, Aggrenna, apparently, passed her spear to one of her companions and came around to stand next to the old man. “Magister Rook Blonko, Warden of the Void, I present to you my father, Warlord of the Andromeda Galaxy, Terror of Aldabra, Orishna, and Terraexcava, Predator of Celestialsapiens...”

Rook felt himself swallow. He knew what name was coming before the girl even said it.


Chapter Text

Kenny watched Devlin's hands move deftly over the exposed innards of his hover-board. Hooking up the CSM wasn't as easy as just plugging it into the board and switching it on. The membrane was really just that, a membrane, a covering that held inside it a complicated and delicate network of artificial nerves and sensors. Sensors that had to be connected to the board's systems carefully and systematically to prevent either from shorting out.

Devlin wore gloves to protect the delicate -hair thin- wires from the oils of his hands, and goggles over his eyes that magnified whatever he looked at to help him better see the tiny components he was working with. It looked like nerve wracking work (no pun intended) and Kenny found himself growing nervous and impatient just watching it. He would never understand why people like Devlin, or Cooper, or Kevin even too (he supposed) seemed to enjoy mechanics and engineering so very much. It looked more stressful than relaxing.

Then again, Devlin wasn't doing this to relax. He was doing this to improve his equipment so that it could be used on cases and missions in place of his Osmosian powers. This was business, not pleasure.

He used a pair of tweezers to select one tiny nerve follicle from the CSM and move it an imperceptible amount before soddering the near invisible hair onto the hoverboard's command board. The nerve hair was smaller than the circuit Devlin was patching it into. Kenny bit the inside of his cheek with tension as he watched his cousin preform the task.

“Will you calm down, please.” The Osmosian muttered, not looking up from his work. “Your nerves are starting to make me nervous.”

“Sorry.” The younger boy muttered. “It's just so... how do you even do that!?”

Setting his tool down, Devlin peered at his work, examining it for any perceivable flaws that could lead to a malfunction or equipment failure. When he was satisfied that everything looked correct and no mistakes were made, he picked the tweezers back up again and repeated the process with another nerve follicle. “Very carefully.”

Kenny continued to watch his cousin attach another couple of hair-thin endings. Devlin could be so confident when he was doing something he was familiar with and knew how to do. Not working with tiny synthetic nerves, specifically, but just mechanics and engineering in general. Devlin had a knack for it and was good at it -like Kevin, he supposed. Everyone always said Kevin was also a genius mechanic, and Kenny had often seen him down in the motor-pool customizing the Plumbers-issued car he'd checked out. Maybe it was hereditary. Maybe Devlin was more like Kevin than he liked to admit. Maybe all boys were more like their fathers than they liked to admit. Kenny drummed his fingers on the table, his thoughts shifting from his cousin and Kevin to himself and his own father.

“What now?” Devlin put his tools down and took off his magnifying goggles to look at his cousin.

“What? Nothing.” Kenny blinked at the older boy.

“You're being very distracting.”

“I'm just sitting here.”

“I can taste you thinking.” The Osmosian groaned.

Kenny raised an eyebrow at that. “What, like, taste my energy? Or are you sensing my mana?”

“Technically, mana is energy.” Devlin informed him. Mana was the energy of life. All living things had it. “So, both, I guess. Why are you so nervous? I'm the one doing the difficult thing here. You're just watching.”

Kenny drummed his fingers on the table again. “I was just thinking about you, and your dad, and how much alike you are.”

Devlin raised one critical eyebrow. “You have about five seconds to explain before I decide I'm insulted.”

“Like, Kevin's really good at mechanical stuff, too.” He explained. “I always see him downstairs in the motor-pool customizing the car they gave him. Everyone says he's a genius mechanic, and here you are putting together this thing with parts and connectors so small I can barely see them. You're also a genius mechanic. It makes me wonder how much like my dad I am.” He paused to look at the Omnitrix on his wrist. “According to Mom, the Time War is going on again- or, going on from this time's perspective, or whatever -he gave me my own Omnitrix, but hasn't invited me to join him in the Time War.”

The older boy just continued to stare at his cousin. “Wait, you're upset because your dad won't get you involved in one of the most dangerous adventures he's had to go through in his life, not once, but twice now.”

“Well, when you put it like that...” Kenny grumbled out without finishing the thought.

Now it was Devlin's turn to drum his fingers on the table. He looked at the hoverboard he was working on, then back at his cousin. The Osmosian cleared his throat. “Okay, so, my therapist will probably tell me what I'm about to say is terrible advice. But I'm gonna give it to you anyway.” He waved a hand to indicate the board and circuitry he was working on. “I'm going this because I want to fight aliens with your dad. To do that, I need an edge, something that will allow a kid like me to keep pace with Ben 10,000 and the enemies he fights. If you wanna fight in the Time War, you'll also need an edge. Something that will allow you to move through time like Professor Paradox and your dad, and the enemies their fight. When you get that edge, then you can fight in the Time War.”

“Mom and Dad -both- would be so mad if I went over their heads like that.” Kenny reminded the older boy.

Devlin wanted to reply with something along the lines of 'yeah... but not as mad as my dad when I defied him', but he thought better of it. Instead, the Osmosian made a different suggestion. “Then don't let them know its you. Hide your identity. Wear a mask -and a costume. Like my mom back when she was Lucky Girl, or in those sentai shows you like. Be a Time Ranger.”

Kenny paused, seeming to consider the idea. “I do like the sentai aesthetic...”

But before the boy could ponder the idea further, Kai walked in. She was holding a crumpled up note that, on closer inspection, turned out to be a disciplinary note from school. “I found this in the bottom of your backpack.”

For half a second, it looked like Kenny was about to dive under the table and flee from his mother. But his cousin shot him a single threatening look, as if the Osmosian were warning him not to shake the surface his equipment was on. If any of his precious hard work was damaged by by jostling during an escape, Devlin would be livid. Instead of bolting from the room, Kenny seemed to sort of sink into the couch. As if the cushions could hide him from his mother's ire.

Devlin looked like he was about to get up and flee instead. It was Kenny that Aunt Kai was mad at, not him. He was his own mother's problem, not Kai's. But he looked back down at his partially disassembled hoverboard and the incomplete connection job on the CSM. The membrane and connections were too delicate to be moved before it was complete -he couldn't take it with him- and he wasn't about to leave it unattended while Kenny and his mother argued. The Osmosian likewise sank into the couch cushions. Whatever tongue lashing his cousin was going to get, he'd take it too. Offer the other boy a little support while he protected his tech project.

“I was gonna give it to you...” Kenny muttered “...or Dad. Eventually.”

With Kenny, 'eventually' could mean any time between tomorrow to when he turned eighteen and was cleaning out his room to finally move out of his parents home. Kai knew that just as well as Devlin did. Devlin might be the boy's best friend, but Kai was his mother. She knew her son.

“It says you were a being a classroom disruption.” She announced. “This is the second time this semester that I've found one of these notes. What's going on?”

Kenny opened his mouth to say something, but it was Devlin who spoke first. “What does the note say he was doing?”

Her eyes flicked to the Osmosian momentarily. Dark eyes hard. As if her glare were trying to remind him that she was speaking to her son and that it did not concern him. But Kai was nowhere near as intimidating as Kevin and Devlin found himself unaffected by her hostility.

The Osmosian just narrowed his eyes back at her. “I imagine it says he was making a disturbance, shouting and climbing on furniture.” He continued. “Does the note say why he was doing that? Or what he was saying?”

This time it was Kenny who shot a look at the other boy, but his was a glance of appreciation, not hostility. Being raised by a criminal smuggler and contraband alien tech dealer for the first eleven years of his life, the Osmosian had become rather good at arguing against angry opponents and finding legal loopholes in criminal documents, or enforcement warrants. His questions didn't dispel Kai's anger, but it did prompt her to pause long enough to give her son a second -appraising- look. As much as he was Ben Tennyson's son -loud, sometimes to the point of obnoxious, starved for attention and in need of external validation- Kenny was also her son -intelligent, and passionate.

When Kai did not immediately launch back into Angry Mom Mode Devlin elbowed his cousin. “Kenny, tell Aunt Kai why you were disturbing the class.”

The younger boy set up for his defense, the Osmosian went back to work on his hoverboard. He was sitting right next to Kenny. If his cousin needed any more help, he could chime in at any time.

Kai raised an eyebrow.

If at all possible, Kenny seemed to sink into couch cushions even more. “It was in history class. Ya know this semester is U.S. history, right? Well, the textbook was all like 'the indigenous people got up and moves out willingly because they wanted to be nice and make room for all the white folk'. It didn't even mention the fact that they were kicked out at gunpoint, marched half-way across the continent, and killed in mass by shooting, starvation, or the elements! When I pointed this out to Mr. Scott, he was all like 'look, Tennyson, this is what's in the book, so this is what I'm teaching'. So I called him a dumb fuck and marched my ass to ISS.”

There was a beat of silence.

The only sound was that of Devlin's soddering-iron bonding hair-thin wires to his board.

Finally, Kai sighed. She sat down on the arm of the couch next to her son and wrapped one arm around his shoulders, pulling him into a loose hug. “Look, I don't disagree with your motives, and I understand -probably better than anyone else in this family- your feelings. But causing a disruptions during class and insulting your teacher in front of the other students is not the way to go about getting your point across.” Kenny looked like he was about to argue the point, his eyebrows coming down in frustration and his mouth opening with a frown. But, she cut him off before he could get another word out. “I will be writing to the district board about their choice in textbook, and I'm not above dropping the Tennyson name to get a little extra leverage. I'm also gonna call your principal and schedule a meeting with that teacher. I want him to look me in the eyes and explain to me how he can teach from that book with a straight face. I'm also going to get you switched out of that class.”

“Ms. Nashir is an excellent teacher.” Devlin pipped up. He was almost done with connecting the nerve network now. “Last semester when were were studying ancient civilizations, she came to school every day dressed as a Persian warrior.”

Kai looked up at the Osmosian's suggestion. She did not dismiss it outright, but at the moment she was more focused on parenting her son -something Ben still hadn't quite figured out how to do- than picking out the ideal teacher. Her eyes focussed back on Kenny. “In the meantime, you are going to rein in your impulsive behavior, stop these outbursts in class, and come to me with any other complaints about teachers or curriculum. Am I understood?”

“Yes, ma'am.” Kenny did not make eye-contact when he said this. He looked adequately chastised.

The task of connecting nerve wires complete, the Osmosian replaced the control boars back into the regular circuitry of his hoverboard and shut the compartment. He flipped it over, and pressed down on the membrane, making sure the thin jelly layer was secure in it place and wouldn't go sliding around in a fight.

If it had been Ben that found the note from school, it would not have ended in so constructive and amicable a solution. Overall, Devlin liked Ben better than Kai. He understood the older man better. After all, the Osmosian was a product of the company Ben kept. But, after coming to live among the Tennyson clan, and learning what 'parenting' was actually supposed to look like and that different adults had different parenting styles, the young Osmosian had to admit that Ben hadn't quite figured out a practical balance between discipline and understanding. If Ben was the one to confront Kenny about his behavior in school, he would have delivered a lecture on showing respect to teachers (even if you didn't agree with them) and then grounded him. Kai, on the other hand, was trying to work out a solution to the problem so that it didn't keep happening. Understanding the behavior instead of punishing it.

As a person, Devlin didn't really like Kai very much. But, as a parent, she was way better than Ben. (Of course, it was easy for him to assess that since he wasn't the one in trouble.)

Kai stood from the arm of the couch. “I'm gonna go draft that letter right now, and on Monday I'm going to call the school. You boys go back to enjoying your weekend.” Her eyes flicked past her son to the Osmosian next to him. “And, Devlin, that's nothing that'll gonna burn or stain my table, is it?”

“No, Aunt Kai.” He promised, although the Osmosian wasn't completely sure.

“Good.” She nodded. “Have either of you seen Ben?”

No sooner had this question been out of her mouth than the building shook. A tremor from the street level that reverberated up to the high floors. Not an earthquake. The shaking pattern was more consistent with the shortwave of a large, heavy, something impacting the street. It was a common occurrence in Bellwood, and especially around the Plumbers Headquarters. All three of them made eye-contact. There was no point in answering Kai's question out loud.

If that shockwave wasn't caused by Ben himself, then he would be there shortly to deal with whatever the actual cause was.

Devlin switched the power to his hoverboard back on just as Kenny bolted up from the couch. Both boy's vaulting over the coffee-table to get to the door and out to help Ben with whatever flavor-of-the-week villain he was fighting today.

“Try not to get hurt out there!” It was all Kai could do to call after them. As much as Kenny was her son, he was also Ben's son. As much as she might disapprove, once he decided something, there was no stopping him.

Outside, the first thing the boys saw was a giant moth munching on the stucco exterior of the building across the street. But, before Kenny could make a comment along the lines of comparing the creature to the classic movie monster Mothra, the street shook and both boys looked to see a giant lizard. One walking upright on his hind legs, dragging its tail behind it like Godzilla. On the opposite side of the street was a gigantic turtle, a la Gamera.

But these weren't movie monsters pulled from the silver screen and brought to life. Standing on the back of the turtle, like a general riding into battle, was Dr. Animo. They were just common house pets mutated by the mad doctor and grown to titanic proportions -as was his usual MO.

Already on his hoverboard, arms crossed over his chest, Devlin scoffed. “Well, what else would we do on a Saturday morning?”

“I know, right!” Kenny slammed his hand down on his Omnitrix. He was going to XLR8. The Kineceleran wold have been useful to trip up and topple the larger reptiles like the lizard (which Kenny was trying really hard not to call 'Godzilla'), and the turtle (which he was also trying really hard not to call 'Gamera'). But, instead the reproduction of the Level One Omnitrix turned the boy into Shellhead.

Kneeling on his hoverboard, Devlin peered down at his cousin whom was now just hiding inside his shell. “You're also gonna need different powers if you wanna fight in the Time War with your dad. I mean, if stuff like this keeps happening.” (He assumed the alien that only ever hid in its shell and didn't have any active powers for fighting was not what Kenny was going for.)

“Shut up!” Shellhead snapped from inside the protection of his shell's dome, voice sounding shrill and pitched high.

The Osmosian only shrugged. Kenny could switch his alien and join the fight, or he could wait for it to time out and try again for a different alien after the recharge. Meanwhile, Devlin was going to pound the hell out of some bootleg Mothra knock off! He adjusted his feet on his board, the new Command Sensitivity Membrane registering the shift in position and weight and took the boy higher up into the air. Well above street-level where the over-sized moth monster had almost eaten away an entire corner of the building it was on.

Twisting his back leg, the Osmosian slid his heel in a crescent shape, activating the nerve sensors in the membrane. It sent the command to his board's weapons systems to fire a blast of electricity at the oversized creature. It moaned with discomfort but didn't seem to be otherwise affected by the attack. Certainly it wasn't phased enough to stop munching on the building. Devlin could see the people inside, peering out from under their office desks where they his in fear, waiting to be saved or rescued by the great Ben 10,000. Some of them saw Devlin and they did not look the least bit pleased or relieved to see a pubescent child fighting the monster instead of their hero.

But, hey! They didn't seem to be afraid of him! That was exactly what the Osmosian wanted after all. To be able to right mutants and monsters without having the people he was trying to save think he was just as much of a monster as the one he was trying to save them from.

Since the electric attack didn't work, Devlin tried an incendiary one next.

He bent a knee forward, putting more eights on the toes of his front-facing foot. The membrane registering the command and dropping a series of bombs that burst upon impact and set the moth's urticating hairs on fire. The thin, fluffy follicles went up like dry straw, the fire spreading from the moth's back up to its fin-like antennae. This time, the creatures reaction was much more satisfying for the Osmosian.

It hollered, making an uncomfortably deep sound. Pushing off from the building it was eating and throwing itself against Plumbers Headquarters on the opposite side of the street. It beat its wings furiously and rubbed its burning back against the tower's armor plating. Its six legs flailing wildly in pain. One powerful tarsus striking the underside of Devlin's hoverboard. The boy went careening through the air and impacted the weakened and crumbling side of the office building the moth had just been eating. A chunk was wall fell on him, hitting the center of the hoverboard's membrane and giving the command to propel them several hundred feet into the air.

Gritting his teeth, the Osmosian crouched down, gripping the side of his board to keep from falling off, and twisted both feet in unison, putting all his weight on them evenly. The hoverboard slowed to a stop and Devlin took a moment to catch his breath. He hadn't thought about other things hitting the CSM during fights. ...and it had been working so well up to that point too. Putting most of is weight on his front foot, Devlin tried to tilt the board enough to command it to descend. But instead of following his command, the board gave an odd sort of groan that the Osmosian hadn't heard before. Halfway between the deep moan of metal straining against metal, and the electronic hiss of wired and connectors sparking.


When the moth hit his board, it must have jostled something on the inside! And Devlin was so sure he had recurred all his extra features and custom work. He needed to get back to the ground, finish this fight, and take his board apart to find what the problem was.

The Osmosian looked down, surveying the scene below.

It looked like Kenny had managed to select a more useful alien, and Ben had joined the fray finally. Wildvine was tangling up the Godzilla-looking lizard's feet, while Fourarms grappled with Dr. Animo atop the Gamera-like turtle's back. Devlin just had to take care of Mothra and he could help the two changelings finish this fight. He tried again to command his board to descend and get back in the fight. But it just gave that uncomfortable mechanical-electric groan -louder this time.

Devlin looked down at his board and saw tiny sparks blinking between the nerve follicles in the membrane. The hair-thin wires were not supposed to light-up and spark like that!

That was the only warning the Osmosian got before the board exploded out from under his feet.

Blowing out from the bottom where the moth had hit it. The metal of the casing bending out, cutting into the boy's boots, the membrane catching fire and going up fast. Devlin smelled the burning rubber before he felt the melting rubber of his treads burning his feet. He hollered in pain, falling -plummeting- to the street below as he struggled to get his melted and burning boots off his feet. He succeeded in getting them off his feet and transform into his mutant form with just barely enough time to stop himself from smashing into the asphalt. The change in wind sheers cooling some of the burn on his skin, and pull his long dark hair out of the tight bun he kept it twisted up in. It fell around his asymmetrical face in messy waves, making his already monstrous appearance look all the more wild and frightening.

Beating his Lepidopterran wings furiously, the Osmosian flew back up to the moth that had finally succeeded in putting itself out. The urticating hairs were gone, its back just as charred and aching as Devlin's own burned feet.

The Osmosian charged at the insect. Pain from his injuries and rage over the destruction of his board that he'd worked so hard on bubbling out of him in an inhuman roar of fury.

Forgetting all his powers and abilities that would keep him a safe distance from the moth-monster, Devlin charged at the beast's face, Vulpimancer claws extended, and sliced right into one of its over-sized, round eyes.

It didn't pop like a water balloon. It was more like cutting open a tomato. It didn't burst, but fluid still splattered out. It splashed over Devlin 11, coating Osmosian's mutant form in insect eyeball jelly, making his already tangled and messy long hair stick to his head in odd ways.

The moth hollered in anguish.

Devlin hollered back at it. “You broke my board! I'll fucking kill you!”

Sometimes, the young Osmosian really was more like his father than he felt comfortable admitting.

Balling a third hand into a fist, he gathered his Pyronite power, a ball of flame forming around his fist, spiraling with heat more powerful than the sun -or, whatever one eleventh of 'more powerful than the sun' was. He plunged his burning fist into the giant moth's empty eye-socket and shot the fireball down into its body, burning the poor creature from the inside out.

It was dead before it hit the street below.

Devlin hadn't been planning the creature's fall, he was just lashing out in anger. But, the moth just so happened to fall right on top of Dr. Animo, pinning the mad scientist's modified gorilla body under the dead-weight of its bulk, and knocking the circlet he used to control his creatures off his head. Within moments, the lizard and the turtle left alive became as skittish and docile as common house pets.

Ben reverted from Fourarms back to his base human state and looked up at the Osmosian.

As a general rule, he tried to avoid killing whenever possible and similarly tried to impress this on the boys. But Devlin... Devlin had spent the first eleven years of his life being raised, trained, and taught by a villain-version of Kevin. This made some lessons harder for the Hero of the Universe to teach the boy. The moth might have been destroying the city and attacking people. But it was just as much a victim of the real bad guy as anyone else was.

Ben could not keep the disapproval of his face when he looked up at -what was essentially- a younger version of Kevin 11.

Devlin fluttered back down to street-level. “What's that look for? I beat the bad guy.”

Ben was about to launch into a lecture Grandpa Max had given him often enough when he was a child, about using powers responsibility, understanding your strength and the limits of your opponent, and the difference between attacking to disable and subdue, and attacks meant to harm and hurt.

But Devlin reverted back to his own human form and the moment he was no longer standing on his tough Tetramand feet, the boy collapsed, falling backwards on his ass. Pale human hands reaching out to hug his feet close to his chest.

It was then that Ben noticed he was injured. “What happened!?”

“Board blew while I was on it.” The Osmosian explained in a voice without inflection, almost deadpan. And Ben had to wonder if that was how the boy would bring injuries to his father's attention when he was still with Kevin. Not exactly complaining or asking for help, just informing him something was wrong. “Shoes didn't make it, and -apparently- my human form isn't as durable as my mutant form.”

Ben's frown of disapproval at Devlin killing the moth quickly melted into a softer, more paternal expression of concern. Devlin was just a child. He just needed to be taught. But first, he needed to be taken care of. Kneeling in front of the Osmosian, Ben scooped the boy up into his arms and headed back into headquarters on a straight course for the infirmary.

“You're as reckless as your father.”

“Is that supposed to be a complement or an insult?”

At the moment, though, Devlin found he didn't really care about being compared to his father. He had worked really hard to equip his hoverboard so it could be used on missions, and the first time he takes it out into the field, it gets destroyed. What was he going to do now? Just use his mutant form and be a monster forever?

He wanted a different power.

He wanted to be different.

Chapter Text

Kevin drifted in and out of sleep. Vaguely he was aware that it had to be late in the morning if not already noon by the sheer amount of light pouring in through the window, cutting between the blinds that Gwendolyn had closed only part way the previous night. He let out a groan and rolled over in bed, finding the warm body still laying next to him, the Osmosian wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her hair -more as an attempt to block out the light than out of his unwavering affection for her- and inhaled the scent of sweat, mingled body odors, and sex that still clung to both of them.

Gwendolyn shifted in his arms, turning to face him and planted a lazy kiss somewhere around the general vicinity of his lips -but it was actually closer to the X-shaped scar on his chin. Lazy Saturday mornings like this were the best. She had no idea just how much she missed having Kevin in their own bed until they spent the night together at home, where they belonged. She really wished she could trust him to be around their son without hurting the boy. Gwendolyn wanted to trust Kevin with him. But after what he did in the past, she just was no willing to risk Devlin being put in that position. When this weekend was over, Kevin would go back to his place and she would go back to keeping Devlin insulated from his father.

But she could enjoy her husband while he was still here.

More awake this time, the second kiss Gwendolyn gave him was more deliberate. Actually finding its mark on his lips, parting for her tongue to venture out to taste his sour mourning breath, and ending with her teeth pulling playfully at his bottom lip. She then moved her attentions to his neck and chest. Tracing butterfly kisses down the hollow of his throat, over his collar bone, between his pectorals. Gwendolyn had to wriggled out of his embrace when she decided to go lower. Slathering her kisses across his belly, and lower still to his-

“If you wanna do more than lay here and cuddle, I'm gonna need a protein bar and some kinda sports drink.” Kevin muttered to her recently vacated pillow.

Her head popped up from under the blankets to shot him a teasing smile. “Am I not energizing enough for you?”

With another groan, the Osmosian rolled back over to face the window, putting the pillow over his face to block the light. “I'm dead.” He muttered. “You killed me. Death by snu-snu.”

Leaning forward, Gwendolyn placed a chase kiss on his neck -the closest she could get to his lips that wasn't blocked by a pillow. Heaving another sigh, she slid out of bed to start her day. Kevin might be content to sleep in until noon, but she was a being of pure energy. She needed motion and activity.

Slipping a robe over her naked form she headed downstairs to see what she had ready-made and available to offer her mere mortal of a husband. Preferably something that would restore his stamina in addition to just sustaining his weak, spongy human -Osmosian- body. Mmm. Gwendolyn sucked on her bottom lip. And what a wonderful body it was. All sharp angles and toned muscle. Well into his forties now and Kevin was still the most attractive man she knew -and he was all hers!

Kevin waited until the bedroom door closed behind his wife before rolling back over away from the window and its offensive light. He reached a hand out to feel the warm spot where she had been. Without even using his powers, the Osmosian could feel the lingering pulse of power her mana left behind. Strengthened and intensified by their exertions from the previous night. Mana was the energy of life, all living things had mana, and everybody left behind small traces of their mana on everything they handled or touched. But Gwendolyn was made of mana. She didn't 'leave behind traces', she irradiated an area with power. That was twice as true for something personal and intimate like a bed. Laying in Gwendolyn's bed was like being submerged in her mana. Steeped in the aura that had been vacant from his life for eleven years.

He took in a deep breath. Inhaling the scents of sex and flavors of power.

Kevin never realized before just how much he associated the sensation of her energy with the concept of 'home'. He'd been back in Bellwood and sane for a year now, but this was the first time Gwendolyn had let him into her house. This was the first time in twelve years that he truly felt... home.

Such a comfortable and secure feeling lulled the Osmosian back to sleep.

Or, rather, it would have lulled him back to sleep were it not for the fact that someone's phone began to ring. Gwendolyn was all the way downstairs, she wouldn't hear it never mind make it stop for him. Groaning, Kevin rolled naked out of bed. He cast a challenging glare at the partially open blinds as if daring any of the neighbors that might be peeping in to judge him about being naked in his own home. Then found the phone on its charger on Gwendolyn's desk.

Gwendolyn's phone. Not his. The caller ID showed that it was Ben.

Should he answer it?

It wasn't weird for him to be answering his own wife's phone. Besides, Ben knew they were together. That was the whole reason he took Devlin for the weekend. So that Kevin and Gwendolyn could have some extended quality time together. Pressing the answer button, the Osmosian put the phone to his eat. “What'd'ya want, Tennyson?”

“Kevin?” The younger man's voice came back, mildly confused. There was a pause, as if Ben had taken the phone away from his ear to double check that it was his cousin he'd called and not his frienemy. “Is Red there?”

“Of course she is.” The Osmosian scoffed into the receiver.

Ignoring his clothing which was strewn over the bedroom floor, Kevin walked naked out of the bedroom to follow his wife downstairs. The next thing Ben would ask would be if Kevin could pass the phone to her. Generally, one needed to be in the same room as the phone for this to happen.

“Can you pass me to her?” Ben asked right on cue.

He was almost at the foot of the stairs. He could see Zed following Gwendolyn around in the kitchen, hoping the two-legger would drop something tasty on the floor. “I'm sorry, you'll have to speak up. I'm not wearing pants.”

“Put Gwendolyn on the phone!” Ben all but snarled. Damn. Okay. What bug crawled up his ass? Sorry you woke up on the bitchy side of the bed this morning, Tennyson. No need to get pissy with everyone else. Jeez.

Entering the kitchen, the Osmosian extended the phone to his wife. “Your other man-child wants you.”

They traded, the phone for a glass of orange juice she'd just poured. Gwendolyn also took the opportunity to smack Kevin's bare ass, since he was awake now and they were both in happy and playful moods.

The sorceress held it to her ear. She wasn't sure which man-child was her 'other' man child. Her grown man cousin, Ben, or her actual child, Devlin. “Hello?”

“Hey... Red...” Ben began in his 'please don't be mad at me' voice. Gwendolyn hated that voice. It always heralded bad news. “So, don't freak out, its not a big deal. He's fine. But I'm just calling to let you know-” a pause to take a breath “-Dr. Animo-attacked-this-morning-and-Devlin-got-hurt-but-he's-fine-please-don't-worry-okay!”

Kevin watched his wife's face shift from curios to concerned and he got a sinking feeling that this was going to turn out to be a 'wearing cloths' and 'fixing Ben's problems' sort of day.

“Hurt!?” Gwendolyn snarled into the phone. “Hurt how? What are his injuries? How bad are they? How did he get hurt? How do you know he's fine? Do I need to head over there?”

Setting down his orange juice on the counter, Kevin raised an eyebrow. It didn't take him many guesses to figure out who she was talking about. There were very few people that could illicit such passionate concern from the High Magus. One of them was Kevin himself, another was Ben but he sounded fine when the Osmosian was talking to him, that only left Grandpa Max... or Devlin.

“No, no, no.” Ben assured her from the other end of the line. (It didn't work very well. Gwendolyn had a tendency to worry irrationally about her only child. They had Kevin to thank for that.) “He's fine. He's fine. Really. I'm just calling to let you know. So you don't freak out when Kai drops him off tomorrow.”

“I'm coming over.” Gwendolyn bolted from the kitchen, heading upstairs to put some clothes on.

Kevin drained the last of his orange juice and followed her. Yup. It was definitely going to be a 'wearing clothes' kind of day.

Gwendolyn had already discarded her robe and pulled on a pair of panties by the time Kevin rejoined her in the bedroom. She was slipping the straps of a bra over her shoulders. He came up behind to hook it for her. (Any man who didn't know how to hook and unhook his wife's bras was a failure as a husband and as a man.)

“Who's hurt?” Asked the Osmosian, he only had two guesses in mind.

“Devlin.” She growled. That was Kevin's first guess. “He got injured during one of Ben's stupid monster fights.”

She wrenched open her closet and pulled out one of the standard blue shirts she wore when fighting aliens, monsters, and mutants. It was designed to hold the Charms of Bezel. She also pulled out the corresponding black slacks she always wore for their adventures. Gwendolyn was gearing up for a fight. A lioness preparing to defend her cub. Sometimes, it seemed like she had been fighting for her baby since before Devlin was even born.

And who's fault was that? Kevin heard a nasty little voice that sounded like his own ask as he pulled on his own jeans from the previous day -sans underwear. If he hadn't been so against having children in the first place, Gwendolyn wouldn't have had to fight so hard to keep the baby. If he had been more willing to help instead of just terminate the pregnancy when problems arose, Gwendolyn wouldn't have had to fight so hard against him. If he hadn't kidnapped the baby, Gwendolyn wouldn't have had to fight so hard to get her son back. The pangs of guilt Kevin felt when he remember the parts he played in making life miserable for both his wife and his son seared through him worse than any energy overload ever could.

“Let me come with you.” He heard himself blurt out. He wanted to try and do better. To be better. A better husband to Gwendolyn and a better father to Devlin. He knew he'd probably never be able to make it up to either of them completely. But he wanted to try. Because he loved Gwendolyn and he... cared about Devlin. After all, it was impossible to raise a child for over ten years and not grow to care about it. Affection was the natural byproduct of care-giving.

“I don't want you two-”

“-in the same room together.” He finished for her. “I know. But, you might want to have someone there who knows his medical history. I did raise him, after all. Let me help.” A pause. “He's my son too.”

She flushed at that admission. After everything they'd been through. Everything he did to, or because of Devlin, Gwendolyn never would have expected Kevin to admit any kind of concern or feeling for their son. It made her wonder if maybe it would be possible for them to reconcile in the future. It would be nice if her husband and her son could live under the same roof without her having to worry about one trying to murder the other.

As answer, Gwendolyn reached into her purse and pulled out the car keys. She tossed them to the Osmosian. “You drive faster than me.”

Kevin caught the key, blinking at his wife in disbelief. This would be the first time he'd been allowed to drive his car since it was released from the Plumbers evidence lot. It would be the first time he'd be able to drive his car since he was last sent to the Null Void. The Osmosian almost felt like he could cry. He built that care from the frame up. It was as much his chile as Devlin was. He loved that.

“Come on, Levin! Move your feet!” Gwendolyn snapped at him as she brushed past and out the bedroom door. “My baby is hurt and I need to get to him!”

He did not need to be told twice. Kevin practically bolted from the room, vaulting down the stairs, he caught up with his wife at the front door. She could move incredibly fast when she was motivated. So could he. They made it to the care at the same time.

Kevin had to adjust the driver's seat. Gwendolyn was significantly shorter than him. All the mirrors had to be adjusted too. The difference in height meant the angles for reflection all needed to be changed too. Then, the Osmosian just sat for a second. Feeling the seat under him, his hands on wheel, the backlights on the speedometer and fuel gauge, the pedals under his feet. It was all his. For the second time that morning, Kevin felt the overwhelming feeling of 'I'm home' wrap itself around him like a blanket. This was where he belonged. In the driver's seat of this car, and in Gwendolyn's bed.

“Come on!” The sorceress urged him from the passenger seat.

The Osmosian tuned his head to grin at her and make sure her seat belt was securely fastened.

Then he peeled out of the driveway faster than a bat out of hell.

Any neighbor that might have been watching would tell you that the only other time they'd seen that car take off that fast was twelve years ago on the night that Gwendolyn Levin's son was kidnapped.

Ben met them at the motor-pool entrance. “You really didn't have to come. Devlin's fine. You worry too much.”

Amazingly, Gwendolyn was not convinced by his indignant assurances. As a general rule, mothers tended to worry when they hear their child has been hurt, but the sorceress tended to worry more than the average -more than was necessary most of the time. She had been over-sensitized to the possibility of harm to her baby very early on when he had been kidnapped by his own father. Gwendolyn didn't get to see her baby for eleven years, and when they were finally reunited, Devlin didn't even know who she was. She was always terrified of the possibility of losing him again.

Kevin felt another pang of guilt cut through him like a knife. His wife would not be freaking out this way if it wasn't for him.

Gwendolyn brushed past Ben, ignoring his assurances and sprinted straight to the infirmary.

Devlin was sitting on an exam table when his mother barged in, getting the burns on his feet slathered with a salve by Grandpa Max.

To spite his position and obvious wounds, the boy looked more annoyed than hurt. Wearing a gray and green cardigan over a black shirt, he looked like he had dressed for a day at the library. Except, he was covered in goop that looked like it was some kind of bodily fluid akin to blood -not his own, obviously. He hair was down, loose around his shoulders. But messy. Not like he planned to wear it down that day but that it had been knocked out of its man-bun. It was tangled and matted in places and the goop he was covered in made it stick to his face and neck in clumps. It honestly looked like Delvin wanted a shower and a change of clothes more than to get his burns treated.

“What happened!?” Gwendolyn demanded.

Behind her, lurking in the infirmary doorway, not actually coming into the room, but still sicking close, was his father. That was right, the whole reason he was spending the weekend with Kenny and Ben was so the two of them could have some extended 'adult time' without a moody pre-teen underfoot. Idly, Devlin wondered if his father was annoyed -or even mad- at him for cutting into that time. The two Osmosians made eye-contact over Gwendolyn's shoulder, but all Devlin saw in his father's eyes was... confusion?

He peered over Max's shoulder, trying to get a better look at his son's injuries. “You shouldn't get that kind of damage in your mutant form.”

“I was in my human form when it happened.” He said by way of explanation. He wondered if his father would approve or disapprove of that detail, and it made Devlin uncomfortable to be aware of the fact that Kevin's approval mattered to him. “My board malfunctioned. Melted my shoes. They burned me before I could get them off.”

Still sticking to the doorway, not coming into the room, Kevin's confusion seemed to deepen. He taught his son how to control his mutant form, and as soon as they learned that it was possible for Devlin to shift from said monstrous shape into a human form, Kevin made sure he knew how to make the shift and do it quickly, and easily, on command. If he knew he was going into a fight why wasn't he in his mutant form? His weak human body wouldn't stand up against the types of enemies Ben fought. Then his comment about the board malfunctioning caught up with him. Devlin must have modified it to be able to be used as a weapon in an alien fight. Something so small and narrow would not work out well as a weapon. Any artillery modifications he made to it would unbalance it, or overtax its circuitry and cause a blow out. Suddenly, Kevin knew exactly what happened and he found that he was annoyed because his son should know better.

“What did I teach you about tinkering with tech?”

Devlin glared back at him. “How.” He answered. “You taught me how.”

“I also taught you not to get yourself blown up.” Kevin snarled back. Now the older Osmosian did come into the room.

He grabbed the damaged part of his son's ankle, lifting the leg to get a better look at the injured bottom of the foot. It didn't look like a normal burn from a fire or an explosion. The way the skin had bubbled, and the discoloration on the edges was indicative of a chemical burn. Whatever he added to the board to make it a weapon, that was what burned him, not his stupid shoes catching fire.

Gwendolyn moved like lightning, closing one hand around the Osmosian's wrist and prying Kevin's hand off of Devlin's leg. She placed herself between her husband and her son. Devlin scooted up more on the exam table, to put a bit more distance between himself and his father. Gwendolyn shoved a finger into Kevin's chest. “Get out!”

“But, Babe, I-”

“No. Out.” She was not hearing any of his excuses or explanations. She let him come on the off chance that they might need to know Devlin's extended medical history. Since they did not, there was no reason for Kevin to be here and she did not trust him not to exasperate the situation and make things worse. She didn't trust him not to hurt Devlin further. And, quite frankly, thus far, he hadn't done anything to change this opinion. “You know my rules. You and my son are not to be in the same room together. Now leave.”

For half a moment, it looked like the older Osmosian was going to protest further.

But he didn't. Instead, Kevin swallowed a snarl, turned around, and stormed out of the infirmary.

Devlin watching him with skeptical, almost disbelieving eyes. Had this exchange happened two years ago, Kevin would not have listened to anyone who tried to make him leave. He would have flown into a rage, beaten up or killed everyone else in the room, and taken Devlin back to whatever hideout, space ship, or base they called home and given the boy his own version of medical treatment there. All complete with lectures on how stupid the younger Osmosian was for doing this to himself in the first place, and how much of a burden he was to his father, and that he should be grateful that Kevin cared enough about him to try fixing him at all.

Instead, when Gwendolyn told him to shut-up and leave, Kevin shut-up and left.

That was incredible.

Maybe it was true what she and Ben had been telling him. There really was a difference between Kevin Levin and Kevin 11,000. Maybe they weren't -completely- different people, but they were definitely different, and that difference was significant enough to allow Kevin Levin to function as a Plumber, and be friends with the Hero of the Universe, and be loved by a good woman like Gwendolyn Tennyson-Levin. Those were things Kevin 11,000 did not have. And... if Devlin wasn't mistaken... if he hadn't been imagining it... it seemed like Kevin Levin was genuinely concerned for him.

Oh sure, he was still mad and annoyed. Upset that he'd tinkered with his hoverboard in a way that had caused him injury and worried all the other adults. Probably frustrated too, because Kevin had tried to impress on his son basic mechanics safety and how not to get one's self blown up. But he was also worried about his injuries. How they had occurred and why. Devlin stared at the empty doorway his father had just disappeared thought. Kevin Levin actually cared about him. Wow.

“As much as I hate to admit it whenever Kevin has a point...” Ben began, arms crossed over his chest, “Kevin has a point. Why did you fight in your human form this time?”

The weapons he added to his hoverboard were pretty cool. Like the weapons on Kevin's car, just a smaller scale. But Devlin was just holding his own with the hoverboard, he didn't start actually winning until the board broke and he had to go alien.

Devlin looked back down at his weak and injured human feet, watching Grandpa Max wrap bandages over his ointment slathered burns. It was true when his father said he would not have gotten hurt like this if he were in his mutant form. In his mutant form, his feet and legs were that of a Tetramand. Tetramand originally hailed from the planet Koros, a desert world with daily temperature highs that would cook a normal human in their own skins. They weren't exactly 'heat proof', but they were certainly more resistant to higher temperatures than a human was. Add in the fact that in his mutant form, Devlin was also one eleventh Pyronite -which were practically made of fire- and his resistant to heat and incendiary damage increased to a level just short of 'invulnerable'. But in his human form... in his human form Devlin was almost as weak as a... as a weak human!

He couldn't keep fighting aliens, mutants, and monsters in his human form.

But he didn't want to keep fighting in his mutant Osmosian form either.

“I was trying something new.” The boy finally answered.

Max finally finished bandaging the young Osmosian's feet and stood. He cracked his back with a sigh and a light groan. He was over ninety now and too old to be bending down for very long. But Devlin didn't like Driba and Blukic, and the Galvans were a little afraid of Devlin too. Max was about eighty percent sure the reason for this had more to do with Kevin than with Devlin himself, but the young Osmosian did have just as much of a temper as his father and the pair did have a tendency to grate on the nerves. All around, it was just generally safer for everyone if someone other than Blukic and Driba worked on injured Osmosians.

“You should probably stay off your feet for a while.” Max informed him.

Devlin looked horror struck. “You mean I can't walk!? But its just a flesh wound! I'm fine!”

Gwendolyn put a hand on her son's shoulder. “And we wanna make sure you stay fine by not straining your injuries, and giving your body the time it needs to heal.”

The young Osmosian met this gentle concern with a glare of irritation. Even after living with his mother for a year, Devlin still wasn't used to all the care and attention that was lavished on him. When he was with his father, he never got time to 'take it easy' and 'not strain his injuries' while he was healing. When Kevin 11,000 was the one raising him, Devlin learned to suck it up and keep moving. Take it like a man and stop being such a spoiled child! You're such an ungrateful brat, you're lucky I even bandaged it for you at all!

Devlin looked away, not meeting his mother's eyes. “How about some crutches? You can't keep me off my feet completely.” He was not used to sitting and relaxing while he recovered from his injuries. Besides, he needed to find a solution to how he was going to continue fighting aliens with Kenny and Ben without using his mutant form.

For a moment it looked like Gwendolyn was about to protest. If she had it her way, Devlin would be confined to a wheelchair until the burns on his feet were gone.

But Ben spoke first, cutting her off before she could. “I think that's an acceptable compromise.” He couldn't imagine any of them actually being able to keep Kevin Levin's son off his feet. Relaxing and taking it easy were not Levin traits. Ben looked back up at his cousin. “Red, why don't you go after Kevin. Make sure he's not too upset and let him know that Devlin's gonna be just fine.”

The sorceress hesitated. She wanted to stay with her injured baby.

“Red. Gwendolyn. Devlin's fine.” Ben repeated. “Go check on Kevin, make sure he's not too upset over being kicked out.”

Both Devlin and Gwendolyn exchanged a look. They both knew the Osmosian well enough to know that leaving him upset was not generally a good idea. Even the 'good' version of him tended to do stupid things and lash out when he was upset. A habit from his youth that Kevin never really seemed to grow out of. When he was Kevin 11,000 he lashed out at people, if not the ones who directly upset him, then just unfortunate passers by who happened to be near him at the time. Kevin Levin didn't attack people. Kevin Levin lashed out at things. Kicking or punching walls, sometimes damaging equipment. Ben was asking Gwendolyn to make sure her husband didn't break any important Plumbers tech while venting his frustration over still not being trusted by his own wife with their own child.

Leaning down, Gwendolyn placed a kiss on her son's matted and slime-covered head so that Devlin would know that he was always her first priority before leaving the room.

She headed down the corridor, following the cloud of frustration that was Kevin's mana and listening for any sounds that might indicate he was breaking things, or bating anyone into a fight. The disgruntled aura lead her up to the street level and outside. She found her husband digging through a pile of rubble left behind from the morning's battle with Dr. Animo and his mutated pets. Stepping between fallen bits of building and over cracked asphalt Gwendolyn made her way over to him.

“Are you upset I kicked out out?” She asked.

“No.” The Osmosian assured her. Then, quickly amended. “Yes. But I understand.”

Closer now, the sorceress saw that the Osmosian was pulling out pieces of what looked like the charred and warped remains of a child's hoverboard. Gwendolyn flushed again as the sudden realization hit her. Since she wouldn't let him in the room with his injured child, Kevin was looking for the thing that had injured him. Trying to do what he could for Devlin's continued health and safety by collecting the exploded hoverboard and examining what was left of it, figuring out how it malfunctioned, and what -exactly- caused the boy's injuries.

He closed one hand around a piece of bent ribar jutting up from a bit of crumbled wall. He absorbed the iron from it and morphed his arm into a large pry-bar. Jamming the end of his arm under a particularly heavy looking slab of building, Kevin applied leverage until it lifted a few inches off the ground. Gwendolyn saw a cracked and slightly burned circuit board underneath it.

“Can you grab that for me?”

Using her mana rather than bending down in the dirt and reaching under the heavy wall herself, the sorceress extended a tendril of power, closed the circuit in a bubble and levitated it out from under the slab. Kevin let the broken piece of wall fall back. He wasn't hear to clean up, he was here to collect evidence. Gwendolyn looked at what they had. Kevin holding a quarter of a hoverboard casing, her holding one circuit from inside the board. Both were burned. The circuit was cracked, and the casing was bent outwards and covered in some kind of sticky goo. It was thick and dark, like tar, or that gunk that collected on the sides of cooking pots when Kevin didn't wash them for three weeks.

“What are you going to do with his board once you have it?” She asked, having already guessed an answer.

“I'm gonna see exactly what kind of modifications he made so I know what went wrong.” Kevin answered. He would have also added that he intended to teach Devlin what he did wrong and how, so that he wouldn't repeat the same mistake (or mistakes) in the future, but that would require them to spend extended time together. Which was something Gwendolyn already showed she would not allow to happen. So, while I was intent on figuring out how his son altered his board, Kevin wasn't quite sure what he was going to do with the information.

He cast his eyes around, looking for more pieces. As it was, he hadn't even found half of it yet.

Crossing the street, Kevin walked around the dead giant moth. This was the creature Devlin killed it stood to reason that more pieces of his exploded hoverboard would be around the body. He found another piece of the casing sticking out from under part of its thorax. The underside of the board this time. It was in far better condition than the top, at least it wasn't covered in weird gunk. Kevin was about seventy percent sure whatever that gunk was that caused Devlin's chemical burns. Not far from that piece of casing was another circuit board, this one with weird hairs dangling from it. At first, the Osmosian thought it was some of the moth's fur that got stuck in the circuits, but on closer inspection, Kevin realized that they were actually wires. Those were not factory standard. That had to be one of Devlin's modifications.

Gwendolyn came up beside him. “I'd like to know what went wrong too. Devlin is usually so good with his mechanics. He's like you in that respect.”

Kevin couldn't help but smirk at that. Devlin was a lot like him in several respects. For starters, the only monster that was killed today was the one Devlin fought. Both Ben and Kenny's monsters were left alive and able to be reverted back into their natural domestic forms.

“I guess you're gonna take the pieces back to your place to look at them.” Gwendolyn continued.

Kevin turned to meet her eyes. “I imagine you'd wanna stay here with Devlin and make sure he's okay. So, our romantic weekend together has just been cut short.”

“Are you mad?” She asked.

The Osmosian took a moment to critically examine his emotions. After a prolonged pause, he decided that his feelings were a bit too conflicting and confusion to explain out loud. Instead he said, “I know what your priorities are and where I stand in line.” Kevin leaned down to kiss her, his hair falling over their shoulders like a curtain hiding them from any onlookers. “Maybe next time we can have less sex and just sit and hang out more. As weird as it sounds, I miss your nerdy rants about whatever book you're reading.”

“And I'll try and pay attention when you get overly passionate about explaining why stick-shift is better than automatic.” Gwendolyn nodded back.

“Stick is better than automatic!” Insisted the Osmosian. Then he nodded. “But, its a date.” He took the circuit board she was still holding. All the pieces they could find in his arms now, Kevin moved to leave.

But Gwendolyn stopped him. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the car keys. “Here.” She passed them to him. “Since you have been on your best behavior and I see that you are trying with Devlin.”

He stared at the keys for a moment, almost disbelieving that he actually was getting his car back. After a year, the Osmosian was starting to give up hope. He had even started drafting designs for making a new one. Kevin look the keys slowly, almost reverently. “Ya know...” he said “'d be easier to get along with Devlin if I was actually allowed to be around Devlin.”

She stretched up on her tip-toes to give him another kiss. “Not yet.” She said. “I don't like how aggressive you are with him still. You make him uncomfortable. For him to learn to trust you, he has to be comfortable around you.”

“I raised him.” Kevin reminded her.

“Yeah, and he has a lot of special needs now because of that.” She met that reminder with a vengeful death-glare so powerful, the Osmosian was amazed her eyes didn't begin to glow star sapphire.

Kevin swallowed.

Her expression softened. “But we'll see. For now, just be content that you've earned your car back.”

It was early afternoon when Kevin pulled into the garage of his place.

Actually, the place was the garage.

When Gwendolyn first released him from confinement in her library, the Osmosian shook down every single grifter, smuggled, dealer, and broker who owed him money. Kevin managed to amass a very large sum of liquid capitol. He originally planned to use it to buy his car back from the Plumbers auction it was released to. But Gwendolyn outbid him and the car went to her instead. So, with his absurd bag of cash, the Osmosian instead bought a place to live -since his wife wouldn't let him move back into their house with her and their son.

The building was originally an auto-repair garage. The ground floor was just one wide open space, with two roll-up doors instead of pedestrian entrances. The second floor was small little box of an office placed on top of the garage. It was in the warehouse district and was never meant to be a domestic residence, or any sort of place for people to live in.

Kevin didn't care.

He sealed off one of the roll-up doors, converting the corrugated steel into a wall. Half the ground level was reserved for parking and working on the car he checked out from the Plumbers motor-pool. The other half was covered in an area rug and boasted a couch he'd picked up off the sidewalk and a Craig's List TV. On a utility counter affixed to the wall, he'd set up a microwave and a hot-plate. Under the counter was a mini-refrigerator. It was the perfect mancave.

The upstairs office he converted into a bedroom. Another area rug for the floor. Mattress on top of that. File cabinets repurposed as a dresser for his clothes. And a space heater, because the building was not meant to be lived in and it was shit for insulation.

Kevin parked his car and cut the engine. He sat there for a moment or two, just feeling the machine around him. Then he leaned forward and rubbed his cheek against the steering wheel, cooing gently and muttering sweet nothings to the interior cabin. It really was wonderful having his Ride back with him, where she belonged. She was his baby. He loved this care almost as much as he loved his wife. He loved this care more than he loved his natural born son. With a kiss to the dash, the Osmosian climbed out of the car and walked around to the truck and pulled out the pieces of Devlin's hoverboard that he could find.

He tossed the board parts on a work table. Ready to get to work dissecting them to figure out what the heck Devlin did to the machine, when his phone rang.

It was Ben again.

With a sigh, the Osmosian hit the answer button and put the phone to his ear. “Wha'd'ya want this time, Tennyson?”

There was a pause on the other end. Then, “I just wanted to checkin in with you, make sure you're not mad.”

Suppressing a growl, Kevin groaned into the receiver. “Oh my gawd, you and Gwen both!”

How many times in the last year had he been asked that question? 'Kevin are you mad?' He understood why they kept doing it. He spent eleven years living as one of the most notorious criminals in the universe. Then when they finally apprehended him, he was locked in the basement of Gwendolyn's secret headquarters under her library in Friedkin University. When he was finally released from said library basement, the Osmosian still wasn't allowed to move back home with his wife and instead was forced to buy a place of his own to live away from his family. Kevin had perfectly justifiable reasons to be angry all the time. They knew that and so were always asking in an effort to gauge his moods. What they didn't get was that their constant nagging was really the thing that grated on his nerves the most.

“Its just, you get why we're all gonna be concerned over the subject of you and Devlin, right.” Ben informed him. “You and he have a complicated history and there's hurt feelings on both sides. I just wanna make sure you're not blaming Devlin for Red kicking you out today.”

“I get it.” Growled the Osmosian. Then, because he didn't wanna talk about his feelings, especially not over the phone and especially not with Ben, Kevin changed the subject. Going for one of the Hero's own tender, emotional weak-spots. “How come its so easy for you to call me, but you can't call Rook? They've got communicators in the Null Void. Put down the phone and call him on your watch!”

There was silence on the other end.

Kevin counted one... two... three beats.

When the other man still didn't answer, the Osmosian pulled the phone away from his ear to make sure Ben hadn't just hung up. The call was still connected, so he just blazed on ahead, hoping to stab Ben in the feels as much as the whole on-going ordeal with Devlin got him in the feels. “Or, are you scared? You're afraid he'll reject you the way you rejected him. You never could take a dose of your own medicine, Tennyson.”

There was another pause.

Then, “Ya know, I don't even know why I'm friends with you.”

He hung up.

Kevin smiled. He turned his attention back to the pieces of hoverboard on his work table. Working with his hands always had helped him relax and there were few things he liked working with more than technology. But, again, before he could begin, his phone rang, and -again- it was Ben. With a sigh that quickly morphed into a groan, the Osmosian answered. “What now?”

“And another thing!” Ben snapped. “There is a difference between 'brutal honesty' and just being mean!”

He hung up again.

Now it was a laugh Kevin was trying to suppress as he typed out a response to the Hero of the Universe's latest call. 'You couldn't just text that? You had to call?' Come to think of it, Ben could have just texted Gwendolyn earlier today too. Instead of calling and making Kevin walk all the way downstairs to bother her and ruin all their weekends.

Kevin watched as his phone showed that the message had been READ, and the little bubble with three dots to indicate he was typing back appeared. The Osmosian watched the three dots bounce for a few moments. Then it disappeared. Reappeared. Disappeared again. Kevin waited.

After a moment, he had to conclude that Ben was just going to leave him on READ, and there was a strange sort of victory in that. He got the last word in.

Chapter Text

Aggregor gave them water and a bit of food and Rook had to wonder what sparked this generosity in the Osmosian.

Though the Revonnahgander had never actually met the man before, he had read his file. This was a criminal that had torn through the Andromeda Galaxy, terrorizing planets, kidnapping aliens, and absorbing their powers. He crossed intergalactic and inter-dimensional borders to steal the four pieces to the Map of Infinity, and made it all the way to the Forge of Creation intent of absorbing an unborn Celestialsapien, assimilating its power, and -basically- becoming a god. Nothing in his file indicated he might be 'hospitable' or 'really a nice guy once you get to know him'.

As a general rule, Rook tried to assume the best of people and not doubt their intentions or repay kindness with suspicion. There was nothing in Kevin 11,000's file to imply he could be a good person, but the Revonnahgander knew from personal experience just how friendly and constructive Kevin could be. Maybe that was just the thing with Osmosians. Maybe they all had a dual nature. Maybe all they needed to be good people was a change of scenery and to be drained of all their energy.

But Rook still found himself staring at the bowel of food critically, as if expecting it to inexplicably confess to ulterior motives. Arys seemed equally hesitant to accept the food.

“Its not poisoned.” Aggregor informed them.

This earned a small snort of amusement from the boy. “Yeah. The way Olennor cooks, we don't need poison.”

Aggregor shot the boy a disapproving look and he immediately stopped laughing. “You should be practicing your drills, Shirahk.”

The boy groaned. “What do I need to learn to use a spear for? I've got powers!”

The older man frowned, unmoved by the child's whines, and sternly disapproving of any sort of dependence on Osmosian abilities. “And when you are skilled enough to not need your powers, then I'll allow you to use them.”

If it had been Ben talking to either Kenny or Devlin, Rook was sure the boy would continue to argue the point, whining and complaining. Insisting that he should be allowed to use his powers, or fight monsters however he chose. Although, on Earth, for Kenny and Devlin, fighting monsters was more of a hobby. While for Aggregor's youngest child, Shirahk, growing up and living in the Null Void, learning to defend ones self and fighting monsters was a necessity of survival.

Rook's eyes shifted to Shirahk's two older sisters, Aggregor's other children, Aggrenna and Olennor. Both carried their own spears with them, even here in their family's own camp where it was presumably safe. They were slung across their backs in harnesses designs to be worn over the shoulder. Both women held themselves with the posture and stance of people who have been trained from very young ages to be warriors and were ready to spring into action at the drop of a pin. Of course, considering that a Way Bad could rip off the top of a mountain, or break open an asteroid like an egg, that was probably a good mindset to have.

Turning his attention back to his -still untouched- food, Rook couldn't help a heavy feeling of inadequacy. As Warden of the Void, it was his job to make the Null Void safe for the people who lived there. Criminals like Aggregor, and innocents like the family he'd made here. He'd been in the position for a decade now and Rook was not doing very well at that job. Once again, he thought about Kevin and how much better the Osmosian would be. Not just as another Magister deployed on the Null Void team, but as the actual Warden of the Void. As the guy in charge. Kevin would be so much more effective. He might even enjoy it.

Satisfied that his son was too preoccupied practicing drills with his blunted spear, Aggregor turned his attention back to his Plumbers guests -captives?- (Rook wasn't actually sure what their status was exactly).

“Now then,” began the Osmosian, “you're going to tell me what it is you're doing all the way out here, Warden Rook. So far from your base and without a full squad of lackeys.”

“Your tone is so suspicious.” Observed the Revonnahgander. “What harm could myself and my companion possibly pose to you and your family?”

“That's for me to determine.” Aggregor informed them.

There was a beat of silence in which all Rook and the Osmosian did was glare at each other. As if daring the other to say or do something that would prove them an enemy.

Then Arys scoffed. “What's with this big, hostile, tough-guy act? We know you're not gonna hurt us. The fact that Magister Rook here is Warden of the Void aside, he's also personal friends with Ben 10,000. If you harm him, or -gosh forbid- kill him, you'll bring the wrath of Ben 10 down on yourself and possibly everyone else here.”

The Lewodan finally took a bite of the food just to show how un-worried and secure in his convictions he was.

Rook looked down at his own food. Not because he was once again contemplating eating it, but just because that was where his eyes fell. He and Ben had barely spoken in the last decade, the Revonnahgander wasn't sure where he stood on the Earthling's list of important friends and family that he would risk his life for. If he died here in the Null Void, would Ben come charging in hell-bent on revenge? Or would he just write it off as a hazard of the job, say something semi-meaningful at his memorial ceremony, and then move on with his life? Rook didn't know.

“Ben Tennyson does not frighten me.” Aggregor informed them.

There was no posturing or bravado when he said this. His voice was even and level. It made Rook want to believe him. The Osmosian didn't see Ben 10,000 as a threat.

Then he remembered what he'd read in Aggregor's file. That it actually hadn't been Ben that defeated him. Ben and Gwendolyn both had been knocked out during the final battle at the Forge of Creation. Neither of them had anything to do with the Osmosian warlord's defeat, they just happened to be there at the time. The one who actually beat Aggregor was Kevin. Kevin absorbed all of the aliens and powers the older man had stolen and rendered Aggregor not just powerless, but nearly lifeless as well. The Osmosian had spent several months under carful guard at a Galvan hospital, until Ultimate Kevin had likewise been subdued and all the energy he adsorbed went back to where it belonged -including Aggregor's own natural life-energy. That was when they threw the older Osmosian into the Null Void to serve out the rest of his life.

Ben never defeated Aggregor. Kevin did.

“He might bring Kevin with him.” Rook suggested. “They are friends again.”

There was an asymmetrical twitch to the corner of the Osmosian's mouth and eye. The Revonnahgander's suggestion affected Aggregor in some way, but he was determined not to let it show. Finally, he cleared his throat. “Kevin Levin and I have crossed paths since my defeat at the Forge of Creation.”

Rook took another moment to pause and think about that. It had been over twenty years since Aggregor had been confined to the Null Void. In that time, Kevin had returned to the Void on countless occasions, both as a member of Ben's Team acting on Plumbers sanctioned missions, and as a criminal condemned to be a prisoner. The two Osmosians could have crossed paths again during any one of them -or many of them. Since Aggregor -and family- seemed to still be alive and well, these encounters must not have been very hostile. At least, nowhere near as murderously hostile as their climactic confrontation at the Forge of Creation. It would be absurd to assume that there wasn't any hostility since 'hostile' was Kevin's resting emotion -even the 'good' version of Kevin.

“Your tone is almost dismissive.” Observed the Revonnahgander. “Do you mean to imply that Kevin doesn't frighten you either?”

After all, Kevin was the one who originally defeated him. Not to mention, Aggregor was getting up there in years, in his fifties now, circling his sixties. Kevin wasn't exactly in his 'prime' anymore either, he was forty-four, but he was still younger and fitter than the older man. Plus, the younger Osmosian had more experience absorbing things -energy and matter- than Aggregor did. Rook was fairly certain that, if it came down to a fight, Kevin would defeat Aggregor again -and Rook was also pretty sure that Aggregor knew that too.

“Kevin and I have a...” He paused, considering his words and deciding what label best described the current landscape of their relationship. “...a 'truce' of a sort. He and I have a common enemy, here in the Void. So, when he's here in the Void, we... get along.”

Arys swallowed the bite of food in his mouth, about to say something -probably to ask who the hell 'Kevin' was and why he might be any more intimidating than the great Ben 10,000- but Aggregor cut him off before he got the chance to get out even a single word.

“Now, we can sit here trading threats until you're both as gray as me.” He did not pause to question whether or not either Revonnahgander or Lewodans got grey as they aged, Revonnahgander at least had hair, so maybe. “But that idea sounds tedious and I've got to keep this one out of the way and out of trouble.” He jabbed a thumb behind him where the boy -Shirahk- was dutifully practicing his spear drills. “So you can share our water and some of our food, and when we move on from this spot you will come with us. I will not go all the way to your base, but when we get close, you can part ways.”

“Why would you help us?” Arys asked.

A perfectly valid question in Rook's opinion.

“Because,” the Osmosian explained, “as you so enthusiastically pointed out, if the Warden of the Void is injured, killed, or missing too long, it will send all the rest of you self-appointed 'peace keepers' into a fit. The Null Void's hard enough to get along in without Plumbers shaking down every settlement, farm, and holdfast there is.”

“Plumbers don't 'shake down' people!” Arys argued, insulted on his organization's behalf. “We're the good guys!”

“Everyone's the good guy in their own mind.” Aggregor countered, unimpressed and unmoved. “But more than that, those young little hot-shot upstarts you keep stationing in the Void have no idea what they're doing. I'm sure they're all excellent Plumbers out there in real space. But things are different here in the Void. Here, they might as well be rookies. And -just like rookies- they get picked off easily and their equipment stolen. I'd rather you not outfit Servantis and his Rooters with any more new Plumbers tech.”

Arys was professionally insulted. “We do not intentionally outfit-”

But Aggregor cut him off again. “Your intensions are not my concern. Only your results. And your results do not inspire confidence.”

Not for the first time, Rook thought about the possibility of things being different if Kevin were on his team. A member of the Null Void task force. A badge-carrying Plumber, but one whom had lived half his life in the Null Void. The people knew him here, and he understood them. How they thought. Their needs and wants, and how they prioritized those needs and wants. He knew how to talk to natives of the Void. He knew how to make deals with natives of the Void. Compromise and strike truces that would ultimately help the Plumbers.

Things would be so much easier with Kevin working in the Null Void.

There was no sun or stars in the Null Void. No night or day. But Rook had been asleep when Aggregor and his family started breaking camp. He rolled over as the sounds of clattering polls or fluttering canvas disturbed his rest. But he didn't wake fully until he was catapulted out of sleep by the bedroll he was on top of being violently yanked out from under him.

Cracking his back, Rook blinked his eyes and saw Aggregor's younger daughter, Olennor, coiling up the bedroll.

“You sleep late.” She informed him, unapologetic of the fact that she'd just woken him in what was probably one of the rudest ways possible. “Do all Revonnahgander sleep as much, or are you ill?”

Actually, he was up late from anxiety and nerves, but Rook wasn't about to tell her that. Instead, he brushed off his uniform and looked around to see if their weapons would be returned to them.

The older daughter, Aggrenna, had his proto-tool holstered over one shoulder as she helped the other members of the group fold their tent canvases. She did not appear to be giving it back to him any time soon.

Arys hovered over to him, the torso of his own uniform not quite sitting right on his shoulders from sleep. “Morning, Sir.”

Rook noted that the Lewodan hadn't been returned his weapons either. Apparently, Aggregor might trust them enough not to keep them bound and tied, and let them sleep in their camp unsupervised. But he did not trust them enough to return to them their own property.

Olennor gave each of them a light shove before tossing Rook's borrowed bedroll to him. The Revonnahgander had to do some quick fumbling to keep from dropping the bundle. “If you're coming with us, then help.” Olennor barked at them. “Don't just stand there gawking like children.” A pause. Then she nodded to her younger brother. Shirahk was loading rolls of canvas onto the back of a Null Guardian. “The actual child if being more useful than you.”

It seemed that Aggregor's children shared his opinion of the Plumbers and him as a Warden. They were neither helpful nor useful, a Plumbers presence in the Null Void was burdensome to those that lived here.

Once again, Rook found himself wondering if that opinion might be different if Kevin were on the Void team. The Osmosian could provide some of the perspective and understanding that Rook and the rest of his task force were sorely lacking. Kevin belonged in the Null Void. Not as a criminal and prisoner, but as its sentinel and guardian.

It was over twenty-four hours since Warden Rook went out on his ranging mission with Magisters Brom and Arys.

That in and of itself was nothing to get excited about. Ranginess, as a general rule, took a long time. Especially if the mission took a party far from the base -and a mapping mission would do that. A ranging that circled the twenty-four hour mark was about average.

What was a bit alarming and a legitimate cause for concern was the fact that there were no communications from Warden Rook in that time.

Their mapping equipment pinged with the new node. So there was at least confirmation that the ranging mission had been a success. They could not track the drifting asteroid movements in that part of the Void. So, Rook and his team should be on their way back. But there was no vehicle signal from that part of the Void, and with the new mapping node active, there would be no way for them to miss or fail to detect the signal of Plumbers tech in use. If the Warden and his team were on their way back to base, they were not using the THV they originally left in.

The question then became, what should they do?

There were protocols in place for when a Warden was dead, missing, or otherwise unable to fulfill his duties as Warden.

When Rook left the base, he placed another Magister in charge. That Magister would remain in charge until he came back (if he came back). The thing the was really paralyzing them with indecision was whether or not to notify Plumbers Command and the Magistrata, or just wait it out and see if Rook and his team return on their own just my a different means. It was only twenty-four hours. That wasn't uncommonly long for a range mission. But it was twenty-four hours without communication. That was uncommon.

Magister Deccar Chaz glared at the map, at the new mapping node that Warden Rook and his team brought online. They were out there, somewhere in the Void, between the new mapping node and the base. Until Rook returned, Chaz was acting Warden in charge of the Plumbers' Null Void base.

“Alright, we're gonna send out a search team.” Chaz announced. “Five men this time. Head to the last coordinates we know the Warden was at, then head back to the base along the most likely rout they would take. Remember, the signal of the THV they were using is deactivated, so they're probably traveling on foot. Keep in regular radio contact.”

Aggregor's group had two Null Guardians. Tamed and domesticated, they carried the majority of the gear and provisions while individuals only carried small personal items and weapons.

Rook and Arys did not get to carry their weapons.

Their hands were not bound, they had the freedom of their full range of movement. But they had no means of defending themselves if the caravan was attacked -or if their hosts decided Plumbers were better left dead than returned to their base and turned on them. Rook didn't think it very likely after their conversation with Aggregor. But the possibility remained ever present in his mind. One couldn't help but think that way in the company of a criminal as infamous as the Terror of the Andromeda Galaxy.

The Revonnahgander kept an appraising eye on Aggregor's back as they walked. The long hair was gathered into a loose braid so as not to get in the way of drawing the spear that was slung over his back, and the shoulders were starting to hunch with age. If Rooks didn't already know who he was, he would have just assumed Aggregor was just like any other settler in the Void. Hardened by the harshness of the world he lived in, but still one who cared deeply for those of his group, and had the skills to protect what was his.

Aggregor kept his eyes on the ever-shifting landscape of the Void. Scanning the distant horizon for the best path, while also keeping an eye out for mindless monsters and other hostiles of a not-so-mindless nature. Twice during the days march Aggregor called a halt, not for next, but to hide the Null Guardians and lay low until another party had past them.

The first group, Rook couldn't get a good look at. He had been held down by Aggrenna, one blue hand over his mouth keeping him quiet while the other hand shoved him down against a boulder that just barely managed to hide them from view. All the Revonnahgander saw that time mottled blue and violet surface of rock.

But the second time Aggregor called a stop to duck out of the way of another group, both Aggrenna and Olennor drew their spears, keeping the weapons at the read and Rook and Arys were pushed back with Shirahk and the other non-combatant members of the group. With no one holding him down or blocking his view, Rook was able to get a clear view of the party as they passed.

Nehts. Rook had only ever encountered them first hand once in his time as Warden of the Void. Even Servantis and his Rooters had trouble with them and tended to steer clear. The Nehts were a faction of Null Void settlers just like any other. Comprised of a mixture of those born in the Void and those condemned to it as prisoners. What made Nehts particularly unpleasant was that they had not fear in battle. A Neht would run themselves through with a spear if it meant getting close enough to the one wielding it to do any kind of damage. And, second and more disturbing, they ate their own dead. Both the ones they killed and their own fallen tribesmen.

Rook fully understood Aggregor not wanting his caravan to run across the path of a Neht hunting party. Rook wouldn't want his Plumbers trained Scouts and Rangers to run across a Neht hunting party either.

What Rook didn't understand was that, if he was going to make his son hide in the back with the non-fighters and the prisoners, why put weapons in the hands of his other two children and expect them to fight?

As soon as the Nehts were gone and it was once again safe to come out from hiding, Rook sidled up next to Aggregor. “May I ask you a personal question?”

The Osmosian cast him a sideways glance. Appraising and socially stinted, but nowhere near as closed off and guarded as Kevin was sometimes when people asked him personal questions about things he didn't want to talk about. “You can ask.” Answered Aggregor. “That doesn't mean I'll answer.”

Rook supposed that would be the best he could hope for, so he forged on. Undeterred. Thus far, Aggregor hadn't been anywhere near as hostile and confrontational as Kevin tended to be. While the younger Osmosian was easily excitable and quick to anger, this one appeared to be calmer and more analytical. More temperate in his moods and thoughtful in his actions. Rook cast his eyes back at Aggregor's children, wondering how best to phrase his question. In thinking about it, he realized he actually had more questions than just the one.

“Gwendolyn almost died giving birth to Devlin.” He just blurted out. Then, remembering that while the two Osmosians had a 'truce of sorts', that didn't mean they were close enough for Aggregor to know the name of Kevin's son -or that he even had a son at all. “Devlin is the son of Gwendolyn and Kevin. He is Osmosian like Kevin and you. Because he is Osmosian, he almost killed Gwendolyn while she was still carrying him. How is it that you managed to have three children?”

Especially here in the Null Void where they did not have regular and easy access to the healthcare and medical technology that was enjoyed on Earth. Things were pretty bare and basic in the Void. If a pregnant female ran into complications while she was carrying, then all the couple could do would be to hope and worry.

Unless the three children each came from different mothers and the mother had died each time. But, if that were the case, Rook imagined their ages would be closer together. As it was, they were spaced apart enough for it to make perfect sense to have all come from the same mother. But Rook hadn't observed any particularly intimate behavior between Aggregor and any of the other females of his group that were an appropriate age. Maybe the mother had died after all. If not for an Osmosian complication due to gestation or birth, but one of the other many dangers of the Void.

All explanations seemed equally possible to the Revonnahgander.

Aggregor cast another sideways glance at Rook, this time accompanied by a frown.

“Aggrenna and Olennor are not Osmosian.” He finally said after a prolonged pause.

That gave the Revonnahgander a moment's pause. There was just too much resemblance between the girls and Aggregor for them not to be his children. But how could he be Osmosian and his children come out not Osmosian. Then again, that would explain how Aggregor and his mate could have multiple births in such a harsh and unforgiving environment, while Gwendolyn and Kevin just barely managed to have Devlin without Gwendolyn losing her life.

“Kevin and I crossed paths with Servantis shortly after Shirahk was born.” Volunteered the Osmosian. He took his eyes off the path in front of them for just a moment to look back at his youngest child and only son. The boy was sneaking up behind one of his sisters, presumably to knock her feet out from under her with the poll of his spear. But just when he was about to strike, the girl side-stepped his lunge, twirled around and brought the shaft of her own spear down on his back, knocking the boy into the dirt. Aggregor turned his attention back to Rook. “It was explained to us that the Osmosian mutation travels on the Y chromosome. Only boys are affected.”

Only a male child would absorb its mother from the inside.

Aggregor and his mate would have had no reason to assume there was any danger since their first two children were perfectly fine with no complications.

“Kevin and I are very different.” The Osmosian blurted out without prompting.

Rook had to do a double take. He never would have imagined the Terror of the Andromeda galaxy sharing. Especially not his feelings. Then again, Rook had only ever read the older man's file. After that, any holes in his impressions of the criminal were just automatically filled in by his experiences with Kevin. Clearly, not all Osmosians were alike.

“He hates his son because of the danger he presented. Devlin almost killed Gwendolyn and Kevin might never forgive him that.” Aggregor elaborated. “But Shirahk... Yes, Olenna died bringing Shirahk into this world, but he's the last thing she gave me. He and my girls are all I have left of her.”

Eyebrow raised, Rook tilted his head at the Osmosian. “Kevin talked to you about this? So, when you say you and he have a 'truce of sorts' you are actually friends.”

That comment earned nothing but a snort of derision from the older man.

Of course. Whatever strange relationship the two Osmosians had where they helped each other out against a common enemy in the Void and talked about their children with each other, neither of them would characterize it as 'friendship'. But certainly not enemies anymore. It made Rook wonder if Kevin were a member of the Void team, would Aggregor be one of the ones to come over to their side and help support the Plumbers?

Chapter Text

It hadn't even been a full day yet and Devlin was already sick of hobbling around on crutches.

He suffered through teachers giving him concerned looks and asking him if he was having problems at home. When he was first enrolled, the faculty all got a memo informing them that his father was not allowed to pick him up. Were Devlin and his mother alright? Did he want them to call somebody? While the teachers were ready to call family protective services at the drop of a pin, Devlin's fellow classmates were on the opposite side of the spectrum, but equally annoying. They knew his father had been some kind of big name in crime (although they were blissfully ignorant of the details), and they kept asking Devlin if one of Kevin's former mafia buddies tried shaking him down. Or some hired muscle from a rival group hurt him to send a message. Should they be looking out for big guys in Italian suits with Russian accents?

For cripes sake! It was like everyone spontaneously forgot that Ben 10,000 was his uncle (technically second cousin)!

Did they not remember that fighting aliens, monsters, giant robots, and mutants was sort of the 'family business'? No, his father hadn't beat the crap out of him for no reason. In fact, the most Devlin had even seen Kevin this year was in passing. So, please hang up the phone and sit down. What happened to the apathetic teachers that were just done with their jobs? No, he wasn't kneecapped. Yeah, his dad had been a big-name criminal in the past, but that was the past. Kevin was a Plumber again and devoted to protecting people and saving lives, not ending them. When he found out about Devlin's injuries, yeah, he was clumsy and rough -and maybe a little mean- but his overall emotion was concerned and that was kinda incredible for him. Devlin's dad actually cared about him! So, could you all please stop asking stupid questions and spreading absurd rumors? Whatever happened to all the shallow students that were too good to talk to him unless they wanted something?

As seemed to be the usual, Kenny was the only person at school Devlin could stand hanging out with.

He hobbled into the cafeteria and spotted Kenny already standing in line. As Devlin made his slow way to the other boy, Kenny rolled his eyes in exasperation. As soon as the Osmosian was within hearing, the younger boy gave him a very stern order. “Go and sit down, moron! I'll bring our food to you.”

“I can get my own food.” Devlin protested. He put a little bit of that Levin 11 hostility into his voice. His feet were a little tender and he had a limp because of it, he wasn't an invalid. He didn't need to be coddle -he got enough of that at home from his mother. The Osmosian couldn't make Gwendolyn to stop, but he could get snarly and snippy with his cousin. Unfortunately, Devlin was nowhere near as intimidating as Kevin 11,000 and Kenny was unimpressed.

“Oh yeah?” Kenny crossed his arms over his chest as the line moved forward a bit and Devlin drew closer to his cousin. “How ya gonna carry your tray to the table with both your arms occupied?”

“I'll juggle.” Suggested the Osmosian.

“You'll make a mess.” Countered his cousin. The line moved forward again and Devlin did an awkward little hop-skip with his crutches to keep up. Kenny made a face. Then sighed. “Look, I'm not Kevin, okay. You don't have to act all tough and independent for me. Go grab us a table and I'll bring over the food. Its okay to let people take care of you every now and again, Dev.”

It looked like Devlin was about to continue his protests. He wasn't acting all tough and independent. He was tough and independent. If Kenny weren't here, Devlin wouldn't have any one else he could rely on to get his food for him. He would have to take care of himself. He had to keep in the practice of taking care of himself. Because, as he learned under his father being taken from him and thrown into the Null Void semi-periodically, there wouldn't always be someone there to take care of him. Devlin would have succumb years ago if he didn't learn to be tough and independent. He wasn't acting. It was just the way he way. Kenny, coming from a stable household where there was always an adult on hand if he needed one (be that adult Ben, Kai, or Great-grandpa Max) didn't understand just how good he really had it. He took his situation for granted.

But, even Devlin had to admit, it was nice being taken care of every now and again.

So, instead of protesting, the Osmosian relented. “Alright, fine. But I'm only doing this to make you feel better.”

He turned and hobbled away, back across the cafeteria. Devlin scanned the tables for one with two empty chairs close together. He spotted one, hobble dover, leaned his crutches over one empty seat to save it for Kenny, and sat down in the other. The Osmosian glared a challenge at anyone who eyes the other seat, daring them to try and take what he had very clearly already claimed. By this point, everyone in school knew you don't 'take' anything from Devlin Levin. If he has something you want, you offer him a deal and agree to his terms. You broker a trade.

Kenny didn't even hesitate to move Devlin's crutches when he came over with their lunch trays. He just set the trays down to free both his hands and shifted the crutches to lean against the table instead of the chair. Kenny Tennyson was the only one that could ever get anything from Devlin Levin without having to broker for it first.

“Hey, Nerd.” Devlin poked at his meat-like option and wondered what it was actually supposed to be.

“So, are you gonna make a new board?” Kenny asked through a mouthful of powdered potatoes. “For when you're feet heal and you can come back to helping Dad and I on missions.”

Swallowing the bite that was already in his mouth, Devlin decided he wasn't actually all that hungry after all and just started shifting the food around on his plate instead. “Another board, or any other tech for that matter, runs the risk of blowing up or malfunctioning again.” He said. “Guess I just go back to being a monster. I'll be a monster forever.”

“You're not a monster, Dev!” Kenny snapped. Perhaps with a bit more conviction than was necessary. It just really bothered him whenever his cousin and best friend started talking that way about himself. Ever since they first defeated and Kevin and Devlin turned around and with more resignation than anything else in his voice asked 'Are you gonna put me in the Void too?' From that moment, Kenny vowed to never let the other boy feel like less of a person just because of his powers, or who his father was, or any other reason that might make Devlin hate himself. “Yeah, your mutant form might look a little scary, but looking scary isn't what makes a monster a monster. If you don't wanna use it, that's fine. You can still use your tech. There are tons of Plumbers out there without any powers at all that rely on their tech. Don't let one malfunction get you down!”

“Or, I could not risk my equipment exploding on me again, stay a monster forever, never have any friends besides you, and never find true love.” The Osmosian huffed. He stabbed his meat-like-option with his fork and slid the tray away. Holding his face in his hands he heaved a dramatic sigh.

Kenny blinked at the display. “Okay... I think you're in a bad place right now. Maybe talk to your therapist about upping your meds?”

At that comment Devlin looked back up at his cousin. “I'm allowed to be angry, Kenny.” He snapped. “Anti-depressants don't make it so you never feel sad ever. They just keep me stable enough to function like an average non-medicated person.”

“Okay, chill.” The younger boy tried to sooth. “Sorry. I just don't know much about how your meds work.”

Devlin scoffed, but did not deign to explain.

Kenny went back to eating his meal.

After a prolonged pause, Devlin blurted out, “Dad was right. He did try and teach me how not to get blown up. I shouldn't have taken the board out in a real fight before it was tested. If he...” here the Osmosian paused, unsure if this was one of those thoughts he could share with his cousin or if it was something to save for his sessions with Dr. Borges “...If he were allowed to see me, do you think he would have helped me with it? Helped me build it, test it, make sure it was battle-ready.”

There was a beat of silence as all Kenny did was stare at his cousin.

But Devlin was expecting an answer, so the younger boy cleared his throat. “I want you to remember that all my interactions with Kevin have been him trying to kill all of us, or else uncomfortable eye-contact at Plumbers HQ. I really don't know the man at all and I have no idea if he would help you with your board or not. My dad says he's fine to be around now and I would be inclined to believe him, except that your mom won't let you around him still. So, I'm getting a lot of mixed messages here where Kevin Levin is concerned. I am not the person to ask that question.”

Devlin paused, considering an idea that just occurred to him. The Osmosian wanted to ask his father a question, and the other boy had mixed feelings about the older man. There was one easy way to fix both these issues. “Ya wanna go over to his place after school?”

“Who's place?” Kenny blinked.

“My dad's. Kevin's place. The place where he lives now.” Clarified the Osmosian.

Kenny blinked at him. “I feel like that's something that would definitely get us in trouble.”

“And that makes it any different from what we usually do how...?” Devlin countered.

Lock picking was a skill Devlin learned from his father, he never would have thought he have to use it to break into a place owned by his father. The young Osmosian would have smiled at the irony if he weren't also just a little terrified of what his father might do with them once he got home and discovered the boys waiting for him.

But he tried not to think about it. Instead, Devlin leaned his crutches, flopped down on the couch, kicked his shoes off, and surveyed the auto-garage his father had converted into a pretty sweet apartment. Part living room, part man-cave. Devlin actually wouldn't mind having a place like this once he was old enough to move out and live on his own. It smelled vaguely of metal shavings, burt oil, and sweat, with enough wide open space to both park a car and still walk around in a bulky Osmosian mutant form.

Kenny went to inspect the mini-fridge under the counter. All Kevin had was white bread and bologna. He threw these ingredients together in a pale imitation of a sandwich and brought it over to the other boy.

“What's this for?” Devlin blinked at him.

“You need to take your meds with food, right?” Kenny asked by way of explanation. He offered the sandwich to his cousin again. “We didn't stop at Burger Shack or Mr. Smoothy today, so this is what you get. I wanna make sure you take your meds. Its okay to let people take care of you once in a while.”

There was no water to take it with. Kenny didn't trust the water that might come out of the pipes. This was the warehouse district they were in and this wasn't meant to be a residential building.

Devlin popped his meds in his mouth dry and swallowed hard. He took a bite out of the bologna sandwich and pounded it down to chase the pills, both because he couldn't take them on an empty stomach, and also to make sure they went down without water or something to drink.

They then settled into wait for Kevin.

They weren't waiting very long. The older Osmosian's shift ended only a little bit after the boy's school let out. Kevin liked to make a stop on the way home at Mr. Smoothy or Burger Shack too, to get food. Devlin and Kenny were waiting less than half an hour before they heard a car pull up to the roll-up door.

There was the sound of a car door opening and closing again as someone got out to unlock the door. There was the soft sound of metal giggling against metal as they looked at the padlock. Then Kevin's voice very clearly and distinctly exclaiming, “The fuck!?”

The roll-up door was thrown open, rolling up into the ceiling with a loud slam and clunk as punctuation to the Osmosian's exclamation. Kevin stood there, in the center of the wide doorway, his car parked behind him, covered in metal absorbed from the door, one arm morphed into a hammer, the other in to a blade. He looked about ready to kill something.

“Alright! Who's the fucker who thinks it's a good idea to try and start some shit where I live!” He snarled to the open room.

Kenny's hand was on his watch in seconds. Scrolling through his aliens, and looking for something with which to defend himself and his cousin from the hostile villain that was already angry and ready to hurt them.

Devlin sat up on the couch, meeting his father's eyes. “Me. I'm the fucker.”

Kevin blinked, doing a double take. The weapons melted back into hands and the metal armor faded from his form as Kevin recognized his son and his son's idiot friend. “Devlin? What are you doing here?” A pause. “Does your mother know you're here?”

“If Mom knew I was coming here, do you think I'd actually be here?” The younger Osmosian shot back.

Kevin sighed. The boy had a point. It was a stupid question. But that also meant that when Gwendolyn found out the boy was at Kevin's home -and she would find out- she would be livid. And it wouldn't be Devlin that her ire fell on. Oh, no. Kevin was the adult, that meant that he would default to being the responsible party. Children flat out breaking and entering be damned.

Crossing the space between them, the older man grabbed his son't crutches. Stomping over to his car, he threw them in the back seat. He repeated this action with both boy's school bags, Kenny's backpack and Devlin's messenger bag.

“Uh, Kevin, what are you doing?” Kenny asked, unsure how to interpret this behavior from the Osmosian.

Kevin didn't answer. Instead, he just picked his son up off the couch and carried him to the car as well -being mindful of his still injured feet.

“We aren't allowed to see each other unsupervised, Devlin.” He informed the younger Osmosian, and seemingly ignoring the young Tennyson. “Your mother would kill me if I let you stay here.” With a little awkward juggling, Kevin managed to get the passenger side door open and he set the boy down in the seat and buckled the belt for him as if he were a helpless baby that still needed Daddy to strap him in. That done, he whistled at Kenny to follow. “Oy! You too, Tiny-Tennyson. I'm not getting in trouble for you pulling stupid shit just because you decided to pull said stupid shit where I live.”

“Wha-what?” Kenny stammered, still not really sure what was going on. This was not the violent and murderous Kevin 11,000 he met over a year ago, neither was this the quiet and withdrawn Magister Levin he'd gotten used to seeing at Plumbers Headquarters. If Kenny didn't know any better, he would think Kevin was acting like... well, he was almost acting like a real parent. Weird.

“Get in the car!” The Osmosian barked at him when the boy didn't automatically jump to follow. “I'm taking you both home too.”

“Oh.” Kenny climbed in the back seat next to their school bags and Devlin's crutches. “Wait, who's home?”

Kevin really was acting like a real parent. Taking them home and getting them in trouble with their own parents and everything. This was a stark contrast from the raging, bloodthirsty, mutated sociopath Kenny had originally met. Maybe what all the grown-ups kept saying was true. Maybe there was a legitimate difference between Kevin 11,000 and Kevin Levin. Maybe they really were two different people that just happened to also be the same person. Maybe Osmosian powers and energy madness weren't as black-and-white as an after-school children's show.

“But I came here to ask you something.” Devlin protested and his father shut the roll-up door, and climbed back into the drivers seat.

Kevin was unmoved. He backed the car up, then pulled out into the open street, seemingly ignoring the protests, comments and questions of the children in the car. He tapped one of the buttons on the steering wheel and routed a call on his Plumbers badge through the car stereo. The cabin was filled the sound of a ringtone before Gwendolyn's voice cut it off.

“Hey, Baby!” She sounded cheerful. “I just got off work. Did you wanna get dinner together?”

Devlin looked at his father, a silent question going unasked on his face.

“Babe, do you know where your son is?” Kevin did not reply to her offer of dinner. Depending on her approval or disapproval of how he handled discovering their son breaking into his home would determine if he ever got to eat with her again.

Gwendolyn's voice came back without pause. The change was so instant and abrupt, like flipping a switch. “Devlin! Is he okay? Is he hurt? Is it his burns?”

“I'm fine, Mom!” Growled the younger Osmosian with a huff. He crossed his arms over his chest and sulked in his seat.

This time there was a pause before Gwendolyn replied. When she did, her voice was controlled, but only just barely so. It rumbled with maternal concern that was suppressed under a very deadly warning for the boys father. “Kevin, is Devlin there with you?”

“It's not what you think, Babe!” The Osmosian was quick to assure her. “I got home from HQ and your son and his idiot friend had broken into my place.”


“It's not what you think, Mom!” Devlin was quick to assure her. “I wanted to see Dad. There's something I wanted to ask him. So Kenny and I dropped by after school. I wasn't expecting him to freak out like this.”

Freak out in other ways, yes. Hostile and violent ways not unlike his initial reaction before he knew that the ones that had broken in were his son and son's friend. He did not expect his father to not even entertain the idea of them talking unchaperoned, bundling him and Kenny up, and escorting them back to their own homes. There was just something about Kevin reacting this way -like a normal, mundane, Earthling father- that just seemed so unreal to Devlin. Kevin Levin was many things, but a 'responsible parent' wasn't one anyone would consider adding to the list.

“I am not freaking out!” Kevin's voice might have cracked just a little bit when he said that. He was totally freaking out. But he didn't want his wife to overreact and vow never to speak to him again over something that was completely out of his control to prevent. “I just know what your rules are, and I don't want you to blame me for something that is totally not my fault. This kid is like you. He's stubborn with a mind of his own. He goes where he wants, and does what he wants.”

“Yes, I learned that pretty early on when he would fly home from school if I was late picking him up.” Gwendolyn deadpanned.

Devlin cringed in his seat.

She was referring to a very specific incident where, yes, he did transform into his mutant form and fly all the way home from the prep school she'd originally enrolled him in. Yes, it was because she was late picking him up and he didn't see much point in waiting for her when he was perfectly capable of traversing the city on his own. Devlin might have been a little kid, but he wasn't helpless and didn't need his Mommy holding his hand all the time. The part that Gwendolyn didn't mention was that when she got to the school and he wasn't there, it triggered a pretty nasty panic attack. One so bad she literally couldn't think for several minutes and had to be reminded by Ben that she could just track his mana. Devlin was sitting at home, fine and dandy -completely oblivious to the personal hell his mother was going through- when Gwendolyn followed his mana trail home and found him safe, she collapsed to her knees and sobbed. She had lost Devlin once already. He had been taken from her. Kidnapped by his own father. Losing him or having him taken away a second time was one of Gwendolyn's greatest fears. No one knew this better than Devlin himself -and Kevin.

Suddenly, his father's reaction upon finding them at his home didn't seem quite so absurd. He was worried about Gwendolyn's emotional state as much as his own relationship and standing with her. He was considering another person's feelings. That was something that Kevin 11,000 would never do. More and more, Devlin was see that his father really was different. Devlin might have grown up with Kevin 11,000, but Kevin 11,000 wasn't his father. His father was Kevin Levin, and Devlin was only just getting to meet and figure out who that Kevin really was.

There was a beat of silence over the call and for half a moment Devlin wondered if the signal had been dropped.

Then Gwendolyn's voice came back. “Okay, you're gonna bring both the boys over to my place.” She commanded. “I'll call Kai and let her know what's going on. Hopefully, she can come and pick Kenny up. I need to talk to Devlin about boundaries and what they're actually there for. Then we'll have dinner together.”

“We?” Kevin asked, wondering if 'we' was referring to herself and Devlin and he would be sent home alone, or if 'we' was referring to herself and Kevin going out and Devlin would be left home alone to think about what he did.

“You did the right thing, Baby.” She informed him. “You called me immediately and are bringing the boys home. That deserves a reward. So, we'll have dinner together as a family, you, me, and Devlin.”

Kevin smiled. That was a better deal than he was expecting.

“Excuse me!” Devlin snapped at the car stereo as if his mother might feel his glare through the cellular signal. “Does Devlin get a say in this?”

“Considering the fact that you violated my ban on you being alone with your father and broke into his apartment, no. You don't get a say in this.” Gwendolyn informed him. “Wasn't there something you wanted to ask him anyway? You two can discuss it to your hearts' content right there in front of me. That way I'll know whats going on with you two and neither of you will be going behind my back.”

“I get the feeling you don't trust me.” Devlin was politely insulted.

“Its me she doesn't trust.” The older Osmosian informed him, a genuine attempt to sooth the younger man's hurt feelings. 'Trust' would always be a touchy subject for any Osmosian.

“Its not a matter of trust.” Gwendolyn informed the both of them. “Its a matter of you Osmosians not knowing what's good for you, so I wanna hear what you have to say and make sure neither of you are doing anything stupid.”

“Jee, its almost like you think we're self-destructive, or something.” Kevin laughed. He was the most self-destructive person he knew.

“I can't imagine why...” Gwendolyn joked back. “I'm gonna call Kai, hanging up now.”

The call ended with a click.

Kevin heaved a sigh. “Hm. That went better than I was expecting.”

“Maybe for you.” Kenny growled from the back seat. “Now I get to listen to a lecture from Aunt Gwendolyn, then a second one from my mom. Thanks Kevin. Anyone ever tell you you're a bit of a jerk.”

“That and worse.” The Osmosian grinned at him in the rearview mirror.

Both Gwendolyn and Kai were already there when Kevin pulled up to the house. Kai's car was taking up the second spot in the driveway, so the Osmosian had to find street parking.

For a moment after he cut the engine, Kevin wondered if the two women were about to lecture him on being around the children unsupervised. There were never any legal or otherwise official restraining orders leveled against him. But, Gwendolyn made it abundantly clear that he was not allowed to be around his son without another -trusted- adult watching him. He imagined Kai would probably hold a similar opinion with him and her own child.

But it was not Kevin they fixed their stern glares on once all three of them had climbed out of the car.

Kai marched right up to the trio as Kevin was handing Devlin his crutches while also helping the younger Osmosian with his balance. Kai grabbed her son by the arm and pulled him away from the group.

“What in hell were you thinking!?” She demanded. “Breaking into people's homes! What if Kevin wasn't as stable as he is? Do you not remember what he was like when Devlin first let him out of the Void? What if he was still a criminal? He could have killed you! As it is, you're lucky all he did was call Gwendolyn.”

“Also, breaking into people's homes is wrong.” Gwendolyn added, coming up beside Kai and shooting her a significant look.

She wanted to remind the other woman that while Kevin had been a criminal in the past and done heinous acts, and the possibility of his falling back into that was always there, he was still Gwendolyn's husband and Devlin's father, and she did have hopes of -one day- repairing their relationship enough to put her family back together. It would make things awkward if Devlin's best friend was terrified of his father. Gwendolyn turned her attention to said family, her husband and son.

After spending the entire day in school, Devlin was trying to put as little weight on his burned feet as possible. He was leaning against Kevin while the older man held his crutches for him. She never would have imagined Kevin being so attentive to their son's needs or caring for his pains. He really had come a long way. And Devlin was trusting the older man to take care of him even after the way Kevin treated him. Both of them had come a long way. And in such a short amount of time, too! It had only been a year and most of that time they haven't even been allowed to see each other. Osmosians truly were amazing and adaptable creatures.

“And why, exactly, were you braking into your father's house?” She asked, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring at her son.

Kevin was still a little shocked to not be the one in trouble.

Getting both his crutches under him and transferring his weight from his father to the mobility aids, Devlin glanced between both his parents. “Look, I just wanna take my shoes off and change my bandages. Can I go inside now?”

He hobbled past his parents to the front door- -and was nearly knocked over by Zed bounding out of said door at the speed of light. Since moving in with his mother Devlin had never seen the old Anubian Baskurr move so fast. With an excited yip, the alien dog pushed past the young Osmosian (throwing him off balance), and sprinted across the grass of jump up into Kevin's arms. The older Osmosian was similarly thrown off balance and had to lean his weight against his car to keep from either dropping the elderly dog, or falling down himself. Zed seemed oblivious to the chaos she caused as she licked Kevin's face affectionately, her tail wagging a mile a minute.

It never ceased to bother Devlin just how much Zed preferred his -evil- father over him.

The younger Osmosian grit his teeth, rolled his eyes, and went inside.

“You're just gonna leave me?” Kenny wined after his retreating back.

Kai pulled him back to her, fixing her son with a stern glare. “He's not leaving you, you've coming home with me.”

Applying gentle pressure to the boy's shoulder, Kai steered her son towards her car. Kevin watched the boy get herded and strapped into the passenger seat and couldn't help but notice his clear lack of protest. If it were Tennyson taking the boy home, a near non-stop string of excuses, pleas, and bargains would be tumbling out of his mouth. Ben was a pushover because he wanted to be the 'fun parent'. He equated 'good parenting' to his kid thinking he was 'cool'. But not Kai. Kai was the unquestionable authority. She imposed consequences and upheld stability. Unlike Ben, whom was all excitement and fun with the occasional dad-joke and awkwardly timed coddling.

After they were gone Kevin looked to Gwendolyn, a silent question in his eyes asking what they would do now. She mentioned something about dinner together, but the Osmosian knew enough to know that that offer could be revoked at any time for no reason. She still had her misgivings about Kevin being around their son -even if he was showing marked improvement and doing everything right.

He put Zed down and tried to wipe the slobber from his face. “So...”

Gwendolyn sighed. “Come inside and wash up.”

The Osmosian smiled. Dinner with the wife and kid. Like a real family. That was something none of them had ever done before.

Devlin was unwrapping his bandages when Kevin walked in.

Sitting on the couch, his shoes kicked off, backpack forgotten on the floor. The young Osmosian peeled the medical gauze off his feet, revealing that some of the blisters had popped, making the whole area wet and sticky in an uncomfortable way. Kevin was no stranger to wounds, gore, and gross bodily fluids. But for some reason they seemed to bother him so much more when seeing open wounds leaking fluid on his own child. That was something he hadn't really experienced during his eleven years spent as Kevin 11,000.

“You should probably wash that.” The older Osmosian informed the younger.

“Naw... ya think!” Devlin snapped back, unamused.

With a huff of exasperation Kevin picked his son up off the couch and carried him into the downstairs bathroom.

“Hey! Lemme down! What are you doing!” Protested the boy.

Gwendolyn was next to them in a flash. Kevin never saw his wife move anywhere near as fast as she did whenever she perceived her baby to be in danger -and Kevin was still filed in the 'dangerous to Devlin' column in her mind. “What's going on here?”

“He's being overbearing and pushy again!” Devlin fumed, still struggling ineffectually in his father's hold.

“I was gonna help him clean his burns.” The older Osmosian informed her as calmly as he could with a disgruntled pre-teen squirming in his arms.

“I don't want your help!” Devlin snapped at him. “I can take care of myself!”

“I know.” Kevin nodded. “And that's my fault. Now lemme make sure you at least know how to take care of yourself correctly.”

Gwendolyn flushed. Sure, Kevin had been back to his old self again for a year now, but she never would have imagined that he'd admit to his terrible parenting (and she applied that word loosely) giving Devlin unhealthy coping mechanism and an inability to ask for help even when needed. But he did admit just that. Not only did he admit it, but acknowledged that it was a problem and that if Devlin wanted to continue to refuse help and refuse to allow other people to take care of him, then he better be sure he knew how to take care of himself correctly. Gwendolyn felt her heart do a giddy little flutter. Kevin care. It had taken him twelve years and having all of his surplus energy painfully ripped out of his body, but Kevin finally cared about their son.

“I'll supervise.” She said, smiling at both of them.

Devlin looked betrayed that his mother wasn't taking his side, telling his father to put him down and back. How could she!?

Kevin looked pleased with himself. His wife was finally trusting him to do more with their son than just breath the same air as him. It was amazing progress on all sides.

Setting the boy down on the bathroom counter, Kevin turned on the cold water -only the cold- and finished peeling off the remaining bandages. He cringed visibly when some of Devlin's skin came off when them. If Devlin didn't seem to be in pain from it, then it was probably dead skin and needed to come off anyway.

Holding the first foot by the unburned part of the ankle, Kevin held it under the running water. Watching more white and wrinkled skin wash away, while the open blisters oozed yellow-orange fluid. He held the boy's foot under the faucet until the water ran clear again, then patted it down with antibacterial ointment, and rewrapped the wound in fresh sterile gauze. Kevin repeated all of this with the other foot. When he was done, he double checked his wrap job to make sure it wasn't too tight and cutting off circulation, but also not too loose that it would let particles into the wounds that might cause infection.

Finally done, Kevin took a step back, giving the boy the option of fleeing if he still wanted to.

Devlin remained sitting on the counter, glaring at both his parents. “I could have done all that myself.”

“Yeah, but this way I know its done right.” Kevin shrugged.

“Sure. Cause I can't do anything right.” The younger Osmosian shot back, glaring at his father.

That sounded suspiciously like dragging up an old argument or poking at an old wound to Gwendolyn, something that would get the two Osmosians snarling and yelling at each other again in no time. She she shut it down right away. Sliding between father and son she interrupted their banter before it had the opportunity to escalate into anything less innocent. “Now that that's done, Devlin, don't you have homework to do? I'll fix you a snack so you have something to take your medicine with.”

“I already took my meds.” The boy grumbled.

Gwendolyn couldn't help that small smile at that. Unlike his father at that age, her son was responsible, and mindful of his body's -and mind's- needs. Into his mid-forties now and Kevin still hadn't quite figured out his body and mind's needs. But one Osmosian man-child at a time. “Kevin, could you please carry Devlin back to his backpack so he can make a big show of starting his homework before I turn my back and he gets distracted by -literally- anything else. Then come join me in the kitchen.”

Kevin picked the boy up again, and this time his protests weren't nearly as loud or animated. Devlin just crossed his arms over his chest and grumbled.

“I can walk, ya know. I've been walking all day.”

Kevin set the boy down back on the couch next to his discarded messenger bag.

True to Gwendolyn's prediction, he did make a big production of taking out textbooks, paper, and pens. He cracked open one book and started chewing his pen as he read questions for short answers. Kevin remembered having to do a lot of reading followed by twice as much written work back at the Plumbers Academy. Gwendolyn excelled at it, of course. Kevin was proud to admit he did about as good as Tennyson on the bookwork. Devlin being both his and Gwendolyn's son, it was a bit of a coin toss on which side the younger Osmosian would fall.

Hooking her arms around her husband's waist, Gwendolyn steered Kevin into the kitchen. “C'mon, big guy.”

In the kitchen, Gwendolyn took out two steaks that she had marinating. It was enough for herself and Devlin. Kevin eating with them hadn't exactly been the plan. She moved the steaks to the freezer and took out in their place a package of frozen turkey meatballs. Then from the fridge a jar of pasta sauce, and from the pantry a package of spaghetti. She handed the spaghetti to the Osmosian.

“I assume you still know how to boil water.” She smirked at his expression of sudden bewilderment. “I told you, you were gonna help me cook. Pots and pans are where they've always been.”

To illustrate this, she opened a bottom cabinet and withdrew from it one large cooking pot and a smaller sauce pan. She handed the pot to Kevin to fill with water and placed her sauce pan on the stove. Turning on the fire, she oiled the pan and threw in the frozen meatballs.

“I can cook the meat.” Kevin volunteered.

Gwendolyn gave a short clip of a laugh. “You don't 'cook' meat, Baby. You warm it up to body temperature then eat it raw.”

“I do not!” The Osmosian was politely insulted. Just because he liked his steak rare, she got this idea in her head he eats his meat raw and freshly dead.

She just rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to cooking. She lifted the pan, rolling the meatballs around until they were all evenly coated in the cooking oil.

With a sigh, Kevin finished filling the pot with water, added a little olive oil of his own, threw in the spaghetti, and set it to boil.

“This is nice.” He said after a pause. “Us, making dinner together. We haven't done this in a while.” Usually, for all their rendezvous, they would either go out to eat or order something delivered. They were both busy people with limited free time. They didn't want to burn up their time together with tedious tasks like cooking their own damn food. “Hey, remember that time, not long after we moved into the little apartment, you invited your parents over for dinner. We cooked for four people, then when they showed up it turned out your mother decided you had invited the whole family over. So we were invaded by the whole Tennyson clan. Your parents, Ken and his husband, Ben and his parents, Kai, and Grandpa Max, all crammed into our tiny apartment expecting to be fed.”

Gwendolyn had to cover her nose and mouth with her hand to avoid snorting into the food. “We have to eat in the building's rec room because we wouldn't all fit in our dining room.”

“We didn't have a dining room, Babe.” Kevin reminded her. It had been a very small apartment. “And as I recall, there wasn't enough food to feed everyone and we had to order delivery. Most expensive family dinner I've ever been a part of. Meals for eleven people from Golden Dragon, plus tip!”

This time, instead of a snort, Gwendolyn gave a proper laugh at the memory. “The whole time, my mother kept giving me this disapproving look. Like I had dishonored the ancestors, or something.”

“Oh, she gave me a fair helping of that look too.” Kevin assured her. Gwendolyn's mother never had warmed up to the Osmosian and made no secret of the fact that her daughter could have done so much better. “I think Kai and Ken's husband also got their own helpings of her disapproval.”

“My mother does love to judge people.” Nodded the sorceress. Gwendolyn loved her mother, truly. But she would never forgive her about that 'polite people don't glow in the dark' comment she made about her use of her Anodite powers. To spite that fact that she married into an alien family, Natalie Tennyson was actually xenophob -along with other discriminatory views. “Do you remember how she blew up when Ken came out?”

Kevin gave the noddles a stir. “Thankfully, that was one family dinner I was not present for. But I do remember Ken pulling his car into my garage and telling me everything was broken.” A pause. “He wasn't talking about the car.”

“After Mom freaked out she kinda threw the boyfriend out, called him some inappropriate words, and told him she never wanted to see his face around the family again. The boyfriend broke up with Ken that night. I don't even remember his name.”

“Sounds like a shitty night. But I liked that public defender lawyer he eventually married.” Kevin informed her. “He had some very progressive opinions on sentence-to-crime proportions and prisoner treatment.”

Gwendolyn poked at the meatballs. Deciding they were tender enough, she threw in the jar of sauce, adding extra garlic, basil, and pepper. “I remember Ken and I joking that you two should get married instead.”

“Nah.” Kevin shook his head, giving the noodles another stir. “You and I fit together much better.”

“I could think of a couple ways you could fit together with another man.” She joked.

“Not what I meant, but our minds have been in two different places lately.” Kevin shook his head. He gave the pot another stir, lifted a single noodle to test its tenderness. “Spaghetti's done.”

Gwendolyn nodded, stirring the sauce, and giving the meatballs another test. “Sauce still needs a few minutes. Why don'y you go set the table.”

Kevin nodded, turning off the heat on the spaghetti, and exited the kitchen. Back in the living room, he found his son right where they'd left him. Sitting on the couch surrounded by textbooks and incomplete homework. But Devlin was not studying. As Gwendolyn predicted, the dutiful son starting on his bookwork right away was all a show. Devlin was now reclining on the couch, perusing an e-reader.

“Is that for school, or for fun?” He asked.

Startled, Devlin almost jumped when he set down the e-reader and blinked at his father. “What do you care?”

“Your mother might care.” The older Osmosian reminded him.

With a huff, the boy sat back up and pulled his open and neglected textbook into his lap.

Satisfied that he had been successful in his impromptu parenting attempt, Kevin turned his attention to the dining room and his mission of setting the table. It was only three place settings. Nothing like the thirteen places they would have to set for a new gathering of the Tennyson clan. What made it difficult was Zed constantly getting under foot. Rubbing against his legs like a cat begging for attention, and gazing up at him with a hopeful whine. As if to ask if he was coming home to stay for good. He spent most of the weekend at the house, now he was back for dinner. Was he coming home? Please be coming home! You're the Osmosian I like. The Osmosian puppy is trying to be nice now, but he almost killed me. You saved me from Galvan Prime when Malware was tearing it apart. I like you.

Unfortunately for Zed, Kevin was finding her enthusiastic and smothering affection annoying. It was getting in the way of him doing things. She never used to be this clingy before he left. She never used to be this clingy until she almost died, and when she woke up in the Plumbers infirmary, Kevin was gone.

“Zed, please!” He finally snarled at her after almost tripping and planting his face in the dining table. “I missed you too, but you're getting in the way! Go relax in the living room.”

The Anubian Baskurr took one step towards the living room, ready to comply with her master's orders. But ten her eyes fell on Devlin still sitting on the couch. She sat down in the doorway and gave a whine of desperation.

Kevin set down the handful of forks he was holding and walked over to her. “Zed, it's okay.”

“She's afraid of me!” Devlin called from the couch. The moment his father left the room the textbook was back down and the e-reader was in his hands again.

Most of the time, Zed would spend most of her time in the opposite end of the room that Devlin was in. But some days were better than others. Sometimes she would get bold and walk up to Devlin, sniff his hand, almost let him pet her, before changing her mind and bolting. But mostly, she was skittish and suspicious. There were days when she wouldn't even enter the same room as the young Osmosian. One time -early on- she spent a whole day outside in the backyard to avoid him. She only came inside when it got dark and the cold made her bones hurt.

Kevin sighed. This had to stop. Zed was a member of the family. There was once a time in his life when he would have been content to only have Zed and no biological children of his own. But Devlin was his biological son, and even though they were estranged now, they were still all family, and Zed had to live with Devlin.

Walking back into the living room, Kevin flopped down on the couch next to his son. He made a face of disapproval at the boy once again ignoring his homework after he already reprimanded him once. But that wasn't what he was here for now. He patted his knee. “Zed, come 'ere.”

The dog hesitated a moment. Glancing from between Devlin and Kevin. Finally, she slowly crept forward to rest her head on the Osmosian's knee.

Kevin scratched her ears and the back of her neck until she relaxed a little bit. “Good girl.” Then, to his son, “Devlin, hold out your hand.”

“What?” The boy blinked.

Zed also gave an 'ar-oof' of dismay.

“It'll be okay.” Kevin told both of them. “Devlin, gimme you're hand. She needs to smell you.”

“She knows what I smell like, we live together.” The younger Osmosian protested. He'd rather be doing his homework than having his father try and pretend to understand other people and animals, and act a mediator between him and the family dog.

“Okay, but if she's gonna let you pet her, she's gonna need to smell you each time.” Kevin explained. “Show her that you're asking permission and let her decide if she'll let you or not.”

Hesitantly, almost as hesitantly as Zed seemed, Devlin extended his hand. Almost immediately, Zed tried pulling away. But Kevin placed a comforting hand on the back of her neck, alternating between scratchies and rubs until she relaxed. Finally, she rested her head on Kevin's knee again. The older Osmosian guided guided his son's hand to in front of her nose. She looked at Kevin hesitantly. He was calm and in control. Finally, Zed gave Devlin's hand a few shallow sniffs, then lowered her eyes. It was more submission than permission, but Kevin wasn't about to let anything happen to his dog. Not again. He let go of Devlin's hand.

“Now give her a little pet.” He ordered. “Be gentle and go slow.”

About as hesitantly as Zed had been when she came over, Devlin extended his fingers. He stroked up one of her pointed blue ears, paused to see if she was going to protest, whimper in fear, or run away. When she didn't, he repeated the motion on the other ear. Then Devlin looked at Kevin. Zed also turned her eyes to gaze at him, as if questioning what they were supposed to do now.

“There.” He said, smiling at them both. Legitimately smiling. Not just at Zed, but at Devlin too. Kevin never thought he would ever actually smile at his son for real. An honest to goodness smile of pride and affection. “Now, was that so bad?”

Zed gave a little wine of admission. No. It wasn't that bad. Devlin wasn't as bad as he was when he was still a new puppy.

Devlin pulled away. “She still hates me.”

“It'll take time.” Kevin assured him. Fixing broken relationships took time. Some more than others. The Osmosian had a lot of experience with that. It was easy to rebuild trust where there was already a history of trust. But Devlin was still newborn when he almost killed Zed. That was their history. That was their only history. There was no friendship before it to call back to or rebuild on.

Gwendolyn came out carrying a serving tray of spaghetti. She looked at both her boys sitting on the couch with the dog. Zed never hung out so close to Devlin. “Something wrong?”

“No.” Devlin said. He looked back at the dog, it was the first time Zed had let him touch her since he came to live with his mother. He glanced up at his father, and it was all thanks to Kevin. “Actually, everything's fine.”

Chapter Text

Dad wasn't home when Kenny arrived back at Plumbers HQ with his mother. But then, that was no surprise. The great Ben 10,000 was rarely home, even more so now that the Time War was happening from this end of the timeline now. So, it would just be Kenny, Kai, and Max for dinner. Another familiar set-up.

Grandpa cooked. That was aways a bit of a coin toss. Great-grandpa Max was actually a really good cook -when he actually cooked standard Earthling fair that is. More often than not, though, Max bought alien meats and produce from off-world imports, or extraterrestrial farmers markets. Tonight was one such night.

Kenny poked at his meat, which was purple in color and spongy in texture, and looked to the empty seat at the table where his father was supposed to usually sit. This was not the first family dinner Ben had been absent for, Kenny was no stranger to having dinner without his father. But there was just something that felt so off about his father not being present at a family dinner on the same night that Aunt Gwendolyn finally let Devlin's dad home to have dinner with them.

He would never say it out loud, Kenny knew better than to give voice to such a though, but it kinda felt like the closer Devlin's family got together, the farther his own family drifted apart. Kenny could not remember seeing his parents in the same room together more than once in the last week. Meanwhile, Aunt Gwendolyn and Kevin had spent most of the weekend together before Devlin's injury. When Devlin was injured, they came to the infirmary to see him together. After the Osmosian was kicked out, Gwendolyn left to check-up on Kevin. They were more than just technically still married, they were an actual couple. Kenny looked at his mother, then to his father's empty seat. His parents hadn't been a couple in years.

After a few bites of his dinner, Kenny decided he just wanted to get out of the room. He pushed his plate away. “May I please be excused? I have a lot of homework to do.”

“Let me know if you need any help with your homework, okay.” His mother told him as she nodded her permission to leave the table.

Kenny nodded as he pushed away from the table. Gathering his plate, he deposited it next to the kitchen sink before making a B-line for him room. Kenny threw his backpack on his bed, but he didn't even paused to glance at it, let alone opening it up and take out a textbook. Instead, the boy grabbed his hoverboard, opened his window and jumped out.

Wind rushed by his ears as Kenny let himself free-fall for a few moments. Eyes closed, enjoying the cold of the air and the bite of the sheer on his skin. Then he switched his board on, got it under his feet, and zoomed off through the sky. He didn't have any particular destination in mind, he wasn't heading in any specific direction. Much like when he stormed out on his tenth birthday party, Kenny was trying to outrun emotions he had no other outlet for and couldn't process on his own.

Normally, Kenny would head to Aunt Gwendolyn's house -to Devlin. But with Kevin spending the evening there (possibly the night?) that did not seem like an option.

So, he just flew aimlessly. Making large figure-8s around the city.

“Lovely night for brooding, isn't it.” A voice commented from his left.

Kenny almost fell off his board from shock when he turned to see a man hovering in the air next to him. His torso poking out from a glowing green and pink circle that could only be described as a 'crack' in the air. The gap inside the circle looked as if it was from another part of space entirely. A wormhole, maybe? Kenny sputtered helplessly, some choice expletives tumbling from his lips as he both gaped in shock while simultaneously also trying not to fall to his death. The man grabbed his arm to help steady him and Kenny landed his hoverboard on the first available rooftop.

The man stepped the rest of the way out of his portal -Kenny decided to call it a portal- and joined him on the roof. The gap in space closing behind him.

Taking a few moments to catch his breath, Kenny had to actively tell himself that he was alive and he hadn't just had a fatal hoverboard accident, fallen to his death, and Mom and Dad weren't going to be planning his funeral any time soon. Devlin would still have his best friend in the morning.

“It seems I gave you quite a fright there.” Said the man. “Come now, Kenneth, after listening to all your father's stories, you must know who I am. Is it really so shocking that we might meet?”

“Well, when you appear out of nowhere a million miles up in the air!” The boy snapped at him. Then he did a double take, blinking, and really looked at the mysterious madman. On the older side of middle aged, hair still its natural black with only the sides graying into a silver. Wearing a white lab coat with shoulder epaulettes and fringe, steampunk-style goggles, heavy gauntlet-style gloves, and clunky boots. His appearance was a bit more loud and in-your-face than the unassuming old military scientist Kenny had seen pictures of. But there was still no mistaking him. “Holy crap! You're Professor Paradox!”

“Got it in one.” Smiled the old man. He pulled an old vintage pocket watch from his coat pocket and consulted the time. ('Time' being a relative term in this instance.) “And you, young man, are right on schedule for your appointment with destiny.”

This statement was accompanied by an ominous gust of wind and Kenny couldn't help but snort at just how cheesy it felt. Like, Hollywood B-movie level of cliché. A dark night, city lights, a mysterious old man, the 'date with destiny' line, and a literal change in the wind. Kenny had to cover his face with his hand to hide his giggles.

“I beg your pardon.” Professor Paradox blinked at him. “But did you just laugh at me?”

“Well, yeah.” Kenny had to take in a deep breath to get himself back under control. “I mean, ya gotta admit, this whole set-up is totally cliché and lame.” He spread his arms in a wide arc to indicate the open roof, the shift in the wind, the city lights, and the dark night.

“I'll have you know that meetings like this are a tradition!” Paradox informed the boy testily. “Why, when Ben first met me it was also a dark night. Destiny tends to happen at night. I can't imagine why. But it does. Its almost a law of the universe at this point.”

Crossing his arms over his chest, Kenny set his feet and aimed a challenging glare at the Time Walker. “Okay, so what destiny am I gonna be meeting tonight?”

“Well, this is a fine attitude.” Paradox humph'd. “I would have thought you'd be excited to be met by a time walking professor and told your destiny awaits you. After all, isn't this what you wanted? To work by Ben's side in the Time War, and possibly time crises beyond.”

That changed Kenny's demeanor entirely. This wasn't another grown-up come to tell him that his coping mechanisms weren't healthy, or that he was irresponsible and needed to manage his emotions better. Paradox wasn't here to tell him how to live his life. Instead, Paradox was here to help him live his life the way he wanted. As a hero, like his father before him.

“Ah, ready to listen I see.” The older man smiled. “Let us take a walk, shall we?”

Kenny snorted again. He couldn't help it. “A long walk off a short roof?”

“Oh, no, my dear boy.” Paradox shook his head. “A long walk through an even longer time-stream.”

He put a hand on the younger man's shoulder and the two of them were wrapped up in a wash of green. To any bystanders that might have looked out their window at that moment, they would have seen nothing more than a flash of green light leaving behind an empty, vacant roof. A single abandoned hoverboard the only indication that someone had been there.

Kenny felt more than heard a howling in his ears. Not the howling of beings, but more like the rush of air. Air moving so fast it was like a living thing. But there wasn't even the slightest of breeze on his skin. Light flashed through his eyes, visions of images and events streaking by so fast and so thin they were like needles of motion and color. Kenny felt almost motion sick, yet his body wasn't actually moving. It was the universe that was moving around him. The passing of space, planets rotating around suns, sun's rotating in their galaxies, galaxies rotating within the universe. A universe rotating around him and Paradox. And all of time spinning along with it. For one moment, Kenny honestly and truly was the center of the universe. The moment lasted only half a second, taking up the space between the tik and tok of a clock's gears. And it was also five billion years, as long as the Earth was old. Kenny shut his eyes against all the sensations that were overloading every organ he had.

But when he opened his eyes again, they had returned to real space.

The whole journey took only the time to blink his eyes.

Blinking a few more times, Kenny had to do a double-take to process what it was he was actually seeing.

'Destruction' was a good descriptor. The ground was littered with the remains of broken buildings. Shattered glass and bent frames of windows. Warped girders and crumbled concrete of walls. Collapsed street lights. Ribar sticking up from piles of cracked asphalt. Sidewalks and streets cracked and pot-marked from falling debris. All of it radiating outward from a central point.

Kenny followed the converging paths of destruction with his eyes. Expanding his view of the destruction. As he widened his gaze, Kenny began to recognize the broken city he was looking at. The layout of the streets. The remnants of the buildings. It was Bellwood. Bellwood lay in ruins. The point from which its destruction came was Plumbers Headquarters. If Kenny's recognition of the streets -the layouts and the buildings- was correct, then the center of it all was Plumbers HQ. But where the tower that Kenny called home usually stood was a smoking crater. A crater as deep as the underground headquarters had been. The Plumbers building was utterly, totally, and completely gone. Just gone.

But in its place... a crack.

A crack in space.

Not like the smooth, round portal Professor Paradox had first appeared through. That one was small and obviously controlled.

This was a jagged fissure, stretching up from the depths of the crater and clawing its way into the sky, cutting through the dark of the night. And through that crack was a different landscape entirely. A swath of red. Crimson sky, mottled with shades of burgundy and fuchsia. Drifting in that sky, unanchored by the gravity of a planet, were islands of rock. Asteroids in shades of violet. Kenny had never been to the Null Void before, but he had seen pictures. Pictures enough to be able to recognize it when he saw it. That was the Null Void on the other side of that crack in space. Someone had torn open a rift between Earth and the Null Void. A rift that was not self-correcting. It was not closing. The very fabric of dimensions broken open. Cracked like an egg.

Kenny blinked up at Professor Paradox. “Why are you showing me this?”

“This-” Paradox indicated the destruction before them. Not only the destroyed city, representing countless lives lost, but also the crack in space, damage to the very universe itself. A wound in the laws of nature that reality herself could not heal. “-this is the worst case scenario. This is what might happen should all the parties fail in their respective tasks. I find it helps matters to show the worst possible outcome before charging young champions with a mission and responsibility beyond their years.”

Paradox showed Ben a similarly destroyed Earth the first time they met in Los Solidad.

Kenny just gaped at the broken landscape. The broken sky. The broken universe. “How- how does this happen?”

“Oh, a number of things come together in an unfavorable way.” Paradox answered cryptically. “I imagine you've already recognized the Null Void on the other side of that rift. One of the things that needs to happen to stop this is Kevin must take the Null Void deployment. Devlin must discover and learn to use the powers he got from his mother-”

“But Devlin doesn't have any powers from Aunt Gwend-”

“-and while all that is going on within our side, the enemy will still be moving.” Paradox continued, ignoring Kenny's comment. He looked down at the boy, meeting the younger man's eyes. “We need to throw a spanner in their works.”

Kenny just stared back at him.

Their eye-contact lasted longer than he was comfortable with. So he blinked, breaking the connection. “And let me guess, I'm supposed to be that spanner.”

“If you like.” Nodded the professor. He reached into a coat pocket and pulled out what looked like an innocuous and mundane looking belt buckle. Round and white with a green center. It was actually very similar to the one he already wore. Paradox handed it to him. “But you'll need this.”

Kenny held out his hand, taking the otherwise normal looking belt buckle. “What is it?”

“A vortex manipulator. A time travel device.” Supplied the professor. “You'll need it if you plan to join your father in the Time War.”

At that announcement, Kenny looked up startled. It was true that he did want to work with his father more, participate in the Time war, help protect the universe and all that. But Kenny had only said as much out loud once. In a conversation with Devlin. In a private conversation with Devlin. How did Professor Paradox know about that?

“I believe there was also some discussion about concealing your identity.” Paradox added. “The sentai aesthetic was mentioned.”

Seriously! How did he know?

Paradox had to actually open his coat for his one, but from inside his coat he pulled a full body suit, complete with boots, scarf and a helmet that would cover his whole face and conceal his identity. Kenny took the suit in his hands, feeling the fabric. It was very similar to what they made proto-tech armor out of. Strong, but light weight and pliable. It felt like something that would hug every contour of his body, showing off every muscle. Kenny was already feeling a little self-conscious and he hadn't even put the thing on yet.

“What am I supposed to do?” He finally asked at length.

“Oh, a number of things...” Paradox sighed. “Retrieve a Techadon troop carrier, recapture Dr. Animo, bring Devlin back to his present after Maltruant sends him back to 2018, make coffee... general time travel things. You know how it is. Or, you will know how it is.” He consulted his watch again. “But in the meantime I think you should just get used to the vortex manipulator. Practice with it. And maybe break in your sentai suit. You know, I put blasters in the arms and added rockets to the boots. Children love rocket boots!”

Kenny looked at the white sentai costume in his hands again. This time, his eyes fell on the faux-Omnitrix on his wrist. “What about the Omnetrix?”

"What about it?" Echoed Paradox, almost as if he'd forgotten such a device even existed.

“Well, should I still use it?” The boy asked, as if this should have been a much more important issue to address. Certainly he felt it was more important than providing a costume.

“I imagine you would blow your secret identity rather quickly if you were to use an Omnitrix in front of any version of your father.” The professor reminded him.

“Right.” Kenny nodded, realizing that it was actually a stupid question. He should have known that. Maybe he wasn't as smart as he thought he was. Or, maybe Professor Paradox just had knowledge he did not -being the Time Walker and all- and knew what would and would not be important.

Paradox consulted his watch again. “In any event, I must be getting on my way. Calvin Coolidge owes me five dollars and I want to collect before the Market Crash.”

He was gone in a flash of green light. One moment he was there, then, in the time it took to blink his eyes, he wasn't.

Kenny stared at the spot the professor had just vanished from. He looked up at the empty night sky. Complete empty, no airplanes, satellites, or even a moon and stars. Just darkness. He looked back to the crack in space, the Null Void looming beyond. Even the asteroids drifting on the other side looked blasted and broken. Everything in the possible future seemed wrong. And Paradox had just left Kenny here. Alone.

“How am I supposed to get home?” He asked of the empty landscape.

There was another flash of green light and a note materialized out of thin air in front of him. It drifted down to land on top of the costume Kenny was still holding, face up so that he could clearly read the words written on it. 'Use the device I just gave you.'

Ben was tangled up in socks.

Or, rather, Ben as Ball Weevil was tangled up in socks. It didn't occur to the Hero of the Universe to just transform back into his human shape, or maybe shift to a different alien. No. With Sunder's axe bearing down on him all the teenage Hero could think of was to struggle and dodge.

Sunder brought the axe down, seemingly aiming for Ben's head, but he had skewed the blow a little to the right -his right. So Ben went left -Sunder's left- to dodge it. He did dodge it successfully. But because he was tangled up in the socks, Ball Weevil couldn't actually escape. Once they were pulled taught, the socks snapped back like a rubber band, pulling Ben right back to crash directly in front of Sunder again. This time when Sunder brought his axe down, he skewed the blow left -his left. But Ben dodged right -Sunder's right- and the same thing happened again. Ball Weevil escaped the blow, but was pulled back by the socks.

It looked like things were over for the Hero of the Universe. He couldn't get out of the alien footwear in which he was tangled and he couldn't keep dodging Sunder's attacks forever. If the Omnitrix didn't time out soon, or if Rook didn't appear on the scene to back him up, or if any number of other incredibly unlikely (but still unreasonably frequent) things that happened to help Ben out happened... then Ben would be a gonner.

But, as luck -or destiny- would have it. One such unlikely thing did happen.

Jumping down from a pipe in the ceiling of Undertown, a blur of white and green collided with Sunder.

The bounty hunter was thrown back by the force of the blow, and the white and green blur planted itself firmly between Ben and the temporarily neutralized threat.

“Thanks!” Ben was quick to shout. Then he blinked. Not moving so quickly anymore, he was able to get a good look at his rescuer. An all white body suit with black trim. Bright green scarf wrapped around his neck. White helmet that covered the whole face, completely concealing his identity. “Hey, it's you! You're-”

But then Ben faltered, because he still didn't actually know who this guy was. An ally obviously, since he helped with that thing with Dr. Animo. But beyond that, Ben knew next to nothing about him. Not even his name.

Luckily, this time, the mysterious masked stranger was obliging enough to provide at least that small bit of information. Without even looking back at Ben, he supplied, “Spanner.”

Chapter Text

The mapping node was relatively untouched. In perfect working order with just the barest layer of purple dust from the asteroid it was fixed to. Nothing seemed the least bit amiss about it. Of course, the team that Magister Chaz sent out to look for Warden Rook and his team weren't expecting to find anything wrong with the node anyway. It was in excellent working order when they left the base, the signal perfect, and it continued to perform admirably while en rout. If Rook and his team were attacked, it was not anywhere near the new mapping node.

The team leader, a female Uxorite named Frey, surveyed the drifting landscape around the asteroid they were currently on. According to the mapping node's data this particular asteroid had drifted several kilometers since the node was activated. It was no longer in the same spot it was in when Rook and his team passed by. The landscapes surrounding it would not be the same.

But that did not mean that Rook and the others didn't pass by some of them on their way back to base.

If they passed by a settlement of some kind. A farm, or a holdfast, maybe even something as lucky as a village, someone where might have seen them and be able to point Magister Frey and her team in the right direction. The gods willing, maybe Rook and the other stopped in said hypothetical settlement for rest and would still be there when Frey arrived. It was unlikely, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

“This marker has moved since they were here.” She informed her team. “We widen the search. Look for settlements or travelers that might have seen them. Question anyone they might have crossed paths with.”

Rook tripped and almost went tumbling into the back of the person in front of him. He caught himself mere milometers from his nose impacting Aggrenna's spear-holster slung between her should blades. Saved from causing a scene, and possibly inciting his captor's ire, the Revonnahgander glanced back at what he had tripped on.

The pointed tip of a crystal poked up from out of the dirt. A bright yellow that did not match with the darker hues of purple and indigo of the rock around it. Curious, Rook bent down to pick it up. But the crystal was stuck in the ground tightly and the Revonnahgander could not pluck it so casually.

“What ya got there, sir?” Arys asked, hovering just a few steps behind his commander. The Lewodan had seen his trip and stumble but opted not to draw attention to it.

“There is some kind of mineral imbedded in this asteroid.” Rook explained.

Aggrenna paused in her step to turn around and look at the two Plumbers. Not a glare of impatience at them for stopping without leave and holding up the rest of the caravan. But more of a mild curiosity at what had facinated them so. After all, they might not be native to the Void, but Rook had been Warden of the Void for the better part of a decade now and should know enough about the place to no longer feel the need to gawk like a tourist. Aggrenna's attention fell to the crystal they were bent over and her eyes flashed with recognition.

“Its coremite.” She said matter of factly, as if her only intention was just to supply a name to her Warden, and there was no other reason to pay the sparkling yellow rock any more mind. “We should keep moving.”

“I have heard of coremite.” The Revonnahgander smiled with recognition. This was something he had read in Ben's file, and Rook had read Ben's file many, many, many times. He could quote it by writ. “Coremite is a mineral native to the Null Void and possesses unique properties. Dr. Animo, when confined to the Null Void and acting under the alias 'D'Void' once used coremite in an escape attempt.”

Rook then remembered the other details of that particular case in Ben's file. That coremite, when amassed together in large quantities could destabilize the Null Void itself. Animo/D'Void planned to use it to rip open a hole between the Null Void and real space -and Earth. He was stopped, of course. Ben, with the help of Max Tennyson, and the Plumbers Helpers were able to defeat him, thwart his plans, and save the Null Void. But nobody ever addressed the fact that the Null Void was filled with a mineral that could rip through the very fabric separating the pocket dimension from the rest of the universe. Rook looked back up.

Aggregor had joined his daughter glaring down at Revonnahgander. “We should move on from this spot, Warden Rook.”

Was the Osmosian nervous? Did he not feel comfortable lingering close to a vein of the mineral?

“Does the coremite present a danger to us?” He asked.

After all, if it's unique energy could destabilize the very fabric of the Null Void, then it was not outside the realm of possibility that it might give off radiation that could make a being ill. Then again, if it's unique energy could destabilize the Void, that meant that the coremite must have powerful energy, and Aggregor was Osmosian. Osmosians lost a bit of their sanity and control when they absorbed potent energy. It didn't necessarily have to be a tanger to the whole party that the coremite presented. The coremite could just be a danger to Aggregor himself. Aggregor and his young son Shirahk. They were the only actual Osmosians in the party.

Aggregor's lip curled in a sneer. “Coremite is a thing.” He said. “It is no more dangerous or safe than any other thing.”

In other words, it was just a rock. A rock could be innocent and mundane, laying inert on the ground. Or it could be put towards progress and growth, a stone in a wall, a part contributing to shelter and protection. Or, as with anything in the universe -anything in the multiverse- a rock could be used used for violence and destruction, a weapon. But it was not the thing that decided how it was used, but rather the mind moving the hand that wielded it. It was by the will of beings that made an object dangerous or mundane.

So then, why the sudden tension and -dare Rook say it?- fear of being near a vein of the mineral. If the there was no danger from the rock, only beings whom might seek the rock...

A little slow to the conclusion, Rook blinked wide eyes at the Osmosian. “Aggregor, is there someone in the Void trying to mine and collect coremite again?”

Aggregor did not answer. Instead, the Osmosian turned his attention back to scanning the horizon. They were nearing the edge of the asteroid they were on and would need everyone's attention focused on crossing to the next one, instead of lingering on possible yet immaterial dangers. Lest someone fall and be lost. “We need to keep moving.” He repeated. “Aggrenna, have Shirahk help you keep these two in line. Make sure they don't hold up the group again.”

Hooking one hand under Rook's arm, Aggrenna pulled the Revonnahgander to his feet. Her eyes flicked to her younger brother before she lifted her chin at Arys. “Shirahk, keep an eye on that one. Its seems our Warden here requires special attention.”

“Ha! You got stuck with the baby-sitter!” The young Osmosian taunted the Revonnahgander.

Truth be told, the boy's taunting actually put him a little at ease. Usually when a captor said a captive require 'special attention' it did not mean something as gentle and kind as a personal escort. Aggrenna pulled Rook along and the caravan continued on its journey.

Magister Frey and her team came across a holdfast some thirty kilometers from the mapping node's newest location.

It was a short building, only two stories tall. Round and dome topped. A canvas canopy over the main entrance that might have at one time been some shade of blue, but was now faded to a sandy dusk color that couldn't decide if it was gray like the fabric it was spun from or brown like the dust of the asteroid it was on. Hanging from the canopy was a banner.

Similarly faded, thought not nearly as drastically. The banner must not be as old as the holdfast from which it was hung. On that banner was a stylized image of a pickaxe and a broken chain, the emblem of the Free and Independent Fortress of Incarcecon. A sign to any that might come by this way that the holdfast was under Incarcercon's protection. This asteroid's rotation must intersect with the former prison's path at some point. They were nowhere near Incarcecon at the moment, but the landscape wasn't static in the Null Void. Things moved. At some point this holdfast would move back within Incarcercon's sphere of influence.

Frey wasn't sure of the Plumbers' standing with Incarcecon at the moment. The Plumbers' status as 'allies' or 'enemies' of the former prison shifted with the moods of its leadership.

Trukk hated the Plumbers both on principal and for personal reasons. He had been a smalltime criminal in real space before a miscalculated gig landed him a life sentence disproportionate to the crime he committed. Trukk was sent to Incarcecon in the Null Void to be forgotten about and rot out the rest of his days in obscurity. He resented the justice system that put him there, the warden that abused and over worked him and his fellow inmates, and the law enforcement organization that put him there in the first place. The Plumbers. As far as Trukk was concerned, nothing good came from fraternizing with Plumbers.

But Quince was of a different mind. What his original crime was that landed him in the Null Void and in Incarcecon, Frey didn't know. Unlike Warden Rook, she had not studied every single file of every single inmate sent to the Null Void. But she did know from talking to other Plumbers that Quince was of a cooler head. Slow to anger and disinclined to snap judgments. He balanced out Trukk's hot-headedness making them an effective leadership team for the Free and Independent Fortress. More importantly, Quince recognized the permanence of the Plumbers presence in the Null Void. They weren't going anywhere any time soon -neither of them were. It was best to try and get along with ones neighbors.

Even if Magister Frey wasn't sure of the Plumbers current standing with Incarcecon, so long as Quince was still one of its leaders, she could at least be sure that no one associated with the fortress would kill her and her team on sight. They would at least allow her to get a word or two in first, before they decided they hated the Plumbs and opened fire.

Stepping under the canopy, Frey opened the holdfast door.

Inside, the first floor was all one wide room, filled with tables and chairs. A bar with shelves of bottles -presumably liquor- was pushed to one side. Against the opposite wall was the base of the stairs, spiraling up to the second floor where Frey imagined the sleeping quarters and rooms for rent were. She scanned the space one more time for hostiles.

Aside from the bartender -presumably the keeper of this holdfast- a server, and a couple of scattered patrons sitting at the tables, there weren't many beings there. They offered her and her team curious -even suspicious- glances, but that was about standard for a native of the Void when seeing a contingent of Plumbers pass by. There was no open hostility clear in any of their expressions, so Frey decided that today Incarcecon was neutral to them. Crossing the open space, she walked right up to the bar.

“Good day to you.” She flashed a friendly smile that didn't quite reach any of her three eyes.

“Day's never good when you Plumbs come sniffin' 'round.” The bartender pulled out a dirty dish rag and began wiping the bar. “So, what ya after this time? Thinkin' them Rooters 'ave been smugglin' Dream Dust from the Free Fortress? Did a Neth eat one o' ya boys an' ya out looking for revenge? Or are you lot finally gonna actually do somethin' about them Way Bad's your precious Hero, Ben Tennyson, let loose in our Void over twenty years ago?”

Frey opted not to comment on any of his suggestions. Instead, she asked, as if he hadn't spoken at all. “Have you seen any other Plumbers pass this way? Within the last two twenty-four hour cycles?”

“Nope.” Muttered the bartender, not looking up from his wiping of the bar. The rag was so dirty, all he was really doing was spreading around grease. But it was something to do with his hands. It kept his hands above the counter where the Plumbs could see them, but also gave him something to do. An easy motion to keep him grounded and not allow himself to be intimidated by these self-proclaimed 'peacekeepers' of the Null Void. “I ain't seen no Plumbs pass through 'ere since 11,000 bit ol' Hobble's antennae off.”

This comment earn a soft rumbling of jeers from those seated at the tables. Some even rapping their knuckles on the plasteel or wood of the tables with appreciation.

Magister Frey pursed her reptilian lips. She had never crossed paths with Kevin 11,000 herself. She had never seen the Osmosian in action. Only heard the accounts of him from others. Fellow Plumbers like Warden Rook whom had known him as a friend, or natives of the Null Void that spoke of Kevin as if he were some kind of demi-god, a creature to be both feared and revered in equal measure. Kevin was more myth than man to her mind.

“Kevin Levin is not here.” She informed him. “But we are. And I demand your cooperation.”

“Oh, you demand, do ya!” Now the bartender looked up at her, meeting Magister Frey's three eyes with all four of his own. His filthy dishtowel forgotten on the counter top. “An' on who's authority do ya demand?”

Frey bristled under such blatant and bold disrespect -even outright challenge. “By authority of the Magistrata and Plumber Command.”

“Magistrata ain't here, neither.” The bartender informed her. “You lot come from outside the Void. Acting for someone outside the Void. After years -after generations- of dumpin' yer living garbage in our Void. An' you come in 'ere and demand I cooperate wit' you! You ain't got no authority to demand nothin' from me or mine.”

“And who's authority do you answer to?” Frey asked. She remembered the emblem of the former prison outside. “Quince and Trukk of Incarcecon?”

“I pay a tithe to the Free Fortress when my rock passes that way.” Nodded the bartender. “In exchange they gimme an' my place protection when its needed. But I don' answer to them. There's only one power all souls in the Void must answer to.”

There was more soft rumbling from those sitting at the tables. More rapping of knuckles on plasteel. Someone mutter the words 'King in the Void', and it was echoed by another. 'King in the Void'. Soon it was a low chant, making the dimly lit holdfast shudder with a kind of life of its own. 'King in the Void. King in the Void. King in the Void.'

“There is only one authority in the Null Void.” The bartender informed her, informed all five of the Plumbers of her team. Making eye-contact with each of them before retuning his attention to Magister Frey. “And his name is Levin.”

Coming to Frey's aid, another member of her team, Magister Roose, placed a gloved paw on the greasy bar counter. “Kevin Levin is a Plumber again. He's been returned to his rank of Magister and works directly under Max Tennyson. Levin -your great authority- is one of us.”

The bartender only snorted.

“No.” He gave a clip of a laugh. “No. 11,000 ain't one o' you. 11,000 is as far from bein' one o' you as I am. He might hold your titles, wear your armor, carry your badge. But he ain't no Plumb. In his bones 11,000 is the stuff o' the Void. He might be restin' in your ranks right now, but that's all he's doin'. Restin'. Biding his time. Until he comes back to us. Kevin Levin is a man o' the Void. He belongs to the Void.”

The chant of 'King in the Void' rumbled through the holdfast again.

Roose opened his mouth so say something more. But Frey put a pacifying hand on his shoulder.

“So, you haven't seen any other Plumbers recently?” She asked, trying to stay on topic. She had never encountered Kevin Levin herself, but all this talk of him -as if he were something more than just a mortal man- was giving her the creeps.

“The only Plumbs I seen are the five little lost lambs I'm lookin' at right now.” The bartender informed them. “Now, talk might be free, but my time ain't. So either buy a drink or a room, or else get outta my place!”

Frey grit her teeth. Hand still on Roose's shoulder, she backed up from the bar, pulling her companion along with her. They rejoined the other three members of their team and retreated from the holdfast. Warden Rook and his team didn't pass through here, of that she was sure. If they had, the bartender would have been complaining about Plumbers breezing through like they owned the place. Besides, if Rook and his team had stopped here, it was entirely possible that they might have actually found them still here, or else crossed paths with them on their way out. Since none of these things happened, it was safe to assume that Rook, Brom, and Arys hadn't traveled this way. Frey and her team would have to continue their search.

“Thank you for your time.” She nodded to the bartender.

“Hope ya fine who you're lookin' for!” The bartender called after them. “Be a real shame they were still lost when 11,000 returns to claim 'is enemies!”

Outside, Roose shut the door on the bartender's laughter. It really was unnerving how these Null Void natives -both settlers and convicts alike- spoke of Magister Levin as if he were some kind of vengeful deity. Someone who could be as benevolent as a god, yet vengeful as a devil. It was almost like they didn't even see him as the mortal man he was. Kevin wasn't real to them. Kevin was an idea. A legent told to small children -and not so small children- to frighten them into behaving. Be good, or else 11,000 will come for you. Plumbers go home, or else 11,000 will come for you.

Well, 11,000 was no god. He was no devil. He was just a man. A man who lived on Earth. Had a wife. Had a kid. Worked a job. Worked a job for cripes sake! What kind of god or devil was there that worked a day job? None. Kevin Levin was no god. Kevin Levin was nobody.

After crossing to a different asteroid, and then a different one after that, and then a different one after that, Rook kept an eye out for more coremite. Taking better note of where he put his feet to avoid tripping again, but also scanning any rock-formations, fissures, or cliffs they might pass. Looking for veins of the mineral. If it was capable of ripping open a hole in the fabric between dimensions, then it needed to be noted where the mineral occurred naturally in the Void.

“You walk slow.” Aggrenna complained beside him. She was not enjoying her baby-sitting duties one bit. “Are you injured?”

“No.” Rook assured her. “I am quite healthy, given my lack of sleep and excess of physical activity.”

“Then move faster.” The woman commanded. “We are doing you a service by taking you back to your base. The least you could do in return is not slow us down.”

In front of them, Rook heard her younger brother snort. Shirahk turned his head to look back at them grinning. “Its really great hearing someone else get a lecture from her.”

“Pay attention to your own charge!” Aggrenna snapped at him.

The boy turned back around and, as more of a show for his sister than out of any real need, prodded Arys in the back with his blunted spear tip.

Now it was the Lewodan's turn to look back at them with a mildly annoyed glare and a growl. “Thanks.”

Both siblings shared a laugh at the Plumbers' expense.

Then the asteroid they were on gave a sudden and abrupt jolt. All four of them were knocked off their feet. Both Plumbers, and their sibling guards. Rook landed on Aggrenna in a very undignified position.

“Apologies. Excuse me.”

But she shoved him off herself, not caring about his delicate puritan sensibilities. Asteroids in the Null Void drifted and moved all the time. That was nothing to get excited about. But they did not shake and jolt. Earthquakes were not a thing in the Null Void. The only thing that might jolt an asteroid was if it collided with another of similar size and mass, or else a creature larger and more powerful than the drifting rock.

Pushing himself back to his feet, Rook followed the direction his captor was looking with his own eyes and saw the reason for the abrupt jerk of the land.

A Way Bad loomed in front of them.

The edge of the asteroid coming up to just above the creature's waist. It was rubbing its elbow as if it was the floating rock that had collided with it instead of the other way around. How dare the landscape commit so heinous an act as to drift into its personal space! The creature turned its red-eyed glare at the asteroid and took note that there were beings on it. Tiny, delicious looking, little beings. It roared with a feral scream and lifted one long-fingered hand.

“Scatter!” Commanded Aggregor. Grabbing the nearest person to him, he pushed them away in one direction before jumping back the opposite way himself. His spear was in his hands in moments, doing some impressive spinning and twirling moves. “Aggrenna! Olennor! To me! Shirahk, stay with the Plumbers.”

“I can help!” The boy protested. His own spear with its blunted training tip was ready in his hands.

“Do as father says!” Aggrenna snapped at him. She was already abandoning her post next to Rook and was sprinting to join her father, spear in hands.

“He's impossible to deal with when you're threatened.” Olennor added. “Stay with the Plumbers, if they truly care as much as they'd like us to believe, they'll keep you safe.”

“May I have my proto-tool back!” Rook asked, sounding more like a demand in his haste. He had no problems protecting children. But if they expected him to act as protector, then he would need his weapon back.

Without comment Aggrenna shrugged the weapon off her shoulder and tossed it to her sister. Olennor caught it one handed before tossing it to Rook.

“I have powers!” Shirahk shouted at the both of them.

But his sisters, and his father were no longer paying attention to him. They were preoccupied fending off the Way Bad, trying to give the rest of the caravan the opportunity to escape before they themselves retreated to rejoin the group.

Shirahk looked like he was about ready to bolt for the fight. Ignore his father's orders and run head-long into danger armed with nothing more than a blunt training spear and whatever Osmosian powers he kept mentioning but Rook had yet to actually see evidence of. The Revonnahgander placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. In that moment, he very much reminded Rook of Kenny or Devlin. They would also ignore the direct orders of the adults around them and jump into the fight, inexperienced and ill prepared.

“Some of the others may need you more.” Rook told him, nodding to the rest of the caravan.

There were elderly in their group, and children younger than Shirahk. The gap between the asteroid they were currently on and the next closest that was also a safe distance from the Way Bad was a stretch. And the caravan only had two Null Guardians which were already weighted down with gear. The others would need help making the crossing.

Reluctantly, Shirahk nodded.

“Arys, you can fly, take the smaller children and get them to safety.” Rook commanded, running up to the ledge separating their asteroid from the next.

He shifted his proto-tool into a crossbow of a sort and shot a line at the asteroid. A long cord of nylon connected to his crossbow at one end and an anchor at the other. Rook tugged on the line a few times to make sure the anchor was secure and not in danger of coming loose or falling out. Satisfied that it would hold, he shifted the proto-tool again. Braced against the ground of the rock they were on and his own body, Rook made a the nylon rope into a zip-line.

“Everyone get across!” He commanded. “Send the grip back for the next person once you land. Anyone who needs help crossing, Arys can help you.”

Arys, whom already had a small child under each arm looked up at that. With a mild pout on his face he muttered, “Oh, good. I was worried I wouldn't have enough to do.”

“What about me?” Shirahk asked. The Warden made it seem like he was going to be of vital use in helping the rest of the caravan get away from the Way Bads.

“I need you to make sure no one gets left behind.” Rook told him. “Magister Arys and I are strangers here. We don't know everyone in your group and won't be able to tell if anyone is missing.”

Shirahk gave a little hmph of disappointment. That job sounded a bit more like baby-sitting, and baby-sitting had been what he'd been doing all day. Tagging along with the damn Plumbs all day. Making sure neither of them fell behind, stopped to look at the scenery, or held up the group. He was a little sick of keeping the group moving.

Behind him, Shirahk heard the Way Bad give a loud, deep snarl and he turned to see that Olennor had stabbed it in the finger-crotch right between its middle and pointer fingers. The monster threw her off, flicking its wrist as if shewing away an offensive fly. For one heart-stopping moment, Shirahk was terrified his sister might go flying off the asteroid and be lost to the Void. But at the last second before the ground beneath her disappeared, Aggrenna dropped her spear, both arms lancing out to grab her younger sister by the ankle. Olennor hung over the edge of the asteroid, the only thing keeping her from falling her older sister's grip. The Way Bad was about to bring its hand down on both girls. Grabbing them, or crushing them -the gigantic creature could easily do either.

Aggregor rushed between them. Thrusting his own spear up in the mutant To'kustar's palm.

It howled in pain again and withdrew the hand -taking Aggregor's spear with it- and dipping a fountain of blood over the whole landscape.

Turning his back on the creature for the moment, Aggregor knelt down next to his daughters to Aggrenna pulled her sister up.

“You dropped your weapon.” He growled at the girl.

“Would you rather I had dropped Olennor?” She growled back, matching his tone.

“Don't sass me, girl.” Aggregor commanded, sounding tired and old. As if this was something he'd had need to continue repeating for years with little effect.

Together they pulled Olennor back up onto the asteroid and she climbed to her feet -panting. She had nearly died -or, if not died, had nearly been lost to free-fall in the Void. “And here I thought I'd finally be rid of you all.”

But the three of them didn't have time to stand there and banter. The Way Bad had pulled the spear out of its hand, like plucking a thorn, and threw the weapon out to be lost to the empty space and fluctuating forces of the Null Void. Fresh blood gushed from its hand anew as it turned its attention, not back to its hostile opponents, but the more passive prey fleeing it. The Way Bad turned its eyes toward the scattering non-combatants of the caravan. The children and the elderly Rook and Arys were trying to help to the next closest asteroid.

Shirahk saw the monster move towards the Revonnahgander holding the zip-line.

They young Osmosian didn't think, he just acted. As the Way Bad's hand hame down over the Warden of the Void, Shirahk dropped his blunted training spear and used his powers instead.

The adrenaline pumping through him giving him speed, the Osmosian reached within himself and drew out the power that he'd always had, that he had inherited from his father, Aggregor the Warlord of the Andromeda galaxy. A mutation that was the combination of an Orishan, Amperi, Talpaedan, Geochelone Aerio, and a Protosapian-B. Aggregor's ultimate Osmosian mutation, and just as Kevin passed his 'Kevin 11' mutation on to his son, Shirahk inherited Aggregor's.

Placing himself between the Plumber and the Way Bad, the Osmosian shot a blast of radioactive Protosapian-B energy at the creature. It caught the mutant To'kustar in the eyes. But the blast also threw the young and still inexperienced boy off balance and he went stumbling into the back of the very Plumber he was trying to protect.

Both Plumber and mutated Osmosian went tumbling over the edge of the asteroid.

“Rook!” Arys shouted after his commander. But the Lewodan was already carrying one heavy charge. He couldn't dive to save the Revonnahgander.

“Shirahk!” Aggregor sprinted across the asteroid. He'd just saved one child from falling into the Void, only to lose another the exact same way. Not just any other, but his youngest. His last. The last child his late lover gave him, and the only one that was like him.

Peering over the edge, Aggregor searched the crimson and scarlet space. Eyes straining for any sign of his wayward son -or even the damn Plumber that had fallen with him.

But Aggregor saw nothing.

Just endless red space and drifting rock.

“Shirahk!” He shouted again.

But the Void did not call back to him. His son was gone, and Rook, the Warden of the Void, gone with him.

Chapter Text

Kevin came home later that night with a tupperware container of leftover spaghetti and meatballs. It was nice having dinner with the wife and kid. But Gwendolyn still wouldn't let him spend the night. She now trusted him enough to be around their son so long as she was present and in a position to easily intervene should hostilities arise between father and son. But she did not trust him to stay in the house over night while Devlin was there. Not when she was asleep and not alert.

After all, it was in the middle of the night when she was asleep that Kevin originally kidnapped the boy in the first place.

So, the older Osmosian was sent home.

He stopped to open the roll up door- -and was annoyed to find yet another uninvited guest sitting on his couch. “Tennyson! What the fuck!?”

“Your lock's broken.” Ben say by way of greeting, and explanation.

Suppressing a snarl at the younger man for the presumption of hospitality, Kevin climbed back into the driver's seat to pull his car the rest of the way into the garage. Parking properly, he cut the engine and got back out to shut the roll-up door after him.

“Its not broken, its picked.” The Osmosian finally said.

“Someone try to break into your place?” Ben asked, genuinely concerned. Though, it was a little unclear exactly which party he was concerned for. Kevin and his home and safety. Or the unfortunate burglar should they happen to catch the notoriously vengeful Osmosian while at home. “Do you know who it was?”

Kevin placed his Tupperware container of spaghetti in the fridge. Noted just how bare it was and made a mental note to go grocery shopping at some point in the coming week. He shut the 'fridge door a bit harder than was necessary. “Yeah. You're idiot brat and my son were here when I got home from work today.”

The younger man stood from the couch, blinking. “Kenny did? But why?”

“Fuck if I know!” The Osmosian snapped back. “Why are you here?”

Looking suddenly indignant, Ben sunk back down to sit on the couch. He pouted like the spoiled ten-year-old brat he was when they first met. “I thought maybe we could hang out. Ya know, since we're supposed to be friends. Wanna go on an adventure?”

“Didn't you just get back from an adventure?” Kevin raised a skeptical eyebrow. Turning his back on his on-again-off-again frienemy, Kevin sat down at his work table and started taking apart the burned and warped pieces of Devlin's hoverboard. Over his shoulder he added, “Shouldn't you be shit-faces tires and just wanna take a nap? Haven't you been flitting through time all week?”

“Well, yeah.” Ben once again stood from the couch. Crossing the room, he leaned over the Osmosian's shoulder to get a better look at what he was working on. It was so rare to see Kevin Levin taking apart or putting back together something mechanical that wasn't his own damn car. “But that's like 'fate of the universe' stuff. Ya know, Big Damn Hero stuff. I was thinking something more small time. Like stop a protection racket, or foil a robbery,” a pause to cast a meaningful look sideways at the back of the Osmosian's hear “or interrupt a weapons deal.”

Kevin continued to ignore the other man. Pointedly.

“C'mon!” Ben whined. “I'd think you'd jump at the chance to get out there and work the streets! Since Grandpa still has you chained to a desk at Headquarters. Don't you wanna hit the bricks and bust some heads?”

The Osmosian only rolled his eyes. Yeah, he wanted to hit something right now, but it wasn't the bricks. And he'd been in such a good mood after leaving Gwendolyn's house to... Satisfied in a way that only she could satisfy him. More than just satisfied. Hut happy, and optimistic for their future together. He was getting his life back. They were getting their life back. Kevin was -slowly- getting the family he never knew he wanted. But Ben already had that. So why was he here at Kevin's place instead of at home enjoying time with his own family?

“A better question would be 'Why do you wanna hit the bricks and bust some heads?' You just got back from some Big Damn Hero adventure all your own. You should be totally exhausted. Go home and hug your annoying kid. Kiss your overbearing wife. Why are you here bothering me instead of at home with them?”

Ben opened his mouth to reply. But whatever he was about to say, he thought better of it and shut his mouth again. It took him the better part of thirty years, but Ben Tennyson had finally learned to think before he spoke. Instead he started pacing back and forth behind Kevin and the Osmosian tried -and failed- to ignore him.

“You mad about something?” Kevin ventured, matching the exact same pitch and tone Ben had been using this past year whenever he asked the Osmosian that very same question.

“Mad? No.” Ben shook his head. “Just... I've been thinking... I don't know...” With a sigh, the Hero of the Universe stopped pacing. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves. Gave a second's thought to whether or not it was a wise idea to share this with Kevin Levin of all people. Then spoke anyway. “I can't face Kai right now. I've been thinking -about things- and I just- I just- I don't wanna hear it from her. I don't wanna hug her, and kiss her, and have to listen to her whisper in my ear all low and sexy how much she likes me as one of my aliens. That's what I've been thinking about, okay. Kai only likes me because of Blitzwolfer, but I we've been married for almost fifteen years now, our son is gonna being turning twelve this year! We have a life together! Its about time she liked me for me! I want someone to like me for me.”

At that admission Kevin did turn around and look at his long time frienemy. He could think of someone who was in love with Ben because they legitimately liked Ben. As a person. For who he was. Not because of any one -or many- alien forms he could change into. The Osmosian blinked at the younger man, wondering if Ben had come to the same conclusion and was saying what he thought he was saying. Ben had been going to the past a lot recently. And in the past he had a partner that was no longer present on the Team in this time.

But, the Osmosian also knew his frienemy well enough to know that Ben wouldn't come out and say it. The fact that he'd only dated human (or at least half-human) females aside, while Ben was always flippant and carefree with his relationships, he did always play his true feelings -his deeper feelings- close to the chest. Ben didn't share. Usually Kevin was fine with that. He didn't share either. The Osmosian generally tended to prefer he and Ben not talk about their feelings. But this... this was juicy. Was gossip material. Kevin wanted to know.

So, he decided it was best to humor the Hero of the Universe. Do what he wanted. Kill time until he was ready to talk. Because, eventually, Ben would talk. If for no other reason than for the attention. He might be in his forties now, he might have matured over the years. He might be a reputable and responsible Hero. But one thing would never change. One thing would always remain the same. Ben Tennyson loved attention. Ben Tennyson needed people to pay attention to him.

“Alright, Tennyson.” Kevin pushed back from the work table and stood. Grabbing his keys, he made his way back to the car. “You're right. I could use some unofficial patrol time. Where did you have in mind? We'll have ourselves a 'guys night out'.”

He unlocked the car and for half a second considered holding the passenger door open for Ben. But Kevin didn't wanna seem to eager for the information that he planned whole heartedly to turn into juicy pillow gossip between himself and Gwendolyn. If Ben thought Kevin was trying to con him, he'd never talk. So, instead, the Osmosian reclaimed the driver's seat, tapping the steering wheel in impatience.

“C'mon, Tennyson! I need to know where I'm going.” He snapped instead.

Grumbling, Ben climbed into the passenger seat. “Jeez. You're always so impatient. Five second ago you didn't even wanna come with me.”

As it happened, Ben had no idea where to go.

That was no surprise.

So, Kevin took him back to headquarters. Not upstairs to the residential floors where his wife and son resided, just to the ground -and below ground- floors where the real workings of the Plumbers base was. Down to Records, to sift through cold-cases. Kevin was banned from patrolling the streets and working active cases. But Max never gave an ruling on the Osmosian perusing the inactive or cold cases.

Boxes upon boxes of paper folders, files that were yet to be digitized and loaded into the Plumbers database.

Shuffling through paperwork was not something either of them cared for very much. Gwendolyn was the paper-pusher in the family. Ben and Kevin were the action guys. But, Kevin had been doing paperwork and filing for the past year now. As tedious and uncomfortable as it was, it was familiar by this point. Familiar and easy. Kevin sifted through the folders while Ben lazed against a shelf.

“You could help.” The Osmosian huffed, not looking at the other man. “This was your idea, after all.”

“I'm waiting for you to pick something that's interesting.” A pause. “To you. Interesting to you. I'm usually down for any old alien fight. But you, you've always been a little more... hardcore than me.”

Kevin just rolled his eyes. “Oh, yeah, I'm so~o hard core. I'm so hardcore that my big accomplishment for today was that I finally got my son to pet the family dog.”

“Zed let Delvin pet her?” Ben blinked, pushing off from the shelf he was leaning against and coming up beside the Osmosian. “After he nearly killed her the last time he touched her. Wow! That's amazing. That's great!”

Giving up on the box he was currently sifting through, Kevin replaced all the folders he'd taken out and placed the lid back on it. Selecting another, the Osmosian repeated the process. Shifting through the files, looking for anything that looked interesting enough to keep them occupied, but not to interested as the shift focus. Kevin wanted Ben to get talking. He did not want to derail the night with a legitimate threat to life, the universe, and everything.

“What about you?” He asked as he withdrew folders and set them aside.

“What about me?” Ben echoed.

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, the Osmosian elaborated. “What was your great accomplishment today? I assume you just got back from the past. What part of the Time War were you in? Which bad guy did you stop? Maltruant? Eon? Generic Time Beasts? C'mon, Tennyson, you love to brag! Talk my ear off. Regal me with tales of your exploits until I'm physically ill from over-exposure to your self-inflated ego.”

“Why do I feel like you're bating me? Are you bating me?” After over thirty years, Ben had finally learned to tell when Kevin Levin was playing him. He just couldn't tell what the Osmosian was fishing for. “Do you wanna fight or something. 'Cause, if you wanna fight, all you have to do is say so. We can go outside and just wail on each other.”

Actually, that did sound very appealing. Even as the best version of himself, even during the times when he honestly felt that Ben was his best friend, Kevin still always felt the subtle desire to punch the obnoxious Hero in the face.

“Maybe later.” He said at last. He wanted to ask Ben if he saw Rook during his latest jaunt to the past. The Osmosian assumed he had since the two were practically joined at the shoulder back then. But he also didn't wanna seem too interested. So, he asked about someone else instead. “Did you see Gwen back there? In the past. Ya know, I always did love those plaid skirts she used to wear back then.” Kevin sucked on his bottom lip, appreciating the memory of his wife during her collage days after she stopped wearing tights or stockings under her skirts and let her legs out to show off her skin. And that Lucky Girl costume! A short skirt and an exposed mid-rift... Mmm. Gwendolyn never wore anything that exposed her mid-rift these days. Not since Devlin was cut out of her. The scar was too disfiguring. “I wonder if I bought her a new one she'd wear it for me...”

Ben only scoffed. “Would she even be wearing it all that long?”

“Hell! If I could find her one with pockets, she'd wear it every fucking day!” Kevin shot back. “Ya know its 2030 and my wife is still complaining about them not making women's clothes with real, functional pockets.”

“Kai's started sewing pockets onto the outside of her pants.” Ben admitted. “Have you seen that combat jumpsuit she wears? Its skin tight and sexy as hell! But it didn't come with any pockets when she got it and, man!, did I get an ear-full about it. As if I was personally responsible to the lack of pockets in her new alien fighting clothes.”

The Osmosian just rolled his eyes. “Why would a combat suit even need to be 'sexy' in the first place? Its not like that's gonna help any in a fight. No one's ever stopped mid-fight and been all like 'oh, you look so sexy in that suit, I must have you now! I will give up my evil ways for the chance to bone you.' No one does that!”

The Hero of the Universe was about to agree with the other man until the idea called up an uncomfortable memory to mind. “Hey! Wait a sec! Didn't you and Red abandon me on planet Isley to go and do just that? In the middle of a fight with Pamelaivy, I might add!”

“That was completely different!” Kevin snapped. “We were both dossed with an aphrodisiac pollen! It had nothing to do with anyone's clothes! The only time either of us thought about clothes was to notice that they were in the way.”

“See, now, if you had listened to Rook on the way there, you would have known it was pollen season where we were landing and taken an antihistamine like he and I did.”

The Osmosian was about the bite back with a retort, but paused. That was the first time Ben had actually said Rook's name since Kevin came home to find him sitting on his couch. He did not want to pass up this opportunity. Swallowing whatever snippy comeback he had originally planned, Kevin shifted gears in the conversation. “Good ol' Rook. Ya know, I haven't seen him since he last came to offer me that job I don't want. I wonder how he's doing in the Null Void...?”

He cast a sideways look at Ben to gauge whether or not the question had any affect on him.

It had more affect than Kevin was expecting.

Ben's face fell into a concerned scowl. Brows coming down in seriousness, eyes darkening, the corners of his mouth downturned in a worried frown. Ben crossed his arms over his chest, thinking. “The Null Void is so dangerous.” Ben had almost died there a couple times. “You haven't seen him, but has he at least called or whatever? Have you spoken to him?”

“No.” The Osmosian shook his head. “But I've been busy. He's probably been busy too. Its been a few years since you were last in the Null Void, so let me remind you: its a very busy place.”

That was the understatement of the century. Yes, the Null Void was a busy place. But it was so busy because it was so dangerous. Even more dangerous than it used to be when they were children.

When they were children it was a wide expanse of emptiness occasionally interrupted by the a floating asteroid or hunk of similar such rock. There were roving Vulpimancers, Null Guardians, and something that looked like Charmcasters rock-bats but weren't made of rock. The greatest danger was death by dehydration, starvation, or exhaustion rather than some version of an attack. There was one formal prison with walls and cells and everything and if you were unlucky enough to be locked in this prison there was danger of being attacked and killed -or worse- by a fellow inmate. But at last you would have regular meals and water.

When they were teens it got a little more dangerous. That prison that was about as safe as the spacescape beyond its walls got more dangerous. A corrupt guard rose to become a corrupt warden. He converted the compound from a prison into a work camp, using the inmates as forced laborers to mine a mineral that when ground into a fine powder and inhaled induced hallucinations, dream states, terrors, and paranoia. The prison was no longer as safe as it used to be. But now the outside had been flooded with a drug that drove beings to attack -or even kill- their friends and loved ones in fits of hallucinogenic episodes. But that wasn't even the half of it. At that same time, another group began working in the Void. Capturing aliens with potent powers and abilities. Pyronites, Tetramand, Kineceleran, Quilqupine, Protosapian-B, Aerophibian, Cerebrocrustacean. Took those aliens DNA and grafted it into the bodies to human test subjects. Children. Converting them into living weapons.

But things didn't stop there. In the latter half of their teens, when Kevin, Gwendolyn, and Ben were all on the cusp of their adulthood, the Earth was being ravaged by a handful of To'kustar. Gentle aliens that had been taken by a villain named Dr. Psychobos, tortured and mutilated, mutated into feral monster versions of themselves. It took all their cooperation and even help from Argit -off all beings!- to finally subdue them. Then, what do the Plumbers do with the poor mutated creatures that used to be otherwise docile and gentle creatures? Not seek a cure or way of reversing what had been done to them. No. Instead, the Plumbers just dumped them in the Null Void with all the other criminals of the universe. As if these victims that should be deserving of empathy and help, were no better than living garbage. Now the mutant To'kustar, of 'Way Bads' as they were now called, ran rampant through the Null Void, attacking settlers, nomads, criminals, and Plumbers indiscriminately.

So, yes, the Null Void was a lot more dangerous than it used to be.

Rook had plenty to keep himself busy.

Rook also had plenty that could kill him.

“Could you call him for me?” Ben asked at length. “Just to make sure he's still alive and that he's alright.”

Ah-ha! Kevin got him. It wasn't technically confirmation that the one Ben was thinking about, the one that like Ben for him and not any of his aliens, was Rook. But it was close enough for Kevin.

He didn't know when or how he'd become so invested in the younger man's personal drama. Usually, Kevin preferred to say out of Ben's personal drama. Maybe he was getting a little stir-crazy being stuck behind a desk all day every day. Maybe he needed some type of diversion. If not the action and excitement of patrolling the street, working open cases, defending the world from current and material threats, then something else. Perhaps not as heart-pounding exciting, but equally entertaining. Ben's near constant stream of romantic misadventures had always been a source of endless entertainment for him.

“I could call him.” Admitted the Osmosian. “I have that ability. But you have the ability too, and I'm not in the habit of making your social calls for you.”

“Its not a social call!” Insisted the younger man. “I just wanna make sure he's still alive.”

“Well, as of last week, he was still alive.”

“That was last week!” The Hero of the Universe did not sound hysterical and his voice did not crack, but he was loud enough to confirm for the Osmosian that he wanted to call for more than just to make sure the Revonnahgander was still alive. “You should know better than me how quickly things can change in the Null Void.”

There was a beat.

With that single thoughtless comment, Ben managed to derail everything.

One could have heard a pin drop.

Like the flipping of a switch, Kevin forgot all about meddling in the Hero's personal life. Fuck Ben's personal life, and fuck Ben too! He dropped the folders he was holding messily back into the box, papers flopping out and mixing together. The Osmosian rounded on the younger man.

“Oh, I should know!” He snarled. “Better than you I should know how things are in the Null Void! Why don't we take a moment to remind ourselves exactly why I know more about the Null Void than you! Or have you already forgotten who sent me there in the first place!” A pause. “And the second place! And the third place! In fact, lets recall every time I've ever been locked in the Null Void and remember who it is that's always doing it to me!”

As with many of his mistakes over the course of his life, Ben realized what he did wrong all too late. He never should have made that comment about Kevin and the Null Void. Especially not so casually and flippantly. For the past year Ben had been so carful of Kevin's feelings. Asking if he was mad when things started to get touchy, trying to gauge his emotional state. Kevin was always mercurial in his moods, but he did have a base-spectrum of shifts that were just normal every day “moody Kevin”, and then there were things that sent him careening out of that base spectrum into actual, hot-blooded, cold and bitter, anger. Making light of his childhood trauma in the Null Void (and his adulthood trauma in the Null Void) was one of the things that set him off.

Even the 'good' version of Kevin still felt rage over it.

Ben should have known better.

The Osmosian shoved the Hero in the chest, slamming Ben against the shelf behind him. “You wanna see if your boyfriend is still alive, you call him your fucking self!”

“He's not my boyfriend.” The Hero of the Universe groaned, his words coming out in one breath.

Kevin wasn't listening to him. Kevin didn't care. He left the files and boxes where they were and stomped out of the Records room. In the doorway he paused to turn and look back at his frienemy. “And clean up this fucking mess!”

The door slid shut behind him with a deafening slam.

Well, so much for having a nice little alien adventure and monster fight like old times.

With a sigh, Ben started gathering up all the papers and folders. He didn't know which documents corresponded to which files, but if they all came out of the same box then he at least knew which box they belonged in. Closing the lid, the Hero of the Universe replaced it on the shelf where it went and likewise headed out of the Records room.

Kevin wasn't there when he reached the bull-pin, and a quick check of the motorpool showed that his car was no longer parked in the garage either. The Osmosian had left. There was the headquarters nightshift manning the consoles and monitoring the patrol feeds, but Ben wasn't as social with them as he was with the day crew. He should go upstairs. Crawl into bed with his wife and get some sleep. But Ben still wasn't feeling up to seeing her yet.

There was once a time in his life when Ben was closer to Rook than he was anyone else. Than he was with his own family.

Now he and Rook never spoke.

And it wasn't from distance or lack of ability. As Gwendolyn and Kevin kept saying, he had the Omnitrix, he had a badge, he had all the highly advanced tech of Plumbers Headquarters. If Ben really wanted to speak to the Revonnahgander, he could literally just call him at any time.

Ben cast another glance at the lift that would take him upstairs to his family's living quarters.

Then back to HQ's communication array.

He stood there for several moments, frozen by indecision. At his side's his hands balled into fists. He didn't realize how tense he was until something inside him cracked. Some little piece of something Ben wasn't even aware he'd been bottling up and suppressing seeping out. Shoulders relaxing, his fingers uncoiled, and he sighed. Making a decision he'd been wrestling with since he went to see Rook about what to do with the Null Grenade holding Kevin 11,000 over a year ago.

Ben turned away from the lift that would take him upstairs to his wife and son.

He walked right up to the communications array.



Then dialed the extension that would connect a call to another dimension. Specifically, the pocket dimension that was attached to their own. The Null Void. He watched the screen flash with the word 'Connecting...' for several moments before the call was answered.

“Plumbers Headquarters, Null Void.” The face that answered was not that of Rook Blonko. “You're speaking with Magister Deccar Chaz, how can I-” he cut off abruptly, recognizing the face of the one who was calling his base. It was, after all, one of the most famous faces in the universe. “Holy hell! You're Ben 10,000!”

Remembering that he wasn't just any celebrity, but a decorated Hero that the Plumbers Academy had dedicated a chapter and half of study to, Ben put on his friendliest and most welcoming smile. “That's me!”

“What can I do you, uh, sir?” Magister Chaz asked. He had the mingled features of someone who was some kind of human-alien hybrid. Not like Helen and Manny whom looked so alien one couldn't tell they were part human. More like Ester and Pierce, where the difference was split fifty-fifty. But Ben didn't recognize Chaz's pedigree.

“I was trying to get through to your boss.” Ben said. Then thought this sounded too casual and unprofessional, so decided to rephrase. “To Magister Rook Blonko, Warden of the Void. Is he available?”

Chaz's expression quickly melted from eager to please and mildly star-struck, to hesitant and guarded, even a little tense. “Oh. Ahm. Warden Rook is unavailable at the moment.”

“Oh.” Ben's first thought was that Rook was avoiding him, and he kicked himself for thinking such a thing.

That was absurd. It wasn't like he had planned to be unavailable right at the time that Ben would call. How could Rook even know he was going to call? Rook was probably just busy doing Wardeny things. As Kevin was always trying to remind him, Rook had a real Plumbers' job. A real plumbers' job that kept him very busy. It was absurd to assume that his former partner -that he hadn't spoken to in a year, and hadn't seen in almost a decade before that- was avoiding him.

“Well, when he is available, please tell him I called.” Ben hoped that sounded polite and unassuming. Not at all as awkward and uncomfortable as he was actually feeling.

“I will.” Promised Magister Chaz. “May I know what this is in reference to so I can make a note of it in the call record? I have level seven security clearance -if that helps.”

“Oh, uh, well, I wasn't really calling about anything in particular...” Fuck, he sounded like an idiot. This Plumber probably thought Ben actually was the gigantic idiot Kevin was always saying he was. Who made social calls over official Plumbers channels? Who did that? That wasn't a thing! He was wasting Plumbers resources and Plumbers' time. This Magister was probably super-annoyed with him. “I, uh, I just wanted to know how things were going... In the Null Void! I wanted to know how things were going in the Null Void! It's been a year since Kevin 11,000 was reverted back to his normal self. I just wanted an update on how things were on that end. But its not a big deal. I'll call back when Rook is available.”

Ben clicked off before Magister Chaz had the opportunity to say anything more.

He looked down from the now blank screen and mentally kicked himself. What in the world ever possessed him to try and call Rook?

On the other end of the line, Chaz was also sitting in front of the communications console, wondering what in the universe had possessed Ben Tennyson to call and ask about Magister Rook. He did a quick check of the local time on Earth, North American continent, Eastern Sea Board. It was the middle of the night there -almost morning, in fact. Why would Ben Tennyson call so late in the night asking for Rook unless he knew something was wrong.

Did the Hero of the Universe already know the Warden of the Void was missing?

They did used to be partners. Did they keep in regular contact even after the Revonnahgander transferred to the Null Void team? Was Ben suspicious?

Reaching for the console again, Chaz dialed the team he sent out to look for the Warden. “Frey, please tell me you have an update!”

Chapter Text

On average, Osmosians healed faster than humans, but healing still took time. Devlin's burns were at the point in their healing where the new skin was knitting together and everything itched. Itched like a mother fucking cuntface! He wasn't putting the majority of weight on his crutches and limping now because he was trying to go easy on the wounds anymore. Now it was because he was trying really, really, really hard not to aggravate the itching.

Devlin stopped at his father's desk in the bullpen. Leaning some of his weight against it, the younger Osmosian wiggled his foot around in his shoe, trying to scratch the itch while also trying to appear casual. “Morning, Dad?” A pause. “Or are you gonna freak out and tattle to Mom that I said 'good morning' to you without getting a signed permission slip from her first?”

Kevin was sucking down a cup of coffee. He did not even pause to reciprocate his son's greeting. Just grunted an acknowledgment in the breath between sips. Truth be told, a signed permission slip from Gwendolyn sounded like a pretty good idea to him. But he wasn't about to tell the boy that. Kevin set his coffee cup down and tried to refocus on the document that was currently displayed on his computer monitor, except the monitor appeared to be shuddering and shaking ever-so-slightly.

At first, the Osmosian thought it was himself. Some combination of lack of sleep and an overdose of caffeine giving him the shakes. Kevin rested an elbow on the desk and examined his hand. But, no, his hand was perfectly still. He wasn't the one shaking, it was the desk that was shaking. The Osmosian was all ready to jump into action, Bellwood was not known for earthquakes and tremors, if one was happening right now, it had to mean something else. But the moment he stood, Kevin realized the shaking desk had a much more innocent and mundane explanation.

Devlin was leaning his full weight against his desk while rubbing the tread of his shoe against the ground and twisting his ankle. Trying to wiggle his foot around inside the shoe. It was just Devlin shaking the desk.

“What are you doing?” Demanded the older Osmosian.

“It really itches, okay!” Snapped the younger.

“Are you scratching?” Kevin blinked at him. “Don't scratch. You'll get scars. Or worse, it'll get infected.”

Devlin only rolled his eyes. “Please. As if anyone in this whole messed up family gives two shits about scars. I've seen you shirtless, Dad. You're skin looks like shredded cheese. And Mom's abdomen's all torn up from when she had me. Neither of you seem to care. You still bone every week. And as far as infection goes, I have access to the most advance medical technology in this sector of space. I'm not worried.”

“Okay, well, I reserve the right to say I told you so when we're fitting you with a metal leg because they had to amputate your gangrenous feet.” Replied the older man.

He sat back down in his seat and tried to get back to work. It didn't strike Kevin until just then that this was the first time he'd spoken to his son here, in the bullpen, since being reinstated as a Plumber. Gag-order on their interactions aside, there usually wasn't time to exchange words or banter. As soon as Devlin arrived, Tennyson's brat would appear and the pair would leave. There wasn't opportunity for Devlin to stop and chat with dear old dad. Kevin cast an assessing glance to the lift, realizing that the other boy hadn't appeared yet.

“Hey, where's your idiot friend?” He asked.

Devlin shrugged. “He would have texted me if he wasn't coming to school today. He's just running late. Another argument with his parents, probably.”

Kevin remembered Tennyson's reluctance to return home the previous night and wondered if what he was witnessing -or not witnessing?- was the fallout from that. Well, if the Hero of the Universe was getting reamed a new one by, not just his wife, but his son (whom was still a little kid) too, then the Osmosian wasn't going to complain. He'd been trying to put Tennyson in his place since they were children. Let Kai and the brat have a go at it. He was tired.

Hopping on top of his father's desk, Devlin started pulling his shoes off.

“Leave those on.” The older Osmosian commanded. “If you know what's good for you.”

“Ooh, there's one I haven't heard in a while.” The younger Osmosian scoffed. “'Do as I say if you know what's good for you'. Nice to see the old you's still in there.”

“As I have had to tell your mother multiple times: there's only one me and I'm always me.” Except that there were significant differences between his thought and behaviors when he was running off an energy overdose and when he was living life at his baseline.

At his baseline he was calmer, more patient, in control of his impulses, and inclined to try and find constructive solutions to problems. Under the influence of an energy overdose, he was always angry. Heart pounding, even when he was 'calm'. Easily excitable, quick to fly into rages, and believed that every problem could be solved with violence and homicide. He might always be 'him', he might always know who he was and where he came from -he did not have a split personality, or disassociated identity- but for all intents and purposes, Kevin was a different person when he was under the influence of an energy overdose. Kevin Levin and Kevin 11,000 were two completely different people. Gwendolyn knew this. Ben knew this. Hell! Even Devlin was coming to understand the difference. Kevin himself was the only one who felt different.

Kevin 11,000 was a monster and he was Kevin 11,000. So, Kevin must be a monster.

Devlin didn't know what to say to that. He wasn't used to talking about his father's energy binges with the other Osmosian and he'd never experienced one himself. At least, not one when he was at an age when he would remember. The way his father told the story -and the way his mother and Ben told the story too, just to a lesser extent- Devlin was lead to believe that he was born an insatiable beast without any feeling but the desire and drive to feed.

The two men lapsed into an awkward silence. Neither really knowing what to say next. They weren't exactly used to socializing with each other. In the years prior, their father-son relationship hadn't been the most affectionate, or even conventional.

Devlin slipped his shoe back on.

Kevin tried to go back to work.

Devlin cleared his throat. “So, I never actually got to ask you yesterday...” He began, not sure exactly how to begin. “About my hoverboard- I... um.”

How did one explain that they hated the powers they were born with and didn't want to use them, but still wanted to continue to participate in the family business of fighting aliens and defending Earth and the universe? More importantly, how did one explain that to the very parent that gave them said unwanted powers in the first place?

“I haven't really had the chance to look at it yet.” Kevin told him.

“Huh?” The boy blinked, not understanding what the older man meant. The board was destroyed. What was there to look at?

“I collected the pieces after your mother kicked me out that day.” He explained. “I haven't had the chance to take it apart and really look at it yet, but I'm gonna figure out exactly what you did wrong and make sure you don't do it again.”

Devlin scoffed. “Yeah. I know how much you hate having to tell me twice.”

Kevin opened his mouth to say something. But that was also the time Kenny finally appeared.

He didn't come from the lift down from the residential floors. The young Tennyson sprinted in from the pedestrian street access, still dressed in the same clothes as the previous day and adjusting the belt buckle around his waist. The Osmosian raised an eyebrow as the boy approached them.

“Sorry I took so long.” He said. Then paused, noting exactly who's desk it was Devlin was sitting on. “Wait, were you two hanging out?”

“Not in the strictest sense of the word.” Devlin answered. He hopped off the desk and got his crutched under him. “Are you ready for school?”

Kenny didn't exactly answer. At least not about school. “Dude! You will not believe where I have been! Lets go. I have so much to tell you!” He grabbed the older boy by the arm and was about to pull him out of the bullpen, but paused. Kenny looked back at the older Osmosian. “Uh, hey, Kevin, uh.” He stammered. “You're, uh, you're from the Null Void, right?”

The older Osmosian was instantly annoyed. As many times as Ben had sent him there over the years, it really did feel like he was from the Null Void. But that just wasn't the case. “No.” He growled testily. “I'm from Earth. I'm from New York! I was born in Queens!”

“Oh.” Kenny backpedaled. Maybe this wasn't a conversation he was ready to have with Devlin's dad. They didn't really know each other all that well and were by no means friends. Paradox said the Osmosian had to take the job in the Null Void, but maybe Kenny -as Kenny- wasn't the right person to broach the subject with him. Maybe he should try as Spanner. Kevin knew spanner, right? All the grown-ups knew Spanner. “Um, never mind then. Let's go Dev.”

He pulled the younger Osmosian along, dragging him off balance so that the older boy had to stumble and skip on his injured feet to keep from falling over.

“Oy! Carful, brat! That's my kid you're man-handling!” Kevin called after them.

A few eyes in the bullpen turned to glance at him curiously. No one had ever seen Kevin Levin express concern for his child before. Was the world ending or something?

Outside, Kenny continued to pull his cousin down the sidewalk until they turned a corner. A turn that was not on the rout to school. Devlin thought it was odd that Kenny didn't just pull out his overboard and take to the air. Since the Osmosian destroyed his own, Devlin had been transforming and flying to school in his mutant form while the younger boy continued alongside on his board. But here he was sticking to the ground and veering off course from any rout that would take them where they were meant to go.

“Are we playing hooky from school or something?” Asked the Osmosian after his cousin pulled him down an ally.

Kenny looked up and down the corridor, checking to make sure they were good and truly alone. No prying eyes or anyone likely to happen across them. “I need show you this!”

One hand went to his belt buckle.

“Whoa! Are you coming onto me?” Devlin asked, assuming the other boy could only be about to whip out one thing.

Hand still on his belt buckle, Kenny paused. “What? No! Gawd! It'd be like kissing a brother! No. I wanted to show you this.”

One hand still holding onto Devlin, the other making some kind of adjustment to the buckle that Devlin didn't quite catch, the two boys were enveloped in green light and vanished from the ally. Aside from mild breeze as the air rushed in to fill the space they occupied, there was no evidence to suggest they were ever there in the first place.

It wasn't like anything Devlin had ever experienced before. Light flashing behind his eyes, visions of images and events streaking by so fast and so thin they were like needles of motion and color stabbing at his retina. It made the Osmosian motion sick. Devlin had never been motion sick before. He used to live on spaceships! Yet he was keenly aware that his body wasn't actually moving.

It was the universe that was moving around him. The passing of space, planets rotating around suns, sun's rotating in their galaxies, galaxies rotating within the universe. A universe rotating around him and Kenny. Every planet, and every star, and with them all of time spinning. For one moment, Devlin honestly and truly was the center of the universe. The moment lasted only half a second, taking up the space between the tik and tok of a clock's gears. And it was also five billion years, as long as the Earth was old. Devlin wanted to shut his eyes against all the sensations that were overloading every organ he had. But there just wasn't enough time to.

No sooner had this magical mystery journey began, than it was already over.

Devlin fell to his knees.

The Osmosian barely registered that it was not the asphalt of a city ally his hands and knees landed on before, whatever it was he had doubled over onto, was covered in vomit. His own vomit. Devlin had never been motion sick before. But his insides weren't meant to handle- -whatever it was Kenny had just done to him. Coughing and retching, his head spinning, the Osmosian tossed up everything he had for breakfast that day. Puke splattering all over his hands and the cuffs of blazer.

“Whoa. Dude.” Kenny rubbed circles into his back, surprised. He didn't think time travel would have made his cousin sick. It didn;t make him sick. “You okay there?”

Devlin coughed. Spit-up some more. Gasped for air. He wished he carried bottled water in his school bag. He needed to rinse his mouth out, wet his throat, and wash his hands. He just puked all over his own damn hands! And why!? For what? What just happened? What the hell was that!? What did Kenny just do to him? Was this what the younger boy wanted to show him? Why? “Wh-what did you do to me!?”

The younger boy just blinked at him. “Okay, so I guess time travel isn't for you.”

With one final cough the Osmosian lifted his head to gape disbelieving at the other boy. “Time travel?”

Shaking his hands and wiping the excess chunks off on his slacks, Devlin forced himself to stand. He was still dizzy and his vision wobbled a little bit, making it difficult to focus on any one particular thing. But the Osmosian wasn't trying to focus on any one thing at the moment. He was too busy taking in landscape around them.

The dirty asphalt of the ally was replaced by dry dust. The brick wall behind him was replaced by a bungalow with aluminum siding. All around them was open space, wide practical walkways between more of the same aluminum paneled bungalows. All of them in one version of disrepair. Roofs caving in, doors hanging off hinges, segments of wall missing. It looked like an abandoned military base that had also been used a drag-racing strip turned battle field.

Resting one sticky hand against the aluminum siding of the closest bungalow, Devlin took in their surroundings. They sure as hell weren't in Bellwood anymore. Kenny said 'time travel'. Should the Osmosian be asking when they were as well as where they were? Instead, he asked, “Why are we here?”

“This is Los Solidad.” Kenny supplied, answering the 'where' first, leaving the 'when' or 'why' for his follow-up. “This is where my dad first me Professor Paradox.”

“Yes, and you've arrived about a day before that.”

Both boys turned at the sound of the voice. A man on the older side of middle-aged, hair still black but with bits of gray. He was wearing a simple and unassuming white lab-coat over equally unassuming slacks and a brown suit-vest. Gone were his steampunk goggles, his epaulettes, gauntlets, the gentleman's cane, and the ridiculous boots. He looked less like a madman more like a raggedy man. He was holding his pocket watch in his hand as if consulting the time, and perhaps that was what he was actually doing.

“And its a whole day before Ben Tennyson and friends are due to come investigating the trans-dimensional monster that's been causing a ruckus recently.” A pause. “Recent to them, I mean. Not recent to me. I solved Hugo's time-displacement problem centuries ago.” He focused his attention on the two boys. “Which makes me wonder what it is you two are doing here? Spanner and Bad Luck never helped on this adventure.”

Devlin thought he must be delirious, or still dizzy, or something. The world wasn't spinning anymore, but it felt like his head might be. Nothing was making sense at the moment. “I didn't understand a word you just said.”

Kenny patted the other boy on the should. “Dev, this is Professor Paradox. He gave me the vortex manipulator that lets me travel through time.”

None of this was making sense! The Osmosian was seriously wondering what had happened to him to make everything suddenly so mindbogglingly impossible to comprehend. “Since when can you travel through time!? You couldn't travel through time yesterday!”

“Then since last night. I guess. By your time.” Kenny shrugged. He sounded uncomfortably like the old man just then. By 'his time' indeed!

Devlin just made a croaking sound in the back of his throat. His still dry and irritated throat from puking up everything he'd eaten that day. What was even going on here? Like, did he wake up on the wrong side of the universe this morning? Fall into the Twilight Zone? Walk through the Scary Door?

“In any event,” Paradox sighed, “I have an appointment with young Ben and Company to get to. Please stay out of trouble while you're here. This part of the timeline is stable, do try not to change anything, please.”

Paradox vanished.

In less time than it took Devlin to blink.

Closing his eyes, the Osmosian took a deep breath, counted to ten, and opened them again. They were still standing in the abandoned military base -Los Solidad. Taking a second deep breath, Devlin reached into his messenger bag and pulled out his medicine bottles. Holding them close to his eyes, the Osmosian scrutinized their labels.

“Uh, Dev, what're you doing?” Asked Kenny.

“I'm checking the side effect on my meds.” Explained the older boy.

“Oh, stop freaking out.” Scoffed the younger boy. “This is all completely normal.” A pause. “For our family. This is all completely normal for our family. My dad time travels all the time -no pun intended- and even your parents time traveled a couple times! Hell! You time traveled once too! Remember when Maltruant attacked and sent you back to before you were born?”

Devlin was not likely to forget that trip. He got to see that it wasn't just because he was 'bad for his mother' that his father hated him. Kevin never wanted him from the moment he was conceived. Devlin hmph'd and crossed his arms over his chest. Thus far, the Osmosian's experiences with time travel had not been pleasant ones. He was no where near as excited or enthusiastic about Kenny's new power as Kenny himself was.

“Professor Paradox gave it to me.” Kenny continued to explain, willfully ignoring his cousin's distaste. He indicated the belt buckle he was wearing, the one he seemed to adjust just before they were pulled out of the ally and into a different time. “The time travel device, a sentai costume to hide my identity from Dad, and a whole list of things I'm destined to do! Like, I get to help in the Time War! How awesome is that!?”

Devlin scoffed.

Kenny frowned, disappointed that his cousin and best friend wasn't as excited and happy for him as he himself was. They talked about this. This was what Kenny wanted. But, then again, Devlin wanted something different. “Ya know, Paradox told me something about you too.” When the older boy still did not appear to be interested, he elaborated. “He said you inherited powers from your mom too. You don't have to rely on your Osmosian mutation if you don't want to.”

That finally got his attention. Devlin uncrossed his arms and gaped at his cousin.

“I'm not an Anodite.” He said skeptically. “If I was, I wouldn't have absorbed my mother.”

“Paradox didn't say you were an Anodite.” Kenny wanted to make sure he was being clear. Nuance was supposed to be very important to 'fate of the universe' missions and destinies, right? “He said you also inherited powers from your mother. That's not the same thing.”

“But the only powers my mother has are Anodite powers.” The older boy argued.

“No.” Corrected the younger boy. “The only powers your mother has are magic powers.”

An Anodite was what Aunt Gwendolyn was, a being made of the purest form of energy in the universe. But she learned to harness, control, and use that energy through the study and practice of magic. Devlin's mother was an Anodite, but her powers were magic. Devlin very clearly was not an Anodite, he was very clearly an Osmosian like his father. But if he inherited abilities from his mother as Paradox claimed, then his abilities must be magical in nature. After all, Osmosians absorbed energy, and what was magic is not just another form of energy?

“You like to read.” Kenny asserted. That was probably the truest assessment anyone had ever made about the young Osmosian. Devlin went from bragging about having read 'a chapter book', to comparing the narrative styles of Arthur C. Clark and Issac Asimov, to those of Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert. The Osmosian's reading level advanced by leaps and bounds after he moved in with his mother and was surrounded by almost every book he could ever want to read. “Have you ever cracked open one of her magic books and given it a try?”

“That's dumb.” Devlin shook his head. “Magic is dangerous. Besides, I don't have mana.”

Kenny was becoming frustrated with the other boy now. It was almost like Devlin was just contradicting him on principal. Willfully denying the possibility that he might have different powers because he'd rather just cry about being a 'monster' -his word- and feel sorry for himself.

“What about all the mana you absorbed from Aunt Gwendolyn?” The younger boy snapped at him.

Horror struck, Devlin's dark eyes went wide with betrayal. “How could you bring that up!?”

When Devlin was just an infant and didn't understand the difference between 'parent' and 'food', before that even! When he was still growing inside of her and running off of nothing more than base instinct, the Osmosian had absorbed her. Her mana. Her life-force. Enough to make her significantly weak. So weak that Kevin -and even Ben and Rook!- feared for her life enough to allow the still developing fetus to be cut out of her prematurely. Devlin almost killed him mother. By eating her from the inside. It was why his father hated him. Devlin even hated himself a little bit because of it. He was a monster. Osmosians were monsters and that's what he was.

Devlin never would have imagined Kenny would shove it in his face like that just to win an argument.

“Well, you were just a baby when you absorbed it all, so it wasn't like you were using it for anything.” Kenny blazed on, aware that he was upsetting his cousin but determined to make his case. “What happened to all the mana you absorbed? Did it just disappear? Or do you still have it in you? Maybe buried so deep you don't notice it.”

“Its not.” The Osmosian asserted. “I would know. I'm way better at using my powers than my dad is -uh, don't tell him I said that- but I would know if I still hand some of Mom's mana.”

Kenny opened his mouth to continue the argument. Remind Devlin that if he'd had mana in his body longer than he had cognitive memory then he just might not realize it because it had always been there. But he thought better of it. Devlin was stubborn. Double stubborn in fact. He got a double dose of stubbornness from both of his parents. Once Kevin or Aunt Gwendolyn decided something, there was no changing their mind -they were very much alike in that respect- and their son was no different. Once Devlin decided something, it would take a lot to change his mind and Devlin had decided that Professor Paradox -a time traveler with knowledge of the future- was wrong.

Instead of arguing, Kenny grabbed the other boy's hand. “There's an easy way to settle this.”

And his other hand went to his vortex manipulator belt buckle.

For the second time in less than an hour, Devlin experienced the universe turning around. Once again, it last for less than a second, Devlin didn't even have time to blink his eyes. But the single moment somehow also managed to feel like five billion years. A flash of green light, and then another change of scenery. This new one even more unfamiliar -and strange- than the first.

Gone were the cracked and broken buildings of the abandoned military base. Gone was the clear blue summer sky and the hot dusty ground. In fact, gone even seemed to be the familiarity that came from just being on the planet Earth herself. Devlin didn't know where Kenny took him to, but wherever it was, it sure as hell wasn't on Earth.

The first thing Devlin noticed was that the ground of purple. A mottled purple with particles of violet and indigo mixed in. Sure, you sometimes got purple rock on Earth, but this didn't seem very 'Earthy'. Devlin get a fair opportunity to study as he was -one again- on his knees heaving from something akin to motion sickness. Except this time, there was nothing left to puke up, so he just knelt there, doubled over, and making uncomfortable hacking sounds with his throat.

Next to him, Kenny tensed. “Oh. Um. Dev, I get that you're kinda not feeling too good right now, but, um, I kinda brought us to -uh- not the best point in time...”

That was the problem with traveling to the future. With traveling to the past, there was the benefit of having knowledge of the past. What events happened when, who was there, etc. A traveler knew where they were going, so to speak. What they were getting themselves into and what to expect. But when going to the future -unless one had a semi-omnipotent map of time like Professor Paradox- traveling to the future was a little bit like taking a shot in the dark. Like, Kenny didn't want to take Devlin so far into the future that he saw what Paradox had shown him, but he did want to take Devlin far enough into the future for him to see that he did have other powers.

“Dev! Move!” Kenny grabbed the -still retching- boy around the mid-section and threw them both to the side, Kenny using his own body weight to propel the Osmosian. They both went rolling across the purple rock, just in time to not be hit by a focused blast of Protosapien-B radiation. Kenny had, apparently, teleported them right into the middle of a battle. There wasn't even time to catch their breaths.

Whatever the purple rock they were on was, it ended suddenly less than a meter from they originally had landed. As Kenny throw them to dodge the attack, the land dropped out from under them and both boy's vision was filled with a swath of red. A wide expanse of space that was not dark and black, devoid of color like outer space. They were not in a vacuum. There was definitely breathable air and gravity. But the rock they landed on was just that -a rock. Free floating in air. A sky below them, the same swirling tones of red as they sky above them, and the sky all around them. An eternal sky with no horizon, only occasionally interrupted by a floating asteroid in shades of blue or purple.

Neither boy had ever been to the Null Void before, but they each knew enough about it to recognize it when someone stupidly theleported them into it.

Kenny had dumped them smack in the Void.

And they were already falling off an asteroid.

Or, rather, they were going to fall.

No sooner were they over the edge, both feeling a decisive lack of firm ground beneath them, and an uncomfortable surplus of insubstantial nothing around them, when they were caught. A web of mana bloomed under them, breaking their fall like a safety-net. Thick strands of power that glowed star-sapphire and tasted delicious against Devlin's finger tips. It was the sensation of around him -protecting him- that soothed away his time travel sickness. He looked around for its source. This did not feel like his mother's mana.

“See? I told you, reinforcements were coming.” Said a voice that sounded remarkably like Kenny's own, but with a bit of a crack in it. Like what Kenny's voice might sound like in another few years when they were both teenagers and Kenny wasn't eleven anymore.

Both boys looked up.

Kenny recognized his own Spanner costume immediately. It looked like it hadn't changed in the three year interim he'd skipped over to jump them to here. Still mostly white and black. An electric green scarf around his neck. Helmet that covered his whole face and obscured his identity.

Devlin recognized it too. He just didn't know it was Kenny under that helmet. “Hey! I know you! You're the one who brought me home after Maltruant sent me to the past!”

“Yup. Good times, that.” Said Spanner in that same cracking voice that sounded like a maturing version of Kenny's. He offered a hand down to help each boy climb back up onto the asteroid they'd just fallen off of.

No longer detracted by what he'd decided to call 'time travel sickness' (because 'motion sickness' just didn't seem right), Devlin was able to look around and actually take stock of what Kenny had just dropped them into.

The asteroid they were on was wide and flat. Flat enough to provide a comfortable foundation for a structure of some kind, and wide enough for them to have a battlefield just outside said structure. A tall wall surrounding a tower. It was straight and cylindrical, almost like a silo, or a smoke stack. Except on top of the tower was what looked like a drill. A drill pointing straight up into the crimson sky. As if one could even drill through the open sky. Ha!

In addition to the time traveling sentai that sounded like an older Kenny -Devlin was just gonna go ahead and decide it was Kenny, they'd already talked about him getting a sentai costume- there was also another Osmosian. At least, Devlin assumed he was Osmosian. If he wasn't, then he was some freaky hybrid. A cross between an Orishan, an Amperi, Talpaedan, Geochelone Aerio, and Prypiatosian-B. All five aliens from the Andromeda galaxy, so it was possible that individuals from each race might cross paths, but Devlin was pretty sure not all of them were capable of interbreeding with each other. So, a natural hybrid was not very likely. Another Osmosian made much more sense.

But there was no guesswork needed to figure out who the third combatant fighting alongside the mystery Osmosian was. He might be three years removed. Older. Taller. Broad shouldered, narrow waisted and lean. But the hair was still long and twisted up into a tight man-bun (and now it was a proper man-bun, not a boy-bun), and he was still smartly dressed in suit-pants and a dress shirt. Neat and respectable. Just like he liked to look. Devlin recognized himself immediately. But the shocking thing, the really, really really shocking thing, was that he wasn't using his mutant form, or a hoverboard or any kind of alien tech for that matter. No, Devlin's future counterpart was using mana.

Mana! Just like Kenny said!

It was Devlin's own mana that had caught their fall.

“What's going on?” The Osmosian asked. He felt like that question very accurately defined his day thus far. From the moment he left Plumbers HQ with Kenny, it what just been one big WTF after another.

“Cliff-notes!” Shouted Devlin's future counterpart. “Bad guys have bad machine. We must stop!”

The younger Devlin looked back up at the tower in front of them. Tall, cylindrical. Like a silo, or smoke stack. With a drill on top as if it was supposed to drill through the sky itself. And they were in the Null Void. A pocket dimension created as a penal colony. Was the weird sky drill some kind of escape plan by one or more of the criminals that was confined here?

Devlin looked at the guys his future counterpart and the other Osmosian were fighting. All different species, full aliens, and human-alien hybrids. All wearing the same uniform. A old and dated model of proto-tech armor, all in black. Very similar to the proto-tech armor his father wore. The armor Kevin got during his time as a Rooter. Rooters! These guys they were fighting were Rooters! And they were trying to escape the Null Void! Devlin didn't have to be told twice.

He jumped up next to his future counterpart. “I'm on it! How do I use mana?”

The older one looked sideways at his past counterpart. “It took, like, forever to figure this shit out. Just use your mutant form.”

“But I-” The younger began to argue.

“Yeah, yeah, you don't like using your mutant form.” Grumbled the older. “I get it. But now is not the time.”

He might have said more, but at that exact moment, one of the Rooters, a half-human half-Aerophibian woman, shot at them. Two narrow beams from her eyes. They would have hit the younger Devlin in the head if the older one didn't throw up a mana-shield just in time. Clearly, right in the middle of a fight was not the time to argue. Besides, he was talking to his future self. The other Devlin would obviously have knowledge and experience the present -past?- Devlin would not. He would be in a position to know more than the younger Devlin.

Still not exactly happy about it, the younger Osmosian transformed to fight in his mutant form. His ribs creaked and strained as two extra arms burst from his torso. His lower back ached as his spine elongated into a tail. He put his hands to his head as his eyes changed shape and size, shifting their positions on his face, displacing his sinuses. Wings sprouted from his back and he let loose a roar. When it was done, the younger Devlin flexed muscles he rarely used anymore, working some circulation into the neglected limbs.

“And you, use your Omnitrix.” Spanner commanded his own younger counterpart.

Now it was Kenny's turn to protest. “But if I use the Omnitrix, it'll blow my secret identity!”

Behind the tinted visor of his helmet, the older Kenny rolled his eyes at his younger self. He was glad he got over the whiny indigence he had at this age. “Okay, first of all, you're not even in uniform right now anyway. So there's no secret to blow. And anyway, Dad's not here right now! Its just you, me, Dev, the other Dev, and Shirahk.”

He did not add that his secret identity had already been blown anyway. At Great-Greandpa Max's retirement party, which they were all fighting Maltruant.

Shirahk -or rather, the one Kenny assumed was 'Shirahk' since he wasn't a version of himself or Devlin- aimed a blast of Protosapian-B radiation at the female Rooter. She was forced to dodge, cutting off her eye-beam onslaught on the two Devlins. His companion and companion's other self no long in any immediate danger, he turned an angry snarl on the other four. “Can you quit it with the chit chat! We bailed on my sister's wedding to save my world, not argue with yourselves about shit that doesn't matter!”

“Wow. He needs to chill.” Muttered the younger Devlin.

“He's just stressed because Servantis' dimensional drill is destabilizing the Null Void.” Explained the older. “He's usually very sweet.”

“Okay, Team!” Spanner called loud enough for all of them to hear. He grabbed his younger self and sprinted over to the three Osmosians. “Here's the plan. Bad Luck's gonna give us cover with his mana shields while Shirahk lays down some serious radiation on that wall.-”

“Wait, who's 'Bad Luck'?” Asked the younger Osmosian.

“I'm Bad Luck.” Supplied the older Devlin.

Spanner tried to continue the strategy huddle as if they hadn't interrupted. “I don't expect him to be able to take it down alone, but he might soften the metal enough for Little Dev to rip it open with some of Diamondhead's crystal projectiles.”

“It's Petrosapian, not 'Diamondhead'.” Corrected the young Devlin. He also thought mentioning that that was the same ability that Spanner suggested he use which fighting Maltruant in his mother's library. Was there something special about Petrosapians Devlin didn't know about? Or did Spanner just think it was cool?

“Not the time, Little Dev.” Spanner reminded him.

“What about me?” The younger kenny asked. “Why do you need me to use the Omnitrix?”

Spanner knelt down in front of him. “You still have Master Control unlocked, right? I need you to access Big Chill. That's how Dad beat a machine very similar to this one when he was younger. You need to get to the furnace and freeze all the cormite. No coremite, no energy. The Dimensional drill is dead in the water and no one breaks the Null Void open to real space.”

“Also, you save the lives of everyone who lives here.” Added Shirahk.

“That too.” Nodded Spanner. It was, after all, an equally important detail. The preservation of life was kinda the main driving force behind the whole 'saving the universe' business. “Alright, Team, got the plan. Ready. Break!”

The older Devlin, or 'Bad Luck' as Spanner called him, raised his arms over his head then spread them in a wide arc. A dome of mana bloomed over them, protecting the quintet from the Rooters attacks. It wasn't just the Aerophibian hybrid. With her was a man who might have looked completely human except for the glowing Protosapian-B grill in place of where his face should be, and a scattered handful of other beings, all different aliens and hybrids, dressing in black made to look as similar to the Rooters uniforms as possible. Not members of Servantis' original team then. New recruits, either natives fo the Void that had joined up, or else- the mana shield was hit with a blast from a plasma pistol that was definitely Plumbers issue -or else defectors from the Null Void detail.

Bad Luck added another layer to the mana-shield, and Spanner returned fire with the arm-blasters in his suit.

When they were close enough to the wall protecting the tower, Shirak lifted both Orishan arms and shot from his palms -not fluid- but Protosapian-B radiation.

There was a single, heart-stopping moment in which nothing happened.

Then the metal of the wall started to glow a molten red.

Little Dev raised a fist, ready to shoot a barrage of crystal darts at the glowing metal.

“Give it another second.” Spanner commanded.

So, the young Osmosian waited.

The wall started to sweat.

“Okay. Now! Both hands.” Commanded Spanner.

With both fists then, Little Dev unleashed an onslaught of crystal darts at the glowing oval of molten metal. They stuck in the soft metal, sinking slightly in the wall. So, the Osmosian made his projectiles bigger. Arrows instead of darts. From both hands. Again, the crystal spikes stuck in the metal. Then Devlin finally got what it was Spanner wanted him to do! Shirahk was melting the wall, yes, but he was also radiating the metal. Petrosapian crystals blocked radiation. Spanner didn't want the younger Osmosian to break open the wall for them. He wanted him to panel their entrance in mineral that would keep them safe.

Changing his aim, Little Dev returned to dart sized crystals and shot an arch around the oval of glowing red wall. The soft metal slid away with a moist squelching sound. Little Dev covered the ground where it fell in crystal too, for good measure. As much as radiation was bad for them, walking on hot metal was probably bed for them too.

Spanner grabbed his younger self and flew though the opening on his rocket boots.

Bad Luck's mana shield shattered along the cracks of the Rooters attacks just as Spanner -with his younger self in tow- shot through the hole the Osmosians had made for him. The scattering shards of power, instead of letting them just disperse back into the flotsam of the universe, Bad Luck shifted their form into projectiles of his own, and shot them at no enemy in particular in a wide semi-circle around them. A little bit of cover fire as all three Osmosians followed the Kennys through the hole they'd made.

Spanner and Kenny were intercepted just before they reached the base of the tower.

Another half-human, half-alien hybrid. Tall and slender, with a thin face and hooked nose. Red eyes below bushy bows that might have at one time been black but were not an uncomfortable reddish gray.

“Spanner,” he said, “always good to see you. And you've brough my two favorite second-generation Osmosians with you.”

“We're the only second generation Osmosians.” Shirahk snarled.

“Don't engage with him.” Said Bad Luck. “He doesn't deserve the validation.”

“Now, Devlin, is that any way to talk about the man who brought you into this world?” He asked.

But the future counterpart wasn't engaging with him. Instead, he turned his attention to his teammates. “Spanner, you take the other one and do the thing you were gonna do. We'll handle Servantis!”

Oh, so that was Servantis. Devlin had heard the story. Stories, actually. A former Proctor of the Plumbers, dishonorably discharged and imprisoned in the Null Void along with his team. Servantis manipulated his father as a child and groomed him into a living weapon. He kidnapped and experimented on other children, using Kevin's Omosian powers to transform them into artificial hybrids. He turned friends against friends. And all to kill Ben Tennyson. After all that, Servantis was still the person that Kevin got to cut open Gwendolyn and deliver Devlin when he was still weeks premature.

The young Osmosian had heard the stories. Now he had a face to put to the name.

Shirahk assumed a defense stance. Bad Luck's hands glowed. Little Dev squared off in line with the other two.

Servantis' red eyes flicked to him momentarily. “I am a little curious about the third one. Your ages are all wrong for him to be one of your offspring, and I know neither Aggregor nor Kevin are still breeding. So, where did he come from.”

“Don't answer that.” Bad Luck commanded his younger counterpart.

As if the time-displaced Osmosian needed to be told. He wasn't in any hurry to make friends with this guy.

Bad Luck placed himself between Servantis and his past counterpart. Hands glowing, he aimed a blast of mana at the artificial Cerebrocrustacean-hybrid. The younger Devlin found it interesting that while his mother's mana blasts were orbs, his own were sharper, more aggressive looking spikes. Narrow pointed spikes that glowed with star-sapphire power.

But Servantis had powers of his own. He blocked, or countered the older Devlin's mana attack with some psychic power of his own. Thin strands of red, lightning-like power crackled out from the gem on Servantis' forehead and collided with Bad Luck's mana. The air sizzled with power that gave the younger Devlin goosebumps.

While Servantis was distracted by Bad Luck, Shirahk came up on his side and the younger Devlin was surprised and a little thrown off kilter when six panels on the other Osmosian's chest slid away. What he thought were pectorals and abs shifted to reveal six squarish, gaping holes in his chest and abdominal. It was a little uncomfortable to look at. But the attack he launched from them almost made up for it. It was like he'd hit Servantis with a wind turbine. From out of his Shirahk launched a bombardment of high-pressure air that knocked the Rooter off his feet. The old man went rolling on the hard rock of the asteroid, nearly impacting his fortress wall on the opposite side.

Little Dev wasn't quite sure what his role was supposed to be in this fight, but Servantis was clearly the Big Bad boss, and they also clearly needed to keep him distracted and out of the way while Spanner and Kenny did- -whatever it was they were going to do. While Servantis was still disoriented, picking himself back up after Shirahk's attack, Little Dev used his Lepidopterran slime spit. Hacking up two insect loogies, the first glueing one of Servantis' knees to the ground, the second plastering his shoulder to the wall behind him. The old man was stuck -literally stuck- in a position that (on any normal elderly human) couldn't have been good for his back. Amazingly, none of the Osmosians cared.

“You think these disgusting little juvenile pranks will stop me!?” Roared the former-Proctor.

“Probably not.” Admitted Bad Luck, actually speaking to Servantis instead of just around Servantis for the first time since his younger counterpart had arrived. He adjusted the cuffs on his dress shirt and was disappointment to find dirt on them. Well, this tux was good and ruined. Good thing he's left the jacket behind. Mom was gonna kill him! “But I have a better question: while you were playing with us, who'd you leave to stop Spanner?”

This would have been about the time most bad guys the younger Devlin had fought would be spouting colorful expletives. But Servantis didn't do that. Apparently, he was a classy bad guy. He just grit his teeth and glared up at them. Defiant, but defeated. He knew when he'd been beat -which also made him remarkably more intelligent than the vast majority of Ben's enemies.

No sooner had Servantis come to the realization that he lost, than the compound suddenly went dark as power was cut all through out the inside of the wall. The drill stopped spinning, and there was a single -blissful- moment of silence.

Then Kenny and Spanner emerged from the base of the tower.

“That was so cool!” Declared the younger in the form of Big Chill.

“I know right!” Agreed the older. “Gosh! I feel so nostalgic. I haven't worn an Omnetrix in years!”

“Glad you two had fun.” Bad Luck commented, crossing his arms over his chest. “Now, do you happen to have a Null Egg on you? Neither Shirahk or I were carrying any when we bailed on the reception.”

“Oh. Um...” Spanner sputtered. He pressed something on the back of his neck and the helmet folded away to reveal his face. Yup. That was Kenny's face alright. Aged a bit to match his older voice, but definitely, definitely still Kenny. He met Bad Luck's eyes, before turning his attention back to his own past-counterpart, then to Devlin's past-counterpart. “I feel like that's something one of us should have remembered.”

Yet -clearly- neither of them had.


What were they gonna do with Servantis?

While the five of them were standing there unsure of what to do, and dicking around because of it, Swift flew over the wall. She saw the former-Proctor glued in place and shot a pair of low-level beams from both her eyes and her tail to break the solidified slime spit. No longer held in place, the Cerebrocrustacean-hybrid let loose a wide and unfocused blast of his psychic power. Thin strands of red lightning arcing out from the gem on his forehead. It was raw with unfocussed intent. But then, his intension wasn't actually to harm them. He could never harm his precious second-generation Osmosians! After all, they were the closest thing to 'grandchildren' he'd ever have. But he did need to confuse things enough to cover his escape.

“Watch out!” Bad Luck shouted, a bit belatedly, right before everyone blacked out.

When the five of them woke up again, they were the only ones in the powerless compound. There was an awful lot of groaning and pressing of hands to heads.

“Everybody alright...?” Groaned the Kenny wearing the Spanner costume sans the helmet. Why the fuck did he take the helmet off with Servantis around!? “Are you guys still you guys?”

“Ugh, no.” Bad Luck growled in bad humor. “I'm a two-thousand year old vengeful ghost of an Egyptian Thief King.”

“I don't know what that is.” Shirahk muttered. “But it sounds like an obnoxious reference that I have no way of understanding because I'm not from real space -never mind Earth.”

After being hit with Servantis' brain-blast his body must have automatically reverted back to his base form, because he was no longer a conglomerate of aliens from the Andromeda galaxy. Of course, he still didn't look completely human. Human in shape, yes, but the skin was blue, not any variant of brown or pink, the eyes were read, and he had four horns on the top of his head. Definitely not human features.

“Its okay, Baby.” Bad Luck soothed. “It was a tedious series anyway.”

“One of us should call Plumbers Headquarters.” Spanner suggested, effectively bringing the subject back to the more immediate situation at hand.

'Yeah, yeah, I got it.” The older Devlin pulled a Plumbers badge out of the back pocket of his suit-pants.

No sooner had he dialed the base code and opened the com-channel than his father's voice was heard shouting over the frequency. “Where the fuck have you been!?” It had barely even rung once. “Do you have any idea what I've had to deal with!? How did you think your mother was gonna react to you just up and disappearing in the middle of the Null Void? Brat, if it wasn't for the fact that she wants you alive and in perfect health, I'd fucking kill you for making her worry, you Little Asshole!”

“Nice to see Dad hasn't changed.” Muttered the younger Osmosian.

“Since I can't kill you, instead I'll let you know,” continued Kevin's angry voice, “your mother is tracking your mana and is on her way to your location right now. You get to explain to her exactly why you left without telling anyone and what you did while you were gone. Have fun with that.” A pause. “And if Shirahk is with you, let him know that Aggregor went with her. Have fun dealing with your irrational and over-protective parents. Brats!”

The com signal cut off.

“Good ol' Uncle Kevin.” Spanner laughed. He wasn't worried. It wasn't like one of his parents was charging towards them hell bent on delivering guilt trips and lectures.

Bad Luck's badge buzzed with another com call.

In a much calmer voice this time, Kevin added, “And, if your idiot friend is with you, tell Kenny that Tennyson wanted me to warn him that when Gwen freaked out 'cause she couldn't find Devlin, she called your mother in real space looking for the both of you. Kai wants to speak to you when you get home.”

The signal clicked off again.

Now Spanner looked panic stricken. “I wish we'd all died.”

With a sigh, Bad Luck climbed to his feet. “Okay, I think its time for our past selves to go back now.”

“Wait!” Protested the younger Kenny. “Was this the thing!?”

The thing Paradox showed him. A broken universe. The sky cracked open like an egg and the Null Void on the other side spilling over like yoke through the shell. Was this supposed to be the thing that caused it? Did they just stop it? Was this just the thing? Did Kenny just fulfill his destiny? So soon! So easily! Amazing! He was an even better hero than his father!

“What thing?” Asked the younger Devlin.

Spanner pursed his lips. “Well, Servantis escaped, so...?”

Chapter Text

Several disorienting things happened all at once.

Rook was holding the line, the zip-line he'd set his proto-tool as to help the caravan cross to the next asteroid faster. That was what his attention was on. The people crossing.

The Revonnahgander felt more than saw a shadow fall over him, and he looked up just in time to register a mutant To'kustar hand bearing down on him- -before another body collided with his.

Shocked and thrown off balance, Rook dropped his proto-tool, the people still on the line having to clutch madly at the cable to avoid falling into the empty chasm. They were the lucky ones. Rook and the body that collided with him tumbled down. An amalgamation of Orishan, Amperi, Talpaedan, Geochelone Aerio, and Prypiatosian-B. All aliens from the Andromeda galaxy, one of the two galaxies Aggregor was still infamous in. But it wasn't Aggregor that fell on the Revonnahgander and sent them both careening off the edge. It was-

“Shirahk!” Aggregor's voice echoed off the rocks as they fell.

Rook tried to grab the boy, but he had no leverage in the empty air.

In his mutant form, Shirahk could fly and he was about to zoom back up to the asteroid they'd just fallen from and rejoin his family -Warden of the Void falling next to him be damned. But the Way Bad shifted his body and Shirahk collided unexpectedly with its hip. Dazed and disoriented, the Osmosian hung in the air for half a second longer before the Way Bad swatted at him like a fly as it turned away and left the caravan.

For a second time, Shirahk collided with Rook, this time in mid-air. They both went careening off to the side and down. Their free fall didn't stop until they were both swept up in a new gravity stream and collided with a new asteroid. Both beings promptly passed out.

That was several hours ago.

Or, at least, Rook assumed he'd been out for several hours. There was no day or night in the Null Void, no changes in light to measure the passage of time. What did change was the landscape. The asteroids drifting around them did not look familiar, neither did the clusters and formations they were floating in. If the rock they currently sat on had been close to Aggregor's group at one time, it sure as heck wasn't now. Fighting a headache, Rook narrowed his eyes to peer critically at the asteroids closest to them. They all seemed equal parts desolate and empty. No people, or signs of people on them.

They were alone.

Turning away from the voidscape, Rook focused his attention to Shirahk, trying to gauge the state of his companion. The boy had reverted back to his base form and was still unconscious. The Revonnahgander checked his pulse and breathing to make sure it was just the sleep of a normal blackout and not anything worse, anything that might need medical care and technology they did not have access to at this exact moment.

Shirahk opened his eyes just as Rook was feeling around the back of his head and neck, checking for open wounds or bleeding.

“It is alright.” The Revonnahgander tried to sooth him, using the low, calming voice they taught at the Academy for speaking to crisis victims. “You are uninjured. But we were hit rather hard. I would recommend against sudden or abrupt movements for the time be-”

Rook was cut off abruptly when the Osmosian shoved him off with a tad more strength than a twelve-year-old child should have, and sat up.

“Where's my family?” He demanded. The last he saw of his father and sisters, they were all fighting a Way Bad while he was forced to dick around and do nothing. “Did everyone get away okay? Where's Father? And Olennor. And Aggrenna. Did they all make it?”

Rook didn't have any answers for him. The last he saw of the group, the mutant To'kustar looked like it had lost interest in them and was turning away. But that didn't mean that that's what happened. The creature was still very much in a position to harm them all. Of course, he also knew better than to tell that to a child who was already distraught after being separated from his family and getting lost with a stranger. Instead, Rook reminded him. “Aggregor is a very formidable opponent. I have read his file. He managed to outwit Ben Tennyson on multiple occasions. Besides, your father is-”

“Old.” Shirahk finished for him.

“I beg your pardon?” The Revonnahgander blinked at him. He was going to end with 'besides, your father is Osmosian and Osmosians are hard to kill' which was a truth he'd learned from experiences shared with Kevin. (And horror stories he'd heard of Kevin.) Osmosians rarely went down. If they did, they went down hard, and they went down fighting. But that was Osmosians in their forties, just reaching the end of their prime, but still in their prime. Aggregor had to be in his sixties by now. Well out of his prime. Perhaps his body, or his powers, were in decline. Rook didn't know.

“My father is old.” Repeated the boy. He sat in the dirt of the asteroid and looked out over the wide expanse of nothing occasionally interrupted by a vacant asteroid. Then forced himself to stand, brushing dust and rock flakes off his clothes. “If you're trying to reassure me, that means either not everyone made it, or else you don't actually know. Father's right. You are useless to us.”

On his feet now, Shirahk swayed a bit. Rook put a supportive hand on his arm to keep the boy from falling. The Osmosian looked at the hand on him, then promptly shrugged the Revonnahgander off. Shirahk thought he was useless, so he wouldn't even accept the simple gesture of support. Either that, or he was going through that phase all young people went through in which they were determined to prove how grown-up they were by acting tough and refusing to accept help. He looked around the asteroid they were on, and noted a distinct lack of any weapons or equipment that could help them. Shirahk lost his spear, and Warden Rook had dropped his proto-tool. All they had on them was the clothes on their backs and whatever might be in their pockets.

Shirahk transformed into his mutant form. Like Devlin had inherited a mutation from Kevin, Shirahk inherited Aggregor's mutation. A combination of five species from the Andromeda galaxy. The legs of an Orishan. Head and hair of an Amperi. Arms of a Talpaedan. The hollow chest of a Geochelone Aerio. There wasn't any Prypiatosian-B traites visible, but Rook knew it was in there. Not just because he'd read the notes on Aggregor in Ben's file, but also because it was a Prypiatosian-B attack that threw the boy off balance and knocked them both off the asteroid in the first place. And, like Devlin could use the powers of all ten aliens that made up his mutation, there was no doubt in the Revonnahgander's mind that Shirahk could use the powers of all five of the aliens that were in him.

Among them, the Amperi ability of flight.

Rook came up beside the Osmosian. In his mutant form, the child was almost as tall as the Revonnahgander. Almost as tall, but already broader.

“Are you able to carry things and fly?” Rook asked. “Would you be able to carry me and fly at the same time.”

The Osmosian looked sideways at him through crimson eyes that now glowed. Amperi eyes, but not an Amperi color. “I could carry you.” The boy admitted. “But why would I wanna lug around useless weight?”

With that, Shirahk jumped off the edge of the asteroid into the empty air. He hung there for a few moments, trying to decide on a direction. He didn't know how the asteroid they woke up on had drifted. Its course, pattern, or speed. He didn't know what direction to look for his family, how far away they were, or how long the journey might take. Shirahk was truly lost.

He'd never been without his family before. Aggregor almost never let the boy out of his sight. And if his father wasn't around to keep him in line, one of his sisters, Aggrenna or Olennor, were always close by to tell him what to do. Shirahk had no idea what to do. For the first time in his life, there wasn't anyone to take care of him. He always liked to moan and groan how Father smothered him, never let him accompany his sisters hunting, or defend the rest of the caravan. Shirahk liked to remind them all that -unlike Aggrenna and Olennor- he had powers. He could take care of himself. He was independent. They needed to start treating him like a man and not a little boy!

But the fact of the matter was, Shirahk didn't know the first thing about taking care of himself. He was not independent. While he did have powers, he was still young and inexperienced, prone to mistakes and miscalculations. Shirahk was not a man, he was still very much a little boy.

“Father!” He called to the Void. It echoed in the empty spaced between asteroids, but there was no answering call. The Void did not call back. Aggregor did not call back. “Aggrenna! Olennor!”

Rook watched the Osmosian fly from empty asteroid to empty asteroid, calling for his family. Voice getting higher and higher as he became more and more frantic. A franticness that was quickly approaching the border to hysterical. For all his talk about Rook being useless weight, Shirahk wasn't much better. He was just a scared little child with no idea what to do.

“I have a map.” The Revonnahgander called to him, hoping this information might calm the super-powered child a little. The map wouldn't show then to Shirahk's family, but it would at least let them see where they were.

The boy did pause in his frantic flitting from asteroid, to asteroid. Hovering in the air, glowing rudy eyes glared down at the Plumber. “How will that help!?”

“We will not have to wander aimlessly.” Rook shouted up at him. “Is there a place your family makes camp often? Or any villages or settlements they do regular trade with? We can head to one of them and wait for your father and sisters there.”

It seemed like a perfectly rational solution to the boy's problem. Aggregor's group was a nomadic band. They traveled the Void, never staying in the same place for very long. But the Null Void was not infinite like real space. It was finite. A pocket dimension. Emphasis on the 'pocket'. So, it stood to reason there were would be settlements they'd return to regularly. Holdfasts to board for rest. Farms or towns to resupply. Fortresses or similar settlements for trade. Even wanderers had to take breaks from wandering every now and again.

Shirahk floated back from to stand in front of Rook. He reverted back to his base form. Black hair and red eyes like Aggregor's, blue skin and lithe limbs from the Null Void settler Rook assumed was the boy's mother. He was significantly shorter in his base form than in his mutant one. Only a couple centimeters taller than Kenny Tennyson was the last time Rook saw him. The Revonnahgander pushed that comparison out of his mind. Thoughts of Kenny inevitably brought on thoughts of the boy's father, and Rook couldn't afford the distraction when there was a lost and scared child depending on him. Rook had to be the capable and responsible adult he was expected to be.

“Let me see it.” The boy demanded.

Pulling out his Plumbers badge, Rook flicked open the app that would project his holographic map of the Null Void. Still just as incomplete as it was when Rook and Arys were originally attacked by a Way Bad, their vehicle destroyed, and were stranded in the wild Void.

Crimson eyes narrowed at the projection as Shirahk studied the map. “Its kinda a shitty map.”

“It is better than not having any map at all.” The Revonnahgander informed him.

The boy shifted his glare from the map to the one holding it. His frown was skeptical. “Aren't these things also communicators? Can't you call the rest of your Plumbs on this thing and just have someone come pick you up?”

“That was the first thing both Magister Arys and I tried.” Rook informed him very patiently. “Our badges must have been damaged when our THV was attacked.”

That skeptical frown shifted to cautious suspicion. “Then how do you know your precious map wasn't also damaged?” He asked. “Its not even all here! You've got huge pieces missing! You don't even have Daq's holdfast, or the Rooters base marked on here. How can you have the Free Fortress marked on here, but not Daq's? Its the single most consistent landmark that passes the Free Fortress. And the Rooters! Aren't they your biggest adversary here? Shouldn't know know where they are? Why aren't they marked on your map? Why do you suck so much?”

The Revonnahgander gaped at the boy. He didn't know who this 'Daq' was, he mentioned, but that wasn't the part he was focusing on. Rook ignored the fact that the boy basically just said he was terrible at his job and instead singled out the one important piece of information. “Shirahk, do you know where the Rooters base is?”

“Of course I do!” The boy snapped, as if this should have been obvious and the Warden was dumb for even having to ask. As if everyone knew where the Rooters base was. As if it was common knowledge and Rook and his Plumbers were just dumb for not knowing it. “All Osmosians know where Servantis' lair is. He is kinda obsessed with us. My father wanted to make sure I knew where it was so I know where to stay away from.”

Rook was speechless for a moment.

It was true, neither he nor any other member of his team knew where Servantis' current base of operations was. After obtaining his position as Warden of the Void, one of the first things the Revonnahgander did was take a full strike team to the last place he knew the Rooters had been. When Gwendolyn was still pregnant and Kevin still a member of Ben's Team, the two of them had gone into the Void together with the specific intension of finding Servantis and bringing him back to help with Gwendolyn's problematic pregnancy.

Rook and Kevin found Servantis and the rest of his Rooters -at the time that was just his original team, Swift, Leander, and Phil- had hollowed out almost half an asteroid and were hiding in a base underground. The marker for the base, being a unique rock formation with a bit of a overhang and a narrow gap concealing the entrance. Rook lead a team to that very spot after he took the Void deployment. They found the rock formation and the concealed entrance that lead into the dug out cave systems. But the Rooters had gone. Servantis managed to elude them.

And had been eluding them ever since.

Kneeling down to be closer to the boy's level, Rook held the badge out to him. “Can you show me on this map where the Rooters base is?”

Shirahk took the badge, studying the projection and the shifting asteroids. “Here's the Free Fortress.” He said, pointing to Incarcecon. He continued to peer at it. “There should be an asteroid rotating on a consistent ellipsis here.” He moved his finger through the map in an ovoid motion. The image glitched and flickered as his hand passed through it, but returned to normal after he was done. “Daq's holdfast is on that asteroid, it passes both the Free Fortress and the Rooters base, but on opposite ends of its rotation. So, if the Free Fortress is here, then the Rooter have to be here.”

He poked a blank space on the map.

They didn't have any mapping nodes in that area. Rook had no idea what was out there. It made sense that Servantis would establish his new base in a part of the Void that was still unexplored. Or, at least, unexplored by the Plumbers. Shirahk, or more accurately, Aggregor seemed to know it at least well enough to teach his son to stay away.

“Alright.” Rook nodded. “We won't go there.”

But when he got back to his own base, the Revonnahgander was going to organize the biggest ranging party he could with all the available man-power and equipment he had on hand. They would flush out the Rooters and finally put a stop to Servantis once and for all. All assuming Rook ever got back to Plumbers Headquarters, of course. At the moment, the Revonnahgander wasn't too optimistic about that. Not only had he lost his vehicle and damaged the communication feature on his badge, but now he'd lost the other Magister with him and been separated from the natives that were helping him. He was lost and in the company of a child that needed to be taken care of more than he would be of any help.

Shirahk was studying the map again. “This blinking dot, that's us?”

“Yes.” Rook confirmed.

“Then we should go this direction.” The Osmosian traced his finger through the hologram again, messing with the projection. “By the time we get about here, this asteroid will have drifted down. That's where we'll rest, and the asteroid will carry us to Daq's, which will carry us to the Free Fortress.”

Rook cringed visibly. Heading to Incarcecon would take him even farther out of the way of his own base. But, he reminded himself, as Warden of the Void, he had a responsibility to the natives of the Void. If Incarcecon was where Shirahk wanted to wait for his family to find him, that was where the Revonnahgander would take him. Maybe Quince would be feeling generous and allow him to borrow a vehicle to return to his own base with. Or if not a vehicle, then a Null Guardian they had domesticated and trained to be ridden. Rook knew how to ride a Null Guardian -in theory.

“Then we will go to Incarcecon.” Rook stood.

Shirahk gave him his badge back. “I guess you want me to carry you so we can fly.”

“I would appreciate it.” Admitted the Revonnahgander. “We would travel faster that way.”

With a nod, the Osmosian transformed back into his mutant form, picked Rook up, and jumped off the asteroid they were on. They took off flying in the direction that would -eventually, in a round about way- take them to the Free and Independent Fortress of Incarcecon.

Both Aggrenna and Olennor had to grab their father and dig their feet in to keep Aggregor from jumping off the asteroid after Shirahk.

“He'll be fine.” Said one.

“He can fly.” The other reminded him.

But Aggregor wasn't listening to them. As Olennor said earlier, he was impossible to deal with if the boy was in danger. They say parents shouldn't play favorites with their children, and for many years Aggregor held with that. He loved both his daughters equally. But then Shirahk came along. The youngest of all his children. The only son. The only one to inherit his Osmosian mutation. The only one to be like him. Shirahk was special. One of a kind. ...And the last one his lover gave him before her death. For that reason, and that reason especially, Aggregor favored him. While Kevin blamed his son for nearly killing his wife, Aggregor was different, Aggregor blamed himself and his own Osmosian mutation for his lover's death. Shirahk was blameless, and maybe even blessed because she chose his life over her own.

Shirahk was the favorite, and when the favorite was threatened, Aggregor was impossible to reason with.

“Shirahk!” The Osmosian continued to call into the Void. When there was still no responding call, Aggregor struggled even harder. “Let me go! I have to save your brother!”

“How!?” Demanded Olennor. “You can't fly. Kevin stripped you of that ability during your defeat at the Forge of Creation.”

“All you'll succeed in doing is getting yourself lost.” Aggrenna informed him. “Or worse, killed! Contrary to what you might believe, Olennor and I still need you.”

“Eh, I could take him or leave him.” Snarked the younger woman, although she did not loosen her hold on him, nor lessen the strength with which she was helping to restrain him.

On the other asteroid, the rest of the caravan tugged on the cord of Warden Rook's dangling proto-tool, trying to pull up those of their group that had fallen when the Revonnahgander had fallen. The other Plumber, the Lewodan Magister Arys, flew down to grab whomever he could and bring them back up, or help those that lacked the arm strength to pull themselves up the proto-tool line. But he couldn't save everyone. Rook and Shirahk weren't the only members of their band lost to the Void in this attack.

“Shirahk!” Aggregor continued to shout at the empty and non-responsive air as his daughters continued to struggled to keep him away from the edge.

“This is getting ridiculous!” Olennor growled. She let go of her father just enough to shift her position and slam a single, devastating, punch to his mid-section. When the Osmosian doubled over from the blow, she delivered a hard chop to the back of his neck, rendering the old man almost instantly unconscious.

Aggregor collapsed to the ground at their feet.

Aggrenna glared at her little sister. “Why do you do these thing?”

The younger woman only shrugged, unconcerned. “What? At least now he's not trying to throw himself off a cliff.”

“Granted.” The older woman had to admit. She stamped her foot in the dust in frustration. “But now how are we gonna get him across? Can you make that jump while carrying him? Because I sure as hell can't!”

“Relax.” Olennor waved off her concerns. “We'll just wait for Shirahk to fly back up and then we'll make him carry father.”

Both women looked down in the direction their brother had fallen, expecting to see his mismatched form floating up to them, indignations ready and waiting on his lips. Any second now... After a few moments past and nobody flew back up, the sisters exchanged a look.

“Warden Rook fell with him.” Olennor said. “Do you think the Plumb is weighing him down?”

“A Revonnahgander is not heavy enough to slow him down?” Aggrenna bit the nail of her thumb with concern. She looked down at their unconscious father. He would not be happy when he woke up and learned that his baby-son, his favorite, was lost in the Void. Peering over the edge, she saw no sign of her brother or the Plumber that fell with him. Shifting her attention back up, Aggrenna noted that the rest of the group, already on the other side, was watching her and her sister expectantly. Looking to them for leadership while Aggregor was out of commission. Everyone, including the other Plumber that had been traveling with them. She jabbed a finger at Magister Arys. “You, Lewodan, fly down there and look for my brother and your boss.”

Arys was just placing the last of those who'd fallen back on their feet when Aggrenna barked her order at him. He didn't much like taking orders from her or her immediate family, especially not after spending the better part of the last seventy-two hours being poked and prodded by their spears. But flying down to look for Warden Rook was the very next thing he intended to do anyway. So, more for himself than for her, the Lewodan gave a nod and darted back down between the two asteroids to search for their fallen companions.

Lower down, the gap between the two asteroids widened, each floating rock tapering off to semi-identical points angling away from the fissure. Not something easily grabbed onto in a free fall. Arys dove lower, keeping his eyes sharp, scanning the open air for any sign of beings tumbling through it.

About three meters below the asteroids the gravity suddenly shifted. The pull of forces dragging Arys off to one side, veering away from the asteroids at a surprising speed. The Lewodan had to do some creative flying with his natural levitation ability to get out of the pull and keep himself from being swept away with the current. A gravitational 'under-toe' of sorts. Is Rook and the boy were caught in that when they fell, they would have been swept away in moments and carried who knows how far by now.

Gritting his teeth and not looking forward to having to tell Shirahk's sisters that he was most likely lost to the Void, Arys flew back up to rejoin the group.

The sisters were still standing over their unconscious father when he returned, the rest of the caravan on the other side watching them nervously. Aggrenna's eyes narrowed when she noted that he did not return with her little brother in toe. (He didn't return with his boss either, but Aggrenna didn't give a flying fuck about him.)

“Where's Shirahk?” She demanded the moment the Lewodan hovered over to them.

“I don't know.” Admitted the Plumber. “There's a strong gravity flow under us. I think they got caught in it and pulled away.”

“Father will be impossible to wrangle once he wakes up.” Now it was Olennor's turn to bite her nails in concern, looking down at the old Osmosian. “Also, I'm worried about Shirahk.”

Aggrenna shot her sister a look, then glanced down at Aggregor. He would be pissed at them, and hysterical with worry when he woke up. They would need something -anything- to tell him to keep him calm. Or at least reassure him that there was a way to find Shirahk. She focused her attention back on Arys. “Which direction was the gravity flow heading?”

The Lewodan paused for a moment, thinking. Aligning the voidscape below them to the one they were currently standing on in his mind's eye. Finally, he pointed. “That way. Pretty fast too. They must be several kilometers away from us already.”

She followed his extended hand with her eye. Studying the asteroids, their drift patterns, the general flow of the area, and tried to gauge where they were in relation to everything else in the Void. To navigate the same way Aggregor navigated the Null Void and lead their caravan. While he was out of commission, it fell to her to take care of everyone.

Just like it fell to her to take care of Olennor and Shirahk after their mother died. Father was a distraught wreck and not in a mind to take care of himself, never mind three children. Mother was gone, Olennor was still just a bit too young to understand what had actually happened -the permanence of it-, and Shirahk was brand new and needed to be fed, cleaned, held, and generally cared for. Aggrenna was the oldest, so the responsibility fell on her shoulders.

Not that she was resentful or anything -even if no one ever did acknowledge her efforts.

“Okay.” She finally said. “Okay. I think I know where Shirahk will go. We'll head to Daq's holdfast, and if Shirahk isn't there, we'll move on to the Free Fortress.”

“Ugh. I hate stopping at Daq's.” Olennor groaned. “The way Bart'ender always harps on about Kevin is creepy.”

“We won't stay long.” Aggrenna promised.

Arys looked between the two sisters. “So... I guess taking me back to my base just isn't happening anymore?”

The two women looked at him, almost as if they'd forgotten he was even there.

“Warden Rook fell with him. If he's alive, they'll probably travel together. You can collect your boss at the Free Fortress, and then head back to your base together.” Aggrenna informed him in a tone that implied it was not up for debate. They and the rest of their caravan were going to head to a landmark they knew well and reunite with their fallen brother. Arys could do whatever the fuck he wanted, but if the Lewodan was smart, he'd stick with the safety that being in a group provided him. “Now, if you want to make yourself useful, you can carry our father over there for us.”

She pointed to where the rest of the group still waited on the other side of the chasm.

Arys followed her finger. Looked back out in the direction he was pretty sure Rook had drifted. Studied the sisters. Glanced at Aggregor laying unconscious on the ground between them. The Lewodan didn't actually have many options, and the Null Void would not be kind to a single Plumber traveling alone. Sticking with their band and delaying his return to Headquarters until they found their brother really was the best option he could hope for this far out.

Arys didn't answer Aggrenna, not really. He just scooped Aggregor up off the ground and hefted the old Osmosian over his shoulders. He hoped the women weren't gonna ask him to carry them over next. After everything that had already happened, he was pretty tired.

He needn't have worried. Aggrenna picked up the only spear that hadn't been completely lost during the fight with the Way Bad from where it had dropped. It was slick with mutant To'kustar blood, and she spun it several times to dry it off enough to be piractical. Then she got a running start, stuck the spear in the ground near the edge and vaulted over the chasm. Landing with the grace of someone who pole vaulted between asteroids often. Feet firmly on the other side now, she turned around and threw the spear back over the divide for her sister to do the same.

Within a few moments the whole group was complete again, minus only one adolescent Osmosian boy.

A few members of the caravan helped Arys lay the unconscious Aggregor over the back of one of the Null Guardians with the rest of the group's baggage. They strapped his prone figure between two rolled up tents.

“Hopefully Shirahk will be back with us by the time he wakes up.” Aggrenna growled, more to herself than anyone else.

“I'd actually be a little worried if that was the case.” Confessed Olennor. “I didn't hit him that hard, but he's not exactly a young guy, ya know.”

Arys flicked an assessing glance back at the Osmosian. From what he knew of the Warlord of the Andromeda galaxy, it would be in everyone's best interest if he stayed unconscious until his lost son was with them again. Otherwise, he really would not be happy about being knocked out in addition to having lost his youngest child.

“Frey, please tell me you have an update!” Magister Chaz's voice crackled over the THV's com system.

He sounded tense and ever-so-slightly desperate. What? Was Plumbers Command already breathing down his neck or something? Did he miss a deadline for sending a regular report? Wasn't he supposed to be the paperwork guy? The one who was all into bureaucracy and the minutia of big organization micro-managing smaller groups. Deccar Chaz was supposed ot be good at that stuff. It was the main reason why Rook made Chaz his second-in-command should anything happen to him. To maintain a level of organization and control. Was Chaz already bombing that hard at his fucking job?

Magister Roose reached for the com before Frey could. “We questioned some locals and came up with nothing. We have nothing.” He informed his colleague tersely. “What about on your end? Any luck finding the trackers on their badges or raising them on the coms?”

“None.” Chaz admitted, sounding worried. “And I just got a call from Ben 10,000 asking about Warden Rook.”

There was a collective gasp from everyone in the THV cabin. The Ben 10,000? Like, everyone knew that their commander used to be partners with the legendary wielder of the Omnitrix and Hero of the Universe. There were even a couple of footnotes about Rook in the second part of the chapter and a half about Ben 10,000 that was taught at Plumbers Academy. But they didn't know that Warden Rook and Ben 10,000 were still friends and still kept in contact with each other. Had Ben 10,000 already felt his former partner's absence? Did he, like, miss and scheduled Skype chat or something? Was he suspicious? Was he also looking for the Revonnahgander?

“I think its time I submitted an official report informing the Magestrata that Rook is missing in action.” Chaz admitted over the com channel.

“If you do that, they'll parachute in come new guy to take over, and we'll lose control of the Void.” Roose informed him.

As if the Plumbers even had control of the Void to begin with. Ha! Nothing controlled the Null Void.

“And if they find out we knowingly and willfully withheld the information or submitted false reports, we'll all be striped of rank, dishonorably discharged, and lose our pensions.” Chaz reminded him. “Remember, shit like that was what the Rooters were doing.”

“Okay, don't compare us to Rooters!” Frey snapped at the com. “They were also kidnapping children and doing inhumane experiments. Omitting the fact that we've lost our leader from one or two reports is not the same thing. Don't compare the two.”

“Give us another twenty-four hours.” Roose demanded. “If we haven't found him by then, go ahead and submit an official report.”

He turned off the com without waiting for Chaz's response.

Leaning back in his seat, Roose crossed his arms over his chest in thought. Tapping the fingers of a paw on one arm he thought out loud. “Normal grid searches are pointless here because everything is shifting, the grid changes and you end up searching the same damn asteroid three or four times while others go completely untouched.”

“What do you suggest?” Frey asked from the pilot's seat. She wasn't just asking Magister Roose, she was also asking the other three members of their five man team. Traditional search and rescue tactics didn't translate well in the Null Void.

“How do the locals navigate?” One of them asked. The Null Void wasn't just populated by farms, fortresses, and holdfasts. There were nomadic groups and trader caravans that made regular circuits of the Void every rear. They must have a way to navigate the ever shifting pathways of asteroids in the Void. Otherwise, how did they ever manage to get to the same places around the same times every year?

“Should we go back to that holdfast and ask?” Suggested a second.

“I doubt anyone there would help us.” Admitted the third. “They'd probably just treat us to more creepy talk about Magister Levin.”

“Did anyone think to drop a mapping node there?” Frey asked. True, the holdfast hadn't exactly been friendly and welcoming to them, but they weren't openly hostile and asteroids that held settlements or settlers should be noted in their files.

Everyone shook their head in a negative.

“We really are shit at this job.”

Chapter Text

Kenny pulled them off their normal rout to school again the moment they were out of sight of the Plumbers Headquarters.

“Are you gonna drag me though time again?” Devlin asked, the Osmosian pausing in his step to glare at his cousin, refusing to take another step until he knew whether or not he would be getting violently sick again today. “'Cause if this is gonna become our new thing, I'm gonna need to talk to my doctor about getting a prescription for scopolamine, or meclizine, or something.”

The younger boy also paused, turning around to meet his cousin's eyes. Kenny was very serious when he asked, “I need to know how much progress you've made of trying to figure out your other powers. The ones you got from Aunt Gwendolyn.”

Progress? He'd only just learned it was even possible for him to have inherited a power-set from his mother. He hadn't even begun to discover or develop them. He spent all of the previous night sipping ginger ale and sketching out superhero costumes in the margins of his notebooks. He did crack open one of his mother's magical texts with the intention of taking notes and trying to figure out how to access and use the mana he saw himself throwing around so freely in the future. But he was tired from all the time traveling, fighting bad guys, saving someone's universe, and being sick during half of it. The Osmosian barely managed to put the book away so his mother didn't discover it out of place, before he collapsed on the couch from exhaustion, still in the same clothes he wore that day.

Gwendolyn must have found him and carried him upstairs, because when Devlin woke up this morning, he was in his own bed and wearing pajamas.

To his cousin, he said, “Dude. I just discovered I had powers, like, yesterday. Gimme some time to figure them out.”

Kenny look impatient, almost tense, even.

Devlin raised an eyebrow, wondering why the younger boy was so invested in him mastering his new powers. Well, Kenny was a time traveler now, so maybe... “What do you know that I don't?”

Looking up and down the street to make sure no one was paying attention to them, Kenny slid up close to his cousin and hissed in his ear.

“So, like, Paradox showed me a possible future and it's bad, and it's my job to prevent it.” His voice was low and serious, almost conspiratory. The Osmosian had never heard his cousin talk like that before. Like the fate of the world rested on his shoulders, but the only way said world could get on with its happy little oblivious life was that it did not know about it. “One of the things that needs to happen to prevent it, is you need to learn to use the powers you got from Aunt Gwendolyn.”

The Osmosian pulled away, looking at his cousin skeptically. “I'm supposed to save the world?”

Devlin didn't believe it. From what he understood of things and how the world worked, Omosians didn't save anything. Osmosians broke things. The one and only time an Osmosian saved the universe, he went so insane, and so far off the deep end that Ben decided said Osmosian was better off dead than cured.

“I mean... I think it's supposed to be more of a 'we' thing.” Kenny clarified. “We save the universe. But you are definitely an important part of it. You figuring out your powers was, like, the second thing on the list of things that needs to happen that Paradox gave me.”

“Second?” Devlin felt he might be insulted. “What was the first thing on the list?”

“Your dad has to take that job in the Null Void.” Kenny supplied, thinking this should kinda be obvious considering their jaunt to the future yesterday took place in the Null Void, and while they didn't see Kevin there, they clearly heard him over a badge communicator.

“What!?” Now Devlin was insulted, but for a completely different reason than before. “But I worked so hard to get him out of the Null Void!” The Osmosian practically shouted. “I orchestrated a chance meeting between the two of us, even though I hate talking to new people! I put a lot of effort into seducing you to be my friend so that you'd take me to the Null Void controls! Two night! Two nights in a row, I tried to bust him out!”

“I know. I was there.” The younger boy was not pleased with the unexpected turn this conversation had taken. This was not the part he had expected his cousin and best friend to object to -or even care about.

“And then all those months Mom spent cleaning him out of all his excess energy so he can be stable and sane again!” Devlin continued. “What was the point of all that if Paradox just wants us to dump him back in the Null Void with the rest of the space garbage? That's so fucked up!”

He crossed his arms over his chest and gave a hmph of displeasure.

Kenny blinked at the older boy. He was expecting Devlin to be excited that a time traveling legend like Professor Paradox expected him to become a hero great enough to help save the universe. He did not expect Devlin to be angry at the idea of his father going back to the Null Void. Devlin wasn't even supposed to like his father. Kevin was a jerk to him when he was younger, and while Kevin was no longer the abusive asshole he used to be when he was Kevin 11,000, he still wasn't all that sweet and loving. He was kinda prickly and rude. How could anyone miss that? Shouldn't Devlin be happy the older Osmosian would be going back to the Null Void?

Out loud, Kenny didn't bother saying any of that. It would just start an argument. Instead, he corrected some of his older cousins misconceptions. “Okay, first of all, Paradox said Kevin need to 'take the job' in the Null Void. A job. As in work that is outlined and defined and that he would receive compensation for. That's the exact opposite of being 'the garbage of the universe', okay? Secondly, Kevin has to take the job voluntarily. No one can make him. So, he's not gonna be 'thrown' anywhere. He decides whether or not he goes.”

“But to save the universe, he still has to go.” Muttered the Osmosian.

Pausing for a moment, Kenny studied the other boy. His posture, and expression. “Dev, are you upset over the idea of your dad leaving?”

He thought the two Osmosians hated each other.

Devlin avoided eye-contact. “Things have just been going so well recently, ya know.” A pause. “I got to pet the dog!”

For one heartbeat of a second, Kenny felt a sudden and irrational stab of jealousy. The thought once again occurring to him that as Devlin's family got closer and closer together, his family seemed to drift more and more apart. Kevin was now having dinner with Devlin and Aunt Gwendolyn, and Devlin was seeing more and more of him. Meanwhile, Kenny's own dad was coming home less and less, and it wasn't because his Hero work was keeping him busy. Ben was just staying downstairs in the Plumbers Headquarters more and avoiding going up to his actual home. Kenny had even seen him crashing on a cot in Great-Grandpa Max's office recently. He'd rather sleep on a narrow cot in an old man's office than come upstairs and be with his family.

But that wasn't Devlin's fault, he had to remind himself. Devlin had absolutely nothing to do with it. Kenny stamped out his inexplicable jealousy. It had no place in a hero partnership.

“I had a pet dog once. That magic rock-puppy Aunt Gwendolyn got me for my tenth birthday. Ya know what happened to it? Your dad smashed it!” Oops, okay, so maybe he didn't stamp out that jealousy as much as he needed to. That comment was way too salty.

Now it was Devlin's turn to pause and study his cousin. “Kenny, are you mad?”

“N-no...” The other boy lied, and lied badly.

“Are you upset that my dad and I are getting along now?” The Osmosian pressed.

“No.” Kenny repeated with more confidence this time. He was upset that his dad was being more distant. It had nothing to do with Devlin's dad being around more. “No. I'm just anxious for the future. We need to get you to figure out your other powers. So, what do you need? Should we go to Friedken? Raid your mom's library? Or directly to your mom, get her to teach you?”

“That... sounds like something I should probably get her permission for.” Devlin informed him. “The last time I went into her library unannounced, I walked in on her torturing my dad with magic. Which was actually pretty cool. But she was pissed. And he was pissed. And I was pissed. Everybody was just all around really mad at everybody else. As for seeing her directly, I donno... I mean, if I have mana, I have it because I absorbed it from her and that nearly killed her. I don't wanna make her think I'm absorbing things again. I don't was her to worry.” That, and his dad would totally freak out. Like, hardcore freakout how he did in the past. Devlin paused for a moment to think. “What even is this terrible future I need mana-based powers to stop anyway?”

Devlin regretted the question the moment it was out of his mouth. He knew how Kenny was going to answer it even before he saw the glint in his cousin's eyes, or his lips stretch into a grin that the Osmosian was not going to call 'maniacal'. The younger boy closed one hand around his cousin's wrist, the other going to his belt buckle. Before Devlin could say 'no, wait, stop. I've changed my mind!' he was once again being pulled through time.

He blinked the moment Kenny's hand touch his arm, hoping that would easy the time travel sickness. The trip only lasted half a second. In the time it took the Osmosian to blink his eyes they had already moved from the open and sunny Bellwood street to... somewhere else.

But Devlin didn't really get the chance to study his new surroundings. The moment he opened his eyes again and was in a completely different place than a second ago, he suffered a sudden attack of disorienting vertigo. He went to his knees to keep from falling down and took deep gulping breaths to keep from vomiting. He was not going to puke his breakfast up two mornings in a row.

Kenny knelt next to him, rubbing circles into the older boy's back. “Were you like this when Maltruant sent you back in time?”

Devlin coughed. Felt like he was about to hurl. Paused to breath some more. Then answered his cousin's question. A tense growl of frustration and irritation. “I was unconscious when Maltruant sent me back in time! I was hit by an attack!”

He took a few more deep breaths to steady himself. When he was sure he wasn't about to throw up or pass out, Devlin allowed himself to try standing. Once vertical, he waited a moment to make sure the nausea of time travel wasn't going to return. Confident that he wasn't about to lose his breakfast this time -in this unfamiliar time- the Osmosian finally turned his attention to his surroundings.

It was dark. Like night time, except that this wasn't a normal 'night'. The sky was completely empty for one. No stars, not satellites, airplanes, not even the moon. A completely blank dark sky. It wasn't unusual in big cities to never see the stars. The light from the buildings and streets washed them out, but one could always see airplanes or the moon. Besides, whenever they were, whatever city they were in, it was similarly dark. So there wasn't any light pollution coming from it to drown out the stars. The ground was just as dark as the sky. Devlin looked around at the broken landscape and wondered why they could even see anything at all. With no city lights, and no moon or stars, where was the light coming from...?

The Osmosian turned in a wide circle, trying to find the source of what was lighting his vision.

Behind them, climbing out of a crater in the ground and clawing its way up into the sky, was a wide and jagged... break in the air. A fracture of the very fabric of the universe, or reality, or whatever. That crack was the source of the light. Showing through it was a slight red glow. Like the sky at sunset. All shades of crimson and scarlet, swirling and tumbling together. The swath of red only occasionally interrupted by a sporadic and inconsistent mottling of dark purple or blue floating rocks.

Devlin recognized the Null Void instantly. He and Kenny had gone there just yesterday.

The Osmosian blinked. Rubbed his eyes to make sure they were clear. Blinked again. Turned to look back at the destroyed city they were standing in. Up at the empty black sky. Devoid of light. Every airplane, every satellite, every planet, and every star. Only the ground they were standing on and the Null Void. Devlin looked back at Kenny, at a complete loss as to what to think.

“What am I seeing here?”

“This is the point Paradox took me to.” Kenny lifted a finger and pointed to a pile of concrete that looked like it had once been a building. Standing on top of what was probably a collapsed wall was another Kenny. Wearing different clothes, and holding his Spanner uniform in his arms. He had his belt buckle in his hands and was fiddling with it. But that was most definitely Kenny. There was a flash of green light, then the doppelganger was gone. “I just figure out how to use the vortex manipulator to get home.”

“Did you happen to figure out what that is?” Devlin pointed to the giant, gaping fracture in the very fabric of space and reality.

Most breaches of the barrier that separated the Null Void from real space were self-correcting. They closed automatically, and usually very quickly. That's why it was so difficult to hold a Null Void portal open. To have a window to the Null Void just hanging open like that -and one so big too- was very disturbing.

“Well, uh, that's the Null Void over there.” Supplied the younger boy as if this was new information.

“I can see that.” The Osmosian snapped at him. “I mean, do you know what caused it? What do we actually have to do in order to prevent this thing from happening?”

“Oh, well, Paradox says that your dad has to take the job in the Null Void, and you have to learn to use your powers from Aunt Gwendolyn-” Kenny began repeating what he'd already told his cousin prior to this little jaunt to a dead future.

Devlin only rolled his eyes. “I'm gonna get a closer look.”

The Osmosian began picking his way across the broken landscape, heading for the crack in space. He climbed over upturned segments of street, fallen street lights, and flipped cars. All of it covered in a thick layer of dust that looked like a mix of the bland gray of concrete, and deep indigo of Null Void asteroids. Segments of whatever land was caught in the cataclysm that caused the crack, pulverized into a powered by the event, and scattered out over the destruction zone.

Devlin paused to catch his breath and dust off his clothes at the edge of the crater. He rubbed his hands on his slacks and cringed at the bold gray handprints and streaks he left on the black fabric. If he was going to continue doing this with Kenny he was gonna need a 'hero uniform' of his own. Maybe not the sentai aesthetic, but something. If for no other reason than to keep from ruining his nice respectable clothes.

But there was nothing to be done for it at the moment. Gritting his teeth, the Osmosian climbed down into the crater. About half way down it was easier to find hand and foot holds as the cliff face became inexplicably but conveniently carved out by wide angular chambers. Too regular, and too geometric in design to have been natural. They must have been left over from whatever structure this place was before it became a Null Void crater. Then, as he got closer to the bottom, Devlin's hand gripped something smooth and almost cylindrical, like an old pipe, or a dead tree root. Thinking it was a stable enough hand-hold, he put his weight on it, only to have the thing slide out of the wall completely.

Devlin went tumbling the rest of the way down to the bottom of the crater. The shaft he was holding still in his hand, and the thing it was attached to crashing down on top of him.

Pushing the thing off himself, the Osmosian realized it was an mutant skeleton. His hand was wrapped around a rib of a wide gorilla torso. He dropped the bone the moment he realized what it was and climbed back to his feet, looking down at the skeleton. A gorilla skeleton with a glass jar where the head should be, and inside said glass jar was a human skull. The only being Devlin knew of like that was Dr. Animo. But Dr. Animo -back in his time, at least- was supposed to be locked in the Holding cells on the lowest level of Plumbers Headquarters.

An uncomfortable thought occurred to Devlin then. He looked back up at the crater wall he'd just climbed down, and thought about the layout of the street on his way over here. Was that city Bellwood? Was this crater Plumbers HQ?

Kenny came down to join him at the bottom of the crater. He had changed into his Spanner uniform, and floated down on his rocket boots. “Holy, crap! Is that Dr. Animo?”

Devlin wasn't paying attention to him. He was studying the crack in space now. It was long. Stretching down into the ground, and all the way up into the sky. But the point of impact had to be in the middle somewhere, and the middle of the fissure was... yeah! It was about where the first underground level of Plumbers Headquarters would have been. The level that had the Null Void chamber. The point of impact was Plumbers Headquarters, at the place where real space was connected to the pocket dimension. That could explain why the crack hadn't closed. All Plumbers made Null Void projectors and teleporters had negative feedback stabilizers to keep portals open while beings or matter was passing through. The last thing anybody wanted was badge carrying officers, legally processed prisoners, or goods and supplies to be cut in half mid-transit.

Devlin's eyes fell to the tail end of the crack in front of him and Kenny. At the bottom of the crater, the end of the fissure tapered off into a narrow point. The edge of portal defining the border between real space and the Null Void glowed three different colors. Bright neon green, the same color as Professor Paradox's time travel portals, star sapphire, the same color as mana, and a sickly florescent yellow. Devlin didn't recognize it, but when Kenny had gone with his future counterpart into the furnace of Servantis' dimensional drill, he saw the stock piles of coremite. He recognized the sickly yellow glow as belonging to the mineral native to the Null Void. It was the combination of all three, time displacement, mana, and coremite, that was allowing the crack in space to remain open.

The young time traveler was reminded of what Paradox had said. 'Oh, a number of things come together in an unfavorable way...'

“Kenny...” Devlin looked back a his cousin, looking stark and shocking in all white. A bold contrast to all the dirt and darkness around them. “...How are we supposed to stop this?”

The other boy opened his mouth to answer.

“And don't just repeat what Paradox told you.” The Osmosian snapped at him. “I want you to think critically here. This is big, Kenny. This is huge. Like, end of the world, huge. This isn't like fighting my dad when he's crazy, or following your dad on missions. This is out of my realm of experience. I don't know what to do. And I used to live with pirates and smugglers.”

Kenny shut his mouth.

Coming up besides the older boy, he studied the mingled coremite, mana, and time energy. “Obviously, Paradox wants Kevin to take the deployment in the Null Void so that he can be in a position to stop this. It looks like mana was used, so you need to learn to use your mana to support your dad. I'm a time traveler, so obviously I make sure everyone is in the right places at the right times.” He paused to study the glowing yellow aura of the coremite. “I think we'll need another member of our team. Someone familiar with the Null Void and coremite.”

Turning his attention from the crack in space and back to cousin, Devlin blinked at the other boy. “That other Osmosian we met in the future yesterday?” He suggested, pausing to try and remember what name future-Spanner called him. “Sheerick.” That didn't sound right. “Sheeran?” Like the pop musician. No... “Shiro?” He shook his head, giving up on trying to remember a name that he hadn't been paying attention to, belonging to a guy he'd only met in passing in the middle of a life-or-death situation. “That guy!”

“Probably.” Kenny agreed. “So, we gotta get Kevin into the Null Void -willingly-, you have to develop your powers, and we gotta meet new people and make more friends.”

Devlin hated meeting new people. He was not good at the whole 'making new friends' thing.

Instead of commenting on that detail he asked an entirely different question. “That thing we did yesterday, where we helped our future selves stop Servantis from breaking out of the Null Void, that wasn't this. Was it?”

Kenny asked his older counterpart that very same question.

“I don't know.” The younger boy admitted. “I don't think so, though. The fact that Servantis got away aside, there was only coremite there. I didn't see any mana except for yours -or future-you's- and there wasn't a time traveling bad guy there either. So, no, that probably wasn't this.”

“So this is gonna be a team-up of at least three or more bad guys.” Devlin concluded. “A time traveler, a magic user, and someone with access to the Null Void and coremite. Well, at least we know who one of the three is. And now we know what to look out for. See what happens when you think critically instead of just parroting a list given to you by someone else. I'll keep an eye out for a magic using bad guy, you keep an eye out for a time traveling bad guy, and when my dad goes back to the Null Void spitting in the face of all the hard work my mom and I put into getting him out and rehabilitating him, he'll keep an eye on Servantis.”

“Am I still sensing some bitterness there?” Kenny asked, raising an eyebrow behind the blacked-out visor of his Spanner helmet.

Devlin shook his head. “Whether I'm bitter or not doesn't matter. This is the fate of the universe we're talking about. What's a little family separation compared to the total population of every habitable world in this dimension and the other?”

“Wow, Devlin, that's really selfless of you.” Kenny smiled, even though he knew his cousin couldn't see it behind the mask.

“No it's not.” The Osmosian disagreed. “I just don't wanna be the asshole who let the universe end because of his daddy issues.”

Kenny had nothing to say to that, so he changed the subject. “Does that mean we can start figuring out your powers now?”

He didn't wait for an answer. Spanner just grabbed the other boy's hand and in the flash of green light they were gone from the crater. Nothing left behind to show that they were there except the fallen skeleton of a former zoologist and genetic engineer.

Devlin barely registered the neutral blue-gray of an office carpet before he puked all over it. He was on his knees again. He wasn't expecting Kenny to abruptly yank him through time again. He hadn't prepared for it. His stomach was still weak from the first trip that day, and he just couldn't keep it down this time. His stomach emptied its contents all over the business-drab carpet he was doubled over on. The Osmosian coughed and decided that one of the first things he should do once he learned magic should be to curse his time traveling cousin for constantly making him sick like this.

“Devlin! Are you okay? What happened!?”

He looked up at his mother's voice.

They were in her office. The High Magus' office. She was wearing the same powered blue pants-suit and cream colored blouse she left the house in that morning, so they had to be back in their own time. Kenny had teleported them smack dab into the middle of her office, right in the middle of her work day. -And the first thing Devlin did was throw up in front of her desk. Of course that would send her into a panic. Damn it, Kenny! Now he had to deal with this on top his nausea.

“Spanner?” Gwendolyn blinked at the other boy, only registering him as an afterthought. “What's going on?”

“I'm fine, Mom.” Devlin slurred out between dry heaves.

Gwedolyn practically vaulted over her desk and was at her child's side before he could utter any other protests. “You're sick! What's going on? Spanner, why are you here?”

“Okay, so this looks worse than it actually is.” Spanner said through through the mouth screen of his helmet. He was painfully aware that his voice sounded too much like his own and he hoped Aunt Gwendolyn wouldn't recognize him. Dad hadn't recognized him yet, but... and he felt a little bad admitting this, but Aunt Gwendolyn was smarter than Dad. “Dev's not actually sick. Well, I mean, he is sick, but, like, not sick-sick. Its just a little time travel sickness. Its like motion sickness, but from time travel.”

Amazingly, this explanation did not sooth the sorceress' anxieties. “Did you have to rescue Devlin from a time traveling villain again?”

“No, no, no, no.” Kenny waved his gloved hands desperately. “We just came here because you're the best magic user we know and Devlin needs to learn magic.”

This, also, did not seem to calm the sorceress. “What does Devlin need to learn magic for? He's Osmosian. Osmosians can't use mana.” A pause. “Unless they absorb it.”

Devlin spit in the already existing pile of vomit in an attempt to clean his mouth out, before pushing himself to his feet. He lifted a hand in front of Spanner to keep the other boy from rambling out anything more. “Stop talking.” To his mother he said, “I'm fine. Please stop freaking out. We just came from the future and in the future I had mana-based powers. Now we want me to learn how to use them. But I wasn't going to bother you with this because I didn't want you to worry -exactly like you're doing right now- I did not expect ...Spanner... to teleport us into your office and demand you teach me magic.”

There was a beat of silence.

The smell of puke filled the air as everyone in the room just stared at each other.

Finally, Gwendolyn blinked, shaking her head. “Okay, I'm a little confused. Start over. You two ditched school, and just decided to travel to the future for the heck of it. Where in which you saw that Devlin had new powers. Then decided the first thing you should do is teleport into my office and demand I teach Devlin magic. And neither of you thought to address the fact that traveling in time makes my son violently ill, why Devlin might have mana, or that you're still missing school.”

There was another beat of silence.

Devlin heard Kenny inhale, probably to say something else poorly thought out that would not improve the situation. So the Osmosian cut him off before he could get a word out. “Mom, can I have a ginger ale? I'm still a bit queasy. Then we can talk.”

Gwendolyn looked down at the puddle of vomit between her son's feet. The smell was thick in the air. They could probably all use some time outside in different air. The sorceress went back to her desk to grab her purse. “Alright. Something to help settle your stomach and maybe some gentle food since you just lost your breakfast.” She paused at the door, looking at the other boy in the room. “Will Spanner be coming too? Or does he have other important hero'ing things to do?”

“Oh! Um...” The masked sentai sputtered. He supposed, if Aunt Gwendolyn was gonna help Devlin develop his powers, and Dev didn't need him around, he could actually go to school like they were supposed to. But Going to school without Devlin just felt so uncomfortable somehow. They didn't even have that many classes in common, but just the knowledge that his cousin was there on campus made school more bearable. Or, he could do what Aunt Gwendolyn suggested. Do some more hero'y things. “Ya know, I think I'll knock a few more missions off my list!”

His hands went to his belt buckle, and in a flash of green light, Spanner was gone.

Gwendolyn looked at her son. One of those significant looks that were supposed to mean more than just a look. As if she were trying tell him something. Let him know that she was onto him -or them- and that they should really be more open with her.

But all the Osmosian said in response to that look was... “What?”

“Was that a version of Spanner from the future, past, or present?” She asked.

“Um...” Now it was Devlin's turn to sputter under his mother's scrutiny. He wondered what she was fishing for. “Um... Spanner's a time traveler, so... wouldn't all times be 'present' for him?”

She sighed as they exited her office and headed to the elevator.

“I gotta say, the High Magus' office seems pretty normal.” Devlin commented, trying to change the subject from his best friend's secret sentai identity. “Every time you go to work in the mornings, I always imagined, like, long dark hallways, musty old things, and dim lighting. Because everything is lit by candles. Because electricity is science, not magic.”

“Nope. This is just a pretty normal office.” Gwendolyn shrugged just as the elevator dinged and the doors parted. A flock of papers and documents fluttered out of the elevator, moving like birds and flapping under their own power. They exited the elevator, the flock dividing itself up, groups of documents heading to different offices. Gwendolyn looked back at her son. “Complete with inter-office memos.”

“Memos that deliver themselves.” Observed the Osmosian. “How do they push the buttons on the elevator?”

The High Magus only shrugged. This was a magical office building, there had to be some things where it was okay to just give 'I donno, magic' as an explanation and have that be the end of it. It wasn't until they were in the elevator that it occurred to Gwendolyn that the motion of the lift might make her son's sickness worse. “Would you prefer if we took the stairs?”

“I'm fine, Mom.” Devlin assured her. “I don't get motion sick. Time travel sick is something different. Please stop worrying.”

Of course, the Osmosian knew it was pointless to tell his mother not to worry. Gwendolyn tended to worry about him irrationally, and would continue to worry about him irrationally for the rest of her life. All thanks to his father. If Kevin had never kidnapped Devlin when he was still just a baby and parted Gwendolyn from her son when she was still a new mother bonding with her baby and Devlin still a newborn dependent on his mother, she would not panic as much as she did whenever the slightest negative thing happened to him.

The elevator began to head down, and indeed Devlin was unaffected by the motion.

Alone in a moving elevator, Gwendolyn moved the topic of conversation back to Spanner. “You know I can sense people's mana, right?”

“Yes. You've tracked my mana several times over the past year.” Devlin confirmed. “Its very difficult to be a childhood delinquent with a helicopter parent like you. You're like a magical basset hound.” The Osmosian froze, realizing that that last comment might be interpreted as an insult. He did not want to insult his mother. “I mean... uh...” Damn it!

“What I mean is, I can recognize people based off their aura, and wearing a costume or a mask doesn't change that.” The sorceress explained, choosing to ignore the 'basset hound' comment entirely. “So, is that Spanner who was just with you from our own time, or the future?”

It took Devlin longer than it should have to figure out what it was exactly she was trying to tell him. When it finally clicked, the Osmosian's eyes went wide. “You know Spanner is Kenny!”

He stood there in shock for several moments. Thinking about all the possible implications of this information. Gwendolyn met Spanner before he was even born! Did she know who he was the moment she met him. When Aunt Kai came home from the hospital with her new baby and introduced him to the family, did Mom hold him, sense his mana, and instantly know? 'Holy crap! This kid will be Spanner!' Devlin just stared at her.

Then he remembered the whole reason Kenny decided to wear a mask and costume, and hide his identity in the first place. “You're not gonna tell Ben, are you?”

“Probably not.” Gwendolyn decided. “He spent so much time being Hero of the Universe, he doesn't actually know how to parent. Knowing him, he'll react badly. Probably hypocritically too, considering he started throwing himself head-first into danger heedless of warnings, better judgment, and adult supervision at the age of ten.”

She made an excellent point. And also brought up a very valid question.

Devlin drew in a breath.

Thought about what he was about to ask. Then asked.

“So... Like... Ya know how I've been going with Kenny to work on cases with Ben...” He began, still not quite sure how he was going to phrase his question.

“Yes. I'm well aware of this.” She nodded. “Its how you got injured.”

Devlin looked down at his shoes. His feed were almost completely healed now. He was still wearing bandages under his socks, but he didn't need his crutches to walk anymore. Thank you accelerated Osmosian healing. But he didn't wanna keep his mother stuck on his injury too long. Injuries were just a part of the job and he needed her to be rational-Mom, or hero-Mom, not panic'y-overprotective-Mom.

“Right. That. Um, anyway. If it does turn out that I have mana and can do magic. I might wanna go on missions without Ben.” He said. “Like, just me and Kenny, or... or just me.”

Gwendolyn's response to this was to give her son a sideways look. Devlin should already what his over-protective mother's answer would be. He should consider himself lucky she let him work back-up on Ben's missions and cases.

“Before you actually say 'no', ya know, like, in words. Please consider what you just said about Ben then remember your own under-aged hero'ing exploits... Lucky Girl!” The Osmoian reminded her.

“Are you saying you wanna follow in my footsteps and be 'Lucky Boy'?” She asked, half teasing, a dorky mom-grin on her face.

“I'm not calling myself 'Lucky Boy'.” Devlin informed her.

That dorky mom-grin fell. “You're serious.”

“I've been to the future, remember.” The boy reminded her. “I saw that I had different powers. I don't have to use my mutant form anymore. I can fight bad guys and save the world without freaking people out at the very sight of me.”

The elevator dinged and the doors opened on the ground floor. Access to the lobby and canteen. “Maybe. We'll talk more about it after we get you your ginger ale and something new to eat.”

Half an hour later, Devlin was sitting in the canteen, sipping his third ginger ale, thinking about how much he needed to pee, and arguing with his mother that, no, he didn't need to eat more. He was fine. Everything was fine. Please, just stop! Stop trying to take care of him. He was twelve, he was going to be thirteen soon, he was almost a teenager. He could take care of himself. Stop hovering! Dad was never like this.

“Can we just work on my new powers now?” Was all he said out loud.

Gwendolyn glared critically at his half drunk ginger ale -the third one he'd had in the past thirty minutes- and his half-eaten saltines. She, personally, thought he needed to sit and rest some more. Give his stomach time to settle. She hadn't seen him throw up that badly in the year since he came to live with her. It was shocking for her, and frightening. She wanted to make sure her baby was okay.

But goodness forbid Kevin Levin's son sit still for five minutes when there was something else on his mind. Something else he wanted to accomplish. Osmosians didn't know how to just sit and relax. They had no chill.

So, pursing her lips with suppressed disapproval, Gwendolyn stood from the canteen table. “Okay. We'll do a formal assessment of your magical potential. Follow me.”

She lead him out of the canteen and through the lobby.

“Where are we going?” Devlin finally asked when he noticed she was leading him to the parking garage. A thought flashed through his head that she might not give him a magic aptitude test at all and just be taking him to school because she was mad at him for playing hookie with Kenny.

“To Friedkin.” She answered in a tone that implied this should have been obvious. It was not obvious. “Their admissions office has the most accurate aptitude tests.”

“Oh!” Devlin hopped in the passenger seat, suddenly very excited. He hadn't been to Friedkin since he walked in on his mother exorcising his father of all his aliens and surplus energy. Admittedly, all he saw of the campus that time was the Alumni parking lot, the lecture hall his mother dumped him in, the quad, and -of course- his mother's library. But what he saw he liked. And Friedkin's janitor was funny too. An old man who called himself 'Scruffy' and Mom called 'Bezel'. Devlin wondered if he'd get to see the old man again too. His card tricks were funny, and he did manage to give some meaningful advice, too.

As it turned out, the Friedkin admissions office was a short, squat -dumpy- little building on the edge of campus sandwiched between the student health center (which was far nicer and maintained), and the campus police (which was equally dumpy but somehow managed to be intimidating about it).

Just with Devlin's first trip to the magical university, everyone recognized his mother wherever she passed. She was the High Magus, after all, one of the highest ranks int eh magical world. She probably had her own chapter and a half in a Friedkin textbook somewhere. They did not recognize him, however, and had to wonder what the High Magus was doing escorting a child whom was definitely not collage age into the magical collage's admissions building. Like, was he some incredible prodigy that she'd discovered? Or or a potent demon that just happened to look like a human child because that was a thing demonic beings did? Devlin heard people whispering speculations to each other as they passed.

The waiting room was full of people in their late teens and early twenties filling out documents or just waiting to be called up to the desk. There wasn't really much else for them to do than sit there and gossip about the High Magus that just walked by with the mysterious dark-haired child who dressed like a thirty-year-old librarian. Devlin pulled on the collar of his cardigan. He didn't really looked like a thirty-year-old librarian, did he?

Gwendolyn brushed right past the front desk and lead her son down a narrow hallways lined with numbered doors. Some of which had a floating hourglass in front of them and glowing letters in a neutral non-assuming font that read 'In Use'. Finally, at the end of the hall, Gwendolyn stopped at the only available room -number eleven, wouldn't ya know!- and opened the door for Devlin to enter.

Inside looked more the an interrogation room than something one would expect to find at a school for magic.

“Am I in trouble?” He heard himself asking before the question had even fully formed in his mind.

“Well, you did ditch school, go running around the time stream with your friend, and get sick all over my office carpet.” His mother replied, listing all the perfectly valid reasons a parent might have to be upset with their child. “But to answer your actual question and not the one you asked, no, you are not being punished right now.”

But when they got home, he would be cleaning up all of Zed's alien dog shit from the back yard. Children needed to be taught consequences, after all.

“Oh.” Slightly more at ease, Devlin sat down in the single metal chair in the room. “Why does this place look like an interrogation room? Not very magical is you ask me.”

“It doesn't look like an interrogation room.” Gwendolyn informed him, a second chair materializing out of nowhere for her to sit facing him. “It's a morphose chamber, it looks like what you expect.”

That wasn't accurate. It reflected a person's internal thoughts at them. An external expression of internal desired or fears that they themselves might not be consciously aware of. The first time Gwendolyn entered one of these rooms it looked like the inside of the Rust Bucket (the first one) mingled with Kevin's garage -except Kevin's car wasn't there. A reflection of her fear of being sucked into Ben's misadventures indefinitely and never getting to live her own life with the man she chose.

It was a little disturbing to Gwendolyn that her twelve-year-old son saw an interrogation room.

“Oh.” Devlin said again. He gave the room another critical examination. Concrete floor, sound proofed walls, uncomfortable metal furniture, one dim, sad little light in the ceiling, and a drain in the floor. Sure looked like an interrogation room to him. Not a Plumbers interrogation room. Those places had better lighting, a two-way mirror, and recording equipment. The appearance of this place was more in keeping with the 'interrogation' rooms his father used when he was still a criminal and a terror of the universe. What was that supposed to say about him? “What does this place look like to you, Mom?”

She gave a fond smile, as if remembering something from a bygone day. “My first apartment after I graduated from college. It was about this size.”

If it was from after she graduated from Friedkin then that couldn't have been what the room originally appeared to be when she took her admissions assessment. So, the room changed as the person changed. Well, that was magic for ya. Fluid and adaptable. Not unlike an Osmosian actually. The only constant was that things weren't constant. Change was the only thing that could be depended on. The realization his Devlin harder than he thought it should. No wonder his parents seemed to fit together so well to spite being so different and having so little in common. The essence of being an Osmosian was exactly the same as the essence of magic. Unpredictability, fluidity, adaptability, change.

Gwendolyn did not elaborate that the reason she now saw her first apartment was because some strange version of hiraeth. Missing a place and time in her life when she was independent, autonomous, and had full control of her life and her immediate world around her. Before she married Kevin, or had a child. Before things got weird with Ben and Rook, and Kevin went crazy and left. For a short time, for a few years, in that too-small-to-actually-be-livable apartment, life was perfect.

The sorceress could only imagine why her son would see an interrogation room. Did he want to be a member of law enforcement, Plumber or Earth-based? Did he want to get bad guys to confess and keep the universe safe like everyone else in the family? Or was he afraid of being mistaken for one of those terrible, galaxy-terrorizing criminals Ben fought on a semi-annual basis? Did the room's appearance reflect something he wanted, or something he feared? Having spent most of his life being raised on the run with his fugitive father, Gwendolyn could go either way.

“So... is this the test?” Devlin asked. “What does the room look like to me?”

“No.” His mother shook his head. “This is just the setting. Hold out your hands.”

He did as he was told, extending his hands out in front of him, palms up.

“Now, tell me what you're doing here.” The sorceress commanded.

“Uh, we came here because you don't believe me and Spanner that I can also use mana.” Devlin reminded her. “So you're giving me a test.”

“No, that's what I'm doing here.” She corrected. “What are you doing here?”

“Taking a test?” Ventured the Osmosian, suddenly unsure of his answer. He didn't know what she was fishing for with these questions. No wonder the room looked like an interrogation room for him. When his mother didn't look impressed by his answer, Devlin tried something different. “Sitting down and holding my hands out?”

“Devlin, why are you here?” She pressed.

“Because I need to learn magic.” He answered without hesitation. “I went to the future and saw myself wielding mana, and Dad always says its dangerous to have a power and not know how to control it. That's why he was so adamant that I learn to transform between my mutant form and human one, and why he always says I should never absorb anything.”

“Magic isn't like Osmosis.” The sorceress informed him. “Its not something that can take you over if you don't develop it. Magical potential would just fizzle out and go away if its never tapped. There is no danger in not learning magic. There is, however, danger in learning magic for the wrong reasons.”

Tilting his head to the said, Devlin shot an accusatory glare at his mother. “I thought this was supposed to be a test, not a lecture.”

“The lecture is part of the test.” The High Magus informed him. “Nobody needs to study magic. But the reasons why a person wants to are very important.”

And she would expect him to be honest. Since this was a magic room they were in she would probably know if he was lying. Hell! She was his mother, she knew when he was lying even without the aid of magic. So, Devlin admitted his real motivations, and it had nothing to do with helping Kenny save the future. “I want powers.”

“You have powers.” His mother reminded him.

“Osmosian powers.” He muttered, more to himself than actually to her.

His powers nearly killed her.

“Still powers.” She insisted. “And, unlike magic which takes years of study and practice, you're already mastered your Osmosian abilities. That's something your father didn't accomplish until he was almost out of his teens!”

“Yeah, well, Dad's dumb.” Devlin growled.

“Doesn't change the fact that you already have powers that you've already mastered. What does it matter that they're Osmosian powers and not magic?” Asked the sorceress.

“Because I don't wanna be Osmosian, okay!” Devlin finally snarled.

There was a crackling in the air. Devlin tasted more than felt a shift in the energy of the room. A crack appeared on the interrogation room wall off to the side and Devlin turned his head to look at it. Long and vertical, shaped very similarly to the fracture in dimensional space Kenny showed him in the future. Except on the other side of this fissure, instead of the Null Void, Devlin saw his own bedroom at home. A magic book open on his desk, and a black latex domino mask laying across the pages.

“Did the room change?” Gwendolyn asked, following his eyes. All she saw was the open window of her first apartment that looked into the garage of her current house. Kevin's car parked there, the hood up, his tool box out, and next to Kevin's tool box was a bright plastic children's 'tool' kit. Toys made to look like power tools and hardware, but made safe for a toddle to play with. Light weight, no sharp edges, everything to big to put in the mouth or be accidentally swallowed. Obviously, Devlin would not be seeing the same thing she was.

“Yeah.” He confirmed.

“Describe it to me.” She requested.

“Its my room.” The Osmosian began. “Uh, my bedroom at home. There's a book open on my desk as if I was just reading it. Like, a real book, not my e-reader, and its not written in English. It looks like Runes, or Arameic, or Hebrew, so probably a magic book. And there's a superhero mask on top of it. All black and slightly shiny, molded in the 'domino' style you see in a lot of Batman comics.”

“Your Lucky Boy mask?” Gwendolyn suggested.

“I'm not calling myself Lucky Boy.” Devlin repeated.

“We can work on a name together.” She informed him. “Look at your hands.”

Devlin blinked. He'd been so focused on the change in the magical room that he sort of forgot his mother ask him to hold out his hands at the start of this. There, hovering between his upturned palms, was a small orb of mana. Tiny, really. No larger than a nickle. But glowing a bright and vibrant star sapphire. The same shade of power as his mother's mana.

He stared at it wide eyes. It was so small. But it was his. It came out of him. He was a magic user! “That's my mana...”

“Actually, its my mana.” His mother informed him.

“What?” The Osmosian looked up at her, not understanding. The tiny orb of light shifting between his hands, flickering with his suddenly agitated emotions.

“This is what's left of the mana you absorbed from me when you were younger.” Gwendolyn explained. “You do have an aptitude for magic. You could be a magic wielder. Except you don't actually have the Spark of mana of your own.” Apart from his body's own natural life energy. Mana was, after all, the energy of life. But not all living things had enough of a surplus of mana to wield it as a tool. “If you did want to become a magic user, you'd have to borrow mana from other sources. Talismans, totems, and fetishes, for example.”

Devlin was crest fallen, he lowered his hands, letting go of the tiny mana orb. The power dispersing into the air to rejoin the aether of the universe. He could use magic, he just didn't have magic of his own. If he wanted to be a magical hero, he'd have to carry around a whole bunch of extra equipment with him... or else absorb mana like the Osmosian predator his father always told him he was.

Well, wasn't that just his own bad luck.

Chapter Text

Stretching in his chair, Kevin yawned. After a year of being confined to desk duty, he'd certainly gotten used to it, but he just wasn't built for this. Sitting all day. Not running around, fighting, or doing anything remotely physical. It was murder on his back! Kevin wasn't as young as he used to be and all this sitting all the time could not be good for him. His body craved activity and motion, action and violence. He really should have punched Ben a couple days ago when the thoughtless Hero pissed him off. Maybe they could have had a real fight, powers and all. Damn this new found self-control! Sure, it was making him a better person, but at what cost?

Kevin stood to crack his back. He was only forty-four, when had be become such an 'old man'?

Stifling another yawn, he picked up his coffee cup, noted that it was empty, and threw it in the desk trash. Getting more coffee would be the perfect excuse to take a walk. It wasn't quite the physical activity his body wanted, but at least it wasn't sitting.Making sure his Plumbers badge was clipped to his belt -Kevin hadn't worn the official uniform since he settled into his shitty new desk job- he exited the bull pen, heading out onto the surface streets.

It was sunny and bright outside. The sky a clear blue, not a cloud in sight. A light breeze kept it from getting too hot to become uncomfortable, but -overall, it was a warm day. The perfect weather for a day spent outside. Idly, Kevin toyed with the idea of just not going back to HQ. Or, more accurately, not going back to his desk. He would have to go back to HQ to get his car, but after that he could just drive away. Maybe spend some time out by the lake, or racing through the desert outside Los Solidad, or maybe pick-up Gwendolyn and have a romantic afternoon together. Just be out and about. Doing things. Not hunching behind a desk like a bureaucracy gremlin, or tangled up between sweaty sheets in the aftermath of love-making. But, out. In the world. Like people did.

Things were going so well for Kevin lately. Mind-numbing desk-job not withstanding, Kevin's situation had improved a lot in the past year. He and Gwendolyn were back together, his relationship with Devlin was beginning to mend, and they both had enough trust in him now to invite him into the house. Not to stay, but at least to share a meal like a proper family. All and all, life was on the way to being great.

Which meant that -inevitably- something was about to go horribly, disastrously wrong.

Because he was Kevin E. Levin and terrible shit just sort of happened around him.

Thanks to the youthful folly of his brief partnership with Servantis, Kevin didn't really have any clear and distinct memories of his real childhood. To this day he still didn't know who his father was and -sometimes, in his darker moods- even questioned whether or not his mother had even been his real mother. But of what Kevin could remember of his parents, they did not understand him or his powers. The clearest memories he was able to reclaim after settling accounts with Servantis, were of two nameless, faceless adults calling him a freak. Then the memories get a little hazy and unclear again. Kevin couldn't quite decide if he had a massive break, went haywire with his powers out of hysteria, and destroyed the house (he remembered it was a house, that detail at least was consistent and distinct), or if his parents kicked him out because they just couldn't manage a child they didn't understand with powers they couldn't control.

But however it happened, Kevin definitely wound up on the streets.

Homeless, unloved, and alone at the age of eleven.

That was when he met the Tennysons. One could argue that that was when his situation began to improve, but that would be disingenuous. That was when his situation changed from 'homeless and unloved child' to 'fantastical criminal who has adventures no normal person could be capable of identifying with'. Sure, he was independent, self-reliant, didn't need parents or friends, and could survive on his own. Make his own way in the world. But he was also grotesquely disfigured. At the time, he assumed permanently. Disfigured, kidnapped by an alien gladiator fighting ring, manipulated by Vilgax, and finally locked in the Null Void. Still all before he reached his teens too. His situation hadn't improved, it had just become impossible for a normal person to understand.

But things did actually improve -for real- after he was sentenced to Incarcecon. Sure, he was a little kid locked up in an alien prison, and sure after he regained his human form he couldn't get a decent nights sleep because some fucker would wanna try something. But he regained his human form! Not just regained his human form, but gained a level of control over his powers and himself he didn't have before. All thanks to Kwarrel. Kevin even managed to find a strange kind of 'father figure' in the fellow inmate. The large gray-skinned alien was certainly more nurturing than either version of Kevin real parents had been. But then Kwarrel died. Shot in the back while helping Kevin escape. Kevin got out, but his newfound 'father figure' never did. Kwarrel died in that hole, and Kevin never even knew what they did with his body.

He was out of Incarcecon now, but still trapped in the Null Void, so the situation hadn't really improved. Just changed. There wasn't a lot of food in the Null Void as a general rule. Sometimes sentient beings had to eat sentient beings to survive, and there was even less fresh water than there was meat. But Osmosians were highly adaptable and hard to kill, so Kevin somehow managed to survive. At least long enough to cross paths with Servantis, whom was at that time still a Proctor ranked Plumber. He took Kevin back to his base, fed him, watered him, treated his wounds, and then started using him.

Not in the same way those fuckers that would bother Kevin in his sleep wanted to use him. Servantis wanted his powers, not skinny pre-adolecent body.

The Proctor had Kevin use his Osmosian abilities to absorb other aliens, then graft their DNA onto Servantis and his team. Turning them all from normal humans into artificial hybrids. Amalgamations of Earthling and alien. Servantis, Swift, and Leander were the first of the 'Amalgams'. Then Servantis started bringing in other children. Street kids with no homes or families that would miss them. At the time, Kevin thought it was rather humanitarian of him. Taking homeless and unloved kids off the streets and giving them a roof, regular meals, superpowers, and a purpose in life. At the time, the Osmosian wished someone had done that for him when his parents kicked him out. If they had he never would have crossed paths with Ben and never would have been disfigured by the Omnitrix.

Overall, life as a Rooter was pretty nice compared to everything else Kevin had been through in his short life.

That was, until they failed in their mission to assassinate Ben Tennyson and take or destroy the Omnitrix.

That was also the point where Kevin's memories got fuzzy and inconsistent again.

To this day, Kevin still doesn't remember how he got out of the Null Void that time. His last clear memory between failing the mission and waking up in his mother's house was Servantis' red eyes. Brows knit together with rage and frustration, lids narrowed with concentration as he used his powers. Kevin felt a crackle of power in his skin. Then everything went red. When the Osmosian woke up again, he was laying on a couch, in a living room, in a small house, in Bellwood. There was a small moment of dissociation as he didn't recognize his surroundings, but his brain told him that this was his mother's house and he was home.

For the next four years, life was pretty sweet.

He somehow got connections into the world of contraband trade and began selling illegal alien weapons and technology. It was a super-lucrative gig, and Kevin managed to amass a small fortune. Enough to by a better house for himself and his mother, in a nicer part of town. He had financial stability, and -more importantly- a stable home life with a parent who legitimately seemed to care about him. Did Kevin have issues with her ex-husband, his so-called 'step-father'? Yes. Did Kevin understand why the man was still in their lives even though he and Mrs. Levin were supposed to be divorced? No. But he adapted. Osmosians were adaptable.

This happy period in his life was probably the longest Kevin had experienced up to that point. It was shook a little when Ben Tennyson reentered his life by crashing one of his weapons deals and robbing him of a large payout. To this day, Kevin wasn't really sure why he agreed to help them. But when Gwendolyn placed her hand over his and said 'please' the Osmosian found it impossible to say 'no'. He had to help them. No, not 'them'. Kevin didn't give a fuck about Ben. He was helping Gwen. He didn't quite know why, but when he really really thought about it hard, Kevin got a vague memory of her pulling a quill out of his neck and whispering “Hey creepy.” In a soft, gently soothing voice.

After he and Gwendolyn started dating officially, it seemed like life was perfect. He had the stable home he never got to enjoy as a small child, a parent who cared about him, and an amazing girlfriend who loved him. It was literally the perfect life. More than the Osmosian ever imagined he would ever get, could ever get, or even deserved. When Gwendolyn went off to collage -early, one might add, because she was just that amazing- Kevin used what was left of his contraband dealer money to get an off-campus apartment to stay close to her, and he got a real job -a legal job- to continue to be able to provide for himself while she focused on her studies.

It was literally the most perfect time in his life.

So, of course, Servantis had to return and ruin it all.

The revelations were many, and hard. Devin Levin wasn't Kevin's father and, in fact, never existed in the first place. Kevin wasn't half-alien, he was a mutant (he really was a freak!). Helen, Manny, Alan, and Pierce -may be rest in peace- weren't natural hybrids either, they were the results of Servantis' illegal experiments, Amalgams of Earthling and alien. Worst of all, none of them were really supposed to be true friends with Ben or his Team. They were sleeper agents. Placed in Ben's life to become familiar fixtures until his guard was down and they could strike! Kill the Hero of the Universe and destroy his Omnitrix!

Luckily, by that point, Kevin had developed a lot on his own. Both his Osmosian -mutant- powers, and himself as an individual. He was unaffected by Servantis' mind control, and was able to execute a plan that saved Ben, cured the others of their own mind control, and ultimately defeated Servantis. The Rooters were stripped of their Plumbers status and equipment and confined to the Null Void as prisoners. Kevin and all his friends got to go home, and back to their happy lives. (Except now Kevin was questioning everything he thought he knew about himself, his parents, his mother, and even his feelings for Gwendolyn. Was his mom really his mom? Were his feelings for Gwen really his own or a product of Servantis' mental tampering?

Kevin was glad he wasn't living at home anymore. He didn't think he could face his mother after the onslaught of revelations he'd been through.

He also didn't think he his relationship with Gwendolyn would be the same either.

But she informed him that they kinda, sorta, maybe liked each other a little before Servantis got his hands on him. She clearly remembered the look he gave her when they were children and fighting Zs'Skayr and his Ectonurite minions. Only twelve years old, and Kevin already looked at her with a depth of admiration as if to imply that she was the only woman in the world. That was before he got mixed up with Servantis. So, no, his feelings weren't part of the Rooters' plot. Kevin's feelings were real. Their relationship was real.

Admittedly, while Kevin did concede her point and they did continue with their relationship, he did still have doubts. It took the Osmosian several years, but the day those doubts finally disappeared was the day he decided to marry her.

The ring was expensive, and the proposal was clumsy. But everything turned out wonderfully when Gwendolyn said 'Yes, you dummy! What took you so long?' Life was perfect once again.

For several years, life was perfect.

Then Gwendolyn got pregnant with Devlin and almost died, and Kevin had to take the child away from her to keep the baby Osmosian from eating his own mother. Ben became and enemy again, and Kevin once again over dosed on too much power from the Omnitrix. He became a monster known as Kevin 11,000 and Devlin got a traumatic childhood on par with Kevin's own childhood trauma.

Any time anything was going well in the Osmosians life, something always came along to fuck shit up.

So, it was understandable that Kevin was apprehensive about something coming along to ruin all this new perfection that was building in his life right now. Because he was Kevin Ethan Levin and fucked up shit just sort of happened around him.

“The usual, Magister Levin?” Asked the barista, startling the Osmosian out of his pessimistic musings.

“Oh, uh, yeah.” He nodded.

The barista turned around to pore him a fresh cup of coffee, black, two sugars. Turning back around, they handed Kevin his cup and punched the order in on the register to charge him. “Ya know, I think you're the only Plumber who comes here regularly instead of going to the Mr. Smoothy across the street.”

Kevin groaned, audibly loud. “Ugh, I am so over smoothies!”

Actually, he was just over one particular guy who drank smoothies regularly. But that was beside the point.

“Oh, I agree.” The barista smiled. “Anyone who still prefers fruity smoothies over grown-up drinks is a complete tool.”

The Osmosian knew the barista was probably playing him. After all, part of the customer service job description was to just agree with whatever bullshit spewed out of the customer's mouth. But, for calling Ben Tennyson a complete tool, Kevin dropped a ten terran bill in the tip jar -it was four times the cost of the coffee he'd just bought. But it still wasn't enough for someone willing to talk shit about the Hero of the Universe.

“Thank you, Magister!” The barista blinked at the bill curled up in the jar amid a sea of ones and coins.

“Stay salty.” Was all the Osmosian could think of to say in reply. He took his coffee and left. Forty-four years old and he still hadn't gotten the whole 'small talk' thing down quite right.

Back outside in the bright and cheerful sunlight, Kevin turned his thoughts to trying to figure out what shit was going to hit what fan and spatter living refuse all over his wonderful life. Ben had a habit of ruining things for the Osmosian. Not only that, but the Time War was finally happening from this end of the spectrum and Tennyson also had a habit of getting other people pulled into his bullshit. Kevin managed to stay out of the Time War when they were still teens by grace of the fact that he wasn't living in Bellwood, had a real job, and just generally didn't spend that much time around Ben. There was less opportunity for Kevin to get sucked in. But now... Now Kevin was working in the basement under Ben Tennyson's fucking house!

Honestly, he was amazed he hadn't been pulled along on one of his absurd adventures already.

Not that the Osmosian would mind the action. He just didn't want the headache that would go along with it.

Then there was Devlin. He wanted to fight aliens and monsters just live everyone else in the family did, but he also didn't want to use the natural Osmosian abilities he inherited from Kevin. The bot had already gotten himself hurt once doing that and Gwendolyn had freaked out. If Devlin got himself hurt again, or worse killed, well, that sure as hell would ruin everyone's life, not just Kevin's.

Luckily for Kevin, his son was a lot more stable and level-headed than he had ever been at that age. The likelihood of him getting himself killed was reduced by the simple fact that Devlin was too smart for that. And even if he wasn't too smart for that, he had people to watch his back and a support structure that Kevin also never had at that age. So, whatever was due to come along and fuck shit up, it wasn't going to come from Devlin. Of that, at least, Kevin was confident.

So the element of fuckery had to be Ben. That was the reoccurring theme in his life. Ben Tennyson fucked shit up. Then had to fix it. Then was hailed as a hero for fixing the very problems he caused.

If it wasn't the Time War that Kevin would be sucked into, then maybe these tensions between Tennyson and his wife. Ben and Kai barely spoke anymore, and the Osmosian couldn't remember even seeing them in the same room together in several months. There was definitely a clear rift forming between them. That was obvious even before Ben accidentally implied that he would prefer being in a gay xenosexual relationship than still be with his wife.

Speaking of Ben's implied gay xenosexual relationship, Kevin really hadn't heard from Rook in a while. Yeah, Rook worked a difficult job. Probably one of the most difficult jobs in the whole Plumbers organization. But even so, the Revonnahgander still managed to keep in touch with him and Gwen. Hell! When Gwendolyn still had Kevin confined to her library and was cleansing him of his surplus energy and aliens, Kevin saw Rook every other week! And Rook wanted the Osmosian on his Null Void team, so he came to check up on Kevin all though out the process of his recertification and reinstatement. Even if he couldn't come in person -because the Null Void was a demanding deployment- Rook made a point to call.

Rook stayed in contact.

Tennyson might have really pissed Kevin on the other night saying 'he should know' about the Null Void. Throwing out his childhood trauma so casually and making light of the lasting scars it still left on him in his adulthood. But the fact of the mater was, yeah, Kvin did know about the Null Void. Better than most, he knew. The Null Void was dangerous. The Null Void was deadly. Rook usually kept in really good contact. If not with him, then with Gwendolyn or Max. The fact that no one had heard from him in a while was concerning. Rook could be dead.

Or he could just be busy. Really, really busy. The Null Void was a bust place.

With his free hand, Kevin pulled out his Plumbers badge and dialed Rook's badge. It took a bit for the call to connect since he wasn't just malling someone across space, but across dimensions too. Osmosians weren't very patient by nature, but Kevin waited.

Except the call didn't connect.

So, Kevin cut off the transmission and tried again.

Same thing. The call would not connect to Rook's Plumbers badge.

Okay, so that was a little worrying. Rook was super-responsible. Probably, actually, more responsible than Gwendolyn even. He would not lose his badge. He would not break his badge. He would not deactivate his badge. He definitely wouldn't turn it off! It would be one thing if the signal connected and Rook just didn't pick up. He could be busy. But the signal not connecting at all... that was concerning.

That feeling of something coming along to ruin Kevin's perfect life was creeping closer now.

Maybe this time it wouldn't be Ben who turns things to shit. Maybe it would be the loss of a friend and confidant. Inexplicably, Kevin remembered how he and Rook had fought over who got the car that they'd built together after the returned from being Kevin 11,000. Irrationally, the Osmosian wondered if Rook had gotten the invulnerable car, would he be alright right now. Would everything be okay, and he'd be drinking a smoothy right now instead of coffee. The Revonnahgander standing beside him as they argued about the Null Void.

Fuck! What if Rook was dead!?

Doing his best to remember some calming techniques Gwendolyn taught him, Kevin forced himself not to panic. Rook was a highly trained Magister ranked Plumber who had survived worse than the Null Void over the course of his adventures -and misadventures- with Ben. Beside, if his badge wasn't working there were still other coms he could try.

Kevin dialed the main line for the Null Void base.

“Plumbers Headquarters, Null Void.” Said a polite business-tone voice from the other end. Sounded mostly human, as almost all voices sounded over universal translators. Not matter what race you were or what language you spoke, the tech was programed to make the speaker sound like one the listener's own people. “You're speaking with Magister Deccar Cha-”

“Yeah, yeah, I'm sure you're great.” Kevin cut him off, not caring who he was speaking to. It wasn't Rook, that was all he noted. “Listen, I'm trying to reach Rook. Uh, that is, Magister Rook Blonko, Warden of the Void.”

There was an pause from the other end that Kevin did not like.

“Warden Rook is unavailable at the moment.” The Magister on the other end finally informed him.

Osmosians were notorious for having short patience, and Kevin was already anxious before he called the Null Void base. It did not take much to launch him into 'hostile' mode. “Listen, asshole, I know the Null Void is a hard place and Rook's a busy guy. But his badge isn't responding which can only mean bad things. So either tell me what the fuck is going on, or put someone else on the line.”

This time, the pause before he answered was shorter. “Sir, you have not yet identified yourself. I cannot release sensitive Plumbers information to you without having confirmation of your identity and security clearance.”

“Check the badge number I'm calling from, moron.” Snapped the Osmosian. He took a long sip from his coffee, wishing he could throw it at this irritating upstart who dared try and give him the run around.

“Okay, Magister... Levin. You- wait. Levin? Levin! As in...” The polite business-tone vanished in an instant to be replaced by mingled disbelief and alarm, with the just slightest shadings of fear which Kevin reluctantly admitted he kinda liked. Plumbers stationed in the Null Void should have a healthy fear of him. Kevin 11,000 was pretty terrifying. That part of him might be gone, but the reputation was still there.

“As in Magister Kevin Levin.” he tried really, really hard not to smile. Like, yeah, he had been Kevin 11,000. But that part of his life was over, he was just Magister Levin now.

“You, uh, you wouldn't happen to be the same Magister Kevin Levin who used to be King in the Void, would you?” Oh, that was definitely a quiver of fear to the voice in that question.

Admittedly, Kevin hated that stupid title, 'King in the Void'. The Null Void didn't have kings. The Null Void wasn't organized enough for kings. There was no single unifying ruling power in the Null Void. That just wasn't how things were done in the Void. Kevin never liked or wanted the title, the title he chose for himself was Kevin 11,000. But in the Void, the weak tende to gravitate to the strong for protection. Kevin did manage to amass a rather large -and maybe a little fanatical- following while he was imprisoned there. Looks like the title 'King in the Void' stuck. Much to his disappointment.

But that wasn't what he was focusing in right now. This time, Kevin didn't try to suppress his smile. “How many Magister Kevin Levins are there?”

He could hear the Magister on the other end breathing now. The quick breaths of anxiety. He was afraid. “Warden Rook is still unavailable.”

“So, Rook's 'unavailable' and his badge isn't responding.” Kevin summarized. “Answer one question for me, Magister Whatever-the-Fuck-Your-Name-Is. Is Rook dead?”

This time the pause on the other end was longer.

Much longer.

The only reason Kevin was sure the call was still connected and hadn't been cut off was because his badge was still counting the time.

Finally, the Magister on the other end repeated, “Warden Rook is unavailable.”

“Are you deliberately withholding information from me because I'm Kevin 11,000, or is this something you literally cannot talk about until some kind of report or paperwork goes through to the Magistrata?” The other guy's fear of him wasn't funny anymore. Now the Osmosian was getting annoyed. Annoyed, and fearful. Oh, gawd! What if Rook was dead!?

“Updates on the Null Void situation are sent to the Magistrata regularly.” The other informed him.

“Fine. Don't tell me anything.” Kevin snarled at his badge. He ended the call before the Magister on the other end could say anything else.

Well, at least now Kevin knew what shit was going to hit what fan and ruin his life.

Chapter Text

Frey glanced at her map and noted that their THV had entered an uncharted portion of the Void. She slowed her speed, lest they crash into an unexpected floating body like an asteroid, a Way Bad, or be pulled off course and lost on a dramatic gravity shift.

“Stay alert.” She commanded the rest of the team. “We just passed off the edge of our map.”

“Did we bring any mapping nodes with us?” Roose asked. “We should drop a few in this area while we're here.”

“Our mission is to find Warden Rook, not expand our map.” Frey reminded him.

Roose glanced at the chronometer to check the time and calculate how long they'd actually been out looking for Rook before he answered. “Lets be honest with ourselves, after this much time already, is anybody here actually expecting to find Rook still alive?” He gave a hard stare at Magister Frey before turning in his seat to offer similar looks to the other three members of their team. “At this point, we're not looking for him, we're looking for his body. We should at least get something constructive out of this trip. Like filling in the holes in our map.”

Frey opened her mouth to argue, but at that moment the com buzzed. The callsign showed that it was Headquarters. Frey answered immediately. “Chaz, gimme some good news!”

“You guys-!” Magister Chaz sounded like he was on the verge of tears, or a panic attack, or both.

The bottom dropped out of the Frey's stomach at that near hysterical quiver in her colleague's voice. Chaz was the one left behind to guard the base and monitor the communication lines. Did he somehow get through to Rook's badge? Was Roose right? Was Rook dead? Were they now leaderless in the Null Void, the Magestrata poised to parachute in someone new who wasn't as familiar with the place or with their team.

“What is it? What happened?” Frey demanded.

“You're not gonna believe who just called this time.” Chaz's words came out in rapid breaths, like he was struggling to get his statements out and was rushing his words because of it.

“Ben 10,000 again?” Roose guessed, unimpressed.

Chaz paused. Audibly gulped some air. Tried speaking again. “Magister Levin.” He whispered, almost as if he were afraid to say the name out loud. “You guys... Kevin 11,000 is looking for our Warden!”

“The King in the Void?” Roose mentally kicked himself for using that damn monicker. He heard the hushed voices in the holdfast whispering through his head again. 'King in the Void, King in the Void, King in the Void'.

Everyone in the THV's cabin was having similar thoughts. Thinking back to the bartender and his almost fanatical predictions that Kevin 11,000 would return to the Null Void. 'In his bones 11,000 is the stuff o' the Void... He belongs to the Void. Be a real shame they were still lost when 11,000 returns to claim 'is enemies!'

“Magister Levin is a Plumber.” Frey reminded herself out loud, reminded everyone, actually. “He's one of us. Besides, Ben 10,000 vouches for him! He can't really be all that bad.”

“None of you have ever encountered Kevin 11,000.” Chaz reminded them, the com signal crackling uncomfortably as they passed too close to an asteroid. “The only squad that ever went up against him here in the Void all died! And I don't even know what happened. Rook handled the reports all himself and wouldn't even let me proofread or send them in.” A pause. “You do know that Rook and 11,000 are friends, right?”

Everyone in the cabin paused. They knew that their Warden used to be partners with Ben 10,000. Rook had made it into the Academy textbook as a footnote in the Ben Tennyson chapters. They did also know that Ben 10,000 and Kevin Levin were friends because Kevin was also mentioned in those same chapters (although, 'friends' was not the word the book used). It stood to reason that if Rook was Ben's partner, and Kevin was Ben's friend that there would be some crossover between the two. Rook and Kevin could have also become friends.

Still, after everything they'd heard about Kevin 11,000 it was hard to imagine.

“I don't believe it.” Roose announced.

“Remember all that time off Rook took last year?” Chaz reminded them. “That's because he was going to Earth to help the High Magus rehabilitate Kevin. He would not be a Magister again if Rook hadn't done that. He'd still be here, in the Void, making life impossible for the rest of us.”

“And now Rook's missing and 11,000 is wondering why he hasn't come to visit him in a while.” Frey concluded. “You don't... you don't think 11,000 would come back to the Null Void, do you?”

“I don't know.” Chaz admitted. “I tried pulling up his file after he hung up and, after having to put in my security clearance ten times, half the thing was redacted anyway! I honestly have no idea what this guy would do.”

Roose drummed a paw on the THV's dash. “I don't see what you expect us to do about it all the way out here.”

“Can you give me some good news?” Chaz demanded.

“We might get a better map out of this.” Roose announced.

“I meant about the search and rescue for our Warden!” Chaz all but shouted. “Any sign of Rook? Or even Magister Arys?

“Its been almost a hundred hours since we lost radio contact with them.” Roose reminded his colleague. “I don't think I need to remind you that twenty-four is the golden window. Chances of finding a missing person after that drop significantly. After seventy-two you might find them, but not alive. Its been ninety-six hours. Do you honestly think we're gonna have any good news to share?”

There was a pause on the other end of the com.

Finally, Chaz growled over the speaker. “If Magister Levin calls back, I'm connecting him directly to your badge. You can tell Kevin 11,000 exactly what you just told me.”

The com clicked as Chaz abruptly ended the transmission.

Roose looked up at the others in the THV cabin. “You don't really think he'd sic Kevin 11,000 on me, do you?”

Before anyone got the chance to answer, the TVH was rocked violently. Alarms all over the cabin started blaring at them. Different chimes and whistles for different problems. Exterior hull damage. Localized heat. Exposed tubing, electrical wires, cables.

“Something hit us!” Shouted one of the members of their team.

“Someone shot us!” Frey snarled back as she threw all her strength onto holding the wheel, keeping the THV level as they went down -and they were going down. Her eyes glowed with the bright violet light of her telekinetic power, adding a bit of her own alien abilities to keeping the vehicle under control as they went down. “There'll probably be hostiles when we touch down. Be ready!”

There was a mad scrambling as everyone reached for weapons or double checked the armor of their uniforms was secure.

The landing was hard. Technically hard enough to be classified as a crash. The THV skidded over one asteroid, digging a deep trench into the dirt. They toppled over the edge of the first asteroid they hit, bounced off a smaller one, and finally came to rest on a third. The THV rested on its side, laying at an angle that made opening the main hatch difficult.

Frey pummeled a fist down on the hatch release. The canopy unlocked, but only opened a fraction of the way. Just enough for a being to reach an arm out, but not enough to pull themselves out of the downed vehicle. Placing both hands on the canopy hatch, Frey pushed with both her physical strength and her Uxorite telekinesis, eyes glowing with the effort.

Unbuckling his belt, Roose climbed out of his seat, braced his back against the seat dividers and kicked with with both legs. Between their combined efforts, Frey and Roose managed to break the hatch off.

“Everybody out!” Frey commanded.

She, Roose, and two of the other members of their team fumbled out of the THV. They all looked back a the fifth member of their team. They hadn't moved. Frey closed the space, walking back to the broken open cabin. She leaned close, examining their colleague. There was a bleeding gash on the side of their head and a corresponding blood stain on the cabin wall next to them. They probably hit their head during all the bouncing in the crash. They were alive, but unconscious.

“Ramsey?” Frey hissed at him. “Magister Ramsey!”

They groaned out a breath in his unconscious state, but otherwise did not respond.

“Frey!” Roose hissed at her.

She ignored him. Cutting the crash restraints off her companion. Their limp body fell into her arms and she started dragging them away from the downed vehicle.

“Frey!” Roose hissed again. “Drop them and get over here!”

“They're still alive!” She snarled back.

“But you might not be for long.” Said another voice from above her.

Looking up, Frey saw three beings stranding on top of the downed THV. The two in flanking positions wearing jumpsuits that looked hand-sewn, died black to look more like the one in the middle. They carried plasma rifles that looked Plumbers issued, but older models. The barrels were trained squarely on Frey and her team. Front and center was an old man, human by all outward appearances. Long white hair pulled back into a messy ponytail. Thick beard. Scar over one eye. And wearing black proto-tech armor of an older design. Of a Rooters design! They were shot down by a Rooters party!

“Billings!” Frey recognized him off their wall of the Null Void's Most Wanted back at Headquarters. He, Dana Swift, and Troy Leander all took up the second row, right under Hector Servantis, whom had the whole top row to himself.

Phil Billings, joined the Rooters after Max and Ben Tennyson trapped him in the Null Void over thirty years ago. She didn't know the other two. New recruits, obviously. Probably since after the Rooters were drummed out of the Plumbers and had all their resources and support revoked since their uniforms looked hand made and of inferior materials.

“We're in Rooters territory!” Frey concluded.

“Nothing gets past you.” Billings scoffed. “Drop the kid, drop your weapons, arms up, those of you with powers no funny business.”

Gently, Frey laid Magister Ramsey down on the ground and backed up to join the rest of her team, arms in the air. “They need medical attention.”

“And we'll be needing the equipment you've got in your THV.” Phil informed her.

“So, this is a scavenger attack.” Roose concluded.

“It was.” Billings confirmed, jumping down from his perch on the crashed vehicle. He was remarkably spry and agile for a human in his nineties. Then again, he wasn't exactly a normal human anymore. According to his file, he'd been spliced with Terroranchula-DNA. Billings crossed the space and got right up in Frey's face, glaring into all three of her Uxorite eyes. “Now I'm wondering what such a big group of you are doing out so far from your base.”

He did a quick headcount. Five of them -including the one dying in the dirt. According to their last intel on Rook and his team, their ranks totaled only nine Plumbers, including Warden Rook Blonko himself. Five out of nine was over half their force. What would so many of them being doing so far from home in hostile Void-space that Billings knew for a fact that hadn't explored and had no way of navigating. There were too many of them to be a ranging party, but still too few to be a raid on the Rooters.

Magister Frey just glared right back at him, all three of her eyes narrowing at the mutated Earthling. “Wouldn't you like to know.”

“Yeah. I would.” Billings confirmed. He just said literally that.

“And what makes you think I'd tell you?” She demanded.

Billings smiled, as if he'd won something. Taking his eyes off Magister Frey for a moment, he looked down at her unconscious companion. Magister Ramsey was still unconscious, their head still bleeding, but they was also still breathing. For the moment, they were still alive. Billings prodded at the unconscious Plumber with his toe. “Because you don't want your friend here to die.” He grinned when her eyes also flicked down to her fallen comrade. “Now, we can continue to dick around and try and prove who's balls are bigger than who's ovaries. Or, you can come quietly, answer some questions, and if you're nice, maybe Junior here will get the medical attention it needs.”

“Don't do it, Frey!” Roose commanded, knowing full well that he was not the one put in command of this mission. “You know they have no intensions of letting any of us go alive anyway.”

She did not chance a glance back at him, but she knew that he had a point. After Servantis got whatever information he wanted out of her, they would just kill her and her whole team. Already injured and unconscious Magister Ramsey included. Weighing her options -of which she had few- Frey came to a decision.

Her eyes glowed with the power of her telekinetic ability. But she wasn't attacking Billings of the his Null Void recruits. Without looking back at her own companions, she wrapped them all in a layer of her TK and propelled them off the asteroid behind her.

There was a chorus of yelps or gasps as they felt themselves pulled by an immaterial force. But the movement also succeeded in distracting the Rooters for half a second. They didn't understand what had just happened. Frey took advantage of their hesitation to throw herself off the asteroid after them. She was leaving Ramsey behind, injured and at the mercy of enemy soldiers. She knew she was essentially leaving them behind to die. But Roose was right, the Rooters would have killed all of them, and if she'd tried to take Ramsey, they would have just slowed down the rest of the team and -ultimately- died of their injuries anyway.

One of Billings' Null Void recruits recovered from their surprise faster than the others and raised their plasma rifle. Taking aim, they got off a couple shots before Frey and what was left of her team disappeared under the asteroid. But not before one lucky shot hit one of the Plumbers. Plasma rifles were heavy artillery and could take down a THV. When the bolt of energy hit the Plumber, their body was vaporized instantly.

Looks like their five-man team was down to three.

“Let them go.” Billings commanded his companions. They were lost, no longer had a vehicle, and no supplies for a long journey. They were as good as dead anyway. The Void would take care of them. Billings prodded the one left behind with his toe. Ramsey groaned in their sleep. They were still alive. “Lets get this one back to base. If we can wake it up, maybe we can get some useful info after all. And don't forget the equipment in the THV. Its what we shot them down for in the first place.”

It was the rocking that forced Aggregor back to wakefulness. There was a dull ache in his abdomen that felt suspiciously like a fresh bruise, and his neck hurt with a similar pain. The rocking motion of whatever it was he was laying on made them both all the worse and with a groan, Aggregor tried to pushed himself up.

Only to realize that he was strapped down.

Opening his eyes, the Osmosian realized he had been slung over the back of one of the caravan's Null Guardians with the rest of the baggage and tied between two tents.

“Hey.” Aggregor growled. When no one responded immediately he tried again louder. “Hey!”

“I think he's awake.” Said a voice that sounded like the Lewodan Plumber. Aggregor couldn't see for sure on account of being strapped down and sandwiched between larger, bulkier baggage.

The Null Guardian that carried him drifted to a stop and Aggrenna appeared in his field of vision. She said nothing, just began unbuckling the straps holding him down.

“Where's your sister?” He demanded when Aggrenna offered her hand to help him off the beast and back to his feet.

“Don't be mad at Olennor.” She pleaded. “You were being unreasonable. She did what she had to, to keep you from getting lost too.”

“Too?” He echoed. “Your brother is still lost?”

He looked around. The rest of the caravan hard formed a semi-circle around his Null Guardian, all watching him. After Olenna's passing, he sort of just fell into the roll of leader of their little tribe. They wanted to know he was alright and in a more rational state of mind. Among the ranks he noted the Lewodan Plumber standing next to Olennor, but he noted that Warden Rook was absent. Warden Rook, and Shirahk.

Trying to remain calm and not fall into a familiar panic over the boy being taken from him. He turned his attention to the Voidscape around them. The mottled pattern of the crimson sky around them, the asteroids drifting past, and the patterns of their drift. Gauging the gravity flow and speed. He didn't know how long he'd been unconscious, but they were no longer near where they had lost Shirahk. In fact, it looked like they were now on the way to a different part of the Void entirely.

“You're taking us to Incarcecon.” He finally concluded.

“Shirahk knows the Free Fortress.” Aggrenna reminded him. “And he knows how to get there. Its the most logical place that he'd go. We're on our way to meet him there.”

Aggrenna was so calm when she explained all this. Speaking in an easy, almost matter-of-factly tone. Like it was obvious. Like it didn't really matter. Unfortunately, Aggregor was not as calm as she was.

“You know a million things could happen to him between Incarcecon and where we were!” He snarled at her. “Shirahk is a child! He can't take care of himself! How the hell is he supposed to get to Incarcecon on his own? What if he's attacked on the way there? What if he's captured!? I do not want my son to end up in Servantis' hands again! Did you even try to find him before you just left him behind!?”

“We sent the Plumb after him.” Olennor volunteered, standing next to the Plumber in question. She gave the Lewodan a shove, prompting him to take up the explanation.

“I couldn't find them.” Arys informed the Osmosian. “Your son or Warden Rook. The gravity flow changed several meters below where they fell. It was moving fast. They would have been long gone before I even got down there.”

“You don't know that!” Aggregor grabbed the Plumber by the front of his uniform, pulling the Lewodan into his personal space, glaring into the alien's frost-blue eyes. “You didn't even try. None of you give a damn about Null Void settlers. It was inconvenient to look for him, so you just wrote him off as lost and gave up!”

“My commanding officer was also lost.” Arys reminded him. “You are not the only person here who's lost someone.”

“Are you comparing the loss of your boss to my son?” The Osmosian growled out, low and threatening.

The Lewodan swallowed, realizing his misstep too late to take it back. The loss of a colleague was nothing compared to the loss of a child.

“Shirahk is our brother.” Olennor reminded them. “We would not have written him off! But he's not as helpless as you like to think. He your powers, plus the form you lost when Kevin beat you. He can do things none of us can do. He's not dumb either. He knows we can't follow him, so he'll go somewhere familiar. Incarcecon is the smarted choice. And he'll probably beat us there since he'll be traveling lighter and he can fly. So leave the Lewodan alone. He's been helping us ever since the Way Bad attacked.”

Aggregor threw the Arys down, the Lewodan making a slightly squishy THUD on the ground. The Osmosian rounded on his younger daughter, fixing her with a scathing glare. “You defending Plumbs now, Olennor? I hadn't realized you and the cream-puff had gotten so close.”

“I'm not defending Plumbs.” She argued back. “You're just being ridiculous!”

“Your brother is lost out there alone!” Aggregor shouted at her.

“No he's not! He's got the Warden with him!” Olennor matched her father's pitch, shouting back.

“You don't know that!”

“Neither do you!”

“Both of you, shut up!” Aggrenna snarled at both of them. She fixed both her father and her sister with equally reprimanding glares as she bent down to help the Plumber up off the dirt. “While we're all here yelling at each other, Shirahk is out there trying to make his way through the Void -maybe alone! Now we can get our asses moving and meet him at the most likely place he'd go. Or we can stay here and continue to throw blame around for something that none of us had any control over!”

She continued to hold them both with her glare.

Unsurprisingly, Olennor was the first to look away. Aggrenna practically raised her after their mother passed away. Her and Shirahk, while their father wallowed in his own grief. It took Shirahk being kidnapped by Servantis and a solid punch to the face form Kevin to finally snap the Osmosian out of his funk. Aggrenna held her father's eyes longer. Challenging him. She usually differed to his years and experience, but where Shirahk was concerned, she was the more rational and level-headed.

Finally, the old man had to admit that she was right. Regardless of what he thought of their handling of the situation, there was nothing to be gained from standing around and arguing. If Aggregor was going to assume that his son was alive, conscious, and mobile, then the most likely place he would go would be Incarcecon.

“You haven't left me many options, girl.” He finally growled at his eldest.

“There weren't many options to begin with.” She shot back. Refusing to back down. “And stop calling me 'girl'. I have been cleaning up your messes since Mother died! I have been taking care of you, Shirahk, and everyone else and I deserve to be treated like the adult I am!”

There was a beat of silence.

Now Aggregor was the one that was glaring. Not at all pleased by the way his child was talking back to him. “Anything else?”

“Yeah!” Aggrenna snapped, on a bit of a roll. “The tents came loose when I unstrapped you. Make sure they're secure before we get moving.”

Shirahk was tired by the time they got to their target asteroid. The only reason the boy wasn't going to say he was 'exhausted' was because he still had enough energy to maintain his mutant form and fly. But Warden Rook was heavy in his arms, his own body felt heavy in the air, he was short of breath, and ready to collapse by the time he finally landed on solid rock. The young Osmosian dropped the Revonnahgander the moment the asteroid was under them.

Rook crouched on the hard rock and watched the boy breath hard, his body reverting back from his mutant form to his base state. Sweat beaded on the child's blue skin, his dark hair clinging to his neck and the sides of his face. He looked ready to collapse and the Revonnahgander felt a stab of guilt for pushing the young Osmosian so hard. But they had to get to this asteroid before it drifted too far.

Looking around, Rook assessed their surroundings.

The asteroid wasn't big, but it was large enough for the two of them to stretch out without getting in each other's way. Mostly hard rock, not much soft dirt or gravel. It would be uncomfortable to sleep on. But considering that this was the asteroid that was going to carry them on the next leg of their journey, sleep was probably the best thing they could do right now. To continue moving would take them farther from their goal, and sleep was what the boy needed right now.

“I will take the first watch if would like to rest.” Rook informed the boy.

Shirahk looked up at him, peeling a strand of sweat soaked hair away from his face. “I'm not a child. You don't have to take care of me.”

Except that he was a child, and he did need someone to take care of him. He might be an Osmosian like Kevin, and he might be the same age Kevin was when he was trapped in the Null Void. But unlike Kevin, Shirahk always had someone around to protect him. A parent, a sibling, the rest of the caravan. Shirahk might be an Osmosian lost in the Void, but he was not as independent as he liked to think.

Tactfully, Rook decided not to mention any of this. Instead, he decided to point out something very practical for a pair traveling the Void. “I will need you to keep watch when I am resting later.” He informed the boy. “It is wise for you to rest while you can, so that I can rest when I can.”

The boy blinked crimson eyes at him. “You'll trust me with guard duty?”

“We traveling companions, are we not?” The Revonnahgander offered him a friendly smile. “Travelers should trust their partners.”

He regretted his use of the word 'partner' the moment it was out of his mouth. It hadn't meant anything inside his head, but spoken aloud it reminded Rook of his lost partnership with Ben. How Ben trusted him, felt safe with him, and how Rook ruined that by taking advantage of the Hero while he was injured and mobile on a paramedic's stretcher. He took advantage of Ben's trust at a moment when the Earthling was most vulnerable and could not refuse -or give any response at all, really- and he lost his partner and his friend because of it.

Trying to push the uncomfortably intrusive thought from his mind, Rook turned his attention to looking out over the Voidscape. Without looking at Shirahk he commanded. “Try and get some rest. I will take the first watch.”

Nodding, Shirahk laid down on the hard rock of the asteroid. It was probably the most uncomfortable surface a being could sleep on. But they didn't have any bedrolls or sleeping pads with them. All the traveling gear was left with the caravan. All they had was what was on them when they fell.

The Osmosian took off his over-robe, wadded the fabric up into a ball, and used it as a pillow. Laying down, he rolled and turned for several moments trying to find the least uncomfortable position to lay on the hard rock. Finally, his exhaustion overrode his discomfort and the boy fell into an uneasy sleep. Rook watched Shirahk breath for a few moments, making sure the child was actually sleeping, before his turned his attention to his guard duty.

It didn't feel like the asteroid was moving, even though he knew it must be. Everything moved in the Null Void.

Other asteroids drifted past on their own paths, the mottled hues of scarlet and crimson of the sky swirled and undulated like fog. Far away distant fog that didn't impede visibility, was still thick and undulated like mist. Rook never really took the time to notice that the 'sky' of the Null Void looked like clouds or fog, but unlike clouds and fog they could never be passed through or even reached. Over his past decade spent in the Void, and all the times he'd visited it before with Ben, they had never reached the edge of sky where the red clouds swirled. The Null Void was not infinite. It was very, very finite. A pocket dimension. So, one would imagine that it had an edge. A wall. A barrier. A shell.

Rook had never actually been to the Shell.

He wondered if Kevin had ever been to the edge of the Void during any of his travels. Of everyone on Ben's Team, Kevin Levin had spent the most time in the Null Void. Both as a Plumber and a prisoner. Had Kevin ever found the Shell? Had he brought Ben?

Ben went on so many adventures and did so many extraordinary things long before Rook ever inserted himself in his life. Would Ben have even thought of Rook at all in the ten years they'd been apart? Or was the Revonnahgander ever far from his mind? Ben always seemed so jumpy and uncomfortable whenever he was around. Rook would go in for a 'long time no see' hug and Ben would pull away as if afraid. The Revonnahgander tried to respect the Earthling's boundaries. So much to the point now that if Ben entered the room, Rook would leave it. The last thing he wanted was for Ben to feel uncomfortable around. Rook wanted to make sure he never did. Ben couldn't feel uncomfortable around him if he never was around him.

That was kind of why he took the position in the Null Void. A sort of self-imposed banishment. Not just remove himself from Ben's Team and from Earth, but from real space all together. Lower the chances of them crossing paths in the chaos of universe-threatening missions that my or may not crossover. Live in the Null Void, where Ben threw all his other unwanted waste.

Osmosians, mutated To'kustar, rogue Plumbers, and any number of other villains and monsters the Hero had banished over the years.

Speaking of Osmosians, Shirahk gave a small whimper in his sleep. Rook looked over to make sure the boy was okay and saw that he was curled in on himself, brows knitted together, and twitching in his sleep. Some kind of nightmare. Looks like even Osmosians that had been relatively sheltered, with stable and loving families had their fair share of dark dreams and shadows in their pasts -maybe even full blown trauma? Rook checked the chronometer on his badge. He'd been lost in thought for longer than he realized, but not long enough to give the boy some decent rest. Should he wake him from his nightmare?

If the Revonnahgander tried to wake Kevin from one of his nightmares, he'd get a metal fist to the face. Sometimes it was better to let sleeping Osmosians lay.

Rook stood there for a few moments longer, watching the boy jerk and whimper.

Sometimes it was better to let sleeping Osmosians lay, other times it was also better to wake traumatized children from their nightmares. He knelt next to the boy and put a strong hand on his shoulder, giving a reassuring squeeze. It had little effect. Rook didn't know how heavy or light a sleeper Shirahk was, so he gave the boy's shoulder a little shake, then another when he still didn't wake. On the third shake, though, Shirahk's body jerked. He let out a wordless cry of distress, one arm lashing out.

The heel of the Osmosian's hand collided with the side of the Revonnahgander's face as the boy catapulted awake.

Rook leaned back, his own hand going to the side of his face to cradle what would definitely become a bruise under his fur. He blinked at the boy. Guess it really was better to just let sleeping Osmosians lay.

Shirahk blinked too. At the heel of his hand, at the asteroid around them, at the Revonnahgander. It took him a few moments to remember why his family wasn't around and why he was sleeping on an empty asteroid with a Plumber he barely knew.

“Sorry.” He looked away.

“I am fine.” Rook assured him. “Are you... alright?”

“Yeah. Fine.” The boy stood. Unrolling the wad of fabric that was his over-robe, Shirahk slipped it back over his shoulders. “Is it my watch now?”

“I do not yet require rest. If you are still tired I can continue while you go back to sleep.” The Revonnahgander informed him.

This did not have the desired affect of helping the boy to relax after his nightmare. In fact, it just seemed to make him angry. “I'm not helpless. I don't need to be taken care of and protected all the time, okay! I can pull my own weight!”

“I did not say you could not.” Rook clarified.

“You don't have to say it.” Shirahk growled. “You're acting like I can't. You're tying to take care of me. Just like father. I'm not a helpless baby. I don't need to be protected. I don't even remember when I was kidnapped by the Rooters. My nightmares aren't even nightmares, they're just feelings! I don't need more rest and I don't need you hovering over me like Father or my sisters!”

There was a beat of silence. That was probably more information than the boy intended to share.

Rook remembered when Shirahk mentioned that all Osmosians knew where the Rooters base was. That Servantis was 'kinda obsessed with them'. So, the young Osmosian had been kidnapped by the Rooters. Either when he was too young to form conscious memory of it, or else it had been so traumatic that the memory was blocked.

The Revonnahgander sat down. “I am not sleepy. You said this asteroid will carry us where we need to go. It appears that we have a surplus of time and little else to do. Would you like to talk?”

“No.” The boy was quick to answer. Sounding very much like Kevin in that exact moment. Of the small group of Osmosians that he'd met, Rook had to admit, they were all very similar to one another.

“I will tell you why I chose the Null Void deployment.” Rook offered.

“Why should I care why you chose to come to the Void?” Shirahk demanded. He was still putting up a hostile front, but the Osmosian sat down next to him anyway.

“Then we do not have to talk at all.” Rook concluded. Kevin didn't like to talk about his feelings either. But the Osmosian did appreciate companionable silence.

'Osmosian' was a mutation, not a race unto itself. But maybe they did share some unifying traits. They did not have to talk. Rook just had to help the boy feel at ease, like he wasn't alone.

As they sat, waiting for the asteroid to carry them to the next leg of their journey, his thoughts turned back to Ben. What was Ben doing right now? Had he even noticed that Rook had been off coms and missing for days now? Would he even care?

Chapter Text

Ben was napping on a cot in Max's office when the door banged open and Kevin barged in. “Max! I need-! Tennyson? The fucking are you doing here?”

Almost falling off of the cot as he jerked awake, it took Ben several moments to wake up enough to process what was happening. He blinked at Kevin in the doorway. All geared up, wearing his proto-tech armor like he was ready for a fight. Ben hadn't seen the Osmosian in his proto-tech armor almost since the day Gwendolyn let him out of her library. He didn't even wear the standard issue Plumbers uniform to work most days. Since he spent all his time processing documents behind a desk, Kevin usually came in, in normal civies -jeans and t-shirts. To see him back in his black proto-tech armor -his Rooters armor, his Kevin 11,000 armor- was a little concerning.

“You gone nutty on me again, or something?” Ben groaned, climbing to his feet and wiping sleep from his eyes. He was not in the mood to deal with the Osmosian”s shit today. “Dude, ya gotta make up your mind. Are you a bad guy? Are you a good guy? Are you Chaotic Neutral? 'Cause all this side-switching shenanigans is killing me!”

The Osmosian ignored his commentary. “Where's your grandpa?” He demanded. “I need him to sign off that I'm okay for fieldwork and active combat.”

Ben blinked at his frienemy, taking another look at him. He seemed perfectly lucid and rational. Upon a second glance, the Hero of the Universe noted a datapad held in the Osmosian's hand. Presumably the documents Max needed to sign in order for Kevin to work active cases and be allowed to participate in volatile situations. Ben lifted his eyes from the Osmosian's hand back to his face. Kevin looked hurried and maybe a little frantic.

Kevin had been 'under review' for a year now with no movement on his clearance and privileges. Now all of a sudden he needed Max to sign off on him right away.

“Why? What happened?” Ben asked.

For half a second it seemed like Kevin hesitated. Ben had never known the Osmosian to withhold bad news from him. Kevin loved ruining Ben's day! Even the good version of Kevin. But he paused before asking, “Have you heard from Rook since the last time we talked?”

“You mean since you shoved me against a records shelf and stormed out, leaving me to clean up your mess?” Ben clarified. “No. I haven't. Why?”

That only seemed to confirm something for the Osmosian. He turned and marched right back out of the office without explaining anything, and shouting through the corridors. “Hey, has anyone seen Max!?”

Something that felt suspiciously like fear tightened around the Hero's stomach and Ben found himself following Kevin out of the office before he was consciously aware he'd made the decision. “Wait, what's this about Rook?”

But the Osmosian was ignoring him. Kevin stopped Molly Gunther in the corridor. “Hey, you seen Max around?”

She paused, looking him up and down. Nothing that he was wearing his proto-tech armor for the first time in a year, looked hurried and impatient, and Ben was close on his heels behind him.

“Trouble?” She asked, coming to the only logical conclusion. Her eyes flicked to Ben behind him, taking her cues from the Hero of the Universe on how to respond to Kevin 11,000. Ben looked confused, not concerned. So, Kevin likely hadn't relapsed. Then why was he all geared up for a fight?

“I don't know.” Ben admitted from over the Osmosian's shoulder.

“Guys! I just need to see Max!” Kevin snarled, throwing his arms up, inadvertently flashing the screen of his datapad so that both of them could clearly see it.

It was, indeed, a field certification form. The glimpse was too fast for either of them to reading the Plumber's name on the form, but Kevin would give a shit if it was anyone besides himself. It had to be Kevin's certification by simple grace of the fact of how insistent he was that it get done.

“He's in the lab with Blukic and Driba.” Gunther supplied.

The Osmosian brushed past her without so much as a 'thank you', marching toward the labs with a pace that could only be described as 'driven'. Ben followed him. Likewise squeezing past Gunther. Except he was polite enough to at least mutter a quick 'thanks' as he did a little sprint to keep up with his frienemy's faster stride.

As Gunther said, they found Max in the lab. He was leaning over what looked like one of the latest models of Robucket at the Galvan techs stripped its outer casing to expose the circuitry inside. The old man looked up when the Osmosian burst into the room, Ben half a step behind him.

Max's eyes flicked from Kevin to his grandson behind him. “Trouble?”

Kevin ignored the casually subtle accusation that he might be the trouble, and crossed the space to the older man. He thrust the datapad at Max. “I need your signature on this.”

Calmly, very calmly, the kind of forced calm that one uses when talking down terrorists or negotiating for hostages, Max took the datapad Kevin all but threw at him. He held the Osmosian with a cautious eye for a moment longer before actually looking down at the document displayed on the screen. He read over it. Noticed all that the fields had already been filled out, all except his signature. Then Max scrolled to the next document. Then the third one. They were all similarly already filled out except for his name and thumb print.

“Kevin,” the old man pinched the bridge of his nose, “I'm supposed to be the one to fill theses out for you.”

“Its taking so long, I thought you might need the help.” The Osmosian informed him.

Max frowned at him. “You do understand why I'm reluctant to let you back out in the field, right?” He asked, voice even and serious. “Every time you're in a tight situation, you absorb too much energy and lose yourself.”

“That is not true.” The Osmosian shot back, only sounding a little bit like a petulant child arguing with a parent. “On actual missions, I have absorbed the Omnitirx and gone gone crazy only twice, and the second time I wasn't even crazy. I was just faking it. Most of the time when I'm on missions I'm a bomb-ass member of the team. In fact, I am one of your very best action guys. You're shooting yourself in the foot by holding me captive here at headquarters.”

Pausing, Max regarded the younger man very calmly. Looking him up and down. The proto-tech armor that Kevin hadn't worn in a year he already noted. Now Max was noticing the subtler details. The hard set of his jaw. The tension behind his eyes. The Osmosian had waited patiently for a year now for Max to decide he was, indeed, trustworthy again and be allowed to return to his old role and responsibilities. For a year, Kevin, the notoriously impatient wildcard, had waited patiently. This wasn't the Osmosian's normal impatience. This was urgency. Kevin needed Max to approve him for field work and combat right now for a reason.

Holding Kevin's gaze, Max asked slowly, “What's happened?”

“He just barged into your office shouting for you.” Ben volunteered, at even getting close to the kind of answer his grandfather was looking for.

“I meant, what happened to spark this?” Max rephrased his question, still holding his attention fixed on the Osmosian. “You've been uncharacteristically patient and -dare I say it- calm this past year. Now, all of a sudden, you're half-panicked and demanding I return your field and combat privileges.”

“I'm not half panicked!” Kevin quickly denied.

Max just held him with a glare.

“You are kinda panicky.” Ben agreed.

“I'm not panicking!” The Osmosian bellowed at him. “I'm just trying to do this Max's way instead of rushing off on my own like I usually do! But if you don't wanna work with me here, fine! I'll see you when I get back!”

He turned around to march right back out of the lab.

Ben moved to block his exit. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” He threw his arms up in front of his long-time frienemy. “Just tell us what's going on! Why do you have to rush off with or without our approval? What's the emergency?”

The Osmosian set his teeth and exhaled with a sound Ben was not going to admit was a growl. He glared at the Hero of the Universe, but did not try to push past him. Finally, Kevin began a clumsy explanation. “You say you haven't heard from Rook since the last time he was here. I haven't been able to reach him on his badge. The asshat they've got running the coms at Plumbers Headquarters in the Null Void is being tight-lipped and evasive. Something's wrong. Something's wrong with Rook, and I need to find out what.”

The change in Ben's attitude was instantaneous. His face falling from firm, determined Hero, ready to stand his ground and prevent a crazy Osmosian from rushing off half-cocked. Brows were raised as his eyes went wide. Lips parted as his mouth fell open. Feet shifted as his posture changed. Shoulders dropped with his arms. Ben's whole demeanor went from 'ready to punch Kevin in the face' to concerned and worried for his former partner.

“Rook's in trouble?” He asked, sounding very much like the helpless child in capable of doing anything without his partner that he used to be.

“I don't know Rook's in trouble.” Kevin clarified. “I think Rook's in trouble. I was going to head over to the Null Void base to see what the fuck is actually going on. But like hell am I going back into the Void without the Plumbers support! Or at the very least compensation. As much as you assholes like to trap me in the Void, I don't wanna make it any easier for you.”

For the second time in as many minutes Ben's entire demeanor changed. He shifted from worried and unsure helpless child who needs his partner, to determined and capable Hero with a goal. “I'll go with you.”

“Now hang on a minute!” Max stopped them.

“Rook's in trouble!” Ben was inexplicably breathless for some reason. Almost as if he were the one who was panicking now. Kevin regarded him out of the corner of his eyes but said nothing. The younger man had been oddly fixated on Rook recently. Given that, this sudden turn into hysterics wasn't too strange. After all, 'hysterical' was one of Ben three base moods. “I have to save him!”

“You don't know that.” Max reminded his grandson, remaining a pillar of calmness and bringing a voice of reason to the group. “Kevin said he thought Rook's in trouble, not that he knows Rook's in trouble. That doesn't actually mean anything's wrong. I'll call Plumbers Headquarters in the Null Void. I have a higher security clearance than the two of you. They'll talk to me.”

He pushed past both men and made his way through the corridors back to his office.

Ben and Kevin followed him, but the office door was slammed in their faces before they could enter.

Kevin crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the opposite wall. “I can't believe he still doesn't trust me!”

“I mean... you did betray his granddaughter and kidnap his first great-grandchild.” Be reminded him. Sure it had been over a decade since then and Gwendolyn was fine now, and Devlin was back with the family. But it still happened. Kevin still did it. No amount of time was going to erase that. “He might never forgive you.”

“I'm not asking Max to forgive me.” The Osmosian snapped at the Hero of the Universe. “I'm asking him to trust me enough to do my fucking job! I may be an ornery bastard, but I'm good at my job. He's weakening the force by keeping me benched like this.”

Ben opened his mouth, as if to argue. But he closed it again without saying anything. The worst time Kevin went bad was not when he was on a mission. In fact, he wasn't even on active duty back then either. He was on paternity leave, helping Gwendolyn take care of the newborn Devlin. Devlin was feeding off her and Gwendolyn kept getting weaker and weaker. So, Kevin finally resolved to get the baby away from her. In the middle of the night, the Osmosian took his son out of the house. Ben tried to stop him, and in the ensuing confrontation Kevin absorbed the Omnitrix again. Ten-thousand aliens this time, plus the power of the device itself.

Keeping Kevin confined to desk duty wouldn't prevent him from absorbing too much and becoming a liability again. If it was going to happen again, it would happen. No matter what anyone did or tried to prevent it. Max might as well let Kevin come back to work. As much as Ben didn't like to admit it, it seemed like his grandfather was just being petty by keeping Kevin out of the field.

“I do miss working with you.” Ben finally said. “You and Rook both.”

He cast a meaningful look at the Osmosian. But Kevin just looked away and scoffed. Sometimes Ben could be just so damn touchy-feely.

The door to Max's office opened and the old man stepped back out, looking grim.

Kevin and Ben straightened.

Max held the datapad out to the Osmosian. He looked tired. No. That wasn't right. Not tired. Resigned. Max looked resigned as he passed the datapad back to Kevin. “I signed the forms. Run them down to Inhuman Resources, then meet me and Ben in the Null Void chamber.”

Kevin nodded, understanding. He took the datapad and left.

Ben watched his retreating back, unsure about the implications of what he'd just witnessed. “What is it? What's going on? Is there something wrong with Rook!?”

Max placed his prosthetic hand on his grandson's shoulder, the metal feeling cold even through the fabric of his shirt. Ben was already imagining the worst before his grandfather even spoke.

“Rook's been missing for a week.”

For half a second, if felt like the world stopped. Something tight wrapped itself around the inside of Ben's chest and he forgot to breath. It had been years since he'd spoken to Rook. Like, really spoken to him. Like a friend. The few times they had seen each other, they talked about Plumbers business or nothing at all. But even so, the were partners for son long... Ben relied on Rook so much... Ben needed Rook so much...

He thought about how Rook had been avoiding him recently. Always fleeing the room whenever Ben entered it. Like a kicked puppy afraid to be hurt again. He remembered the look on Rook's face when Ben first first brought the Null Egg containing Kevin 11,000 to him to ask his advice as Warden of the Void. It was so long since they last saw each other. Rook went in for a hug. Just an innocent 'its been a long time' hug, and Ben pulled away. The Revonnahgander tried to hide it, but Ben saw. He was hurt. A decade later and Rook was still hurting from his rejection.

...And the fact that Rook was hurting made Ben hurt too.

He didn't really want to pause long enough to really analyze why that might be. But he did know that Rook would never have even been in the Null Void if it weren't for his rejection in the first place.Taking the deployment in the Null Void was Rook's way of putting as much distance between himself and his former partner as possible, and maybe, a way to forget. Bury his feelings in hardship and survival. The dimensional-space equivalent of the 'French Foreign Legion'. Rook would not be in the Null Void if it wasn't for Ben.

Rook would not be missing if it wasn't for Ben.

Grandpa Max was talking...

“...Since Kevin has more experience in the Null Void than any other Plumber, I'm sending him in to assess the situation.”

Ben blinked. He missed the first part of that.

Max seemed not to notice. “I imagine you'll want to go with him. Rook did used to be your partner after all.”

Ben didn't know what he wasn't in the Null Void chamber already.

His feet felt rooted to the stop. His chest felt tight. Ben experienced a weird kind of tunnel vision, eyes focused on Max's mouth as he continued to explain the situation, or suggest search and rescue strategies, or whatever noise was coming out of his mouth. Ben didn't actually hear it. He didn't understand why his body wasn't moving.

He never hesitated before.

Whenever a friend or loved one was in danger, Ben never failed to rush off half-cocked on a poorly thought out and sloppily executed rescue mission. It was his specialty.

So why was he hesitating now?

Unbidden, his mind conjured up a hazy memory from the night Devlin was kidnapped. Him, laying on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance after getting a uniquely savage -almost near fatal- beating from the newly mutated Kevin 10,001. It was foggy and indistinct. Between the head trauma and the pain killers Ben had been really out of it. But he remembered Rook leaning over him... leaning down... and kissing his lips.

He never would have expected that. Not from Rook.

Certainly not during a time when he was incapable of refusing.

That was it. That was the problem. That was what was holding him back. It wasn't that Rook was another guy. It wasn't that Ben was married at the time, or that he's still married now. It was that Rook chose that moment, when Ben was at his most vulnerable, to -not confess feelings- but take physical advantage.

Ben looked down at his feet.

Rook made him feel betrayed.

Betrayed in a way that was different from all the many and multiple ways Kevin ever betrayed him.

That was why Ben pulled away when Rook went in for an innocent and friendly hug after they hadn't seen each other in ten years.

But... as betrayed as Ben felt, he still missed Rook. Rook was easily the best partner he's ever had. As calm and intelligent as Gwendolyn, a competent mechanic and knowledgeable about alien economics like Kevin, and as capable a fighter as both. Rook was perfect. Rook was the best! But more than that, Rook was his best friend. Had been his best friend.

As hurt as Ben was... as shocked and confused as it made him... As weak as it made him feel...

After over ten years, the thing that hurt the most now, was that he'd lost his best friend.

Rook was missing. Maybe dead. And if he died, then... then there was no chance of them ever reconciling.

That realization hit the Hero of the Universe like punch from a fully mutated Kevin 11,000. If Rook died they're never reconcile what happened. If Rook died, he'd never get his best friend back.

That realization was the thing that finally got him moving.

“You're wasting time!” He shouted, more at himself than at Grandpa Max.

Before Ben was even consciously aware that he was running, his feet had already carried him to the Null Void chamber. Kevin was just entering from another door off to the side and the two men almost collided with each other.

“Whoa! Fuck, Tennyson! What is your glitch!?”

“Kevin! Rook!” Ben shouted, having trouble forming complete sentences for some reason.

“Yeah...?” The Osmosian raised an eyebrow.

Ben grabbed him by the hand. “We have to save Rook!”

“That was sorta my plan.” Kevin informed him. He shifted his eyes from the hysterical Hero to Max just entering the Null Void chamber after him. “So, I was right. Rook is in trouble.”

Nodding, Max moved past the two younger men and to the Null Void controls. He dialed up the coordinates for the Plumbers Headquarters in the pocket dimension.

“I approved you for field missions and combat because you're the most experienced when it comes to the Null Void.” Max paused to see if Kevin was going to take the opportunity to remind them that he was only so experienced in the Null Void because they kept trapping him there. But he did not. Oh, he wanted to. Max could see it in the way he grit his teeth and glared sideways at Ben. But the Osmosian didn't say anything. So Max continued. “The Null Void Team has already conducted their own search and turned up nothing. After so long, the chances of actually finding him are very slim. The only reason I'm letting you go is because I know I can't stop either of you, so I might as well help in whatever way I can.”

“Thanks.” Kevin managed.

“Lets go then!” Ben barked, voice unnecessarily loud.

With a grim nod, Max pressed the button that would teleport both men into the Null Void. “I told Magister Chaz you'd be coming.”

They were enveloped in gold light as Max and the Null Void chamber faded from their field of vision. They were wrapped up in a wash of gold. Kevin felt himself sigh at just how familiar it felt. Being teleported into the Null Void. It was almost as familiar and uncomfortable as waking up in the morning. When the gold light faded, they were no longer standing in the Null Void chamber of Ben's Headquarters on Earth, but instead the teleporter chamber of an entirely different Plumbers base.

Kevin looked at the red sky drifting outside the high windows. A swirling, mottled, horizonless expanse of scarlet, crimson, and cherry. He sighed again. Rook managed to get him back in the Null Void after all.

As Max said, they were met by one of the Plumbers of the Null Void team.

Ben recognized him instantly as the one who answered the com when he called before. “Oh, hey, I know you. We spoke a couple days ago.”

“Its an honor to meet you.” Magister Chaz held out his hand for Ben to shake.

Kevin loomed next to the Hero of the universe. He never actually got to see Magister Chaz, but he recognized the man's voice. “Hey, asshole, remember me?”

Chaz swallowed a lump of nerves that had formed in his throat and lowered his hand before Ben 10,000 could shake it. “You- you're Kevin 11,000.”

“That's right.” A shameless smirk pulled at his lips. The Osmosian might not have his 11,000 aliens anymore, but he still enjoyed the infamy the title brought him. The fear it inspired. And the power that both gave him. Kevin 11,000 was a legend, and legends were more powerful than any living hero. “You wouldn't tell me shit before. Are you gonna talk to me now?”

Chaz swallowed again.

Ben gave the Osmosian a reprimanding swat on the shoulder. “Stop scaring the poor guy! Remember: we're here to help Rook.”

“Right.” Kevin fixed Chaz with a piercing glare. “So, what did happen to Rook?”

Unconsciously, Magister Chaz took a step back. Even as a Plumber again, even as a 'good guy' and a member of Ben's Team again, Magister Levin was terrifying. If he was this imposing and intimidating right now, what must he have been like when he was Kevin 11,000? Chaz was glad he never saw the Osmosian in action at the hight of his reign in the Void.

He cleared his throat, finding it had gone very dry in the presence of two of some of the most famous names in Plumber history. “Over a hundred and sixty hours ago, Warden Rook along with two other Magisters went out on a standard ranging and mapping mission. They radioed when they managed to set a new mapping node, then vanished. We've been unable to reach any of them on the coms, and the search part I sent out to look for them found their THV destroyed. They have expanded the search area, but thus far, have had no more success.”

Ben 10,000 looked worried.

Kevin 11,000 looked annoyed.

“Show me where they vanished.” Commanded the Osmosian.

Magister Chaz was quick to comply. He pulled up a hologram of the map of the Null Void they had so far. Kevin glared at it disapprovingly. It was only about half the Void, and not even the more dangerous half. The map was a joke. The Null Void team seemed to be a joke too. No wonder Rook wanted him to join. He needed Kevin to whip these losers into shape!

“We received their last communication from here.” Chaz adjusted a dial on the projector and the zoomed in on a portion of the map.

Kevin noted it. “Pull back to the full map and show me what the voidscape looked like at the time.”

Not wanting to incur the wrath of the King in the Void, Chaz complied. Reversing the rotations and drifts of the asteroid they had mapped until they were all in the same positions from Rook's last communication.

“Now play it forward.” The Osmosian ordered.

His eyes narrowed as he watched the asteroids shift, and drift. He noted that the point where Rook was last heard from rotated farther away from the Plumbers base. While other asteroids drifted closer, and others shifted positions yet managed to remain at more or less a constant distance from anything important. It gave Kevin a good idea of how Rook should have traveled if he were smart. If he knew the Void well enough. But Kevin didn't know if Rook new the Void as well as he did. On top of that, Rook's map was incomplete. He might not even know where exactly he was going or coming from.

“This is it?” Kevin asked. “This is all you have?”

“Well, yeah.” Chaz said as if he didn't even know what else might be needed.

Kevin looked at the map again. He noted that they had Incarcecon marked on the map, as well as a few other smaller villages, farms, and holdfasts they had encountered. But it was a very small percentage of the groups that lived in the Null Void. There were far more hostiles and out-right enemies in the Null Void than they had marked. Hell! They didn't even have the Rooters. Or the mutant To'kustar movements. What if Rook's ranging mission brought him close to enemy territory? He could have been attacked and killed. Or eaten by a Way Bad.

These Null Void Plumbers were useless.

“Yeah, this isn't gonna work.” Kevin turned around and walked back to the teleporter controls. He keyed in the coordinates that would take them back to Plumbers Headquarters, Earth.

“Wait! What are you doing!?” Ben demanded as Kevin grabbed him and dragged him into the golden glow.

Max blinked at them. “What are you doing back?”

Kevin ignored him. He was keying in an entirely different destination for the Null Void teleporter. The machine gave him a warning that it was no longer a valid location, but he overrode it and forced the machine to accept the destination. Then the Osmosian was once again grabbing Ben and dragging him into the yellow light of the teleporter.

This time, when the glow faded, it was not a paneled and polished Plumbers Headquarters they found themselves in.

It was dimly lit, with no windows. Underground maybe? Walls of stone with stairs and catwalks fixed into the stone. It took Ben several moments to recognize the place. It had been over two decades since he was last here. But after staring for a bit, his brain finally called up a memory of the place, and the name that belonged to it.


Kevin had teleported them directly into the Free and Independent Fortress of Incarcecon.

“I'm back, bitches!”

Chapter Text

Gwendolyn met her son just as he was coming out of his therapist's office.

The boy paused, blinking at her. She hadn't felt the need to pick Devlin up from either therapy or school since he was deemed safe to attend public school with other children again. “I thought you'd be having dinner with Dad tonight.”

“Your father canceled on me.” She informed him without inflection. It was impossible for the young Osmosian to tell if she was upset or not for being canceled on. “He said it was a matter of life and death. So, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to get a head start on your magical training!”

But when she said that, she was beaming from ear to ear. Truly excited about the prospect of her son following in her footsteps. Learning magic. Becoming as much of a scholar as a warrior. Devoting as much time to his education as he did punching bad guys.

Devlin, for his part, was just a little suspicious. As overprotective and paranoid about him getting hurt or taken from her again as Gwendolyn really was, she seemed to agree to teaching him magic just a little too easily. The other day, he managed to prove that he had enough aptitude to at least use mana, even if he didn't have any of his own. Devlin would have thought she would have used his natural lack of potent mana as an excuse to block him. Keep him from getting mixed up in forces he didn't yet understand and could be dangerous. But instead she was ready to take him by the hand and pull him down the path herself.

He was suspicious. But the Osmosian wasn't going to turn away the opportunity she was offering. Learning from the High Magus would sure be a heck of a lot better than sneaking behind her back to lean what he could from independent study. “Okay, so where do we start?”

“Where all magical journeys must begin.” She smiled, holding the passenger side door open for him. “At the library.”

As it turned out, when Gwendolyn said 'the' library, what she actually meant was her library.

Devlin couldn't help but pause outside the doors. The last time he came to this building, he found his way into his mother's secret hideout underneath it and walked in on her exorcising his father of all his aliens and surplus energy. Gwendolyn never told him that that was her big project and she got angry that she was spending so much time with Kevin. Gwendolyn was upset that he left the lecture she'd left him in in leu of a babysitter. Kevin was angry that Devlin was even there at all. All around, everyone was angry about something.

So it was understandable that the young Osmosian was hesitant to go back in.

“Oh, this is so exciting!” His mother exclaimed before taking him by the hand and pulling him up the library stairs and inside. “I already know all the books I'm gonna start you off on!”

She lowered her voice the moment they were inside and started pulling tomes and volumes from the shelves. Devlin didn't even have the chance to put his bag down before his mother was stacking heavy magical texts in his arms, reading off each of their titles as she piled them on top of one another. “Let's see... 'A History of Magic', obviously. 'Magical Theory', 'Dark Forces: A Guide to Self-Protection'. Hm, better throw in 'Magical Safety and Procedures' too. 'Color of Magic', 'Equal Rites', 'Good Omens', 'Wizard at Large'... I guess I should throw in the 'Standard Book of Spells volume 1', just to make sure you're well-rounded.”

Devlin was holding nine books, each as thick as a Frank Herbert novel, and probably twice as dense. He groaned under their weight. “Sure you don't wanna throw on two more? Make it lucky number eleven.”

To his great horror, she seemed to seriously consider this idea. Then turned her attention back to the book shelves and did select two more tomes. 'Cultural Appropriation in Use of Magical Totems', and 'So You Think You Can Cast: A Non-Magic Users Guide to Magic'.

The Osmosian's arms threatened to give out under their added weight and he transformed into his mutant for just to keep from either dropping them all or collapsing.

“Aren't you gonna start me off on the Archamada?” Devlin asked from behind an armful of books that -even in his taller and larger mutant form- managed to block his face from view.

“Gosh, no!” Gwendolyn sounded almost horror struck when she said that. “The Archamada is full of dangerous spells!”

A few students looked up from their textbooks and notations to shoot questioning looks at the High Magus whom had just raised her voice, in a library, to state the obvious, to a child that was definitely not collage aged and out of place on a magical campus.

“But wasn't that the book you started on?” The Osmosian pressed, ignoring the other people in the library.

“Well, yes.” His mother had to admit. “But it was just by pure happen chance that I also got the Charm of Bezel for Luck around the same time, so nothing too terrible happened to me. You could say I was a very... Lucky Girl.”

Devlin groaned. Loudly. Other students in the library shot him dirty looks.

Gwendolyn grinned from ear to ear.

“Is making bad puns a requirement for masked vigilante work?” He asked. “If so, I quit right now.”

“No, no, no. Of course it's not a requirement.” She was quick to assure him. “But it does help. If you're puns are effective enough, the bad guys will just cringe themselves into submission.”

The Osmosian scoffed and set the stack of books down on the nearest study table that wasn't already occupied by a collage student giving him and his mother curious or judgy looks. “Next you'll be telling me that the most affective finishing move is a dab.”

“Oh, no. The dab should only be used as an opening move. For a finishing move you yeet.”

“I'm leaving.” He abandoned the books stacked on the table and started walking back to the library entrance.

Gwendolyn grabbed his shoulder. “Wait, wait. Okay. I'll stop. But you can't blame your dorky old mother for having just a little fun.”

With an exhale sound that could have just as easily been a huff as much as a sigh, Devlin sat down at the table and began spreading out the tall stack of books. From out of his messenger bag, he pulled out his e-reader and opened up a typing app. “I guess you want to start reading and taking notes.”

“For a start.” She nodded. “But not with that.”

Devlin blinked at her in confusion when she pulled the tablet out of his hands, put the device back to sleep, and slipped it back in his bag. From out of her own purse she pulled a normal and mundane notebook. Spiral bound and college ruled. “Magical notes should always be written by hand.”

Hesitantly, the Osmosian took the notebook. It looked so normal. It was hard to believe she was insisting it was a better vessel for storing magical knowledge than his tablet. It looked like any generic notebook you could pick up at a Dollar Tree or 99 Cent Store. Devlin reaching into the messenger bag again and pulled out a pen. “Is a clicky pen okay, or should I find a quill and dipping ink?”

“Your pen is fine.” She assured him. “Start with 'History of Magic', then move onto 'A Non-Magic Users Guide'. I've got some research of my own to do, so I'll be around. But for the most part, we're gonna make this an independent study night. Okay? I'll come back to collect you in a couple hours. Its a school night, so I won't let you spend the whole night here.”

She left him to the pile of books that surrounded him.

Devlin watched his mother's retreating back for a few moments before heaving a sigh and cracking open 'A History of Magic'. Studying wasn't his favorite thing in the world, but he did want to learn to use mana. Anything that would let him keep doing what he wanted to do without using his mutant form. Besides, boring book-work and tedium aside, the Osmosian knew he could do it because he'd already done it. Or, he knew he would do it. He'd been to the future and seen himself wielding magic. This was just a slow start.

Head down, bent over the books, Devlin settled in for at least two hours of reading dull histories and technical manuals.

Somehow, 'a couple' hours turned into three hours. Devlin only noticed because he leaned back in his chair to stretch and noticed the there were considerably fewer students occupying the desks and tables around him. He looked at his watch and noted that it was considerably later than his mother usually let him stay up on a school night.

Looking around, a lot of the students studying looked like they were up past their bedtimes too. Sucking down cups of coffee like it was the water of life, shoulders hunched, holding heads up with hands, possibly sleeping with eyes open while they drooled on their notes. Collage looked like murder. How did people actually get through four (plus) years of this?

A swishing sound make the Osmosian turn his head and Devlin saw the Friedkin grounds keeper, or janitor, or whatever the heck he was supposed to be, dusting shelves. Gwendolyn called him 'Bezel', but he said he was just 'Scuffy, the Janitor'.

Feeling someone's eyes on him, 'Scruffy' turned to look at the Osmosian. Then went right back to his dusting, as if the boy didn't even matter. “Aren't you a bit young to be going to this school?”

“Aren't you a bit old to be working this late?” He shot back. Weren't old people supposed to go to bed at five in the afternoon. It was past 10pm.

“Still full of piss and vinegar, I see.”

“Still talking so no one can understand you, I see.” Devlin smirked. The Osmosian didn't really like most people as a general rule, and he liked people he didn't know very well even less. But he liked the Friedkin janitor for some reason. For an old guy, he wasn't really like the rest of the adults he knew. He didn't look at Devlin like someone who had to be taken care of, he looked at Devlin like he was any other individual. Responsible for his own actions and decisions.

The old man turned around to look at the boy from over the rim of his glasses. Not in a condescending way, but more of a 'I forgot you didn't grow up on Earth' sort of way. “Saying someone is 'full of piss and vinegar' is a fairly common saying. Its a way of saying someone is rowdy, bold, or lacking respect.”

Devlin reached into his messenger bag and pulled out his e-reader. “According to Urban Dictionary it means 'energetic and vigorous'.”

Scruffy snorted. “You start fact-checking casual conversations now?”

“Not all of them.” Devlin smiled, resting an elbow in the desk. “Just ones I have with cryptic old men who talk in riddles.”

“Smart as well as sassy.” The old man shook his head. “The worst kind of combination in a person, but also the best traits you could have gotten from those two.”

Bezel set his duster down on the book shelf. An old fashion feather-duster like the kind from Beauty and the Beast -Disney version. The duster lifted itself up, twisted its handle as if the give the old man an incensed look, then drifted away along the shelf, dusting the books under its own power. Bezel pulled out an empty chair and sat down next to Devlin. He pulled the book the Osmosian had been taking notation from and gave it a curious glance.

“Let's see what the High Magus has you on.” Holding the boy's place with his thumb, the old man flipped the front cover to read the title. “'A Non-Magic Users Guide'?” His nose wrinkled in distaste. “So, she's got you playing it safe, huh.”

Devlin wouldn't go so far as to say he already knew that, but he had a feeling. His mother would not have been so easy to convince to let him study magic, nor would she have left him alone if she thought anything she put in front of him was remotely dangerous. Thanks to the traumatic experience of having her only child be kidnapped from her, she was absurdly overprotective. To a degree that Devlin might have found comical if it weren't happening to him.

“Would you suggest something different if you were teaching me?” Asked the Osmosian, unsure whether or not he would even want a janitor teaching him magic at all.

“Oh, no.” Bezel stood. “I am not getting between a mother and her young. I learned that lesson the hard way. It took me a couple centuries, but that lesson has finally stuck!”

Devlin raised an eyebrow at the 'couple centuries' comment. Scruffy the Janitor, or Bezel, did not look over two-hundred years old. Then it struck him. His mother called the old man 'Bezel', which could not be a common name. But it was the name of the magical charms she wore on missions. The Charms of Bezel. Which were supposed to have been crafted by the greatest sorcerer who ever lived. The Osmosian's eyes narrowed at the old man. 'Scruffy the Janitor' indeed!

“Why does my mother call you 'Bezel'?” He asked, giving the old guy a critical examination. A mostly square face but with a sharp chin under his beard, balding but not bald. Skinny arms but a bit of a pudgy stomach. Not really the physique of someone who did a lot of regular labor -like janitorial work- but the kind of body one would get from long hours of sitting -like reading or studying. He might call himself the janitor, but 'Scruffy' was also a magic user of some variety. But what variety, exactly?

The old man hissed at him. A sharp 'shushing' sound that came out like hot steam from a vent. “Don't use that name here! You have no idea who could be listening.”

They both looked around.

Apart from someone still studying but with their headphones in their ears, and another student whom was very clearly passed out asleep on their open book, they were alone in the library.

Devlin leaned in close to the old man, lowering his voice. “Are you the Magician Bezel, who made the Charms of Bezel?”

The old man pulled away. “Sonny, I donno what would give you that idea. The only magic I know are slight of hard tricks -which is arguably the best kind of magic.” He added.

The Osmosian was not convinced. He continued to glare at the old man. He clearly knew more than just a simple janitor should know -about lots of things.

“My mother says I have an aptitude for magic use.” He blurted out, unsure of why he was telling the old man this. He'd only met Scruffy-Bezel twice and barely knew the guy. Devlin wasn't even sure the man was who he said he was. But Bezel, somehow, made the Osmosian fell comfortable. He was clearly very knowledgeable, yet wasn't smug or elitist about it. He had intellect, but wasn't an intellectual. “But I have no mana of my own.”

“So, you borrow mana.” Scruffy-Bezel said as if this should have been obvious.

“Right.” Devlin agreed. “That's what Mom said. Since I don't have mana of my own to work with, I'd have to borrow power from totems, or fetishes. Objects with their own magical power. But in order to know how to use each one, I need to study.”

Which could take a lifetime.

Which would take a lifetime.

Devlin didn't know how far into the future the cataclysm Kenny showed him was, but the Osmosian was pretty sure he didn't have a lifetime. Maybe several years, but certainly not anything close to a decade.

“I wouldn't know about that.” The old man said quickly. “I just know a couple of card tricks.”

To illustrate this, Scruffy-Bezel reaching into a pocket of his overalls and pulled out a deck of playing cards. The same beat-up old deck he had a year ago the first time Devlin met him. The old man shuffled the deck. Then shuffled a second time. He drew the first card and held it up for Devlin to see. It was the Three of Clubs.

“This was your card from last time, right?” Bezel did a little twist of his wrist, curling his hand over the cuff of his sleeve. Devlin didn't actually see the switch, it happened too fast. The old man's slight of hand was too good. But when the hand stopped moving again, it was an entirely different card, from an entirely different deck, of an entirely different game that Bezel was holding. He slid the card to Devlin, face down. “This is your card this time.”

Devlin looked at the back of the face-down card. “That's a Duel Monsters card.”

“Nothing gets past you.” The old man snorted.

Making a face that Devlin would never admit was a pout, he lifted the card off the table. It was a trap card. 'Absorb', transfer the attack points of an opponent's monster to your own.

Devlin looked up at the old man. He hoped Bezel wasn't saying what the Osmosian thought he was saying. Absorption wasn't really a wise thing to do. Absorbing too much power could make a person with his mutation lose their mind. His father's past episodes were proof enough of that. Speaking of Devlin's father, Kevin would flip his shit if he found out his son was absorbing things. That was the first rule Kevin drilled into him growing up. Do not absorb. If you have to transform to defend yourself, then transform. But do not absorb anything. Especially do not absorb beings, or fantastical alien tech with powers beyond normal understanding.

“What are you trying to tell me, exactly?” The Osmosian glared at the old man, eyes narrowed with skepticism. Devlin thought he might be insulted for some reason.

Bezel looked down at the cover of one of the books splayed over the table. It was unclear if he was actually avoiding the boy's eyes, or just staring pensively. “Its not really the talismans and totems you need.” He said. “Its their mana.”

To use a talisman, fetish, or totem, one had to study that talisman, fetish, or totem. Understand the culture that made it. Speak the language the activated it. Know what kinds of ward and protections to put on yourself before wielding it. But, if the raw power was taken out of the totem... if it was just the raw power that was being wielded... then all a person would need was to understand the nature of power. A person would just need to be able to control raw power.

Devlin just needed to know how to control raw mana.

Bezel smiled when he was the realization dawn on the boy's face. The old man stood.

“Whelp, I best be getting back to work. These books aren't gonna dust themselves.” Except they were.

Bezel left.

Devlin looked back at the tame and safe books his mother had selected for him. Then glanced around to make sure she wasn't already on her way back to collect him. Taking the dust cover off 'Magical Safety and Procedures' he darted between the shelves, looking for something on power control. He wasn't really sure what made a book a good source, especially for an utter and complete novice like himself. But he scanned the table of contents of each book he pulled from the shelf to see if it even came close to what he needed.

When he found one that seemed like it would be helpful, he slipped the dustcover of the book his mother selected for him over it. Unless Gwendolyn actually checked the inside pages, she would have no idea it was a completely different book. That done, Devlin returned to his table and bent back over his notes, trying to guess if any of the work he'd just wasted the last three hours on would be useful.

It was a good thing he returned when he did, because no soon had the Osmosian started going back over his notes than Gwendolyn reappeared.

“You're more diligent about this than you are about your real homework.” She observed.

Devlin tactfully chose not to comment. According to Kenny, he had to learn to use mana to help save the universe. But no one had ever saved the universe by quoting a Hemingway novel. Of course he would put more effort into mana and magical study.

“Can I take these home?” He asked instead.

“This is a library. Of course you can check them out!” His mother reminded him.

The first one Devlin put in his bag was the one of raw power manipulation.

Devlin got a second -smaller- notebook from the student store at his own school. One of those tiny little composition books that could fit in the back pocket of his slacks, or the inside pocket of his blazer. If he was going to be a magic wielding hero of the universe then he would probably need to double check his notes before launching an attack. If he was going to be bringing his notes into a battle, then it would need to be small enough to fit in a pocket or on a utility belt. (Devlin still wasn't sure if he was going to include a utility belt in his costume.)

The book he borrowed from his mother's library turned out not to really be the sort of thing he was looking for. It was about manipulating the body's own energy -the body's own mana- for healing purposes. A more academic look at pop-culture's Reiki work. Not really the sort of thing Devlin was trying to do. Like, at all.

He went back to Gwendolyn's library after school and exchanged the book for a different one. Then another one after that. The Osmosian must have combed through every book in that section before a library attendant asked him if he was lost, or if his older sibling was a student there and if Devlin wanted them to find said sibling to take him home. People just weren't used to seeing children wandering around elite magical collage campuses (that was really more of a community collage thing). Devlin did enjoy the way the librarian's face went from polite concern to shock and awe when the Osmosian told them that his mother was the High Magus, reminded them that this was her library, and he had just as much right to use the books here as anyone else.

They walked away, red-faced and embarrassed, muttering something about 'of course the High Magus' son would be a magical prodigy'.

Devlin couldn't help the smirk that pulled at his lips. He wasn't a magical prodigy. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But he was damn good at intimidation and cons. He had his father to thank for that. As far as anyone else would know, the High Magus' son really was a magical prodigy and should be left alone to his research.

“Anybody ever tell you you're a real piece of work, sonny?”

So much for being left alone.

Turning around at the sound of the voice, Devlin saw Bezel leaning against a book shelf. Dressed in darned overall and a stained shift. He looked every bit the part of 'Scruffy, the Janitor'.

“Anybody ever tell you, you don't make a very convincing janitor?” The Osmosian crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against a shelf.

“Nope. Can't say anyone ever has.” Bezel shrugged. “They're too busy ignoring my existence entirely, which is how people treat real menial workers. So, I'd say I make a very convincing janitor. Also, shut-up. I am just the janitor.”

Devlin opened his mouth to shoot back with another smart reply, but realized that he didn't actually have a come-back for that. Where was the lie? Devlin got more looks walking across campus just being a child. He'd never seen anyone even glance at Bezel. Not even when he was throwing cards all over the grass, or his feather duster dusted on its own.

“What are you even doing here?” Asked the old man. “I thought you'd be fitting yourself for a mask and a cape by now.”

“Not gonna do a cape.” He growled in the same tone he used when he kept repeating that he wasn't gonna call himself 'Lucky Boy'. Some aspects of his future career as a mana wielding super-hero he decided on very early. His name was gonna be Bad Luck (not just because his future counterpart told him it was his name), and he wasn't gonna wear a cape. “And I'm here because I need something to teach me how to wield raw mana.”

Bezel sighed, shaking his head. “I though you were smart, but I guess that was just attitude. You really are just a dumb kid.” He pushed off the shelf he was leaning against and closed the space between himself and Devlin. “Listen, raw power is raw. Unrefined. Wild. You don't 'wield' it like some tool that's been honed for you by a skilled craftsman. You work with it, like an unpredictable ally. You adapt it.”

'Unpredictable ally', did he mean like an Osmosian?

Was Bezel saying that raw mana was no different than any Osmosian?

Well, Devlin had plenty of experience with Osmosians, after all, he was one! He understood how a change in mood could create a shift in power. How shock or panic, or even just instinct, could trigger his transformation, turning Devlin into his monstrous mutant form, even if that wasn't what he wanted at that moment. Sometimes, the Osmosian body just had a mind of its own. Devlin had never absorbed an over dowse of energy before, but he imagined it was something similar when an Osmosian absorbed too much. It wasn't so much an 'energy madness' as it was the surplus of power turned off the conscious mind and the body took control.

“So, you're saying that magic training for me, would have to be a lot like my Osmosian training.” The boy concluded.

“Wouldn't know about that.” Bezel shrugged honestly. “But sure. If that's what helps you understand. The main thing -the big thing- that you need to understand about magic is that there's no rules. Magic isn't just one thing. There's mana in everything. Not just living things, like trees and birds and crap. Its in the books, and its in the shelves. Hell! Its even in the polyester of this crappy carpet. Its in the space between planets. Its the heat of starts. Mana is literally the thread that holds the fabric of the universe together.”

At hearing that assessment, Devlin felt his stomach leap into his throat. His mind calling up the image of the crack in space. A fracture in the very fabric of the universe, like a jagged tear. The edges of that tear permeated with the residue of time energy and coremite, yes. But also mana. The thread that holds the fabric of the universe.

“And that's what makes magic so frustrating.” The old man continued, oblivious to the Osmosian's sudden panicked epiphany. “Its not that it's everywhere, its that it is everything. There's no empirical method for measuring magic. It can't be quantified. It can't be made uniform. There will never be any one set of rules. Because magic hasn't got any rules. The rules are made by people, and no two magic users will have the same rules. One culture will have their magic, with their rules, shaped by their beliefs and traditions. While another culture on the other side of the world will have completely different magic, with completely different rules, shaped by their beliefs and their traditions. Who's to say if one is more correct than the other? No one.”

Devlin looked up at the old man. “So, then, the only real rule of magic is 'anything goes'.”

“Don't get cute with me, sonny.” Bezel snapped at him. “I'm saying if you wanna be an Osmosian magic user, then you gotta figure out what 'Osmosian magic' is gonna be.”

Devlin just blinked at him. Not like he was confused, but more out of surprise. He never would have thought of anything that could be called 'Osmosian magic'. Devlin just assumed that Osmosian's couldn't use magic (with the exception of himself, obviously), so any magic he would be using would be Anodite magic. Or similar.

Bezel mistook his lack of response as a lack of understanding.

“Something someone else built and designed for themselves won't work for you. You have to design your own magical craft.” He said. “You're looking for a book on harnessing and using raw mana. But that's something that's very visceral and primal, and is dependent on the culture the individual was raised in, in terms of how someone goes about taming wild mana. Since there's no literature on Osmosian magic, you have to pioneer a new method yourself.”

Devlin just continued to stare at the old man.

“Osmosians absorb power, right?” Bezel pitched it like a question, but he meant it as a statement. He knew Kevin before Devlin, he already knew what Osmosians did.

“Oh, I don't- My dad doesn't let me adsorb- I, I don't do that sort of thing.” The boy stumbled over an explanation for why he didn't use the single, defining, unifying ability that made an Osmosian Osmosian in the first place.

How did one go about explaining to a person they barely knew that any time it even seemed like Devlin was absorbing something, or about to adsorb something, Kevin would freak out? He would grab Devlin, yell at the boy, even punish him for the simple suspicion of absorbing something. After all, it was Devlin's powers of absorption that almost killed his mother. It was the reason Kevin took Devlin away in the first place. It was understandable that he would feel uncomfortable using his powers after a lifetime like that. But how did he explain that to someone else? Other people wouldn't understand.

“Well, its not my job to tell you how to do your craft.” Bezel crossed his arms over his chest. “But sounds to me like your handicapping yourself. If you never absorb energy, do you even know how to control energy?”

“I can control my mutant form.” Devlin informed him, a little defensive.

“Is that the same thing?” Bezel followed up.

The Osmosian opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again when he realized he didn't actually know. Ever since Devlin could crawl, since before he even had clear memories, his father had been working with him to control his powers. Make sure he could touch things without absorbing them. Make sure he could control himself in his mutant form. Make sure he could shift his shape between his mutant form and his human one. Devlin always thought he had excellent control of his Osmosian abilities. But was controlling his Osmosian powers the same as controlling energy? After all, the Osmosian power was to absorb the energy, controlling what you absorb was something else.

“You're a really annoying old man, ya know that?” Devlin snapped. Frustrated over the fact that -whether Bezel thought he was helping or not- more roadblocks just seemed to be thrown in his way.

The really annoying old man only shrugged. Unconcerned. “Seems to me, you gotta figure some things about about yourself before you're ready to start practicing magic.”

Devlin went home without any books.

He jotted down a few bullet points of what Bezel said in his mini-composition book. Just a few short take-aways, like the fact that he'd have to develop his own craft instead of learning an established one. Basically, Devlin would have to be basically self-taught, like his mother. Or the fact that absorbing mana would be more practical for an Osmosian than learning all the proper incantations and invocations for a million and one different talismans and totems. More practical for active combat too.

Zed came into the living room when she heard the door close behind him. She noted that it was Devlin and that neither Gwendolyn nor Kevin were with him, and promptly retreated back out through the kitchen dog-door. She might feel more comfortable around the younger Osmosian now, but still not comfortable enough to be around him without a two-legged adult in the room.

With a sigh, the Osmosian tossed his messenger bag on the couch and flopped down next to it. He pulled his tiny notebook out of his pocket, and his regular sized notebook out of his bag. Skimming over his notes from the history of magic, and comparing them to what Bezel told him, Devlin wondered how he was ever going to become a combat sorcerer. From the little bit of research he already did and the two conversations he had with the greatest magician that ever lived, the Osmosian was almost ready to conclude that it was impossible for him.

Impossible except for the fact that he already knew he could do it. He'd been to the future. He met himself. He saw himself throwing mana around like he was born to it.

Reaching back into his messenger bag, the Osmosian pulled out his cell phone and dialed Kenny.

“Hey.” Kenny's voice was thick when he answered, like he'd been sleeping, or something. He cleared his throat and gave a little sniffle. When Kenny spoke again, his voice was clear. “What's up?”

“I, uh, I just wanted to bounce some things off you. Some magic stuff.” Devlin began an explanation but paused. Thinking maybe Kenny hadn't been sleeping when he called but craying. Upset over something. Maybe Devlin talking about himself wasn't what his best friend needed right now. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Kenny croaked. “Yeah, I'm fine. I can be over at your place in less time than it'll take me to get ready.”

The Osmosian was about to ask what that meant, but before the words could even form on Devlin's lips there was a flash of green and there was Kenny. Dressed in his Spanner uniform, sans the helmet. His eyes were red and a little puffy, but other than that, he looked fine. Awake and alert.

“What's up?” He asked.

“Are you sure you're okay?” Devlin asked. Kenny definitely, definitely looked like he'd been crying.

“Yeah. I'm fine.” The younger boy assured his cousin. “I just finished eavesdropping on my mom ranting to Great-Grandpa Wes how much my dad didn't around, how unhappy she is, and how she wishes they never got married in the first place. No big deal. I've heard it before.”

Standing from the couch, Devlin crossed the space between them and wrapped his arms around the younger boy. If Kai had never married Ben, then Kenny never would have been born. Whether it was what Kai meant or not, when she said she wished she never married Ben in the first place, she was also saying she wished Kenny never existed. As someone who grew up with a parent who never wanted him and did wish he was never born, Devlin could understand how that felt. Kevin never made any secret of the fact that he regretted Devlin's existence. Devlin knew how much it hurt to hear.

Kenny tried to pull away from the older boy. “I'm fine. You don't have to coddle me.”

That just made the Osmosian hold him tighter.

“Dad took off yesterday with your dad.” Kenny muttered into Devlin's shoulder. “He hasn't been home since. Not that he was ever home very much before.”

“I thought my dad was trying to stay out of the Time War.” Devlin said, realizing it was not the correct thing to say only after he'd already started asking it.

“This wasn't the Time War.” Explained the younger boy. “This was some thing that had something to do with a mutual friend of theirs. My dad's old partner, Rook Blonko. Apparently, he needs their help. That's all I know.” He cleared his throat again. This time when Kenny tried to pull away Devlin let him. “You wanted to talk about your new powers.”

The Osmosian paused at bit longer. Studying his cousin. Kenny was clearly still upset, but talking about it wasn't what he wanted. He wanted a distraction.

“Yeah. If you're up for it.”

“I'm up for it.” The younger boy assured him.

“Okay, well, my mom's got me doing boring book-work. History, and theory, and stuff. No actual mana work right now.” Began the Osmosian. “I don't remember if I told you or not, but I don't actually have mana of my own. Not enough to actually do magic. I would have to borrow mana from other things. I spoke to Bezel and he thinks I should absorb mana.”

“Who's Bezel?”

“He's the janitor at Friedkin.” Devlin supplied. “He may, or may not, also be the greatest magician that ever lived.”

“The greatest magician that ever lived is the janitor?” Kenny raised an eyebrow.

“Kenny.” Devlin started pacing the living room while the younger boy stood there watching. “That's not the part you should be concerned about. He suggested I absorb mana. Absorb!”

“Yeah...? You're Osmosian. That's kinda your thing.” Kenny flopped down on the couch in the spot his cousin had just vacated.

“I don't absorb stuff!” Devlin snapped at him. Shouted really.

The younger boy only blinked at him. “What do you mean you can't absorb stuff?”

“I didn't say I 'can't', I said I won't!” This time it was a snarl that the words came out as. “I know you might not have heard the full story of why my dad when crazy and took me away from my mom, but absorbing things is what got me taken away. I almost killed Zed and I almost killed my mom! Dad hates me. Mom doesn't really know me. And Zed is terrified of me. All because I tried absorbing shit!”

Kenny sighed. “Dev, your parents love you. Yeah, you're dad's kinda mean and I personally don't like him -trying to kill me kinda has that affect- but he's not a crazy bad guy anymore and I do think he cares about you. Aunt Gwendolyn loves you unconditionally, she doesn't care that you nearly killed her. Its only been a year, but you have seen more of your parents and your parents have seen more of each other than mine have. Your family is gonna be fine. That's not gonna change if you start using your Osmosian powers and absorb mana so you can use your Anodite powers.”

“I'm not an Anodite.” Devlin corrected.

“Not the part I want you to focus on.” Kenny shot his cousin a half-hearted smirk. They both had a tendency to not focus on the detail that needed focus.

“I don't even know how to absorb things.” The Osmosian finally admitted. “Not really. When I did it before... I was just a baby, ya know. I didn't know what I was doing. I just did things. When I was growing up with Dad, he would so mad if it even looked like I might absorb something- -I just... I'm scared, okay?”

This time it was Kenny's turn to stand from the couch, cross the space between them and wrap his arms around his cousin. “Then we start small.” He said. “Just a little bit of energy. Something measured and controlled. Like a battery. Does Aunt Gwendolyn have any AA batteries?”

“You want me to absorb batteries.” The Osmosian raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Its energy. Osmosians absorb energy.” Kenny seemed so sure and confident. “And it should be a small enough amount that it shouldn't make you crazy.”

Before Devlin could utter another protest, Kenny turned around and marched from the living room to the kitchen. He opened the junk drawer where Aunt Gwendolyn kept all the bag clips, banoodles, safety lighters, and batteries.

At the sound of someone rummaging around in the kitchen, Zed poked her head in through the dog door. It wasn't Gwendolyn or Kevin, her first two choices for two-leggers, but she knew Kenny and Kenny never tried to kill her before. She walked right up to the boy and started begging for food. (There was still kibble in her bowl.)

Reaching down, Kenny gave her a dismissive pat on the head before heading back out of the kitchen with a package of brand new batteries.

Zed followed him out.

Taking one battery out of the package, Kenny pressed it into his cousin's hands. “Here. Try this. We'll just start with one for now.”

“I donno...” Devlin was still hesitant. “Dad would be so mad if he found out I'm absorbing stuff.”

“He's not here right now.” Kenny reminded the older boy. “Who's gonna tell him? I'm not gonna tell him. Zed, you can keep a secret, right?”

The Anubian Baskurr looked from one boy to the other. She was beginning to question her decision of coming back in the house when Gwendolyn wasn't home.

“See? She's not gonna narc on us. Just go ahead.” Kenny took Devlin's hands in his and curled the Osmosian's fingers around it. “Give it a try.”

Still feeling unsure, Devlin squeezed the battery in his fist. He had no conscious notions of how to absorb energy. All the times in the past when he'd done it, he was too young for permanent memory to form. From what he could glean from hearing about his own experiences from his parents and growing up watching his father, absorbing wasn't really something an Osmosian was supposed to think about. It was something they just did. Like breathing. A person didn't think about it, they just did it.

As he stood there holding the battery, Devlin felt absolutely nothing happen. He wasn't absorbing the battery.

Kenny was looking at him so expectantly. Excited almost. Like there was no doubt in his mind that Devlin could do this, and be would be fine, and he would be great at it. Devlin knew he should be able to do this. He did it before. He used to do it all the time when he was a baby. Unfortunately, he had no memory of doing it, so he didn't know how.

In the story it always seemed to be that he would try absorbing someone in leu of eating. He would refuse the bottle and go for his mother's Anodite energy instead. So, if it was a hunger thing... Devlin thought about the last time he ate. During their after school snack at Burger Shack. Kenny got chili fires, Devlin got the classic burger and a lemonade to take his meds with. They were both always so hungry after school. He focused on that feeling. How empty his stomach felt, and how his body craved energy. Some kind of fuel to replenish his body and keep him going for a long evening of study and experimentation with new powers. In its most basic form, hunger wasn't the desire of food, it was the desire for power.

Devlin licked his lips a snack actually did sound pretty good right now...

No sooner had that thought occurred to him than the Osmosian felt a prickling inside his hand. Warm little needles poking gently at his fingers and palm. The sensation traveling up his arm and neck. Tiny little pricks traveling all the way up into his brain where the sensation settled. Morphed. Transforming from uncomfortable little needle pricks to a warm fuzzy feeling. Like being wrapped in a blanket and given a mug of hot chocolate. It was nice. Comforting. Made him feel like everything was okay. Devlin looked down at the battery in his hand. It was completely drained. The act of actually absorbing wasn't anything spectacular, but after it was done, he felt great. No wonder overdosing on energy made Osmosians go insane. If just a little bit felt like this.

“You did it!” Kenny might have jumped for joy.

Zed, the moment she realized Devlin was absorbing things, bolted from the room, her tail between her legs.

There was no doubt in Devlin's mind that if the alien dog could talk, she would tattle on him to Kevin so fast!

Kenny seemed not to notice. “This means you can absorb mana! What's something magical we can absorb? Aunt Gwendolyn's gotta keep magical items in the house, right? A Phoenix Gate, or a Silver Crystal, or a Millennium Puzzle.”

“Kenny, I think we should slow down.” The Osmosian told him.

“After only one battery?”

“One battery that felt really good.” Devlin informed him. “Look, I don't have very much experience absorbing stuff. Give me some time to practice. Work up a tolerance so I don't lose control. I don't wanna end up like my father. And I'm pretty sure you don't want me to turn into another Kevin 11,000 either.”

Kenny pursed his lips. No. He didn't wanna have to deal with a Devlin 11,000 either.

“Okay.” He tuned around and slipped the open package of batteries into his cousin's bag. “We'll keep practicing. After school. On weekends. Between missions with my dad -if he ever comes home. We'll work on your energy absorption and control, then move on to real mana.” A pause. “Are you sure Aunt Gwendolyn doesn't keep any magical items at home? A Lost Ark, or some Armor of Mars, or a Golden Lasso?”

Devlin sighed. “Kenny, I'm sure.”

Chapter Text

Quince was taking inventory when Trukk poked his head in.

Almost thirty years ago, after Kwarrel's old protege, Kevin, and his friends exposed the corrupt warden Morgg as the drug lord and slaver that he was, the prison of Incarcecon was taken over by its inmates and all other Plumbers influences were pushed out. Transforming the compound from the incarceration facility it used to be, and into a free and independently governed city-state of sorts. As the biggest and toughest inmate at the time, Trukk assumed the leadership position. Except that before being sentenced to Incarcecon, he was just a common thug, and had little understanding of what actually went into overseeing an organization. So, Quince stepped up to help him.

That was almost thirty years ago, and now the two shared equal power in the Free and Independent Fortress.

“Hey, you seen my daughter around?” Asked the larger man, poking his head into the store room, causing Quince to lose count.

He glared at the bricks of Dream Dust as if they were responsible for Trukk's intrusion.

“I told you, once children start learning to walk you need to put leashes on them.” Quince informed his companion without looking up at him. His attention was instead focused on his notes, trying to figure out where in the stacks he'd left off.

Dream Dust was a mineral based narcotic Morgg had them mining for back when Incarcecon was a prison. When ground down into a fine powder and inhaled it induced hallucinations and dream states. Each individual reacted to these altered mental states differently, some with euphoria, other hysteria and panic. But, if dosed with enough of it -especially now that they'd had years to refine the drug- it was highly addictive. Quince hated the stuff. The Dream Dust was a constant reminded of all the suffering he and his fellow inmates endured over the years. Of all the friends he'd lost and lives ruined. But it was also Incarcecon's greatest source of income. It was the thing that allowed the Free Fortress to remain free.

The Dust was used to trade for supplies that were no longer being teleported into the facility by the Plumbers. Clean water, food, medical supplies, sanitary supplies. Everything a thriving society needs to remain healthy and thriving. If not used for trade, then offered as payment in the rare occasions that Incarcecon has had to hire mercenaries and sell-swords to defend their walls, of the farms and holdfasts of those they pay loyalty to the Free Fortress.

In short, as much as Quince hated the stuff, Dream Dust had become a vital part of Incarcecon's survival. A necessary evil.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. Kids are a menace.” Trukk rolled his eyes.

Thirty years ago he would have been sitting in an isolation cell no bigger than a urinal stall, and contemplating pros and cons of death by prison guard, versus pick-axe accident, versus Dust overdose. Thirty years ago, that seemed the only way life could get better. If someone had told him back then that he'd be running Incarcecon, control the supply of Dream Dust in all the Null Void, have a hot trophy wife from a trader caravan, and have a daughter from said hot trophy wife, he'd tell they person that they'd had too much Dust. A lot can change in thirty years.

“Check out in the Yard.” Quince suggested. “Children like to play outside.”

“Yeah, okay.” Trukk walked away muttering to himself. “Sedanna's gonna kill me! This always happens every time I have to watch Pikka. Every time!”

Quince waited until the younger man's heavy foot falls disappeared down the corridor before turning his head to a stack of crates containing empty kilo bags and whispered, “I think you're winning your game of Seek 'n' Hide, little princess.”

A girl-child poked her head out from around the stack of crates, double checked the lines of sight, then came out fully. She was large for her age. Pikka was only seven, but was already as tall as a ten-year-old. With Trukk's bulky limbs and square chin. Both her parents had blue skin, and so the only traits one could readily identify as having been inherited from her mother was the hair. Trukk's species couldn't grow hair, but Pikka boasted thick black hair that naturally frizzed out in tight curls. Her mother, Sedanna kept it braided into equally tight rows that pulled the hair away from her face and down the back of her head.

“I wish you wouldn't call me a princess all the time.” The little girl huffed as she sat down in front of the stack of bricks Quince was cataloging. “That's all Papa wants me to do. Wear dresses, smile, be friendly with everyone.” She made a very rude sound.

Quince just smiled. “Your father isn't originally from the Null Void, that's what princesses were expected to do where he's from.”

“Well, we're not in where he's from!” Pikka huffed back. “This is the Null Void where there's no such thing and princesses and the daughters of leaders should be able to fight, and get dirty, and be rude!”

“You do fight, get dirty, and are rude.” Quince reminded her.

“Yeah, but Papa doesn't like it.” The girl shot back without pause.

Quince tried really hard not to snort onto the screen of his datapad. Pikka might be young, but she had as much sass and attitude for someone twice her age. He cleared his throat. “You're still young enough that Trukk sees you as something fragile that needs to be sheltered and protected. He'll come around once you get a little bigger and he sees those combat moves your mother's been teaching you put into action.” A pause. “Maybe next time the Star Spear caravan passes by we can arrange a spar between you and one of their warriors. Aggrenna, or maybe Olennor.”

“I'd really much rather beat the shit out of Shirahk.” Pikka announce. “He needs a good beating.”

It was very hard to hide his smile at that. There were not many children in Incarcecon, and none around Pikka's own age. At the ages of seven and twelve, Pikka and Shirahk were close enough to make them rivals but not close enough to be actual friends. And, in fact, the two shared a mutual hostility. Shirahk thought Pikka was annoying, immature, and easily excitable, and Pikka felt Shirahk was an entitled little sissy-boy that just needed to get the crap kicked out of him to teach him a thing or two.

Quince cleared his throat again and chose not to comment on her language choice. “Yes, well, if I let you beat up Shirahk Starspear, Aggregor would probably raze this fortress to the ground.”

Aggregor also saw his younger child as something fragile that needed to be sheltered and protected.

Pikka inched closer to the wall of Dream Dust the old man was inventorying. Without looking at her, Quince placed a palm on her chest and pushed the girl farther back. “I don't want you breathing in this stuff. This is our premium batch.”

“Its sealed in the bricks.” The girl did not seem impressed. Sometimes Quince also thought she needed to be sheltered and protected.

He set the datapad down on an already cataloged and sealed crate of the product. “Tell ya what, why don't we go and sneak up on your papa?” He said. “Show Trukk just how much of a young hunter you really are.”

Groaning with the effort, the old man stood. Advanced age combined with a hard life and denied medical care had made his joints stiff. His bones ached when he switched positions, and his muscles were considerably weaker than they used to be. Pikka had to help him up. Quince made sure to lock the store room before they headed down the corridor for the Yard.

They were only about halfway there when an alarm blared through the halls. Coming from the old emergency PA system from when the fortress used to be a prison. Quince didn't even know they still worked anymore. No one had bothered to maintain them in at least twenty years, maybe the full thirty. It wasn't the riot alarm, that was more of a high pitched, almost sonic 'zeet, zeet, zeet'. And it wasn't the break-out alarm, that one was a deeper 'wee-oo, wee-oo, wee-oo'. This on was more of a persistent and nagging 'boop, boop, boop'.

“What's that?” Pikka asked looking up at the walls. In her short life she'd never even noticed the old PA speakers, never mind heard them.

“I think...” He paused, trying to call up old memories from a time he preferred to forget. “I think that's the unauthorized entry alarm.”

The girl blinked and turned her head down the corridor in the direction of the lift that would take them up to the main gate. But an intruder trying to get through the exterior wall wouldn't trigger the old prison alarms. They renovated and established their own system for all the entrances and exits that could be accessed by a native of the Null Void. A system that didn't run off of any Plumbers tech. The only thing that could trigger the old prison alarms would be something that also ran off of Plumbers tech. There wasn't anything left Quince could think of that would. Except maybe the teleporters.

Kevin -during one of his visits to the Null Void- was supposed to have rigged them so that Incarcecon no longer registered as a valid teleportation destination for Plumbers teleporters. But, he supposed, if Kevin Levin during one of his episodes of Osmosian madness could hack, or reprogram, or whatever he did to the teleporter, then a competent and mentally stable Plumbers technician could also undo it.

“You go check the gate.” Quince told her. “Make sure its not just some idiot who tripped over an old cable.” There weren't any old cables. They ripped them all out. “I'm gonna check a few other places.”

“I'm on it.” The little girl nodded and rushed off, proud of herself for being trusted with the responsibility of a future leader.

Quince waited a few more minutes to make sure the lift doors closed behind her before he turned down the corridor heading the opposite direction, looking for some stairs. In his advanced age stairs were no longer his friend, but going down them was always easier than going up and he needed to make sure the fortress wasn't about to be flooded by platoons of gun-ho Plumbers with itchy trigger fingers. Incarcecon wasn't a prison anymore. They weren't condemned criminals anymore. People had made lives here. Accepted other natives of the Void inside their walls. Started families here. Nobody wanted a group of idiot 'peace keepers' barging in guns blazing and sooting incandescently in the name of Truth and Justice.

When he got down to the teleportaion chamber, everyone there was crowded around the target pad -which was thankfully empty.

Taking note of their faces Quince realized they were all either natives of the Void and unfamiliar with old Incarcecon tech, or else too young to even know what the Plumbers teleporter even was.

“It rev'd up for a sec like something was about to happen.” One of them told him the moment they realized one of the Free Fortress' two leaders had arrived. “The monitor said something about 'Invalid Location'. What does that mean?”

Before Quince could even open his mouth and explain, the teleporter powered up again. Motors and drives that hadn't functioned in almost three decades groaning as the machine rev'd up with power. The monitor once again flashed the words 'Invalid Location', before disappearing and being replaced by 'Location Override'.

Quince found himself swallowing a lump that had formed in his throat. Twenty-eight years -almost thirty- and the damn Plumbs had left them alone. Almost three decades. There were people living in Incarcecon that had no living memory of it as a prison. There were adults living in the Free Fortress with no living memory if it being anything else. Why were they suddenly overriding the teleporter block and coming in now?

There was a crackle in the air. A flash of light on the target pad. The acrid scent of ozone in the air as the old, disused, and neglected electronics burned themselves out with the effort of completing their task. Quince coughed from the fumes, his eyes watering with the sting. Blinking, he rubbed his eyes, trying to clear his vision enough to see how many Plumbers had just teleported into their fortress. What kind of weapons they had. Were they already drawn and hostile? Just how fucked were they?

Standing in the center of the target pad were two men. Human by all outward appearances. One brown-haired and green eyed, wearing a white and green shirt and brown pants -not a standard issue Plumbers uniform. He looked familiar. Quince was sure he'd seen the man before, but Quince couldn't place a name to the face. The other man, however, he definitely recognized. The same long dark hair, unkept and falling over his face. The same black proto-tech armor. The iconic X-shaped scar on his chin. He hadn't changed a bit since the last time Quince had seen him, and there was no mistaking Kevin 11,000.

The King in the Void had returned to the Null Void.

“I'm back, bitches!” He shouted in classic Kevin brazenness, and stepped off the target pad. Swaggered off it, actually. “Who missed me?”

The others all took several noticeable steps back. They also recognized the King in the Void, but they did not know him as well as Quince did. They didn't know what Kevin 11,000's sudden appearance in the Free Fortress might mean and they didn't know what he would do. The Osmosian was notoriously unpredictable.

Quince stepped forward, taking charge of the situation so that the young and clueless others didn't have to. “Kevin, what are you doing back? I heard your son helped you escape.” A pause to eye the other man that had teleported in with the Osmosian. “And who's your friend.”

“You remember Tennyson.” Kevin waved off the question, not even looking back at his companion whom looked equal parts surprised and concerned.

Quince turned his attention back to the other human. He was taller than the las time he saw him -though, still not as tall as Kevin- with brown hair that was graying on the sides. Shoulders broader and limbs more muscled than they had been when he was still a scrawny and developing teenager. But now that Kevin said it, there was no mistaking those eyes. A bright green that seemed to glow from an internal light of their own. It had been over twenty years since the old man had last seen him, but there was no mistaking those distinctive eyes. Kevin 11,000 had brought Ben 10,000 back to Incarcecon.

His eyes flashed back to Kevin. “What's going on?”

Something had to be up for Kevin 11,000 to be working in collaboration with Ben 10,000 again. Something major.

The Osmosian smirked. “You always were the smart one.”

“That isn't an answer to my question.” The old man informed him.

The others backed up farther, shooting concerned looks between Quince and the Osmosian. They recognized Kevin as Kevin 11,000 but none of them had ever actually witnessed Kevin in action. They didn't know his moods or habits. They didn't know what the Osmosian would do if challenged or annoyed and the couldn't understand why Quince was testing him.

But before anyone could say anything more, Trukk came running onto the scene. “What's going on? Is it a Plumb attack?” He stopped short when he recognized at least one of the two men that had just materialized in the middle of his fortress. “Kevin? You're back?”

“Cool. You're both here. That saves me having to explain things twice.” The Osmosian grabbed Ben 10,000, pulling the other man along with him as he walked and spoke. “I gotta get something from here in the Void and I don't exactly know where to look. We need to borrow two Null Guardians for travel and I'd like to take a look at your most recent intel on the other locals' movements.”

Ben stumbled and almost fell as the Osmosian yanked him along, the other two men falling into step behind Kevin 11,000 as if he really was the King in the Void people dubbed him to be, and Quince and Trukk were his loyal bannermen.

Kevin lead the formation to the former warden's office. It had not been called the 'warden's office' since Morgg was deposed. Now it was the 'small command room', or the 'meeting room', 'Quinces office', or just 'the Office'. The word 'warden' had been scraped from the door along with most of the other obvious reminders that the Free Fortress used to be a prison and forced labor camp. Kevin shut the door behind them.

“I need you to show me your most up-to-date information on movements in the Void.” He said, pitching it like a demand -because it was a demand. Kevin 11,000 did not submit polite requests for consideration. “Not the asteroid and solid body drifts, the being movements. Way Bad migrations, Nehts raiding parties, caravan routs, and Rooters activity.”

“Why?” Trukk blinked at him.

“What's going on?” Quince asked.

“Just pull it up!” The Osmosian barked with impatience.

Ben blinked at him, wondering why Kevin wasn't telling them that Rook was missing. Wasn't Incarcecon friends with the Plumbers now? After Ben and Gwendolyn exposed Morgg's corruption almost thirty years ago and basically freed the entire compound from being used as slave labor, shouldn't they be thankful to Ben, Ben's Team, and the Plumbers for liberating them? Shouldn't they want to help Rook? Wouldn't it just make things easier if Kevin just told them what was going on?

Stepping forward, Quince pushed a stack of what looked like papers -though, where they would get the cellulose to make paper in the Null Void, Ben had no idea- off of a desk. The same desk that had always been a fixture in the office since before the days when Morgg was even a prison guard, never mind the warden.

The whole surface of the desk was one large 2D touch screen and Quince tapped it to wake it up. It was old. Already outdated tech when Incarcecon was freed. There was a patch of pixels in one of the corners that insisted everything was green regardless of whatever it was supposed to be, there was a line cutting through the image that was bright fuchsia too straight to be a crack in the screen, and on every tenth second the screen would blink out completely, only to come back the very next second as if nothing had happened and nothing was wrong.

“This looks like a background prop from a horror movie.” Ben commented on the screen. “Like, this is when the xenomorph jumps out at Sigourney Weaver.”

“No comments from the peanut gallery.” Kevin snapped at him.

The Osmosian punched in a couple lines of code on the touch screen. A spinning wheel, indicating that the computer was loading his request appeared in the center. Kevin crossed his arms as he watched it rotate, the Osmosian growing more impatient with every passing moment it didn't fulfill his request. Finally, the data he wanted appeared.

A map of the Null Void, two-dimensional because the screen was two-dimensional. But animated, all the asteroids moving in the same patterns the nice cutting edge 3D map at Plumbers HQ-NV showed. Only this map was complete. There were no holes, blank spaces, or missing bodies. Whats more, this map also showed non-terran movements. That is to say, it showed movements of beings as well as rocks. Purple for Way Bads. Orange for Nehts. Yellow for nomads and traders. Green for Plumbers. Blue for Kevin 11,000. Finally, red for Rooters.

Kevin typed in a few lines of code that would only show him the data for the past week. Setting it to start from the time of Rook's disappearance and letting the map play forward from there.

Ben felt that same tight fist of dread grip his chest when he saw the purple path of a Way Bad cut right across the spot Magister Chaz said Rook had last radioed from.

“How do you get this information?” He asked. The Plumbers certainly didn't have this detailed documentation of Void migrations and their technology was far more advanced than the practically ancient tech Incarcecon was barely managing to maintain.

The other three men in the room looked up from the screen, staring at him as if he were that child in school who asked why water was wet. Like the dumbest question possible had just tumbled from his lips and they couldn't understand how a person could be that stupid and still function as a person.

Kevin groaned. “See, Tennyson, this is why Plumbers make terrible Voiders.”

“The Plumbs don't talk to people unless they want something from us.” Trukk informed the Hero of the Universe, bitterness darkening his voice. “They think they're better than us.”

Quince gave him a gentle, sympathetic look. The kind of look one gives a child who might want to learn, but didn't know how. “Incarcecon travels on a wide orbit. We pass a lot of places. Every time we open our gates to others -whether they be travelers, farmers, mercenaries, or holdfasts- they share information with us. Gossip about who else they met since the last time our orbits converged, intel on monster movements, warnings about enemy activity. I take all that information and organize it on the map.”

“This is what I needed that, that asshat at Headquarters-NV didn't have.” Kevin informed him.

But Trukk and Quince shifted their attention to Kevin at that statement. This time their looks were disbelieving, or even mildly betrayed.

“You a Plumb again, Kevin?” Trukk demanded.

The Osmosian hesitated. Then, “Technically.”

Quince reached up to place a hand on the taller man's chest, holding Trukk back -not that Trukk was about to attack the Osmosian. It was just a precaution. “That doesn't change anything.” Quince reminded his partner. “He's still just Kevin. He's still Kwarrel's boy, and he's still the one who got rid of Morgg for us. Remember that. Kevin might be a Plumb, but he's from Incarcecon, he freed Incarcecon. And Incarcecon remembers.”

“I got rid of Morgg too.” Ben muttered under his breath. Why didn't Incarcecon remember that?

Trukk calmed down.

Kevin turned his attention back to the map.

“You said you needed two Null Guardians.” Trukk blurted out. “What for?”

Ben opened his mouth to answer, but Kevin put a hand on his shoulder to keep the younger man silent. The last thing they needed was the Hero of the Universe thoughtlessly blurting things out as if he were helping.

“Faster travel.” The Osmosian supplied. “Cover more ground.”

“All those eleven-thousand aliens and powers you got in you and you can't fly?” Trukk raised a skeptical brow-ridge. His eyes flicked to Ben. “All those ten-thousand aliens and powers and he doesn't have anything that can fly either?”

Once again, Ben opened his mouth to answer, and once again Kevin silenced him before the thoughtless Hero could blurt out information that would make their mission a lot harder. “You know very well that we have to conserve our energy to be ready in case of a fight or attack.”

“You expecting a fight or attack?” Trukk pressed.

“This is the Null Void.” Kevin shot back.

“Why should we give you two of our Null Guardians?” Trukk pressed.

“Because the last time I was in the Void, I saved your horrible wife from being eaten alive by Nehts.” The Osmosian reminded the larger man.

“Sedanna is not horrible! She's a precious and beautiful treasure!” Trukk glared down at the Osmosian. Even at Kevin's adult height, the former convict loomed over the younger man.

But Kevin refused to be intimidated. Kevin 11,000 did not intimidate easily.

Quince shifted, placing himself between Trukk and the Osmosian. “We can give you one Null Guardian.” He offered a compromise before the 'negotiation' could escalate to violence. “And I'll upload a copy of the movement data to your badge -I assume you're carrying a badge now that you're a Plumb again.”

Kevin didn't want to agree too quickly. It was about as good a deal as he was expecting. Domesticated Null Guardians were few and far between. Hard to capture and even harder to break and train.

They were originally introduced to the Null Void by Galvan geneticists back when the Null Void was still relatively new and un-settled. Already a penal colony, but newly discovered by other races and being used by other races. The Null Guardians were placed in the Null Void in leu of actual guards, peacekeepers, or law enforcement. They were supposed to protect the original Galvan colonists. But they were still animals. It was sometimes difficult for Null Guardians to differentiate between peaceful settler and hostile criminal. Especially now after so many centuries and generations. So many different races. So many different cultures. Different languages and mannerisms. And hybrids and combinations of all of it. The Null Guardians were already failing as guards and peacekeepers long before Dr. Animo came along and brain-washed them all.

After the brain-washing, however, any last vestiges of their original purpose was wiped clean. They weren't Guardians of any variety any more. Just another species of animal that called the Null Void home. Just like any animal, they could be captured, broken, and domesticated. Many of the permanent settlements and nomadic caravans boasted having domesticated Null Guardians now. To carry baggage, pull plows, or even to be ridden as mounts. Over the course of two decades Null Guardians somehow became the Null Void equivalent of a horse.

Just like horses, they were expensive. Bartering for one was not easy. Kevin did not want to appear too eager when accepting Quince's offer of one and a complete map with useful notations.

“That's not what I asked for.” Said the Osmosian.

“It's what we can give.” Quince informed him.

Kevin crossed his arms over his chest and put on a big show of considering the offer. “I suppose arguing with you will just waste more of my time.”

“So, you'll take it.” Quince smirked. He'd known the Osmosian since Kevin was a mutated and disfigured child with anger issues. Since Kwarrel took the boy under his wing and helped him learn to control his mutation and his powers, instead of letting his mutation and powers control him. He watched him grow from a bitter and angry child to a capable and independent adolescent. Quince liked to think he knew Kevin 11,000 rather well. At least well enough to know that Kevin was actually satisfied with the deal.

“Yeah, I'll take it.”

“Why'd you come back?” Trukk asked. “What is it you're even looking for here in the Void?”

It didn't take much to wake Rook.

His sleep was already shallow from discomfort, sleeping on hard rock, and fitful from anxiety, lost in the Void with only a child in need of his protection for companionship. He jolted awake after only one poke from Shirahk. The Osmosian jabbing him in the ribs harder than the Revonnahgander felt was necessary -even given the insulation of his proto-tech Plumbers uniform.

“What is it? What is wrong?” He asked.

“Nothing.” The Osmosian told him impatiently. “We made it to Daq's. We gotta move now.”

Blinking sleep out of his eyes Rook looked around. The voidscape surrounding their asteroid was dramatically changed from what it looked like before he went to sleep. When he laid down to rest they were surrounded on all sides by a halo of smaller asteroids, the largest no bigger than a deck chair. Now, the immediate space around them was mostly clear. Clear apart from one largish asteroid with a single two story structure on it.

Presumably that was Daq's holdfast.

The gap between the asteroids wasn't exactly small. Rook might have been able to jump it if he could get a running start. Revonnahganders by nature were very agile creatures. But the their asteroid was just a little too small for a decent starting dash. He supposed he could have vaulted across if he still had his proto-tool, or one of the spears from the caravan. Rook looked to Shirahk.

The boy pouted at him. “You want me to carry you again, don't you.”

“Just to the other asteroid.” The Revonnahgander assured him.

With a sigh, the Osmosian stretched, cracked his neck and shoulders, then transformed. “You're so needy. Which of us is the grown-up here?”

The twelve-year-old growing as tall as the adult Revonnahgander. His blue skin fading away to be replaced by a paler Amperi membrane that appeared to almost glow with bio-luminescence. Ribcage expanding as his torso shifted to that of a Geochelone Aerio chest. Arms of a Talpaedan. Legs of an Orishan. All mixed together with Protosapian-B. The mutated Osmosian picked the Plumber up and together the two of them flitted over to the other asteroid.

Shirahk put Rook down and reverted back to his base state almost the second they touched down. He was rested, but by no means completely recovered from the first -and most difficult- leg of their journey.

The Revonnahgander turned his attention to the holdfast the Osmosian had guided them to. It was a short building, only two stories tall. Round and dome topped. A canvas canopy over the main entrance that might have at one time been some shade of blue, but was now faded to a sandy dusk color that couldn't decide if it was gray like the fabric it was spun from or brown like the dust of the asteroid it was on. Hanging from the canopy was a banner.

Similarly faded, thought not nearly as drastically. The banner must not be as old as the holdfast from which it was hung. It was a stylized image of a pickaxe and a broken chain, the emblem of the Free and Independent Fortress of Incarcecon. A sign to any that might come by this way that the holdfast was under Incarcercon's protection. Well, Rook already knew that this asteroid's path intersected with the former prison's path at some point. They were nowhere near Incarcecon at the moment, but the landscape wasn't static in the Null Void. Things moved. At some point this holdfast would move back within Incarcercon's sphere of influence. Then Rook and Shirahk could just hope over to the Free Fortress. The boy could be left with competent adults he trusted in a place that he knew, and Rook could beg a vehicle, or a Null Guardian, or something off of Trukk and Quince in order to return to his base.

Stepping under the canopy, Rook opened the holdfast door.

Inside, the first floor was all one wide room, filled with tables and chairs. A bar with shelves of bottles -presumably liquor- was pushed to one side. Against the opposite wall was the base of the stairs, spiraling up to the second floor where the Revonnahgander imagined the sleeping quarters and rooms for rent were. He did a quick scan of the space for hostiles. There were a few people seated at tables or at the bar who looked up when he and Shirahk entered, but no one seemed to pay them much mind beyond that.

Rook crossed the room to where the bartender, presumably the owner of the holdfast, was restocking the bottles on the shelves.

“Excuse me.” Began the Revonnahgander. “I was told this asteroid passes by Incarcecon.”

The bartender turned around slowly. “Ain't nobody call the Free Fortress 'Incarcecon' but the Plumbs.” He looked Rook up and down, noting his armor. It was dirty and travel worn, but still unmistakably a standard issue Plumbers uniform. “You look like a Plumb.”

“He is.” Shirahk pipped up next to him. He pulled out a bar stood and sat down at the bar. “Hey, can I have that on drink that makes everybody really talkative and happy, but unable to walk straight?”

“Alcohol?” Rook supplied, thinking that if Aggregor managed to shelter the boy to the point where he didn't even know what it was called, then he definitely wouldn't want the boy drinking it.

Shifting his attention from the Plumber to the boy, the bartender gave Shirahk and appraising look. “You're Aggregor's boy, ain't ya? I ain't givin' you nothin' but water or blue milk unless he says you can have it.”

“He says I can have it.” Shirahk assured him without skipping a beat. After all, it wasn't like Aggregor was present to object.

“Well, tell him to come tell me that.” Commanded the bartender. “I ain't doing nothin' that'll get me on the bad side of 11,000's brother.”

Ha! So Kevin and Aggregor didn't just have a 'truce of sorts'. They were friends. If they were close enough to be called 'brothers'.

The bartender turned around and selected a glass, blowing in it to make sure there wasn't any dust, and picked up a bottle from one of the lower shelves. He pored out a thick blue liquid and set it down in front of Shirahk. “Here. Blue milk. The drink of choice of the King in the Void.”

The boy pouted. Resting his elbows on the bar and hunching his shoulders. He grumbled a couple phrases under his breath that Rook's badge did not translate. Grabbed the glass of blue milk and took an unhappy sip.

Leaning over the bar, getting close to the boy's face, the bartender asked, “So what you doin' hangin' 'round a Plumb? Where's Aggregor, or them grumpy sisters of yours?”

“They're out there.” Shirahk assured the bartender. Somewhere in the Void. “But the Plumb is helpless and lost. I'm taking him to the Free Fortress. Let them decide what to do with him.”

The bartender nodded, as if with approval. “When 11,000's not in the Void the Free Fortress is the place to turn.”

“I am glad to hear it.” Rook offered what he hoped looked like a friendly smile. “How long will it be before we are in range of Incarcecon -the Free Fortress?”

The bartender shot him a scathing look. “Ain't nobody talkin' to you, Plumb.” He turned his attention back to the boy. “First drink's free on account of you being a kid alone-” apparently, Rook didn't count as a companion for the child “-anything else ya gotta pay for or trade for. Food and lodging until my rock makes it to the Free Fortress'll cost ya.”

“I am able to pay.” Rook assured the bartender. Although, he didn't exactly have anything on him at the moment. But he would definitely make sure all due compensation was given out once he returned to his base.

“Ain't got no use for Plumb money.” The bartender snapped at him. “What ya got to trade? Weapons? Tech? Dust? Mushrooms?”

“My family has lots to trade.” Shirahk informed the bartender happily.

“And where is your family?” Asked the bartender. “Usually, this place is overrun by them by the time you come runnin' up here askin' for drinks you ain't allowed to have.” A pause. “They ain't here, are they? You alone with this Plumb.”

“I told you, I'm taking him to the Free Fortress.” Shirahk repeated. “I'll meet up with my family there. My father can pay you then.”

“That ain't good enough, how do I know ol' Aggregor's even still alive?” The bartender shook his head. “You travelin' alone. Aggregor and them sisters of yours nowhere to be seen. In the company of this Plumb. How do I know I can trust you, if you're consortin' with Plumbs?”

“Sir, I can assure you-”

“'Sir'!?” The bartender gave a bark of a laugh. He leaned to the side, peering around Rook to the others in the holdfast, sitting at the tables over their drinks or their meals. “He called me 'sir'!”

This was met with a chorus of laughs.

“I ain't no 'sir', ya damn Plumb.” He informed the Revonnahgander in no uncertain terms. “An' if you think for one moment that I'm gonna-”

“Bart'ender!” A voice shouted from halfway up the spiral stairs. Every head in the holdfast turned to see a female alien coming down the stairs. “Stop being stupid. Can't you see this Plumb is a Revonnahgander. There's only one Revonnahgander in the Null Void and that's the Plumb appointed Warden, Rook Blonko.” She crossed the room, coming to stand directly in front of the lone Plumber. “Warden Rook.”

He floundered for half a second, unsure of what to say. “Um, hello.”

She looked him up and down, giving him the kind of critical examination one might give a possible enemy, or at the very least a combat opponent. “Since you can't pay, you'll compensate Bart'ender and I for our hospitality in other ways. I assume you can clean. This place is filthy. Do something about that. You will help with any heavy lifting. If there is someone I need thrown out of here, you will make sure they get the hell out. When we reach the Free Fortress, you will help Bart'ender deliver our tithe. Then you may go.”

“This sounds like an acceptable compromise.” Nodded the Revonnahgander.

“Yay! So everybody's happy!” Shirahk took another sip of his blue milk.

“Oh, we're not done. I haven't told you what you'll be doing, Shirahk Starspear.” She said, eyes shifting to the young Osmosian. “Until we reach the Free Fortress, you'll be serving food and bussing tables. You'll be working directly under Moli-” she nodded to the single server whom was standing over a table, collecting empty drink tankards “-whatever she says, you do. You'll also be helping out with the laundry, washing the bedding after a patron leaves, or cleaning the blood out of clothes.”

“But, I-”

“I do not negotiate with children.” She cut him off. “Your pet Plumb agreed quickly enough. Take my charity or leave.”

The Osmosian lowered his eyes. “Yes, Daq.”

“Glad to hear it!” The woman -Daq- gave Shirahk an affectionate slap on the shoulder. “Moli, show these two to a room. Bart'ender, whip up something for them to eat. After they're rested, we'll be putting them to work.”

The 'beep... beep... beep...' of an EKG machine was the first thing Magister Ramsey heard when they first started to wake, and for one wonderful moment of comfort and security, they thought they were back at their own base. Plumbers Headquarters-Null Void.

But then they heard voices that definitely did not belong to members of the Null Void team, and that blissful moment of cormfort and security evaporated. To be replaced with confusion, and maybe just a little panic.

The last thing Magister Ramsey remembered they were in the THV with the rest of the search party sent out after warden Rook. Themself, Magister Frey, Magister Roose, Magister Ygrit, and Magister Sand. Frey had Chaz on the com so the whole cabin could hear him and he was saying something about Kevin 11,000. That he was also looking for Rook, or that he was coming back, or something.

Like what that guy back in the holdfast said. 'When when 11,000 returns to claim 'is enemies...'

That was the last thing Ramsey remembered. They couldn't recall what came after that. They certainly didn't know how they ended up in an infirmary surrounded by beings that were definitely not members of their team.

“They're regaining consciousness.” Announced a female voice.

“Excellent.” Replied a male one, low and slightly hoarse, like someone who lost their voice from shrillness.

Slowly, Magister Ramsey opened their eyes- -and jumped into a panic.

Standing over him, wearing old proto-tech armor in all black, were two alien hybrids. One male, one female.

The female had the overall body and head-shape of a human from Earth. But her eyes were solid red, devoid of whites, irises, or pupils. There were a number of beings with eyes like that in the universe, but combined with the membranes under her arms and her tail, that narrowed her alien blood down considerably. Not that Ramsey needed to guess what kind of hybrid she was. They recognized her from her picture on the Null Void's Most Wanted wall back at base. She was Dana Swift. A Rooter and one of Servantis' inner circle.

Similarly, there was no need to guess that the male's identity. If Swift could be recognized easily enough, then there was no mistaking Hector Servantis. Tall and slender, also with all red eyes devoid of pupil or iris. His Cerebrocrustacean seemed to have healed from his last altercation with Kevin 11,000. But the gem in his forehead was still cracked. In the picture they had of him back at HQ-NV Servantis had a goatee, but it looked like he decided to grow his facial hair out and now sported a thick and unruly beard. It gave him an almost 'wild' look, combined with his all red eyes formed the complete image of a madman.

Glancing around themself wildly, Ramsey realized they must be in the Rooters' base. The medical equipment, the gurney they were on, the monitor they were hooked up to, the screens projecting their vitals, were all Plumbers issued, but old. Outdated, even. Things either left over from when the Rooters were Plumbers themselves, or else scavenged or stolen from other Plumbers groups, bases, or outposts. The monitors and screens appeared to be mounted onto the wall. Stone walls. They looked cut, not constructed, as if the Rooters had dug into whatever asteroid they were on in order to construct their base. So, they were probably underground. Inside the asteroid as opposed to on it. That would certainly cut down on escape possibilities.

If Ramsey hadn't been panicked before, they definitely were now!

“What's going on!?” Ramsey demanded. They tried to sit up, and quickly discovered that they were strapped down with hard medical restraints attached to the gurney frame.

“Why, Phil brought you in and we nursed you back to health -obviously.” Servantis explained, voice calm and almost matter-of-fact. As if he were a civilian doctor trying to talk down an excitable patient. As if the Rooters were helping. As if they were the good guys.

It only made Ramsey struggle harder against their restraints. “Why would you do that!?”

Servantis reached a hand out to stroke a long slender finger down the side of the Plumber's face. Coming from anyone else the gesture might have been gentle, fatherly even. But coming from the leader of the Rooters, a former Proctor whom was guilty of inhumane experimentation on minors, it was just unnerving. Ramsey tried to pull away, but the restraints restricted their movement.

“Because you're an just a child, you were injured, and lost in the Void.”

“I am not a child.” Ramsey snapped. “I am a Magister ranked Plumber. To be a Magister one must have reached the age of majority for their species. Being a former Plumber yourself, you should know that. You're just being deliberately trying to make me feel inferior and insecure by referring to me as a child. It won't work.”

“How distrusting and suspicious of you.” Servantis sounded so disappointed. “Here we are trying to help you and you reply by throwing out accusations.”

“Kinda hard not to when I wake up in a room full of Rooters.” Ramsey would have liked to cross their arms over their chest, but the restraints made that impossible. “You don't help people for charity. This is the Null Void, no one helps people for charity.”

“Distrusting, but at least smart.” Servantis nodded, almost as if with approval. “You're quite right, I didn't treat your head wound and revive you out of the goodness of my loving and bleeding heart. You were on a team of five deep in voidspace that -to the best of my knowledge- you have not charted yet. Too large a team to be ranging, but a poor sham for an attack on us. So, what were you really doing out there in the Void, the five of you in uncharted voidspace without your leader?”

“Up yours, that's what!”

At that reply, Servantis seemed genuinely disappointed “Rude. And not very clever.”

“What can you expect? I just woke up from a head-trauma.” Ramsey scoffed. “Not that any of it matters.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Servantis raised one scraggly eyebrow.

The words from the holdfast continued to echo through Ramsey's mind. 'King in the Void, King in the Void, King in the Void', a deep persisting whisper that could be felt like a tightness in the chest, or a whisper up the spine, a prickling on the back of the neck. An instinctive and base sense of danger. All accompanied by the bartender's prediction that Kevin 11,000 would return to take vengeance upon his enemies. A prediction that could only be confirmed by Chaz informing them that Magister Levin was looking for Rook.

“He's coming.” Ramsey laughed. Or growled. It was something between a laugh and a growl. The King in the Void was coming. “He's coming back! 11,000 is coming back to the Null Void and he's coming for his enemies. He's coming for you!”

There was a heavy pause.

Swift looked from the Plumber laying on the gurney to her commander.

Slowly, a smile pulled at Servantis' lips. “Kevin is coming back... My Kevin...” That smile widened into a cheshire cat grin. “Good...”

Chapter Text

Devlin held another AA battery between his thumb and forefinger. Hesitated. Then absorbed the energy from it.

It was his third battery of the day. The first he absorbed right after breakfast with his mother. The second during passing periods between classes. Now it was lunch time and Kenny pulled a pack out of his pocket. Something cheap he got from the student store. He slid them across the lunch table to the Osmosian, insisting he keep up with his absorption practice and control.

So there he was, absorbing a third battery for the day, then a fourth immediately after.

Devlin still felt uneasy about absorbing things. But those misgivings would vanish the moment he felt the energy hit his brain.

It would start like a prickling inside his hand. Warm little needles poking gently at his fingers and palm. The sensation would climb up his arm and over his shoulder, travel up the jugular vein in his neck. Tiny little pricks piggybacking on his circulation, all the way up into his brain where the sensation settled. Morphed. Transforming from uncomfortable little needle pricks to a warm fuzzy feeling. Like being wrapped in a blanket and given a mug of hot chocolate. It was nice. Comforting. Made him feel like everything was okay. There was nothing wrong with absorbing energy. Why was he even worried in the first place?

Kenny watched his cousin with a curious, almost critical eye. Halfway between studying and examining. “What's it like, absorbing energy?”

“It feels good.” The Osmosian answered without hesitation. There was no need to pause and think about it. Absorbing energy made him feel good. Fueled so that he didn't need to eat, and pleased so that he might not even need to take his meds later. Devlin tapped the side of his head. “It feels good up here.”

“Well, that's good. It would really suck if doing the thing that will eventually give you mana felt bad.” Kenny smiled.

This comment, however, seemed to deflate the Osmosian's artificially elated mood. The pleasure absorbing energy gave him draining out to be replaced by the realization that his cousin and best friend didn't understand why absorbing energy might not actually be a good idea for him. Or any Osmosian for that matter.

“Kenny, you remember what my dad was like when you first met him, right?” He asked. “You remember Kevin 11,000.”

“He tried to kill me.” The younger boy recalled. “I don't think I'll ever forget.”

“Well, the reason he was like that back then was because he had too much energy in his body.” Explained the Osmosian. “He absorbed too much energy. We need to be carful with having me absorb stuff, otherwise I could end up just like him. I need to be carful with absorbing stuff. I don't wanna turn out like another version of my father.”

“Right.” Kenny agreed, visibly deflating. He didn't want his friend to turn into a 'Devlin 11,000' either. One insane Osmosian trying to kill him was enough for one lifetime, thank you.

Except Devlin couldn't possibly be at the same risk as Kevin was. After all, he spent just short of nine months steeped in Aunt Gwendolyn's mana. He was grown in a well-spring of energy more powerful than any battery on Earth. Devlin's baseline and breaking-point could not possibly be the same as Kevin's. Besides, in the future he was wielding mana and power like he was born to it! And having come from Aunt Gwendolyn's body, he might as well have been born to it.

“But,” he began slowly, “but we both saw you in the future. You were casting spells and throwing mana around like it was nothing. And you sure as hell didn't seem insane to me. So, maybe, you won't go crazy like your dad. Or, maybe it takes a lot more to make you crazy than it does your dad. Or, maybe the fact that you can use mana somehow protects you from going crazy like your dad.”

Devlin would be lying if he didn't admit that he liked Kenny's suggestions. That he was somehow immune or more tolerant than his father. That he was better than his father.

But, as nice as it sounded, as an Osmosian, it was a risk Devlin couldn't take until he was sure. He did not want to become the next great terror of the universe by trying to help save it.

Reaching into his messenger bag, Devlin took out the Duel Monsters card Bezel gave him. 'Absorb Spell'. It was the old man's idea that he absorb raw mana instead of learning to use culturally specific talismans and fetishes. Perhaps he'd have more insight. “I'll go to Friedkin after school today and ask someone I know there.”

“Don't you have therapy today?” Kenny asked.

“I'll call Dr. Borges and let her know something came up.” The Osmosian replied, unconcerned. “I'm allowed to miss an appointment or two.”

This time Devlin had to actually look for Bezel.

He wasn't out in the quad raking leaves. Nor was he in the library dusting shelves.

The Osmosian had to explore almost the whole campus to find the old man. Every now and again, he would be stopped by a concerned looking student or faculty member asking if he was lost, or if he was supposed to be with an adult. To all these well-meaning concerns Devlin thanked them, then informed them that the High Magus was his mother and watched they eyes go wide with shock. He rather liked startling naive collage big-kids. Maybe he would consider enrolling in Friedkin after high school. If for no other reason than to shock the faculty as much as the students.

Finally, he found Bezel. The old man was emptying the waste bins from classrooms.

He watched the old man take a paper out of a garbage, scrutinize it for a comment, then toss it back in the waste bag with a judgey scoff. Apparently, he didn't think much of the magic that was being taught these days. Devlin cleared his throat to get the older man's attention. Bezel looked up. Noting that it was, once again, Gwendolyn's son bothering him at work, he gave the Osmosian a similar judgey scoff.

“Don't tell me you're back again because you still don't know what you're doing?” He finished emptying the classroom's waste can into the larger janitorial garbage bucket and tried to wheel his cart out the door. “I see you take more after that frustratingly endearing man-child that sired you, than you do Gwendolyn.”

Devlin chose not to comment on the fact that Bezel tried to insult his father by calling him a 'man-child' in the very same sentence in which he also called the man 'endearing'. Instead, he just blocked the door so the sorcerer couldn't leave. Casually leaning against the frame. Not being aggressive or threatening, but still managing to block enough of the passage to prevent the old man from getting his bulky cart through.

“Outta the way, sonny.” Bezel commanded.

The Osmosian didn't budge. Instead, he reached into his messenger bag and pulled out the Duel Monsters card had given him days before. 'Absorb Spell'.

“You're the one who gave me this.” He said. “You were the one to suggest I absorb raw mana instead of study totems and fetishes, I feel like you should take some responsibility for that suggestion and actually teach me.” A pause and a bating smirk. “Or is cryptic statements and bad advice all you're good for?”

Bezel just frowned at him. “You're not as good at manipulating people as you think you are, sonny.”

He tried to push past Devlin again, but Osmosians were remarkably hard to move when they didn't want to be moved and Bezel remained trapped in the classroom, the only exit blocked by Devlin seemingly innocent and unassuming body. Bezel huffed and glared at the boy.

“You and I both know I could make you move. Very easily.” He tilted his head down and glared over to the rim of his glasses at the boy. Making eye-contact. Reminding Devlin that he was more than what he appeared. He was not the simple janitor he liked to masquerade as.

As if the Osmosian needed reminding. That was the very reason he came to Bezel in the first place. Because he wasn't what he seemed. Because he was more than just a simple menial worker. Because he was the greatest magician that ever lived. Devlin smirked, he was also kinda starting to enjoy bating the old man. “Then do it.”

There was a beat of silence in which Devlin just raised his chin challengingly.

Bezel took the opportunity to listen for footfalls in the corridor outside that might indicate someone passing by. When he heard no one, the old man gave a weary sigh. Then raised a single hand. “Namala.”

Cords of mana slithered out from Bezel's raised hand and wrapped themselves about Devlin. The Osmosian struggled, but his arms were bound tight to his sides, and his legs were wound so close together. All his struggling succeeded in doing was causing the boy to fall over. The Osmosian clattered to the ground. No longer able to confront the old man, but still blocking the damn door.

The sorcerer heaved another weary sigh. These Tennysons, or Osmosians, or whatever Devlin was, were all so annoying. “Adepto vestri piger ascendere.”

With that second spell, Devlin was levitated up off the ground and over Bezel's head so that the old man could finally wheel his janitorial cart through the door. The moment he was past the Osmosian, Bezel looked back at the boy floating in the air. All he really had to do to get free was absorb the mana effecting him, but it looked like the thought didn't even occur to the boy. He had a lot to learn if he wanted to be any version of a magic user -especially a combat sorcerer.

“Solve fasciculos.”

At the magician's words, the Osmosian fell back to the ground none too gently. Impacting the factory-generic tile floor with a soft thud and a loud 'oof!'.

“You're about as far from being a sorcerer as I am from being Director of the FBI.” Bezel scoffed, looking down at the boy from over his shoulder.

Groaning, Devlin picked himself up off the floor. “I know. That's why I'm here. I need someone to teach me. Someone who's not gonna shelter me or keep me behind a desk studying books for the rest of my life like my mother will. You already stuck your nose in, so I'm nominating you.”

“Lucky me...” Muttered the old man.

Smirking, Devlin rested a hand on his hip. “That's right, I'm Bad Luck.”

If the boy was trying to make a pun or similar word play, it didn't come off as very clever. Then again, it also sounded like he was refrencing something that only he would understand. With a shrug Bezel turned his back to the boy and began wheeling his custodial cart down the corridor.

The Osmosian watched him leave. Disappointed.

After several steps Bezel turned to look back at the boy. “Well?”

“'Well', what?” Devlin blinked back at him.

“Are you coming or not?” Snaped Bezel with impatience. “Here are the ground rules, sonny, you don't call me 'Master', and I won't nickname after some damn insect. You do what I tell you in a reasonable timeframe from when I tell you. You don't talk back to me with any of that sass you got from both your parents, and when you're in need of discipline, you take the time to analyze what you did wrong and discipline yourself. For it is written, 'I can't be having with none of that shit.' Do we have an understanding?”

“Yes, sir!” The boy nodded enthusiastically and sprinted to catch up to the old man.

“Good.” Bezel nodded.

He lead them through the corridors and out the back of the building, to the incinerator. A gigantic iron bin with a single heavy door and a tall, black chimney that climbed up into the air, all kinds of circles, intersecting lines, and symbols etched into the metal.

“Open that up for me.” Bezel commanded. “Its heady and I'm old.”

Obediently, Devlin moved forward to open the incinerator door for his teacher. Indeed, it was heavy. Even with Devlin's Osmosian strength, a trite that made him disproportionately strong for his size, the boy had trouble getting the door open. There was loud creaking and the sound of straining hinges. Finally, the door swung open and clanged loudly when it banged on its other side.

Bezel came up and dumped the large garbage can from his custodial cart into the incinerator. “Hm. Guess you're not useless.” He muttered, as if still assessing whether or not he'd made a bad deal in agreeing to teach the Osmosian. “Adolebitque ea usque ad futuis.”

The contents of the incinerator went up in a blaze of fire that was the star sapphire color of mana at first, then shifted to an uncomfortable blue, then green, before finally settling on normal smoldering amber.

“Close the lid, sonny.” The old man ordered. “We don't want none of that shit getting out.”

Still wanting to impress his teacher, Devlin was quick to swing the heavy iron door shut again, with a loud clang. Locking it in place with a similarly heavy and hard to budge iron latch. No sooner had the Osmosian done this, than something large-sounding banged against the furnace door. It banged again, then a third time. Just a bit concerned, Devlin chanced a glance sideways at Bezel. But the old man looked more impatient than concerned, almost board, even. Well, if the greatest magician that ever lived wasn't bothered by something living and presumably very large trying to get out of the burning inferno, then Devlin wasn't going to worry either.

The incinerator rumbled, the chamber shaking slightly. A tremor traveling up from the main burn pile into the chimney. The circles and symbols etched onto the shaft glowed star sapphire with power. The light traveling up the chimney in a single wave, keeping pace with whatever it was that was making the incinerator shake. Until, finally, a tiny little puff of smoke was coughed out of the chimney. It fell over the lip of the cylinder and drifted down. Devlin tried to catch it in his hands.

A tiny little clump of mist and ash shaped vaguely like a worm with wings. The smallest gust of air disintegrated it, and in the time it took the Osmosian to blink soot out of his eyes, the little ash creature was gone. Reduced to nothing more than dust on the wind.

“What was that?” He asked, looking to Bezel for an explanation.

“Rejected summoning assignment.” The old man scoffed. “These young kids and their dumb teachers have no problem throwing their half-baked magical ideas in the classroom trashcan, without a single thought as to what might happen to it from there. Do you know what happens when your burn a piece of paper with a demon's name on it?” He did not pause to see if Devlin did know. “The demon appears! That's what! Except if its just a paper with the bastard's name and no actual incantation or spell, then there's nothing to actually bind the damn thing! Binding is literally the most important part of any spell! But the binding goes at the end, so its also the part that gets left out the most, because these dumb kids don't know how to finish the things they start, and these damn brain-dead teachers never give 'em the time to finish anything in the first place!”

Devlin just blinked at his teacher. He was pretty sure Bezel had not intended for that explanation to swing off into a rant.

Bezel blinked back. He hadn't intended for that rant to have an audience. He was usually alone when he did this.

“Anyway...” The old man shrugged. “Come on, we've got a lot of work to do.”

He grabbed his custodial cart and started wheeling it away, once again expecting Devlin to follow him.

Devlin did follow him. He followed Bezel through every classroom, in every hall, in every building on campus. Emptying waste bins, sweeping floors, wiping windows. Occasionally they made a trip back to the incinerator to dispose of another round of garbage. The chamber didn't always shake, and the chimney didn't always glow. Only when there was a spell that was activated by fire. That's what all those circles -sigils- and symbols were supposed to be. Wards and seals that nullified other spells or trapped monsters, preventing them from getting out to the rest of the school, and banishing them back to wherever they came from. Devlin would be lying if he didn't admit that he kinda enjoyed it when there was an incomplete spell or summoning in the incinerator. It made things interesting.

But emptying trashcans and burning half-assed homework was not what the Osmosian came for.

“How long are we gonna keep doing this?” He demanded.

“Not long.” Bezel assured him. “We're almost done.”

And, indeed, soon after that they finished cleaning every classroom on campus.

But Bezel did not begin Devlin's magical training then. Once the classrooms were clean they had to start on the libraries. Gwendolyn's wasn't the only library on campus. Friedkin boasted a total of seven libraries. All of them filled with old books that shed particles, and -occasionally- students with skin conditions that also shed. There was a great deal of dusting and sweeping to be done.

Needless to say, Devlin got really impatient and fed up really quick. They didn't even get through the first library before the Osmosian was throwing his feather duster down in frustration.

“This is so stupid!” He snarled. The statement punctuated by his antique duster clattering on the floor loudly. Several people lifted their heads from their reading to shoot several dirty looks at the High Magus' son whom was developing a reputation for making scenes and causing distractions in libraries.

The antique feather duster picked itself up off the ground, made a sharp swivel motion with its head as if to give he Osmosian an offended little 'hmph!' and sauntered away -moving on its feathers, swishing from side to side as if it were a skirt.

Bezel watched the disgruntled little duster drift away until it turned a corner and disappeared behind a shelf. Once it was well and gone, no chance of coming back so their work could continue, the old man turned his eyes back to the boy. “Well, you’ll never learn magic if you can’t learn patience.”

Devlin only scoffed and crossed his arms over his chest. He waited eleven years to finally learn the name of his mother and meet her. He waited another three months after that to actually start living with her. He waited patiently for weeks while Mom and Ben told him the story of how his father went evil and kidnapped him, a story that was told at the most agonizingly slow pace that a story could be told. Currently, he was waiting for his mother to decide that his father was sane, stable, and trustworthy enough to be allowed around Devlin again. The young Osmosian thought he was plenty patient! He just didn’t want his new powers to be something he had to wit a long time for.

After the pause dragged on a bit and the boy still didn’t reply, just continued to glare at Bezel with arms crossed the old man scoffed. “If you’re trying to stare me down, it ain’t gonna work, sonny. I have survived gods and demons. A little teen angst isn’t very intimidating.”

“Are you even actually gonna teach me anything? Or was this just a ploy to get some free labor to help you with this place?” Demanded the Osmosian. As an afterthought he considered also asking why Bezel seemed to be the only custodian for the entire campus, but thought better of it. He didn’t want the old man to get side tracked.

For the briefest of moments, an expression of annoyance passed across Bezel’s face. But it was there and gone in less than a moment.

“You can’t get something for nothing, sonny.” The old man said finally. “You want a magic teacher who’s not gonna keep you locked in safe book work, then you gotta be willing to offer something in return. I’d think you already knew that, with that little broker buisnessyou’re running at your own shool. Exchange service for service. You sweep, dust, and rake, and I’ll teach you to cast, charm, and bewitch.”

Well, when the old man put it like that, it sounded so reasonable and fair, and the Osmosian felt like an asshole for getting impatient and throwing what his father would consider a ‘tantrum’. Work for lessons was a reasonable arrangement. And besides, that wasn’t all that different from some of the the other places Devlin had livied in his life. On Zabin, Reds and Blues both exchanged work for his father for protection. They would do jobs for Kevin (whom, at the time, was going by the title ‘Armorer of the Divide’) and in return the Osmosian arms dealer would give them safe haven from whichever side of the conflict they were running from. When that chapter in their lives closed, Kevin exchanged his skills as a mechanic for passage to the next place he and Devlin would call ‘home’. Exchange service for service was common practice. The Osmosian didn’t know why he didn’t realize that that was what was happening here sooner.

“Besides,” added the old man, “you might pick up a few things while you work. Like in the Karate Kid. You know, ‘wax on, wax off’.”

Devlin raised an eyebrow, unconsciously pulling away. “I don’t need any help waxing off.”

Now it was Bezel’s turn to raise an eyebrow.

“I’m twelve. I know what waxing off is.” The young Osmosian informed him. “And I don’t see what that movie with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith has to do with anything. It wasn’t even karate, what they were practicing was clearly kung fu.”

“What?”Blinked Bezel. “No. I ment the original Karate Kid with Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio. I’m not claiming to be any Mr. Miyagi or anything, but I’ll do alright.”

At that point Devlin had no idea what the old man was talking about anymore, but he was willing to get back to work. Trade service for service. Work for training. Unfortunetly, that was also the moment his phone began to ring. Loudly. People in the library looked up from their books or their notes to shoot him dirty looks. Devlin fumbled with the phone, in a rush to answer and put an end to the noise, he failed to note the called ID.

“Hello?” He asked.

“Where the hell are you!?” His mother’s voice demanded over the line. “Dr. Borges said you never showed up for your appointment today, and you sure as hell didn’t tell me where you were going! So, where are you, and what’s going on?”Visibly, Devlin cinged. He should have predicted this would happen. His mother was absurdly protective of him. Of course she would be scared and angry upon learning that he never arrived at his therapist’s office, and of course she would be angry and disappointed when she realized he didn’t call to tell her he wasn’t going to his appointment. Of course she would panic when she didn’t know where he was. She was probably tracking his mana this very moment. He better answer fast before she flew through the library doors like a demon from hell.

“I’m at Friedken.” He informed her truthfully.

“What are you doing at Friedken?” Was her obvious follow-up question.

Bezel waved his arms wildly and mouthed the words ‘leave me out of this’. He did say before that he didn’t want to get between a mother and her young. He and Gwendolyn did seem like friends, but that didn’t mean he wanted to step on her parenting toes and risk incurring her wrath. Bezel said he’d survived gods and demons, but what was an Anodite to him? Something more terrible and fearsome, apparently.

“I wanted to get a new book.” Devlin supplied a perfectly reasonable explanation, seamlessly and without pause.

Bezel visibly relaxed.

“Oh.” Gwendolyn seemed to accept it easily enough. “Okay. Well, I’m coming to pick you up.”

Of course she wouldn’t just leave him be. After giving her a scare, she would want to see her son. She would need to be reassured that he was, indeed, as fine as he claimed to be, and want him back home where she could be more secure and confident in his safety.

Devlin sighed. There was just no arguing with her when she was like this. “I’m at your library.”

“Good. I’ll meet youthere.” She clicked off.

Slipping his phone back in his pocket, the Osmosian looked at the old man.

Bezel was giving him a curious look. “This Dr. Borges, what kind of doctor is he? You sick or something?”

“She.” Devlin corrected. “And, no. She’s a head doctor.”

Crossing his arms over his chest, the old man seemed to consider something. Then, finally nodded, as if giving some kind of silent approval. “Head medicine is still relatively new.” –For someone who claimed to be centuries old, that was probably true.- “But its important. I have seen first hand what happens when those who need it go without it. I used to have this friend, Ivan, he- well, never mind what he did, it was Terrible. Okay. Here’s the plan! I won’t do anything for you on days when you seen the head-doctor. We’ll meet after your regular school or on weekends. You’ll come here. We’ll clean for an hour, then we’ll train for an hour. Agreed?”

That seemed so reasonable, Devlin just stared at him.

“Well, sonny?” Bezel pressed.

“Uh, uh, yeah. Sure!” the Osmosian blinked.

The two men shook on it, sealing the bargain.

“Well, I’m gonna get out of here.” Bezel collected his wntering dusters. “I hope you don’t think less of me, but worried mothers scare the living daylights out of me. So I’m just gonna take off.”

He left.

Devlin was left standing there to reflect on what he’d just agreed to. But more importantly, what he knew he’d get out of it.

Chapter Text

Ben felt uncomfortable straddling the back of the Null Guardian. He remembered having to fight these creatures back when Dr. Animo had enthralled their minds and used them as his own private army to terrorize the Null Void. All under the temporary moniker of D’Void.

Academically, the Hero knew that for Animo to be able to do that, the Null Guardians had to be pretty close to just ‘normal animals’. Which meant that now that they were free of the mad doctor’s control, they were just normal animals. Riding one should be no different than riding a horse.

A horse with wings and tentacles. How different could that be, really?

Ben quickly realized he had no frame of reference, since he’d never actually rode a horse before either.

Kevin seemed perfectly comfortable on the creature’s back. Sitting in front of Ben, holding the reigns. Shoulders straight but back relaxed and fluid so that he could move as the creature moved. Kevin looked like he’d been born to ride a Null Guardian. Ben felt the need to cling to the older man to keep from falling off, but refrained from doing so for fear of being thrown off for invading the Osmosian’s personal space.

“Why didn’t you tell them about Rook?” He asked instead, gripping the sides of the saddle instead of his companion. “Or that you’re not 11,000 anymore?”

The Osmosian groaned, as if annoyed by the younger man’s question. He turned around in the saddle to peer past Ben at Incarcecon shrinking in the distance behind them. Deciding they were far enough away that there was no chance of anything hearing them, Kevin answered Ben’s question. “Did you not hear what Quince said? They talk to everyone! Every pilgrim, trader, mercenary, or whatever-the-fuck that passes through the Free Fortress shares intel that they know, and in return the Free Fortress tells them what they know. Do you really want the whole Null Void to know that Rook is lost and alone out there somewhere, or that I’m not as powerful as I used to be?”

Opening his mouth, Ben was about to remind his companion that they had plenty of friends here in the Null Void. Incarcecon was their friend, and so were a number of Null Void settler farmers that Ben helped back during the D’Void fiasco. Not to mention all the Plumbers that were stationed here in the Null Void and would already know that Rook was missing and that Kevin 11,000 was just ‘Magister Levin’ now. But then Ben remembered who else ‘the whole Null Void’ would include. Servantis. The Rooters and Servantis.

A former Proctor ranked Plumber whom was not only cunning and smart, but also amoral and ruthless enough to preform genetic experiments on lost children. Their friends, Helen, Manny, Alan, and Pierce –may he rest in peace- were not born as alien hybrids. At one time in their lives they were all average human children. But then Servantis got his hands on them and manipulated Kevin’s powers into grafting alien DNA onto their genes. But he didn’t stop there. After the children displeased him, the Proctor wipped their memories and left them to wander unsupervised, alone, and lost. To this day, well into their adulthoods now, Helen and Manny married with a kid of their own, they still had gaps in their memories they could never be filled in.

Ben closed his mouth. No. He did not want the whole Void knowing that Rook was lost, or that Kevin 11,000 wasn’t 11,000 anymore. They would need every advantage they could get.

Taking Ben’s silence for the answer it was, the Osmosian nodded with satisfaction. “That’s what I thought.”

He checked the map Quince uploaded to his badge and pulled on the reigns, causing the Null Guardian to veer rather suddenly to the side. Ben had to grab madly for the sides of the saddle to keep from falling off.

“Dude, just hold onto me.” Kevin commanded, sounding more exasperated than annoyed. “We’ve seen each other naked, like, eleven-million times. Its cool.” A pause. “Besides, you’re supposed to hold onto the driver when you’re riding bitch.”

“Gawd, I hate you so much.” Ben groaned with equal parts frustration and affection, fingernails digging into the material of the saddle. “Why am I friends with you?”

“Well, we’ve known each other so long by this point we’re not really friends anymore, we’re more like brothers.” Suggested the Osmosian. “I mean, like, I hate your guts, and you know exactly how to piss me off without even trying, and sometimes I just wanna beat the ever loving shit out of you. But I also won’t stand by and let anyone else beat the shit out of you, and as insane as it sounds, I want you to be happy –most of the time- even when I’m mad at you. So… yeah! Brothers. Plus, I’m married to your cousin, so one way or another we’re family no matter what.”

Being told flat out and in no uncertain terms that the other man wanted to beat the ever loving shit out of him should have made Ben uncomfortable, but instead all it did was succeed in putting the Hero at ease. He wrapped his arms around the older man’s waist and leaned his head down onto his back with a satisfied sigh.

“Shoulders! Tennyson! Hold onto my fucking shoulders!” Kevin roared. “Hands above the waist! Gawd! What is wrong with you?”

“Right! Sorry!” Ben practically jumped out of his skin as he rushed to move his hands from encircling the Osmosian’s belly to onto the shoulder pads of his proto-tech armor. He hesitated for the beat of another breath before finally asking, “So, where are we going?”

Heaving another exasperated sigh, the Osmosian explained –using a tone that very clearly conveyed that he thought it should have been obvious. “Based on the info we got from Quince, it’s safe to assume that Rook was attacked by one of the Way Bads you released into the Null Void twenty years ago.”

“Hey! I wasn’t the one to put them here in the Void, okay!” Ben practically shouted in protest, insulted by the accusation. “I just stopped their rampage on Earth, it was the rest of the Plumbers that decided it was a good idea to sweep them into the Null Void.”

One day someone should really explain to the Hero of the Universe that his responsibilities didn’t end at just beating the monsters. As a Hero from not just a planet, not just a solar system, but the whole Universe, he had an obligation to see his victories through to the end, make sure perpetrators were sentences appropriately in proportion to their crime, and make sure monsters were either rehabilitated or confined to a place where they could do no harm. Since Ben did not do that with the mutant To’kustar, he was just as responsible for sic’ing them on the Null Void as the Plumbers organization was and trying to make a distinction between himself and the Plumbers wouldn’t change that.

Besides, he worked so closely with the Plumbers organization that trying to separate himself from the organization or its actions in the eyes of the people whom had been harmed by said organization’s actions was pointless. Hell! The Plumbers logo was stamped on his Omnitrix! Even if Ben never learned his Grandfather’s past or ever actually met a Plumber, he’d still be irrevocably associated with the Plumbers. They shared blame just as much as glory.

But, as much as Kevin felt someone really needed to sit down with Ben and explain that, the Osmosian also knew that it was an impossible task. Ben had a very long and sad history of just not understanding things that made him look bad.

“Anyway…” Kevin said instead. “That means that, if he’s still alive, his vehicle has probably been totaled. So, he’ll be traveling on foot. That means he can’t be too far from the original attack site –or at the very least, on an asteroid that was close to the site at the time of the attack. I happen to know how things move in the Null Void, so we’re heading to one of the asteroids that was close to him then that would be closest to us now.”

“And we’ll find Rook there!” Ben smiled at the back of the Osmosian’s head. If only all of his rescue missions could be this easy!

Ben couldn’t see it because Kevin’s back was to him, but the older man rolled his eyes. For a man in his early forties now, Ben was still incredibly naïve. Nothing was that easy in the Null Void. If they did find Rook that quickly, then it would just his be dead body they found. For Rook’s sake, Kevin actually hoped they didn’t find him immediately. If it wasn’t in the first place they looked then it meant he was still alive and mobile. Knowing that was better than finding a dead –or close to dead- friend. Squeezing the Null Guardian’s sides with his legs, the Osmosian urged the beast to move faster.

The sudden acceleration caused Ben to slip back on the saddle and claw madly at Kevin’s shoulders to keep from falling off. The Osmosian groaned with irritation again, but said nothing. Ben would always be Ben.

Magister Arys didn’t know how long he’d been traveling with Aggregor’s caravan, the equivalent of days, probably. But he had to marvel at how, no matter how the voidscape changed, they always seemed to know where they were going. Regardless of who was leading the column.

Occasionally Aggregor or his daughter, Aggrenna, would stop, halting the procession and just watch the asteroids in front of them drift by. Or they would pick up a pebble or a fist full of sand and toss it over the edge of whatever asteroid they were on and glare at it as it fell, or rose, or just drifted in front of them –however the perpetually inconsistent gravity of the Null Void chose to move it. But after one of these pauses, the caravan would get moving again, sometimes changing course, sometimes staying on their same heading. But always, Arys was sure, making their way to their destination of Incarcecon. He didn’t understand exactly how they were navigating the Void, but there was no doubt in the Plumber’s mind that they were, indeed, navigating expertly and knew exactly where they were going.

That was something the Plumbers still had trouble with.

There were no directions in the Null Void like north or south. The pocket dimension did not have magnetic poles. Not only that but the landscape was dynamic and fluid. It changed –sometimes by the hour. There were no consistent and reliable landmarks to use for direction. Warden Rook felt the solution to this problem was to place tracking nodes on all the major asteroids they could find, not only mapping the Void, but navigating it as well. So long as a person carried a badge they would always have a copy of the map and be able to know where they were going.

But the Null Void settlers managed to do that without tracking nodes and high tech maps.

After stopping for what was probably the eleventh time at the edge of an asteroid where they would have to choose between two other rocks for the crossing, Arys finally figured out that natives of the Void didn’t need maps. They navigated like sailors navigated a nautical sea on any planet in real space. They looked to the other asteroids farther out instead of stars, and measured gravity drifts instead of ocean currents, but the methods were –in essence- the same. And they seemed to work, because the caravan was always confident in where they were going. Magister Arys made a mental note to ask someone to teach him how to do it.

Maybe not right now. He would wait until they were all in a better mood. Like after they found their missing family –assuming they would find Shirahk alive and well. After that they would all be happier and –presumably- more accommodating, at least less likely to maroon him on an asteroid in some uncharted part of the Void with monsters near. And he wouldn’t ask Aggregor either. One of the sisters instead. They seemed more tolerant of him since he at least tried to recover their brother for them when the boy and Warden Rook were first lost.

For the moment, however, he asked a different question. “How far are we from Incarcecon?”

Several members of the company shot him dirty looks. Only a Plumber would call it ‘Incarcecon’. Keep calling it by its prison name even if it wasn’t a prison anymore. Even if it hadn’t been a prison for just short of two decades. To anybody in the Null Void who meant a damn is was the ‘Free Fortress’. The Lewodan made a mental note to make an effort to start using the compound’s contemporary name from now on as well.

Aggregor suppressed an irritated snarl, the sound coming out as an exasperated sigh. “Girls, see to your pet Plumb.”

Aggrenna shot the old man a glare of equal frustration. “He’s not our ‘pet’, father, and thus far he’s actually been useful. If it weren’t for him and the Warden, we would not have been able to get the rest of the clan away from the Way Bads.”

“Doing one thing to help us once does not make him a friend.” The Osmosian reminded her.

“No.” She agreed. “But it does make him an ally. If not a life-long ally like Kevin, then at least an ally of convenience.”

Aggregor only rolled his eyes. He clearly did not think much of the convenience of having Plumbers for allies, albeit temporary ones. “Very well then, Aggrenna, answer your ally’s question.”

She looked at the Lewodan, her eyes making a sweep of his uniform without ever passing over his face. “Olennor, answer the Plumber’s question.” She commanded her younger sister.

The younger woman shot the older a sour look, her brows knitting together and eyes crinkling so that Aggrenna knew exactly how Olennor felt about being made the Plumber’s tour guide and babysitter. But when she turned her attention to Arys, her expression was pitying. “Distance is unreliable.” She began. “But if you’re asking how much time until we reach the Free Fortress, we’ll have to make camp at least once more before we get there.”

“Oh.” Arys didn’t mean to let his disappointment show. For some reason he thought that because they knew where they were going, that they would get there faster. Then again, they were a large group, traveling with lots of heavy baggage, old people, children, and some injured in the mad rush to escape the Way Bad, or in the fall when Rook’s proto-tool gave out. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Olennor opened her mouth to reply. Thought twice about whatever she was about to say. Then closes it again. She gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. It felt like a pittying gesture one might offer to a well meaning but simple-minded child. “Just stay in the formation and try not to annoy my father.”

Overhearing the exchange, Aggrenna looked over her shoulder. “If he wants to make himself useful again, he can watch the children while the rest of us make camp.”

Arys suppressed a wince. The Lewodan hadn’t spent time with children since he was a child. And if the adults held barely veiled hostility to him because of his Plumber status, then the children would probably try and kick him if he hovered too low.

Kevin brought the Null Guardian down on an asteroid with a fresh water spring on it. In all his years in the alien community and all his visits to the Null Void over the years, Ben had never seen surface water in the Null Void. He imagined there had to be water sources in the pocket dimension somewhere since beings not only managed to live but also propagate in the Void. There had to be fresh, drinkable, water. After all, nothing lives without water. But Ben did wish he got a better look at the whole asteroid before they landed.

A wide pool at the base of another cliff face, and at the place where water met cliff, partially concealed by the rock itself, was a narrow cave. The pool, as it happened, was actually just part of a stream. Not quite wide enough to be a river. It flowed out from what looked to be a very deep cave into the cliff. Along the stream to one side was a narrow path leading deeper into the cavern.

“Where’s the water coming from?” He asked Kevin as the older man lead the Null Guardian to the edge of the pool to drink.

“What do you mean?” Blinked the Osmosian, not understanding the question.

Ben dipped a toe in the current and watched the water slowly run over his combat boot. Clear, moving water. “Well, like, drinking-water on Earth either comes from glaciers or it bubbles up from under the Earth’s crust. This is an asteroid, its basically a free-floating island. No planetary crust. Not cold enough for glaciers. So, where’s the water coming from?”

“Its doesn’t come from anywhere. It just is.” Pulling his hair back, Kevin knelt down and dipped his face in the stream to take a drink of water of his own.

“But that doesn’t make sense.” Ben shook his head. If it was a fresh-water spring, then the water had to ‘spring’ from somewhere.

Coming back up, he blinked at the Hero of the Universe. “Tennyson, the reason Earth has a breathable atmosphere is because the planet’s gravity is holding in the air we need to breath. The gravity here in the Null Void is always changing. Some places its stronger than other, some places its non-existent. Yet the air pressure and density is always the same –breathable. For that matter, gravitational pull is determined by a body’s mass, yet every single asteroid in the Null Void seems to have the exact same level of gravity regardless of its mass, density, or size. Things don’t make sense in the Null Void. I’ve found its easier not to think too hard about it, and just focus on staying alive.” A pause. “Or in this case, doing what we came here to do.”

Ben took his foot out of the stream. If his partner was gonna be shoving his whole face in it and drinking from it, then he shouldn’t be muddying the water with his boots. “What else doesn’t make sense?”

The Osmosian raised an eyebrow. “What, you want a list?”

The Hero opened his mouth, but paused, considering what he might actually be asking and remembering that it was Kevin Levin he was talking to and that the Null Void still was and would always be a sore spot between them. Ben looked away, silently withdrawing the question.

Nodding, Kevin stood and got to work. The fact that this asteroid had clean, drinkable water meant it would be a practical place for a traveler to stop and make camp. But in addition to that, the moving water over centuries had hollowed out a cave in the rock, which meant shelter from the elements and cover from enemies. That in addition to the water made this asteroid the ideal spot to not just camp, but wait for rescue. If Rook was smart –and Kevin liked to believed that he was- the Revonnagander would have tried to stay put and wait for rescue. Kevin stepped under the canopy and followed the narrow path beside the stream until it branched off into other corridors and the main chamber widened up.

There were obvious signs of a recent camp. Char marks on the stone close to the cave entrance where the airflow would be best. Disturbed sand in a semi-circle to indicate where people had walked. Flattened rectangles to show where tents had been. Someone had definitely stopped here recently.

The problem was, it looked like much too large a group to have been Rook and whatever other Plumbers he had with him. Counting the smoothed down patches of sand, Kevin counted at least six tents, each one large enough to hold five to seven people depending on their species and body sizes, and relative comfort levels with each other. There were Null Guardian dropping in one corner and to the best of the Osmosian’s knowledge, the Plumbers had never used domesticated Null Guardians. Someone sure as hell had stayed here, but it wasn’t Rook.

Walking two complete circles around the chamber, Kevin came to rest at the charred mark where the fire had been and ran through the list of the traveling groups that wandered the Null Void. Mercenaries, traders, hunters, pilgrims, just general transients that hadn’t yet found a niche for themselves in the Void’s limited options for ‘civilization’. This one was obviously a large group, and used domesticated Null Guardians. They either needed to keep warm, or else ate cooked foods –otherwise why have a fire at all? Probably Null Void settlers, decedents of the original Galvan penal colonists that first explored and settled the Null Void (‘settled’ here being a relative term).

“Any sign of Rook?” Ben asked, hovering over the kneeling Osmosian. “You said he’d be here.”

“No I didn’t.” Kevin reminded the younger man. “I said this asteroid was close to where he was attacked. You’re the one who assumed that meant he’d be here.”

“Yeah, but-“

Whatever the Hero was about the say was drowned out and cut off when they heard their Null Guardian, that was still milling about outside, give a sudden cry of distress, accompanied by shouts and commands of several other beings that definitely hadn’t been outside when the pair first entered the cave.

Kevin sprang to his feet.

“What was that?” Ben demanded.

Kevin was already sprinting back to the cave entrance. Calling over his shoulder, he answered. “Someone else came for water and is now bothering our ride!”

The other man gave a shrug. Kevin Levin and his affection for modes of transportation. If whoever was out there just came for water then there was no reason to assume they would be hostile. True, Ben did not come into the Null Void as often as the Osmosian did, but the times that he had visited, the Hero had met plenty of kind and helpful people who just wanted a better world. There was no need to freak out and go running off, as if someone was trying to steal their Null Guardian. Ben followed his frienemy at a much calmer pace.

Outside again, Ben realized that Kevin probably had the right idea and he really should have hurried.

There were five of them, all from different species, or else mixed species. It was sometimes hard to tell with aliens Ben wasn’t familiar with, but it looked like two males and three females.

Ben hated to admit when Kevin was right, but… as the Osmosian predicted, it looked like two of them were trying to steal their Null Guardian.

One male, tall and burly, with blue skin stretched over rippling muscles. Almost every visible inch of his skin was covered in bold black tattoos. Designs of interlocking spirals and loops, scenes from what Ben assumed was that alien’s mythology, and even some rose of small designs that could have been his native language. Almost tall enough to be on eye-level with the beast, the tattooed alien tugged on the Null Guardian’s bridal trying get it to come over and join their own mounts –of which there were only four.

The second, female by all outward appearances, was of a different species. Possibly reptilian with her scales were anything to go by. With a long slender body, almost lanky. She was almost as tall as her companion, but with none of his bulk. Her long limbs only about one quarter the thickness of his. It gave her the illusion of being almost skeletal. This image was not made any better by the fact that her scales were a shade of blue so light that they looked almost white, like bone, or a corpse drained of blood.

The other three busied themselves filling canteens and skins with water.

All different species.

The second male was short, but slender with sinewy muscles. Even kneeling down to fill his water-skin, Ben could tell that he would be limber in a fight a quick on his feet. And he must be a competent fighter, because he adorned himself with jewelry made from bones of all manner of creatures. Even with all his experience with aliens, Ben couldn’t identify them all. What he could identify was a necklace made from a Vulpimancer rib, with matching earrings that dangled Vulpimancer teeth off wire links, an eyebrow piercing that looked like a Quilcupine finger with one end filed down, and a chain of mismatched vertebra from different aliens around his waist. As far as unidentifiable, he also wore several more strands of small bones all strung together and wrapped several times around his neck. Similar strands had been clipped to the shoulders of his leather vest, and spiraled down his arms to be clipped onto leather gauntlets around his writs. The teeth of a Piscciss Volann jutted out from the gauntlets on both arms.

The female next to him looked so out of place in the Null Void, with silver-white hair falling over a china doll face. Human shaped hands that looked soft and delicate. Hell! She even had freckles for cripes sake! Except that everything about her from below the waist belonged to a snake. Her very human-like torso tapered down into narrow hips that stretched out into a serpent’s tail. Blue skin melting into scales that were as silver-white as her hair. When she laughed at a joke the woman next to her told, she showed sharp yellow fangs that seemed much too long for her mouth.

The last female was markably smaller than the rest of the group. Small and stocky, with muscles as thick as their absurdly tall companion trying to tug on the Null Guardian.

All five of them looked up when Kevin and Ben came running out of the cave.

Kevin was going to open up hostile negotiations with an aggressive and intimidating shout of, ‘Get the fuck away from my ride!’ But the moment he was outside and got a clear look at the group, the Osmosian stopped short. Almost –literally- skidding to a halt just before he got within striking distance of the nearest alien. Instead, he gave a surprised and concerning exclamation. “Shit! Fuck!”

He recognized the group. Not the individual members, but their type. All different species, not uniformity to their clothing or weapons. Not emblem or banner to name their tribe for those of the Void who could not read. But still, clearly identifiable by the simple absence of these things.


They were Neths.

Ben almost collided with the older man’s back. “Whoa! What?”

Kevin put up an arm, holding Ben back. The Osmosian wished he’d thought to absorb some stone from inside the cave before he came rushing out. Instead, slowly, very slowly and without taking his eyes off the group, he knelt down, one hand to the ground and absorbed the rock.

“You getting ready for a fight?” Ben asked from over Kevin’s shoulder.

No sooner had this question escaped Ben’s mouth then the other five straightened. Those kneeling at the water’s edge moved their water skins and jugs, setting them aside on the bank. The two struggling with Kevin and Ben’s Null Guardian let go of the beast. Hands went to weapons, knuckles were cracked and limbs were stretched. Those with powers were getting ready to use them. Those without powers already had weapons in hand.

There was no more opportunity for banter after that. Ben and Kevin soon found themselves pounced upon by five hostile aliens, all of different species with different powers, weapons, or skills.

The one with all the bone-jewelry jumped high in the air, higher than one would have expected just looking at him. When he came down again, there was a knife in each hand. Mean looking blades, wide and flat with hooked tips and a serrated edge on the back.

Kevin threw up a stone-covered arm to block what would have been a devastating stab to the face. Kevin’s eyes being the only part of his body that was never covered in armor.

Slithering behind the pair, the part-serpent woman came up behind Ben, encircling him in her coils and squeezing hard. Ben gasped as his lungs were constricted. Shifting his shoulders, the Hero of the Universe struggled until he could tap his watch against one of the coils holding him. There was a flash of green, then the serpent alien was draped over the shoulders of Humungousaur. She blinked in confusion at the Vaxasaurian. She was sure she had just been squeezing something smaller. Undeterred, the serpent woman opened her mouth, unhinging her jaw to allow her fangs to fold out to their full length, and bit into Humungousaur’s neck.

It was difficult. The Vaxasaurian’s skin was tough, and Ben was struggling to throw her off. But With her coils wrapped around Humungousaur’s neck, Ben couldn’t shake her loose, and she just kept applying pressure until something finally broke through. Ben felt the piercing pain of the needle like fangs, before something warm entered his bloodstream and suddenly the alien constricting him didn’t seem so bad. The world was spinning. The crimson and scarlet sky of the Null Void swirling in a microcosm of other colors and far-away sounds. Was that Kevin cursing? Why was Kevin cursing? Everything was great. So, shiny and-

Ben passed out.

The Omnitrix gave a flicker of green light and Humungousaur reverted back to Ben’s natural human shape.

“Thanks for the help, Tennyson!” Kevin snarled at his companion’s now unconscious body as he fended off, not only the guy with all the bone-jewelry, but also the short female and the big tattooed dude. “Useless ass Hero!”

“Don’t worry.” Bone-Jewelry assured him. “We won’t kill either of you yet. We’d like to have you for dinner.”

“Not funny!” Kevin blocked another jab and slash attack with one arm, before trying to get in a slash of his own with the other. The jewelry guy really was fast on his feet. The bones of his many necklaces and chains clacking together with every movement. It was distracting. Which, Kevin imagined, was part of the guy’s strategy. “Fucking Neth!”

With Ben down for the count it was five on one.

As soon as Kevin blocked an attack from one of them, four others rushed in to batter him from other sides –and he couldn’t block or parry all of them. The stone of his armor cracked and chipped. The Osmosian threw himself on the ground, doing a very un-graceful summersault between the big guy’s legs, absorbing a fresh layer of rock as he did so and trying to roll away from the group to put some distance between him and his enemies. Maybe thin them out a bit.

This would have been so much easier if he still had his 11,000 aliens. He could just transform. They’d recognize who he was, and run the fuck away. As it was, the name Kevin 11,000 didn’t mean much without the actual 11,000 to back it up. At least, not the Neths.

The serpent woman moved the fastest, charging at Kevin like a racer-snake. Jaw still unhinged, yellow fangs still out.

Kevin throw up a hand, grabbing the woman’s throat before she could sink those venomous fangs into any part of him.

And, like he tended to do when he was in a pinch and more than a bit panicked, his better judgment checked out and his Osmosian instinct took over. Kevin didn’t even realize she was absorbing her until his own body began to change. A rippling on his skin as flesh hardened into scales. An aching pressure in his mouth as teeth elongated into fangs. Kevin let go the moment he realized what it was he was doing. He only absorbed living things when he was a bad guy, and he wasn’t a bad guy right now! He was just in the Null Void.

“Fuck!” He dropped the serpent woman from his hand.

The other four stared at him.

Kevin ran his tongue over his teeth feeling the new and unfamiliar fangs. Gwendolyn wasn’t gonna like that. She probably wouldn’t like the scales too much either. Doing something very dangerous, he took his eyes off his enemies for a moment. Turning his attention inward, like he did back when he was Kevin 11,000 and needed to change back from his mutant form. Like he taught Devlin to do with his own mutant form. The Osmosian followed the pathways and flow of energies within his own body. They were always more rapid, choppy, and violent after absorbing life-energy.

Like energy had a ‘mind’ of its own. Like energy fought back. It was one of the reasons why absorbing living beings tended to make Kevin crazy while absorbing matter was a non-issue. But after mastering the energies of 11,000 aliens, just one was no problem. Just one wouldn’t make him crazy. Kevin could control just one. He just needed to concentrate.

He had his skin back to normal and was working on the fangs when one of the Neths snuck up behind him and knocked the Osmosian on the head. Hard.

Kevin went down. Unconscious before he even realized what happened.

They looked down on the prone bodies of both Kevin and Ben. One of them knelt down next to the Osmosian, noticing the cord around his neck, and lifted the old padlock Kevin wore there. A padlock with the number eleven scratched onto it with deep cuts into the metal.

“This is the symbol for 11,000.” Bone-Jewelry informed his cohorts, a slight tremor of concern darkening his voice. “You don’t suppose they belong to the King in the Void, do you?”

“Who cares if they did?” Demanded the tall skeletal woman. “The King in the Void has no need for weak followers. Pack them onto their own Null Guardian. We’ll take them back with the water.”

Dropping the padlock back onto Kevin’s chest, Bone-Jewelry nodded. The King in the Void did not tolerate the weak or helpless. When he returned to the Void to claim his enemies, he might even be grateful to them for helping to cull his forces.

“What about Sela?” Asked the large one with the tattoos, indicating the serpent woman who was likewise laying prone in the dirt.

Her silver white hair had lost its luster, her skin looked loose on her frame, her hands were wrinkled and gray. But she was still alive –barely. The Osmosian hadn’t taken everything.

The other woman shrugged round, boney shoulders. “Pack her on their Null Guardian as well.”

Hover vehicles and similar modes of transportation that ran off tech weren’t practical for the Null Void. They cost precious fuel which was hard enough to get now that they were no longer being supplied by the Magistrata. But they also took effort and man-power to maintain. So, when Servantis ordered a team out on a long mission, he did not give them the use of any of the vehicles the Rooters had scavenged over the years. Instead, he outfitted the team with Null Guardian’s to ride.

Servantis himself rode at the head of the formation, Magister Ramsey’s bound and still injured body thrown over the back of the saddle like baggage.

After being told that his precious Weapon XI, his favorite tool and agent, Kevin Levin would be returning to the Null Void, the former Proctor wanted to greet him personally. After finding the Osmosian when he was still just a boy, only eleven years old, lost and alone out in the Null Void, after exploring his powers together, after bonding over a shared hatred for Ben Tennyson, after wiping the boy’s mind and the minds of those closest to him and basically re-writing Kevin’s whole life… Servantis liked ot think that he was the closest thing Kevin had to a ‘father’.

Certainly, Kevin was the closest thing Servantis had to a son!

He wanted to be the first person the Osmosain met upon his return to the Null Void.

Unless Ben Tennyson threw him into the Null Void with the hap-hazard use of an old Null Void Projector, Kevin would come in through Incarcecon, through the Free Fortress. That was usually where Kevin hung out anyway –when he was lucid- so even if that wasn’t the Osmosian’s point of entry, that would still be where Servantis could find him.

Flying in a V-formation, Servantis led his Rooters to the Free Fortress.

He pulled up on the reigns, however, just as they were about to pass over a caravan of travelers that were just making camp. Still in the process of unloading the tents and stoves from their own Null Guardians. But there was no mistaking the symbol that was embroidered on their canvases and their clothing. A star pierced by a veridical spear. Not just any spear, but a very distinct stylized spear with a fin or wing shaped blade, almost more like a halberd than a spear. The spear off which the emblem was based was long gone, collecting dust in some Plumbers evidence locker somewhere, but Servantis didn’t need to see the real spear to know who’s encampment that was.

His second favorite Osmosian was down there.

Whenever Kevin came to the Null Void, he preferred to hang out at Incarcecon, but whenever he wasn’t at Incarcecon, he was imposing on Aggregor and his family.

Using hand signs to signal that there was a change of plans, Servantis brought his Null Guardian down right in the middle of where the group was making camp.

There was a great deal of shouting and rude exclamations. Older Settlers grabbed children and pulled them away, other shouting for Aggregor, or Aggrenna and her spear-fighters. Some just screaming wordlessly to give voice to their feelings of tension and fear. No one enjoyed having Rooters drop in for a visit. Servantis couldn’t help but smirk. These people wouldn’t even be on his radar if Aggregor hadn’t married one of them. Idly, he wondered of the Null Void settlers of the caravan even knew that. If they didn’t, how long would it take them to turn on their adopted Osmosian and his children?

Speaking of, Aggregor pushed his way through bodies of scared Settlers that stood there gawking at the Rooters’ party. He was flanked by his daughters, Aggrenna and… what was the middle one’s name? Servantis couldn’t remember.

The only ones he really cared about were Aggrenna because he never would have imagined an artificially created being like Aggregor would have been capable of breeding at all. Aggrenna’s very existence was a wonderful shock that opened up so many delightful possibilities for the mad scientist. And Shirahk… well, Shirahk actually was Osmosian. He was living proof that all those wonderful and exciting possibilities were, in fact, possible!

Aggregor had a spear in his hands, razor sharpened point trained on Servantis.

The former Proctor scoffed at him, rather like a disappointed parent or reprimanding old aunt. “Still mingling with savages and playing with sticks, I see. You used to be so much greater.”

Aggregor did not dignify that with a response. There was no need to remind Servantis that when he used to be ‘greater’ he also used to think he was a warlord from a socially stinted people who placed control as a higher priority over balance. He used to believe he had parents, and a history, and a life before he just popped into existence terrorizing the Andromeda galaxy and beyond. For several years after his defeat he still believed he was that Osmosian warlord whom was just trying to rebel against the conventions of his race. That was before it was revealed to him that, not only were Osmos V and Osmosians never real, but he himself wasn’t even a real person. But a sort of homunculus, an artificial person created in an attempt to reproduce an individual with Kevin’s Osmosian abilities. Aggregor’s whole past was a like. Everything that had made him ‘great’ was a lie.

“What do you want?” Aggrenna demanded. She, too, had a spear in her hands. Its point trained on the Rooters’ party and their Null Guardian mounts.

Servantis turned his attention from her father, to her. Giving the girl –no, she was a young woman now- giving the woman a lazy little look over. She was taller than the last time he’d seen her. Almost as tall as her father, in fact. She towered over the other Null Void settlers whom never seemed able to reach higher than a hundred and sixty-four centimeters. She had her father’s hair, straight and smooth textured, and she wore it similarly too, brushed back from her forehead and displaying the four horns she also inherited from him. The only trait visible trait that came from her mother’s people seemed to be her skin. A charming shade of jewel-blue.

Thin lips stretched in a predatory smile when Servantis looked at her. “Aggrenna, my dear, frank and to the point as ever, I see. You’re wasted here with this lot.” He told her. “Why not come join my Rooters? We could use a woman of your talents and temperament.”

“After what you did to my baby brother?” She snarled at him. “I’d rather shove this spear up your ass!”

“Charming.” Snorted the former Proctor, not amused. “That must be Kevin’s influence. I know your father would never approve of so colorful a threat.”

“Only because it would soil the spear.” Aggregor informed his creator.

“And where is my dear Shirahk?” Servantis pressed. Of all of Aggregor’s children, the only one of them to be born Osmosian was by far his favorite. The former Proctor wanted to get his hands on him. Almost as much as he wanted to get ahold of Kevin’s son Devlin. But, alas, the boy was nowhere in sight.

“Safe from you.” Was the other man’s snarled reply.

Of course, Aggregor wouldn’t tell. He would not allow the Rooters to lay hands on his boy again. It would have to be over his dead body. Something that Servantis would prefer to avoid since Aggregor had proved to be far more useful an experiment than originally expected.

Not finding this avenue of conversation very amusing or productive, Servantis frowned, turning his attention to the voidscape around them. The Rooters party had been on their way to Incarcecon when they happened upon Aggregor’s band. This wasn’t the Starspear caravan’s normal rout either. They usually made a wide circuit of the Void, only coming to the Free Fortress at year’s end, rather than cutting right through it. The former Proctor made a point of keeping track of all his projects’ movements, even if he didn’t act on them. To happen upon Aggregor and his clan at this spot, and this time of year was unusual.

That thin-lipped smile of his morphed into a knowing smirk. “You’re on your way to Incarcecon.” He concluded. It was the obvious answer. “You’re going to meet up with Kevin. My two Osmosians together again.”

Aggregor blinked in sudden confusion. His expression betraying his ignorance. The Osmosian caught himself quickly, not allowing the moment to slacken his stance or lower his guard. But Servantis saw it, saw that Aggregor had no knowledge of Kevin’s return to the Void. So, if the Starspear caravan wasn’t on their way to the Free Fortress to meet up with Kevin, then why were they going there?

Servantis looked behind him, at the Plumber they had thrown over his saddle like baggage. Limbs bound, mouth gagged, head down. They were the one who announced Kevin’s return. If it was just a bluff, if they had gotten Servantis excited over nothing… there would be hell to pay! Nobody teased him about his favorite Osmosian!

Giving the body a rough shove, the former Proctor pushed Magister Ramsey off his Null Guardian. The Plumber fell into the dirt with a hard THUMP, and groaned in pain, the sound muffled by his gag, but still not less distinctive.

“Remove their gag.” Servantis commanded. Not a command to one of his own Rooters, but to Aggrenna.

“Fuck you.” Was her only reply.

“Kevin’s influence again, I see.” Scoffed the former Proctor. He climbed down off his Null Guardian.

Behind Servantis, Swift’s eyes glowed and Billings raised his laser-rifle. Each ready to cover their leader if the natives decided to attack him while he was on the ground.

Kneeling down over Ramsey, Servantis yanked the gag off his mouth and glared at them. Red eyes narrow with the promise of violence and pain should his answers displease the former Proctor.

“You told me Kevin had returned.” Servantis said, voice soft and controlled. Almost soothing to spite the dire situation Ramsey found themself in.

The Plumber blinked back at the Rooter, and Servantis couldn’t help but note just how young they were. Probably just barely earned his Magister chevrons before being assigned to the Null Void. A pity. The young ones never lasted very long.

“I said Kevin 11,000 was coming back.” Ramsey corrected, very aware of the situation they were in.

“So, you did.” Servantis nodded, turning his attention back to Aggregor and his children. “But then, if Kevin’s not back –yet- why are you lot on your way to Incarcecon? At this time of year, and by this rout?”

“Why don’t you just read our minds?” Aggregor suggested with a scoff. He gave a snort of derision and fixed his creator with a malicious grin, eyes narrowing on the gem set in the former Proctor’s forehead. A gem than was still cracked from his last altercation with Kevin. “Oh, excuse me, I forgot. You can’t anymore. Thanks to Kevin, you can barely access your powers for telekinesis and shields. Mind reading is out of the question for you.”

Which also meant mind control was out of the question. But no one said that out loud.

The two men glared at each other. The tension in the air between them became so tangible, it was almost like a physical thing.

Up until it was broken by a distressed shout of, “Ramsey!”

Magister Arys came pushing his way through the crowd, having finally recognized the body Servantis threw off his mount as one of his comrades.

Ignoring Aggregor and Servantis, Arys went right to the other Plumber’s side. Hovering down so that the vaguely whipped cream shaped tail he had in place of legs was pillowed on the dusty ground.

“Hey, Arys.” The younger officer gave a self-deprecating smile.

The Lewodan checked his colleague over for injuries. Aside from a rather nasty looking cut to the head, they looked alright. A little over-tired, and roughed up from his captivity with the Rooters, but overall, not terrible. “What are you doing this far out?”

“Looking for you.” Ramsey informed him. “I was on the search party. Then we got a call from Chaz back at base saying Magister Levin was asking after Rook. Chaz was really scared and threatened to sic Levin on Roose.”

“Kevin 11,000 is looking for Rook!” Arys blinked at the other Plumber, equal parts relived and concerned.

“Why would Kevin need to look for Rook at all?” Servantis cut into the Plumbers’ reunion, reminding everyone that this was actually supposed to be a tense situation that bordered on a stand-off. “Wouldn’t my dear Kevin just have to call him at your Headquarters?”

Arys froze. Ramsey stiffened. Aggregor and his daughters tightened their grips on their spears.

Servantis didn’t know that Rook was missing. Not yet. But the deposed Proctor was no fool. It wouldn’t take him long to put it together.

Everyone stared at him.

For all Aggregor’s talk of having little to no faith in the Plumbers, and that the Plumbers were all just green kids that ended up outfitting the Rooters with new tech and equipment looted from their dead bodies, the fact at the matter was, a Plumbers presence in the Void did help to buffer the Rooters. They were more careful in their activities. More censored in their attacks. Measured in their casualties. But with the Warden of the Void missing, the Plumbers leaderless and confused, it opened up opportunity for Servantis and his Rooters to cut loose. Take bolder actions and seize power they would not have been able to before.

“Phil said there were five, when he caught young Ramsey here.” The former Proctor gave the still bound and prone Plumber a none too soft kick to the kidney. “Then here you are… Arys, was it. Assuming you left at least one of your people behind to guard your base, that leaves only two of you unaccounted for. Chief among them: Rook Blonko, our Warden of the Void.”

Damn it!

Damn it all!

Servantis was a smart bastard. With just the little bit of information Ramsey let slip, and very little prompting to fit it all together, the Rooter had managed to grasp almost the whole picture. He looked from Aggregor to Magister Arys, a Lewodan Plumber traveling with the Starspear caravan when Aggregor never seemed to show any such favor to Plumbers before. Servantis smiled as he drew his conclusion. “It’s not really Kevin you’re going to meet in Incarcecon. The Free Fortress is the place any lost traveler looking for help you go. You’re going there to meet Rook Blonko.”

Aggregor said nothing.

Servantis laughed. Throwing his head back with the action. The shrill maniacal sound filling the air. “I never thought I would see the day… Aggregor, Warlord of the Andromeda Galaxy, Predator of Celestialsapiens, whom even the great Ben Tennyson couldn’t beat… allied with Plumbers. Oh, how the great have fallen.”

Still Aggregor said nothing. His only response to this comment was a deep frown.

Straitening, chest shaking as the last of his laughter tapered off, Servantis wiped a non-existent tear from his eye. “With drama like this, who needs the extranet to entertain us.” He cleared his throat. “But as it is, with Rook missing and the majority of his force out looking for him or dead, the Plumbers base is open and unguarded.”

Climbing back onto his Null Guardian, Servantis smiled down at Aggregor, then at his Plumber traveling companion. “You may keep your meeting at Incarcecon. I know where Rook is. You can let him know that I’m going to where he’s not.”

“You can’t!” Arys shouted.

But the Rooters had already taken off. Kicking the sides of their Null Guardians, the beasts flapped their bat-like wings and leapt into the air.

Swift brought her own mount up along side Servantis. “You left our captive with them.”

Not that she feared Magister Ramsey knew any of their secrets worth sharing. But it was still bad practice to just release prisoners for no reason other than you no longer had a use for them. Loose ends and all. Loose ends generally required tying.

“My gosh, my dear, you’re absolutely right!” He feigned shock at his own needs. “How rude of me! And young Ramsey is injured and will need extra care, but the Starspears have so little as it is. Phil! We should un-burden our neighbors.”

“On it.” Billings pulled up on his reigns, turning his beast around. He brought his laser-rifle back up, fixed the sighed on Magister Ramsey’s head, and shot the young Plumber right between the eyes.

Magister Arys had been trying to untie his companion’s bindings and got singed a little across the cheek. But he barely seemed to notice his own injury. Through the gun-sight, Phil saw the Lewodan stare wide-eyed and gape-mouthed at his friend whom now sported an open and smoking hole in the middle of their forehead. The body went limp and felt strongly heavy in his arms.

Phil snorted, re-holstered his weapon, and rejoined the rest of the Rooters in formation.

Olennor came up beside him and closed Ramsey’s eyes, then she placed a hand on Arys. “Are you alright?”

The Lewodan turned his head. But he wasn’t looking at her, his attention was fixed over her shoulder at the v-formation of Null Guardians flying away.

“They’re going to attack my base.” He said, voice sounding hollow and far away. He was still holding the bindings on Ramsey’s wrists, and his own hands clenched around them reflexively. “I have to get back there.”

Invading his personal space, Olennor put a hand to his cheek, stretching the skin around where he’d been grazed by the laser. “Lets get this burn washed and dressed first.” She suggested, knowing that her father’s decision would be to let the Plumber go alone and continue on to the Free Fortress and Shirahk.

“I have to get back to my base.” He said again, shaking his head. Arys was unusually calm for someone who’d just watched a friend die as he was trying to help them. It was the kind of half-awake, half-shut down kind of calm that came with shock. The Lewodan was in shock. “The Null Void teleporter is there. If the Rooters get control of that, they can get out of here and wreak havoc on real space.”

“That’s not our problem.” Aggregor came up behind his daughter. “Olennor, leave the Plumb. If he wants to go, let him go. We have to find your brother.”

Aggrenna wasn’t far behind, hovering by her father’s elbow. But it was her sister’s side she was taking. “He doesn’t know how to navigate the Void, father.” She reminded him. “He’ll never make it back to his base in time to do anything.”

“That’s his problem.” The Osmosian shook his head, unmoved.

Both girls looked at their father, then exchanged a look between themselves.

“You know,” began Olennor, “real space is where Kevin lives. He won’t be happy if the Rooters get out and start causing trouble for him on that side of the divide as well.” A pause. “And then if he were to learn that you could have done something to stop it and didn’t… Gosh! He would be so angry!”

The Osmosian glared at his daughter. Displeased by what she was saying, but unable to deny the truth of it.

“We know where Shirahk is.” Agrenna jumped in. “He’ll be safe at the Free Fortress.”

“You don’t know that!” Aggregor snarled.

“Neither do you.” Aggrenna reminded him.

“Anyway…” Olennor continued, annoyed at the interruption. Father never seemed to interrupt Aggrenna whenever she was talking, only her. “You don’t need both of us to meet up with Shirahk. Take the rest of the clan to the Free Fortress, find Shirahk, and wait there. We’ll meet you back there when we’re done.”

“We?” Aggrenna looked at her little sister. When she had jumped in to defend the idea of Olennor going to help the Plumbers, she wasn’t aware she was signing up to join in as well. But, she reflected, the Plumber would need all the help he could get, they were a naïve and fragile bunch. Besides, it would be nice to get away from her father for a while, do something on her own. Something that might even turn out to be worthwhile in some small way. Not worthwhile for the Null Void, but just worthwhile in general. Aggrenna nodded, moving to stand next to her sister and the Plumber. “We.”

The Osmosian glared between his daughters and the Plumber still hovering close to the ground, leaning over his dead comrade. Magister Arys didn’t seem to be in any condition to do anything on his own. He would need babysitters. What Aggregor didn’t understand was why his daughters were the ones volunteering to be his babysitters.

“What brought this on? This newfound love of Plumbs.” He demanded.

“It’s not a love of Plumbs.” Insisted Aggrenna. “It’s a desire not to give Servantis what he wants! Do you really want that guy to get the things he wants? Forget the teleported back at the Plumbers’ base that could get him out of the Void. Imagine all the other things at that base he could use. The vehicles, weapons, equipment, supplies. All those resources at his disposal. Do you think with all that he’ll just exit the Void and leave us alone? No. He created you, and he wants to dissect Shirahk! Do you think he’d just let us go unmolested?”

There was an asymmetrical twitch to Aggregor’s eye and the corner of his mouth. He hated to admit it, but his daughter was right. Servantis wouldn’t just leave the Null Void and leave them alone once they took the Plumbers base. Servantis fancied himself some kind of authority over Osmosians. He would come back for Aggregor and his son, and possible his daughters too if for no other reason than to more meticulously study how the Osmosian mutation was and was not passed down.

Aggregor bit the inside of his cheek. He did not want so admit that his girls were right.

Finally, he sighed in resignation. “Go. Don’t get yourselves killed. It’s not worth it dying over a couple of Plumbs.”

The girls nodded.

Olennor hooked a hand under Arys’ arm, and tried to pull him up, but the Lewodan clung to Ramsey’s shoulders.

“I know we have to hurry.” He said, speaking more to the body than to her. “But… can we bury them first? I think that was the custom of Ramsey’s people.”

Aggregor only rolled his eyes. Sentimental garbage, that’s what that was. It would have been much more practical to burn the body. That was the custom of the Settlers he’d married into. Besides, a pyre could be left burning while they got moving. But, then again, poor decision making was a hallmark of the Plumbers organization. Overall, he told himself he didn’t care.

He needed to get to the Free Fortress and find his son.

Shirahk yawned as he stretched. Climbing out of his narrow bed in the room he shared with Warden Rook.

The Plumber was already dressed and ready to face a day of work. Wearing his standard issue Plumbers uniform –it was the only clothing he had on him, of course- but over it he’d tied a functional work apron. Made from tough canvas, the ties curved over his shoulders, crossed in the back, and came to an almost cute little bow in the back. The Osmosian blinked sleepy eyes, studying the older man’s back. Sometimes Shirahk just couldn’t believe that this gentle-tempered, sweet-natured, and eager to please kitten was their Warden of the Void. Rook Blonko was just too nice.

“You shouldn’t have let me sleep in.” The Osmosian reprimanded him, as he himself pulled on a work apron over his cloths.

Shirahk had removed his dark orange overrobe and slept only in the sleeveless underrobe he wore beneath it. He left it off, draped over the foot of the bed, and pulled his work apron on over the same clothes he’d slept in. He yawned again.

“You are young and still growing.” The Revonnahgander reminded the Osmosian. “You need rest more than I do, and I believe we will get little of it before we reach Incarcecon.”

Slipping on his boots, Shirahk informed him, “You really need to stop calling it Incarcecon. It’s the Free Fortress. If you’re gonna be begging favors from then, you should show them basic respect and call them by their chosen name.”

That statement gave Rook a moment’s pause. No one had put it in exactly that way before. Chosen name. Revonnahgander knew a thing or two about chosen names. On Revonnah, children weren’t given names by their parents. They were simply called ‘Young One’ until their Bi’nthakoid Ceremony, after which they would be allowed to choose their own name, the name they would be called for the rest of their life. To refuse to call someone by their chosen name was a grievous insult. It was analogues to refusing to acknowledge them as a person. Refusing to call the Free Fortress by its chosen name and continuing to call it Incarcecon, the name it had under Plumbers control, the name it had when it was a forced labor camp, was the same as refusing to admit that it was indeed a free and independent state with its own identity apart from what it had been in the past.

Rook looked at Shirahk. He was still very much a child, maybe only a little older than Ben’s son Kenny. But that statements was incredibly wise for someone so young. Then again, on Earth, they had a saying, ‘From the mouths of children, the truth shall spring.’

“Thank you, Shirahk.” He said out loud. “I shall take your advice and make a conscious effort to call it the Free Fortress from now on.”

The boy blinked still sleepy eyes at him. “Well ya don’t have to treat it like such a revelation.”

They headed downstairs to the holdfast’s main hall.

“You’re late.” They were met at the foot of the stairs by Moli, Daq and Bart’ender’s daughter and the sole server of the holdfast. She shoved a tray of empty drink tankards into Shirahk’s unprepared arms and the Osmosian had to do some quick juggling to keep from dropping them all. “Take these to the kitchen. You can start by washing them, then washing the rest of the dishes that have piled up while you were lounging like a lazy princess.” To Rook she said, “Papa has instructions for you in the cellar.”

Stifling another yawn, letting it out as a sigh instead, Shirahk carried the tray into what passed for the kitchen, dumped them in the stone basin that passed for a sink, and pored in water from a kettle he assumed was left heating for this exact purpose. The Osmosian got to work rinsing out the drinking glasses and scrubbing the crusted bowels and plates. Still, as gross as it was, the boy still would prefer washing gross dishes to climbing down into the cellar with Rook.

The Revonnahgander climbed down the narrow ladder into the dimly lit basement of the holdfast. The underground chamber was twice as wide as the building above it. A massive man-made cavern that was almost as big as the asteroid itself. Bart’ender had dug it out himself long before ever meeting Daq and building their holdfast on top of it. The air was warm and thick with humidity. It Rook’s fur feel heavy and clumpy. But the worst part about the cellar was the smell.

Half the wide expanse of the cavern floor was covered in a thick layer of excrement. The dropping of whatever men and beasts stayed at the holdfast. Carefully and evenly spread out, tilled into neat rows, and spores for mushrooms sewn into the thick manure. The mushrooms Bart’ender grew were the main ingredient in the blue milk that he claimed was Kevin’s favored drink here in the Null Void. A thick, creamy concoction that –true to its name- was bluish in color and tasted oddly of vanilla and cayenne. He also fermented it in a still on surface level behind the holdfast and made a strong hard liquor called karek, which was the holdfast’s main source of income.

Stacked neatly on the other side of the cellar were barrels and casks of the stuff. Each explicitly labeled whether it was karek or blue milk, with a date carefully etched into the bilge hoop.

It was next to this wall of neatly stacked and meticulously labeled barrels that Bart’ender stood.

Rook walked over to him, one hand over his nose and mouth to try and smother the stench. The Revonnahgander sense of smell tended to be keener than the average being’s sense of smell. He’d barely set foot in the cellar and was already feeling a little dizzy. Rook would trade with Shirahk and wash dishes at the drop of a hat. Unsurprisingly, the boy was unwilling to trade.

Bart’ender indicated a collection of casks set apart from the others, all labeled with the same date. They were three rows six rows deep and three rows tall. A hundred and either barrels in all. Rook already knew he was not going to enjoy whatever task the old voider was going to give him before Bart’ender even flashed his malicious grin.

“Alright, Plumb, this is our tithe to the Free Fortress.” He informed the Revonnahgander. “It all needs to be brought up before my rock pass in range.”

Rook looked over the stacks of casks. He was not looking forward to carrying all that up the narrow ladder that was the only access to the cellar. The Revonnahgander would have sighed, except that he did not want to take a deep breath in the rank air. Instead, Rook reminded himself that the sooner he completed his task, the sooner they could shut the cellar back up and trap the stench underground where it belonged. Kneeling down, lifting with his legs, the Revonnahgander hefted the first barrel over a shoulder and started carrying it up the narrow ladder.

He had arranged ten barrels in a neat pile just outside the holdfast door when Daq appeared and had to snap at Bart’ender to let him take a break.

She made him sit outside so the smell that seemed to have seeped into his fur didn’t disturb their other patrons.

Shirahk brought a plate of food and a glass of karek out to him. Rook sipped the caustic beverage conservatively. It had a burn similar to terran whiskey, but a texture that was oddly smooth like those cake flavored vodkas Ben liked to drink. Overall, not an unpleasant drink. But it was strong. The Revonnahgander wondered if it might not be wiser to drink the blue milk instead –at least while he was to spend his day carrying large and heavy objects up narrow and rickety ladders. He set the tankard down.

Shirahk reached for it, picking the glass up. It was halfway to the boy’s lips when Rook reminded him. “I do not believe your father would approve of you drinking that. The fact that he is not here to object is not an excuse.”

The Osmosian set the tankard back down.

“Father never lets me do anything.” The Osmosian lamented. “I have all the power and abilities of his Ultimate mutation. When I’m in my other form I can fly, and shoot energy and water from my hands, cyclones from my chest, I can even read minds! But he still treats me like a helpless baby that needs to be taken care of.”

“He is a parent.” The Revonnahgander reminded him. “That is his job.”

“He doesn’t treat Aggrenna or Olennor that way.” Shirahk scoffed.

“You are his youngest, you will always be the baby in his eyes.” Rook insisted. “I am the oldest of five, and I can assure, from watching how my parents behave around my other siblings that my youngest brother will always be the baby –no matter hold old he gets.” (Rook Ben had graduated from the Plumbers’ Academy, top three in his class, and currently stationed on Revonnah. But Da still treated him like a child too.)

The Osmosian scoffed. “I heard Kevin doesn’t smother his son like my father smothers me.”

“I can assure you, Aggregor is a much better father than Kevin is.” Rook insisted. True, he had not formally met Devlin yet. But from what he remembered of Kevin when Devlin was still new, and what he’d heard since Devlin’s return, the Warlord of the Andromeda Galaxy and Predator of Celestialsapiens was a much better father than Kevin 11,000 ever was.

Shirahk snorted. “I bet Devin would say differently.” A pause. “Devlin? Darren?”

“Devlin.” The older man confirmed. “And, no, he would most definitely agree with my assessment. You do not want Kevin as a father.”

The Osmosian opened his mouth to argue. Thought about whatever he was about to say. Changed his mind. Crossing his arms over his chest, Shirahk pouted. “I guess I’m just gonna have to meet Devlin one day and ask him myself.”

“If you will not take me at my word, then I guess that will be the only way to settle this.” Sighed the Revonnahgander.

“Oy! Plumb!” Bart’ender barked from the holdfast door. “This ain’t no social club. Get back to work!”

Rook had to take eleven more breaks before he was finally done with his task. His species was not one that sweat. Even so, after moving a hundred and eight barrels out of the cellar, the Revonnahgander was short of breath, panting, hot, and his fur still managed to be wet, sticky, and full of clumps to spite his lack of sweat glands.

Moli came out to him just as Rook was setting the last barrel on the hover-dollie Bart’ender would use to deliver them to Incarcecon.

“There’s a hot bath ready for you in your room upstairs.” She informed him. “You have just enough time to wash up before we reach the Free Fortress. I’m to collect your uniform and have Shirahk launder it while you bath.”

As cold, even course, as these people had been to him since he arrived at the holdfast, that could have been called kindness. “That is uncharacteristically accommodating.”

“Mama says that no matter what Papa tells me, it’s wise to keep both Plumbs and Rooters happy even if we don’t like them.” Moli informed him. “We let you stay here while we travel to the Fortress, that helps you. We let you get cleaned up so you can make a good impression when you go begging to Trukk and Quince, that helps you. If we help you, that puts you in a good mood. If you’re in a good mood, you won’t come back with more of your Plumbers and attack us.”

“Your parents have a very bleak view of Plumbers.” Rook observed.

“We have the exact same view of Plumbers that we have of Rooters.” The girl said. “Now, get upstairs and get in the bath I drew for you. You reek. Leave your dirty uniform outside the door.”

The bath was lukewarm, and there was a decisive lack of fur-friendly shampoo. But the soup they did provide still got him clean and didn’t irritate his skin. His uniform wasn’t dry by the time Rook got out of the bath, but it was clean and only mildly damp. He put it on anyway. Freshly cleaned and rested, the Revonnahgander helped Bart’ender pilot the hover-dollie laden with karek barrels across the gap that divided his rock from the Free Fortress. The main gate opened for them and both Rook and Shirahk breathed identical sighs of relief the moment they were on the other side of the thick walls.

It took a while, but they made it to Incarcecon.

Chapter Text

For what was probably the eleventh time in an hour, Devlin check the time on his phone.

“Is there somewhere else you’d like to be?” Asked Dr. Borges, her cheek resting on her closed fist. Devlin Levin always was her most interesting patient. “You missed our last appointment, and your life is always so… eventful. Isn’t there anything you want to catch me up on?”

Slipping his phone back in his pocket, the Osmosian looked up at his therapist. By this point, Devlin had come to realize that she really was here to help him, shrinks weren’t the enemy, and he could trust her with things. The fact that –legally- she couldn’t tell his mother anything he told her was also a plus.

“Actually,” admitted the Osmosian, “there is somewhere else I’d like to be.”

Borges looked interested, interlacing her fingers over her knee and leaning forward. “Where would you like to be, Devlin?”

In all honesty, learning magic with his scruffy old magic master was where he wanted to be. But Bezel wouldn’t see him on days when he had his therapy sessions. ‘Head medicine’ as the old man called it, was important. But just because he wasn’t going to have a formal magic lesson today didn’t mean that Devlin wasn’t anxious to continue his magic training. He couldn’t work with Bezel, but he could work with himself. With his powers of absorption and energy control. So that when he did start using real mana, he wouldn’t lose his mind like Kevin tended to. Kenny was helping him, keeping watch on the Osmosian while Devlin absorbed small things like batteries. That was where he wanted to be.

“So, I’ve started this new personal development thing.” He began.

“Well, that sounds great.” She had been meeting with him long enough to know when he was trying to spin something that the vast majority of adults in his life would disapprove of as a positive thing. “What personal thing are you developing?”

Devlin hesitated. He’d been meeting with her long enough to know when she was onto his bullshit. Dr. Borges was actually a rather competent shrink. “So, as you know, I wanna help Ben on missions, combat the forces of evil, fight the good fight, maybe save a universe or two if necessary –but I wanna do it without using my mutant form.”

“Yes.” She nodded, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “We’ve discussed this at length. In fact, this desire was indirectly the cause for one of your most recent injuries.”

The boy cringed visibly. He knew exactly what both his mother and his therapist thought about his desire to throw himself head-first into danger –and possible death- without the protection of the mutant form and all the powers that went along with it. A form he inherited from his father and thus hated purely on principal –even if he kina was starting to not hate his father anymore.

Devlin decided to ignore her unspoken statement that refusing to use his mutant form was a bad idea. “So, I found myself a teacher who can teach me magic instead! Mom says I don’t have any mana of my own, but my teacher says that since I’m Osmosian I don’t need my own mana, I can borrow mana from other things.”

She did not look very happy for him. “By ‘borrow’, can I assume you mean ‘absorb’?” Asked Dr. Borges, already knowing the answer. Reaching across the space between them, she placed a motherly hand on the Osmosian’s knee. “Devlin, you know absorbing large amounts of power isn’t a wise thing for you to do. While the research on Osmosians is limited, we do know that absorbing lots of power causes violent breakdowns.”

There was a silent ‘Remember what your father was like’ at the end of that statement, but there was no need to say it out loud. After speaking with the boy for over a year now, Dr. Borges knew when she needed to drive a point home and when to just let a subject be. Devlin grew up with his father. He knew better than she did what an Osmosian was like under the influence of too much power. He did not need her –someone who had never experienced it personally- to remind him.

“That’s why I’m also doing absorption training with…” he hesitated, not sure what name to give. It wasn’t like Dr. Borges could blow anyone’s secret identity. She couldn’t share what he told her in these sessions. Still, it was not Kenny’s name he finally settled on. “…Spanner. Have you heard of Spanner? He’s a time traveling sentai, worked with Ben a couple times. He took me to the future and showed me that I can do it. So, I know it’s possible! Now he’s working with me to build up my energy tolerance so that I can use mana.”

“And Spanner is gonna teach you magic?” Dr. Borges looked skeptical.

“Oh, no, no, no, no.” The Osmosian was quick to correct. “Spanner isn’t my magic teacher. He’s just helping me with my energy tolerance and control. My magic teacher is the greatest magician that ever lived!”

Borges raised an eyebrow. “David Blaine?”

Devlin hung his head. Prior to twenty years ago, Dr. Borges was probably part of the majority of the population that didn’t even believe magic was a real thing. Of course, she wouldn’t know who the greatest magician that ever lived was. Of course, she would hear the word ‘magician’ and think of parlor tricks and Las Vegas shows. She wouldn’t know who Bezel was or why it was so amazing that he agreed to train Devlin in the first place.

The Osmosian sighed. “Look, our time is almost up anyway. Can I just get going? I’ve got a lot to do if I’m gonna save real space and the Null Void in another couple of years.”

He stood.

Dr. Borges leaned back in her seat. “Technically, this is your time.” She told him. “You can leave whenever you want. But I will be billing your mother for the full time, just like I billed her for the time you didn’t show up and gave no notice of cancelation.”

“Okay, but you’re not gonna tell her that I left early this time, are you?” He asked, wanting to be sure before he left.

“No. You actually showed up and we had our session. Legally, I can’t.” She promised.

“Okay, then.” The Osmosian gathered up his shoulder bag and straightened his blazer. “It’s been real, doc. See ya next week.”

He left.

Since his horverboard was destroyed, if the Osmosian wanted to get around town at any sort of pace that he would consider ‘productive’ he had to use his mutant form. At least for the time being. At least until he could create panels of mana to surf on (or even just fly), or he was old enough to drive –which ever came first. Sighing with resignation, Devlin closed his eyes, delved deep into himself, and did that funny little flick of intent that triggered his transformation.

The Osmosian never really thought to long about it, when he was learning to control his mutant form and transform back and forth between the two, he was just happy when he did it, and never really considered the process beyond that. But now that understanding his Osmosian powers were going to be critical in learning to control and use mana, he actually slowed down enough to analyze what he was doing.

The thought process was so short. So small. Like flicking your wrist. You didn’t actually think about it, you just did it. The body responding to the mind’s command without delay, hesitation, or the need for better instructions. Devlin’s control over his own mutant form and the transformation to and from, was as good, complete, fluid, and natural as control over any other part of his body. Standing there thinking about it, the Osmosian had to wonder what the big deal even was. Why did these mutations seem to make his father go nuts every time. It really shouldn’t be that big a deal.

But, then again, as Servantis had said so many years ago –before he was even born- Osmosians each had different powers. Maybe Devlin’s power was not going crazy and trying to murder his friends at the drop of a pin. (Not that that was much of a ‘power’.) After all, Kevin was able to absorb matter, and that was something Devlin couldn’t do.

Adjusting the position of his messenger bag’s shoulder strap so as not to get in the way of his wings, Devlin took to the air. On his way, not home, but to Plumbers Headquarters to see Kenny.

Plumbers HQ was about halfway across the city from Dr. Borges’ office. But flying over the buildings and not having to obey traffic rules and street lines he got there in less than eleven minutes.

Landing outside the street-level entrance, a couple uniformed Plumbers looked alarmed for half a second before they recognized the mutated monster coming down from the sky as Devlin, Gwendolyn Tennyson’s son. One of them even offered the boy a polite wave.

“Hey, Devlin.”

“Hey.” The Osmosian waved back even though he didn’t know the Plumber’s name. It cost zero dollars to be nice.

Transforming back into his base human shape, Devlin went inside to look for Kenny.

Inside, the Bellwood Plumbers Headquarters was running like a well-oiled machine. Calls were taken, dispatches were given, statements were taken, perpetrators were processed, and paperwork was filed. It was amazing how much work everyone was able to get done when Ben 10,000 wasn’t there to get in people’s way. It made Devlin wonder how the Plumbers managed to do anything when Ben was around. It really was a true testament to the men, women, and everything in between in uniform that they managed to work collaboratively with Ben Tennyson on a semi-daily basis and still actually accomplish things.

Idly, the Osmosian wondered if Kenny’s desire to follow his father on missions was really all that constructive for the other boy. Or if Kenny might achieve more and become a better Hero by stepping out of Ben’s shadow and taking on missions of his own. Certainly, Ben had been nowhere in sight during Devlin’s short jaunt to the future wherein he, Kenny, and that third guy helped stop Servantis from ripping up the Null Void.

Kenny, however, was nowhere in sight either at the moment.

Devlin wondered if he should have entered through the roof access that would have taken him directly into the residential floors of the base. But he didn’t want to run the risk of running into Kai on the way. Since Ben had been away in the Null Void for several days –almost a week now- Kai was becoming more and more frustrated. Ben was often away from home and family, but usually only for just a day or two at a time. He would still come back to check in. Kiss the wife, hug the kid, give the family proof of life, before rushing off again to give more time and attention to some ‘noble cause’ than he ever gave to his own family.

Naturally, it was frustrating. Kenny was just as affected by it as Kai was.

The Osmosian still didn’t want to step on her toes though. Kenny would be happy to see him if he invited himself over unannounced. Kai would be annoyed and upset with him.

Unconsciously, Devlin’s eyes drifted across the bull pen to his father’s empty desk. Kevin had also been gone for several days –almost a week. Gone into the Null Void with Ben. Long absences from his father because the older man was thrown into the Null Void was nothing new to Devlin. Back when it was still just the two of them, Devlin missed his father a lot. He was the only adult he knew, the only care-giver that was familiar to him. The only one he trusted. But he was surprised by how much he still managed to miss his father even after finding the rest of his family and living with his mother for over a year. Devlin had other options now for adults to give him care, affection, support, and comfort. He did not need his father.

And yet, the younger Osmosian found himself wondering when the older man would come back…

He didn’t get the chance to analyze these conflicting feelings, however, as someone tapped him on the shoulder. Devlin turned around to see Kenny standing behind him, looking for all the world as if he’d always been there.

“Hey.” He said, bright and cheerful. As if he didn’t have a care in the world. As if his father hadn’t up and left a week ago with no notice and no communications since. As if they it didn’t matter that no one knew if he was alright in the Null Void, or when he might be coming home again. “You’re out of therapy early.”

“I left early.” The other boy informed him, politely not mentioning how plastic and artificial his cousin’s smile looked. “I figured you’d want to get going on working on my energy tolerance. Since we’ll need it in the future.”

That plastic smile of fake cheer morphed into an expression of true and honest focus and determination. He might be covering up and hiding his true feelings about his parents and home-life. But when it came to Hero Work, Kenny was serious and real. Much more serious and real than his father was, actually.

Taking the Osmosian by the hand, Kenny pulled the older boy towards the door and back out of the Plumbers Headquarters. “Let’s go somewhere we can practice.”

Kenny took them to Los Solidad.

The old abandoned military base was still old and abandoned. In fact, it looked like it hadn’t changed at all in the almost thirty or so years since Devlin had last seen it, when Kenny yanked him back to the night his parent’s first met Professor Paradox.

“There’re generators here and stuff.” Explained the younger boy. “Which will let us test your limits with more energy than just a couple D batteries.”

The Osmosian gave an uncertain little hmph, but did not exactly disagree. “Okay… but if I fly off the rails and try to kill everyone, you’re the first person I’m coming after.”

“Pff, obviously.” Kenny did not seem concerned. “I’m the only one here!”

They wandered around storage sheds and equipment lockers for a while until they found a generator that was actually in working order. Kenny made Devlin drag it out, the Osmosian was disproportionately strong for his size. After that, it was just a matter of turning the hand crank until it had enough juice to be of use.

“Well, go ahead.” Kenny gave the older boy a light little shove, to prompt him to start using his Osmosian powers.

Hesitantly –very hesitantly- Devlin placed one hand on the generator. Taking a deep breath to steady nerves that were tenser than when he was just absorbing batteries, the Osmosian began absorbing the energy the generator put out.

It was strange that his mind only knew how to describe energy in terms of food, but the energy that came off the old disused generator tasted stale. Dry, hollow, and flaky. Crusty. Much like the generator itself. But underneath the stale flavor of age was the spicy zing of electricity. Devlin licked his lips, the Osmosian feeling oddly hungry even though he’d already eaten before his therapy appointment. He was about to put a second hand on the generator to absorb some more, but realized what it was he was doing and took the first hand off instead. Interrupting the flow of energy and stopping himself from absorbing more.

“Well?” Kenny asked, anxious for an update. That was the most energy his cousin had absorbed since he was an infant.

Devlin blinked eyes that glowed red at the younger boy. He felt awake. Awake and restless, like he had to move. Do things. Be active. …and he was still hungry. His eyes fell down to Kenny’s waist and the time travel device Paradox had given him. High advanced tech on par with the Omnitrix, pulsing with energy and power beyond human understanding. Realizing what he was thinking, Devlin caught himself again, closing his eyes. He took a step back from his cousin.

“I… want more.” He admitted.

Kenny was about to close the distance between himself and his cousin, but at that admission, the younger boy thought better of it. As anxious as he was for his cousin to learn to absorb energy and start using magic, he also knew –first hand- just how dangerous an Osmosian could be. Kenny stayed where he was, not making any sudden movements. “How do you feel…? Um. What’s going on inside you? Like, what do you feel with more energy in you?”

Eyes still closed, the Osmosain tried to analyze what it was that was actually going on inside him.

His insides hummed with power. Power that had no outlet, so it sizzled through him, craving action, motion, something to do. No wonder Dad was always so impulsive growing up. If this was what it felt like to have just a little more than was usual, what must it have been like to be over-filled with energy. To have a surplus of power and nothing to do with it, nowhere for it to go and not way for the body and mind to process it all. Of course, it would drive a being crazy! In fact, it was a wonder Kevin managed to be as lucid and constructive as he was raising Devlin.

But, Devlin’s body did have a way to process it. Or, at least, he felt like he should.

Exhaling slowly, the Osmosian drew in a new breath, also slowly. Breathing slow and deep, he turned his attention inward, following the pathways the energy was trying to travel within his own body. Pathways that seemed like they were trying to flow along his own natural circulations. Circulation of oxygen. Circulation of blood. The absorbed energy trying to flow along with it, but not quite lining up with it right.

Devlin never thought he’d actually use the meditation techniques his mother had been trying to teach him since he came to live with her, but that was the easiest way for the Osmosian to shift the energy’s path. Not by very much. Just enough to line it up with how things were naturally supposed to flow in his body.

The shifting of the energy flow was like a missing puzzle piece being fitted into place. The energy he absorbed, which had been electrical, changed form. Shifting. Reinventing itself inside Devlin’s body. Instead of the energy mutating and changing the Osmosian, the Osmosian mutated and changed the power. The electricity changing form to become… something else. Still energy. Still power. But different. Smoother, somehow. Like butter. Or warm hot chocolate. Smooth and sweet, and oddly comforting.

When Devlin opened his eyes again, they were still glowing. But they were no longer red.

“Holy crap!” Kenny exclaimed.

“What!?” Devlin demanded, alarmed. “What’s wrong? What did I do? Am I mutated?”

Kenny shook his head, mouth gaping open. He fumbled to get his phone out of his pocket. “But I thought your mom said you don’t have mana…”

“I don’t.” The Osmosian conformed. “The only mana I had was what I absorbed from her. That’s gone now.”

Finally succeeding in pulling his phone out, Kenny opened up the camera and reversed the screen for selfies. Turning the screen to face Devlin so that the older boy could get a look at his face, and his glowing eyes.

The Osmosian blinked again. Taking Kenny’s phone from his extended hand, Devlin starred as his face, inverted in the phone’s camera like a mirror. Star sapphire eyes glowed back at him. Star sapphire, not red. Not the color of Osmosian madness, but the color of magic. The color of mana.

Raising one hand, Devlin tried calling some of the energy inside him to gather in the limb, pulling the power into a ball. A ball that glowed with the star sapphire light of mana.

“You have mana!” Kenny exclaimed.

“I…” Devlin began unsure. “I converted the electricity into mana…!”

And then everything clicked. That was why he could manage to throw mana around like it was nothing to him and no cost to him in the future. Because he could always make more. So long as he had access to an energy source, a battery, a generator, hell! even living being if the situation was dire enough, Devlin would always have mana. In the middle of a fight, surrounded by bad guys who wanted to destroy the universe, he could turn their own body’s living energy into his power. And, unlike his father, Devlin wouldn’t lose his mind.

That was it. That was his power. Servantis said that every Osmosian had a different power and this one was Devlin’s. He could convert any kind of energy into mana and wield it like normal magic. And because he was grown steeped in mana, his mother’s body being a well-spring of energy, the Osmosian’s threshold for power was such that he could absorb and hold large amounts without losing his mind!

“I… I think I just became the most dangerous member of the team.” Admitted the Osmosian.

Kenny snorted. “Yeah. Okay.”

Devlin turned still-glowing eyes at him. Kenny, at least, didn’t think he was all that threatening. Not with sparkly pink eyes.

“But this is great!” Continued the younger boy. “Now you can just learn magic like anyone else! You don’t have to go through the extra hassle of looking for or rationing mana. Just juice up before you begin!”

While he might be in perfect control of himself right now, after going up with his father, Devlin was still hesitant to celebrate. There was no doubt that he could control himself, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t still be cautious. Nobody wanted a Devlin 11,000 –least of all Devlin. “I’ll ask Bezel about it when I go for my lesson tomorrow.”

Bezel was not raking leaves when Devlin arrived at Friedkin. After a quick search, he found the old man in one of the libraries (not Gwendolyn’s library), playing a card game with someone who looked young enough to be a student. A student with absurd hair.

The Osmosian leaned against a bookshelf to watch. The old man did seem to really love his card tricks.

Speaking of tricks, Bezel’s opponent declared an attack. But the old man flipped over one of his face-down cards, revealing a Trap. The opposing monster’s attack was reflected back at them and the player’s Life Points were decimated. The young student with the ridiculous hair staggered backwards as if losing the card game had physically hurt him.

“Come back when you have a better deck!” Bezel shouted at him. The old man gathered up his cards, reshuffled the deck, and slipped it into a leather pouch on his belt.

The game officially over, Devlin crossed the space to his teacher. “I thought janitors were supposed to clean things up, not play Duel Monsters with kids.”

“I was cleaning things up. I was taking out the trash.” Bezel informed him in his best impression of a bit-part Saturday morning cartoon villain. “Card games are serious business.”

“Anyway…” The Osmosian didn’t know what to say to that. Yeah, the old man seemed overly fond of cards –all kinds of cards. But Devlin was skeptical about how dire children’s card games could really be. I mean, it wasn’t like anybody was getting their souls stolen or banished to a nether-realm, or anything. He decided it was best to just change the subject. “I’m here to volunteer my time for cleaning, in exchange for your time teaching.”

“Ah. Yes.” The card game seemingly forgotten, Bezel lead Devlin to an equally forgotten corner of the library where he’d stashed his janitorial cart. “Come on, then, sonny. Let’s get started.”

They worked for a little over an hour. Dusting shelves, sweeping the library carpet, emptying waste cans. It boring and tedious work. Devlin was frustrated and impatient through out every moment of it. But he stuck with it because, this time, he was guaranteed a magical lesson at the end. A way to control and use the mana he learned to make by converting other energies.

Finally, Bezel deemed the library clean enough for the day and he look Devlin back to the incinerator to dispose of their collected garbage.

This time there was no snarling from the chamber. No shaking up the smoke stack. No glowing sigils. The library trash was mostly blank notebook papers or index cards with the locations of books scribbled on them, or page numbers of interest. No half-baked spells with the binding parts unfinished, or names of demons that could be summoned through fire. Just normal, mundane, school stuff. Truth be told, Devlin was a little disappointed. In all the trashcans in the whole library, no one threw out a single scrap of failed magic writing.

Bezel yawned.

“Alright, sonny, let’s get to it.”

The old man twirled his broom with a bit of dramatic flair before slamming the end of handle down three times. There was a flash of power, a pillar of light engulfing Bezel for half a second, causing the Osmosian to blink. When Devlin could see again, Bezel was still standing exactly where he’d been. But his clothes had changed. Gone was the plaid shirt and patched overalls of ‘Scruffy the Janitor’, in their place were red robes. Long sleeves and high collared. A flared high-collar, like something out of the seventies. A black turtle-neck sweater underneath. Wide belt full of pouches around his waist. Yellow wrappings around his hands. And a crimson pointed hat on his head. Its point sort of wilting to the back as if even it had adopted a cynical opinion of ‘real’ magic.

But the half-moon glasses were the same.

So was the mischievous grin.

Somehow, Bezel managed to look equal parts ‘wise old sage’ and ‘impish troll fed from the hand of Puck himself’. Just looking at the old man, Devlin knew he could not have found a better teacher even if he’d actually been looking.

The Osmosian returned the old man’s grin with one of his own. “Nice magical boy transformation.”

“Psh. You say that as if you’re not gonna be doing the exact same thing soon as you learn how.” Bezel scoffed.

“Well, I won’t be wearing a dress when I do.” Devlin assured him, not ever trying to argue that he wouldn’t be doing magical boy transformations at all. He was already choreographing much better poses in his mind.

“No, just tights and a unitard.” Bezel agreed. “I’ve seen Spanner. I know what the kids are into these days.”

Magical training with Bezel was much better than magical training with his mother. Gwendolyn was all about book work and study. Understanding dangers and taking precautions to safeguard against mystical mishaps. Devlin never even got the chance to stand up from the desk when she was teaching him.

Beze took an entirely different approach to teaching magic.

He led Devlin out to the sports field. Actually, to behind the locker rooms on the far side of the sports field. It was relatively secluded, and completely deserted.

“Today, I’ll be teaching you about magic shields.” Announced the old man. “One of the first thing you’re going to want to know in the line of work you wanna do is how to protect yourself.”

“Great!” Nodded the Osmosian.

No sooner was the word out of his mouth, however, than Bezel formed a ball of raw mana in his hand and threw it at the boy.

Devlin yelped and jumped out of the way. Throwing himself on the ground and getting his argyle sweater vest dirty.

The ball of mana bounced harmlessly off the locker room building’s wall and came back to rest in Bezel’s out stretched hand. “What are you doing?” Demanded the old man. “This isn’t a game of dodgeball!”

“What am I doing? What are you doing!?” The Osmosian climbed back to his feet. “You could seriously injure a person with that!”

“With this?” Bezel bounced the mana in his hand. “Nah. This is about as physically threatening as an inflated balloon.”

“I’ll try not to swallow it then.” They boy assumed a defensive stance. A strange combination of the martial arts his mother had started teaching him since he came to live with her, and the old combat training his father tried to give him when he was younger.

Bezel raised his arm and lobbed the ball of mana at the boy again.

This time, the Osmosian did not dodge it. Instead, Devlin threw up his arms to catch the orb of mana. Catch it, and absorb it.

It wasn’t like the electricity from the generator in Los Solidad. That was stale, crusty and flaky, like old cereal. But it wasn’t like the batteries he’d been absorbing recently either. Those were prickly, almost ‘spicy’, like biting into a chili pepper. But mana… mana went down smooth. It was thick and creamy like hot chocolate or freshly melted butter. Rich and potent. It flowed from his hands up his arms, making him feel warm. Comforted. Like being wrapped up in a blanket. Steeped in a feeling almost like ‘belonging’. He and mana –real mana, not artificial mana, or converted mana- belong together.

The little bit Bezel threw at him was so much less than what he absorbed back at Los Solidad with Kenny. But it was real mana. It was so much more potent.

“You doin’ alright there, sonny?” Bezel asked, a mild note of concern coloring his voice. The old man had never witnessed one of Kevin Levin’s rampages first hand, but he had heard about them and he had seen the effects of their aftermaths. The last thing he needed was to have a Devlin 11,000 rampaging through a magical campus, full of magical people, sucking up power and life-force willy-nilly.

Devlin blinked eyes that glowed star-sapphire. Bezel’s voice sounded strangely distorted and he had to shaking his head as if dislodging water from his ears. Absorbing mana really was a completely different experience than absorbing other kinds of energy.

“I’m good.” He assured the old man. “I’m good.” The second one was to assure himself.

Exhaling, Devlin called back the mana he just absorbed, pulling a fraction of it into his hand. It gathered there in an orb of his own, smaller than what he absorbed since he wasn’t using all of it. The Osmosian swept his hand, arcing it in front of him as if trying to block a ball, or swat a mosquito. The orb of mana went sailing at Bezel.

The old man threw up a barrier of his own, looking disappointed.

“I told you a shield.” He said. “First you learn to defend. Then you attack.”

“But you haven’t taught me how to shield yet!” Devlin argued back.

“The best way to learn is by doing.” Bezel informed him calmly. “And the best way of doing is when you’re adequately motivated.” The old man formed another ball of power in his hands. “This next one’s gonna be a bit more dangerous than an inflated balloon.”

Devlin brought his hands up again, intent to block the next orb of power.

He caught it in his hands, and Bezel was right. It was definitely more dangerous than an inflated balloon. It felt like a whirling and spinning mass of pressure pushing against the muscles in his arms, trying to force him back. It felt hot against his palms, like the Pyronite fire that he sometimes wielded in his mutant form, except this was meant to burn him and only him. The Osmosian tried to push it back with his bare hands, but it refused to budge. The magical attack intent on pushing its way through his blocking hands into his chest.

Devlin felt his feet slide back a few inches as the attack pushed him closer to the wall behind him.

Not knowing what else to do, or how to actually make a barrier like Bezel wanted, the Osmosian did the only thing he knew how to do. He absorbed it.

All that heat and pressure of the attack morphing into blissful warmth and comfort. Like a bowl of soothing soup and a hug. Devlin relaxed the moment the power was inside of him instead of attacking him. Flexing arm muscles that only a second before had been sore with tension, now felt fresh and rejuvenated. Ready for whatever the magician could throw at him.

The Osmosian flashed a daring smile at the old man. Glaring with eyes that glowed with star sapphire light.

“Goddamn it, sonny!” Bezel stomped a frustrated boot on the ground.

“Well, you haven’t showed me how to make a barrier yet!” Devlin stamped his own foot on the ground, equally frustrated.

The old man massaged his temples. “There’s no one way to do anything with magic.” He said, finally giving Devlin the explanation that was necessary. “That’s one of the things that makes magic so annoying. There are no set rules. Everyone just makes up their own rules. You gotta make up your own rules. What is ‘Osmosian Magic’?” A pause. “You can already make an orb. How do you do that?”

Blinking still glowing eyes, the boy thought about it. Then shrugged. “I donno. I just do. I pull the energy inside my body out into my hand.” To illustrate this, he held up one hand, palm flat. A small sphere of mana appeared. “And it just makes a ball.”

“Okay. Now flatten it.” Bezel commanded. “Flatten it and make it solid.”

“How?” Devlin demanded.

“Figure it out.” Bezel instructed –if that could even be called an instruction.

Grumbling some unkind words in an alien language the magician didn’t know, the Osmosian turned his glowing eyes back to the ball of sapphire light in his hands. Flatten it and make it solid. Those were the instructions. It was just energy. If Devlin could manipulate the energy inside his own body, he could manipulate energy in his hands. If he could change the form and nature of electricity in to mana, then he could change the shape of mana. It couldn’t be that hard.

Devlin pressed one down on top of the other, trying to flatten the mana orb with physical force, like a child squishing a ball of Play Dough.

But the ball bounced back into a perfect sphere the moment he took his hand off it again. Frustrated, the Osmosian looked back up at the old man for guidance.

But Bezel just lifted his chin, as if silently commanding, ‘Keep trying’, without giving any actual guidance as to how he should try.

So, if squishing it didn’t work, maybe stretching it would. Bringing his hands together once again, Devlin tried to pull the mana between his pinched fingers. It did stretch. Thin. Like a string. Not flat like a shield. But it did get solid. Like a pole. A short, only eleven inch long dowel. It wasn’t what his teacher wanted, but it did remind Devlin of the thin, straight bolts of mana he saw himself throwing around in the future against Rooters soldiers. So, maybe he was on the right track after all.

Certainly, this was a more satisfying mana construct than what he was hoping for. It confirmed that he was doing what he was supposed to be doing. That what he saw in the future was real. He might be an Osmosian, but he didn’t have to fight like an Osmosian. He could still save the world without the mutation his father gave him.

Devlin looked back up at Bezel, eyes still glowing

“What are you so happy about?” Asked the old man. “That’s not what we were going for.”

“No.” The Osmosian agreed. “But it’s still progress.”