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Crying In The Backseat Of A Taxi Cab

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   Ben likes to sneak into my room every so often. It's quite easy for him actually; all he has to do is turn into Big Chill and make his way through the walls until he finds it. I can't even count on my fingers how many times I've walked into my own room to see him lounging on my bed drinking a smoothie, acting as if he'd always been there.

   Today, he snuck into my room at midnight, waking me up from my much-needed sleep, and said, "Let's run away together."

   Ben Tennyson is an enigma. He's a human boy that can turn into any alien his watch scans, and he's also from an entirely different reality. A man named Professor Paradox explained it to us once: our realities collided into one shared planet, bound by our two consciousness and the power of some external force or something. He never fully explained what the external force was, though. He was gone before I even had the chance to ask, and Ben assured that it was usual for him. The man reminded me of my brother and Van Kleiss if they had somehow mixed into one person. 

   Ben and I snuck out of Providence and flew two hours West. Ben made no effort to explain to me where we were going, only challenging me to a race somewhere he didn't specify. It was dark and we flew over miles of black forest under a navy blue sky flickering with stars you couldn't see in a city. JetRay had a black-lipped smile on his face the entire time we flew. 

  He slowed down near the first road we found in the midst of the forested area, flapping down and landing right as his new Omnitrix timed out, revealing his regular electric green eyes and messy brown hair he refused to cut nowadays. Across the road was what looked like a diner, and, to my surprise, it looked like it was still open. Ben urged me forward, grin on his face as his eyes brightened in what confusingly looked like excitement. Insects chirped excessively, as if affected by Ben's suddenly spirited mood. 

   A sharp ringing sound above our heads alerted the woman behind the counter to our presence. She looked startled for only a second before her expression changed into something more unimpressed, or maybe even displeased. Ben walked up to the counter and slid into his seat, already taking up all the space in the diner despite his limber body. He owned the place as soon as he walked in, and his ego was sitting in every booth and table the diner had. He had a lazy yet cocky smile on his face as he set his head in his palm and greeted the woman. "Good morning, Pam!"

   Pam set down the cup she was cleaning on the counter with a loud clack and rolled her eyes, turning around to a coffee machine behind her. "Not with you here, it isn't." She was a big woman, her hair pulled up into a tight bun and her hands chubby with dimples on her knuckles as she reached for a Styrofoam cup and filled it with something that didn't quite look like coffee. 

    Realizing I was just standing right in the entrance, I quickly moved forward behind Ben as he accepted whatever drink Pam handed to him. He said, "Hey, we're all cool here! There's no need to hide, you can be yourself around him." 

   I looked between the two, Pam glaring down at Ben and Ben with his never-ending smug look. She sighed, and reached her dimpled hand up to her face..and took it off. She just..took off her face. A mask was in her hand and her whole body transformed. She was still wearing a dirt green uniform and white apron, and her body type stayed pretty much the same, but she was taller, her face was green, and she had an underbite with fangs like a pitbulls. Her eyes bulged out of their sockets, black with white pupils. 

    She's an alien.

   I try to keep my surprise to a minimum as Ben hands me the cup he'd just received from her. Absentmindedly, I take a sip from it, and the bitter, muggish taste of it has me coughing. 

   "There, feels much better, doesn't it?"

   She perks her lips, which is a feat for one who doesn't have a bottom lip, then nods. "Yeah, actually, it does."

   

   In a matter of minutes, the diner was filled with aliens of all shapes, heights, and colors. Roaring and awkward sounding gargling blasted throughout the walls of the diner, and a hoard of the monstrous ladies, gentlemen, and gender-ambiguous aliens filled the room to the max. Ben pulled me into his side in something like a one-arm embrace and smirked at the questionable look I gave him. He keeps his eyes on mine as he nods at Pam. I look at her as she, with a rather indifferent look on her face, turns around and pulls a lever disguised as a hook holding antique-looking mugs. 

   The room transforms. The walls seem to flip, like pieces of a checkerboard, one foot at a time, scale-like. They turn black and the lights above us turn from a bright orange to an arrangement of purple, pink and blue. The bar is the brightest lit part of the diner now, and that's saying something because it's still pretty dim. Suddenly the room felt wider, like everyone subsequently moved away five feet at the same time. The room felt a little bit more empty even though I haven't seen anyone leave. 

   At some point Ben let go of my shoulder. I caught him staring at me as I looked around the room, a grin on his face and his still brilliantly green eyes squinted in delight. 

   "What is this?" I asked incredulously. 

   This wasn't supposed to be possible. Professor Paradox had said it himself; our two universes, though interlinked, were separate. There was no way they could be here. They couldn't get into my side of the reality without me knowing about it. Aliens couldn't get here, and Evo's couldn't get to Ben's. I don't quite understand it, and I'm pretty sure Ben doesn't really understand the science behind it either, but it's been the case up until this point. When I needed Ben to gather some troops to fight off some corporate EVO war, he was able to bring a whole army of Plumbers over, and vice versa with the DNA aliens, when that was a problem. I just needed to think it. No, I didn't even need that. I just needed it. I barely had to have the thought in the back of my mind. It was easier for providence to pass through to Ben's side of the reality if I was already there, otherwise they'd just go to my reality's version of Bellwood or Los Soledad. 

   But then again, Kevin was able to contact me through connections he had on this side without Ben knowing either. 

   Ben shrugged and ordered another cup of whatever he'd given to me before.

   Aliens were dancing despite the fact that there was no music, and at some point a fight broke out in the corner of the room. Ben egged them on from beside me, one hand cupped his mouth and the other raised in a fist. I'm sure that if I were more awake then I would have joined him in this quite un-Ben-like display of raillery. 

   "How'd you find this place?" I have to yell over the noise to get his attention. He's starting to sweat, his hair is getting stuck to his forehead and even bushier than usual. It got hot in here pretty quick. The humidity is a sticker on my skin and I'm forced to take my jacket off and tie it around my waist to get rid of some of the heat. He wipes his face as he turns his gaze back to me. 

   "I dunno? I was just driving around with Gwen and Kevin a few months back, before they left, of course, and we found this place. Didn't even notice we crossed the barrier until I saw you on the news," he pointed to a black screen facing us from the top corner of the bar. I wouldn't have noticed it if he hadn't pointed it out. It was small and hanging practically by a thread, but it was up there, probably by some sort of alien magic. 

   "Why didn't you tell me?" I didn't even want to think of the implications of aliens being on this side of the boundary and Ben knowing about it and not saying anything. And for months!

   "I kinda..forgot." He said it like it was a question, boyish voice tipping higher at the end of forgot. "We're right at the edge of the boundary." he leans closer to be heard over the commotion behind us. "So close you'd barely know you went through it. This place is a lot like Undertown. After the Area 51 debacle, the Plumbers let out all seven hundred something aliens and a lot of them found safety here on this side. As far as I know, most of them moved back after they found out about Undertown, but some still come over here for a night of partying I guess."

   "And they can just come through whenever?"

   He shrugged. "I don't think they can go too far from here. It seems like the barrier isn't just a straight line, but like a cylinder shape." He said it like it was a question again. "Like, this place is the in between. I don't think they can fully crossover to your side passed a few miles from here."

   I raise an eyebrow. It makes sense, but also I have no idea what he's talking about. It's just as confusing as when Paradox explained it to me. "How'd you figure that out?" 

   "Pam," he pointed a thumb at her and she momentarily eyed him with a scowl on her face before turning back to the fight happening in the corner. "Said she watched some customers try to go into the city, but they just came back around back here where the barrier is."

   "Didn't even get passed the forest." She shook her head, saying it like them not being able to go through the barrier separating their realities was as pitiful as them not being able to take candy from a baby.

   A foul stench started to encompass the room, overtaking the other mixes of smells that came with the otherworldly beings. It was loud and smelled like something I couldn't quite name. I wrinkled my nose at the same time as Ben and we both let our eyes roam around the room. 

   "Oh no, I'm not good with stress!" One nasally sounding alien blob said. He was a green gelatinous swirl of ice cream, his cheeks puffed up and looking like they were expanding.

   We looked at Pam worriedly, but she just shrugged and took out an umbrella from somewhere underneath the bar. "You'll get used to it. This happens every night."

   "And that's our cue." Ben said hurriedly, already up out of his seat. His hand grabbed mine and as soon as we're outside there's a sound like an explosive going off followed by a sharp splatting sound, and when we turn around to look at the alien diner with no name, the windows are painted with green goo. There's a chorus of groans from the inside and Ben starts laughing. I momentarily stop looking at the shaggy looking building to instead watch him, letting go of my hand to put his hands on his knees and laugh hard enough to start gasping. When he finally calmed down and finished wiping a tear from his eye, he patted my shoulder. "Well, on to the next place." 

   

   Ben Tennyson was one of the most arrogant people I've ever met. He had no sense of humility or any lack of pride. He hated asking for help or even admitting he needed it, and he didn't like doing things for others that wouldn't somehow stroke his ego. 

   Which was why it wasn't really a surprise when he told me he was into me- because he never acted like that when I was around. 

   How we started dating was a mystery to both of us. I'm not even sure we can call it dating, per se, because we've never been on a formal "date". He was on his millionth break up with some champion tennis player named Julie, when, during a three month time span, he'd come over and play video games with me well into the night. He'd come over so often that I'd be right beside him when his ex would call and he'd tell her he didn't want to meet up cause he was hanging out with me. Pretty sure that's when I first got the hint. Months of fighting alongside him had us as temporary partners that just happened to be OK friends, and then months of just hanging out turned into us giving any free moment we had to each other whenever we could. I think, if I had to pick an exact time I realized we were.. Hrm, "dating", it would be when we were in the middle of playing on the basketball court(me losing, as usual) and Julie had called asking for him to come back. He looked me straight in the eyes as he said into the phone, "Nah, I'm sorry, I can't. I'm with somebody right now."

   I think I won that game. 

   Ben's next destination seemed to be train tracks in the middle of the forest not too far from the no name diner. He balanced himself on them as he walked, his arms spread out in a t-pose.

   "This is where the barrier is." He said. I knew that. I could feel it. We both could. We couldn't see it, but it was there. It was kind of nauseating, to be honest. Like smelling months old expired food. It felt like looking through strong prescription glasses.

   It made my eyes burn. 

   "What are we doing here?" I asked, finally, already knowing the answer. 

   "I dunno," he said as I thought it. Because Ben never really knew anything. He was winging it most of the time and when he wasn't he was still winging it. He didn't even know himself, probably.

   Ben Tennyson is an enigma. 

   "Don't you think Rook will be worried?"

   Ben snorted and rolled his eyes, spinning on the track and coming to a stop, looking right at me, or around me. It was too dark to really see anything. The moon was far up in the sky, the only thing lighting the world around us, aside from the faint light coming from Ben's left wrist. "Who cares about Rook?"

   "You didn't tell him you'd be here?"

   "Why would I tell him where I'm going if I'm running away?" He said it like it was obvious, and yeah, I guess it is. "Do you always tell Six where you're going?"

   Got me there. 

   "Did you guys get in another fight?" Rook was a weird one. If I had to compare him to anyone, the closest person I could think of would be Skwydd. Or does he go by Walter, now? Always giving serious answers to obvious jokes, and not really getting the mood of the room. I've never met the guy, but Ben complained about him a lot. He even joked about me becoming his new partner instead, though I think he was only half joking.

   It's not like I hadn't thought about it. 

   Being partners with Ben would be utter chaos, so for the most part nothing would change. There wasn't much going on on my side of the reality anymore; ever since the final battle with the Consortium, there's been no one to really fight against, aside from the occasional evil scientist and rabid crime leaders. If I were to leave Providence, they'd probably be just fine without me. They didn't really need a superhero anymore. Ben's world, though, could always use more help.

   But...I can't think of a life where I wasn't with Six and Holiday and Bobo. Can't imagine not seeing them everyday, training with Six, yelling at Bobo after he "accidentally" drops bananas on my jacket, playing basketball with Noah and talking with Circe over breakfast. Leaving all that behind was impossible, no matter how much I missed being with Ben sometimes. 

   "No, but if we did get in a fight, it would be his fault." He crossed his arms and jumped off the track, right in front of me. A wind blew passed us, moving his hair in waves. Crickets or cicadas or both were chirping from somewhere around us, and for a second I could see Ben frowning, eyes downcast. I blinked and it was gone. "Anyway, update me. Whatcha been up to?"

   I decided to ignore the uncharacteristic look in his eyes and went on to tell him about how Bobo got stuck in a basketball hoop the other day, and how Noah messed up with Claire on another date and got back together within a few hours the same day, and how Holiday is making me study extra hard now that we have so much free time at the base(she'd gotten so excited after I left Noah's school that one time that she regularly takes the time to get me through senior classes). If Ben wants to tell me what's wrong, he will. 

   Or won't. Ben Tennyson is an enigma. 

   We walked the train tracks for what feels like hours but only happened to be a few minutes, until I told Ben that I'm tired and we made our way into the city a few miles off. We got a hotel room and slept until morning, which was sooner than I wanted it to be. Ben's awake before I am and we ate breakfast in the small restaurant connected to the first floor. We sat next to the window, the sounds of traffic waking me up more than the coffee. 

   I realized I left my phone back in my room at home, and I wondered if the guys back at Providence were worried about me. And then I wondered if anyone was worried about Ben, cause he didn't seem to have his phone on him either, or else he wasn't picking it up while I was looking. He looked like he was itching to do something, his leg bouncing underneath the table, his index finger tapping on his temple as he held his head up with it. 

   "So, what's our plan for today?" I asked. 

   "Don't have one," he said, looking out the window, eyes trailing a man as he walked by outside. "Probably doing something stupid."

   "So the usual," I sat back in my chair and crossed my arms. "If we're running away, we might as well change it up a bit. Let's do something rebellious. Something that'll disappoint our parents."

   He lifted a black eyebrow. "Whatcha thinking?"

   I smirked. 

 

   "Wooohooo!" Ben screamed over the loud raucous noises of engines roaring and tires squealing behind me as we passed the very last biker, speeding toward the finish line and grabbing first place seconds later. The wind howled in my ears, my goggles gripped tight to the area around my eyes. Finally, I swirled to a stop, turning and facing the other competitors as they raced by me, blowing dirt into the air and into our faces. My heart was racing, beating to the sound of victory, the ground thrilling underneath the tires of my Rexcycle. 

   His arms around my waist were pressed to me like a belt, and I swear I could feel Ben trembling behind me, his warmth pressed against my back. He's making a weird hiccuping sound- no. He's laughing. He's just laughing. 

   The team of bikers approached us as I turned back, friendlier than I expected them to be with a hint of passive aggressiveness at having lost. They weren't Moss's group, but they were much more, hmm, how to say, courteous, than the stereotypical biker type. They were gone as soon as I shook their leader's hand.

   The highway's underpass was strangely quiet after they left. There was the muffled sound of vehicles driving above us and a ringing in my ears I'd missed. I can't believe I forgot how much I love being out on the field.

   Racing, fighting, all of it was a thrill like nothing else. There wasn't a lot of EVO's going around anymore(meaning none at all), and Six and Holiday weren't very keen on me hanging out with Moss's guys. Probably because of the whole "poisonous steroid" thing from before, but that was all in the past now.  

   I turned back to Ben, who was back to laughing again. 

   Well, actually, I take back what I said before. There's one more thing just like it. 

   The first time Ben and I kissed, we were at an outlet in Bellwood, having just left the arcade to take a break and get some fresh air. The sun was setting and the smell of the seafood restaurant down the walk was enticing, but I remember we were hiding from little kids who had seen us get a high score on some famous dance game, and paparazzi, and the gathering of fans that followed. All of them Ben's fans, some of them possibly having seen me fight alongside Ben once or twice on the news. There seemed to be a lot of theories about who I was. No more than Kevin or Gwen, though. This was before they went off to college. 

   We slipped down a hill and onto a sidewalk under the bridge connecting the two halves of the outlet, just barely stopping ourselves from slipping into the manmade river under it. We laughed silently as the stalkers passed, our bodies pressed against the wall and each other. I shushed him, laughing myself. When we were finally in the clear, I noticed how close we were to each other. He must've noticed it too- because when his eyes met mine, I felt his breath catch. It was only a moment, but he glanced down my face, and when I leaned in, he closed his eyes. 

   It was brief. I can't even say it felt romantic. My heart wasn't racing like in the soap opera, neither did I feel my nanites tingling in my stomach. I just felt...calm, I guess. Relaxed. It felt like I could breathe easier afterwards, all my thoughts slowed to a stop and I was only in that moment

   And then we went about the rest of our day. I don't think we realized it was a date until after we got back home.

    We're kind of stupid, aren't we? I thought as I kissed Ben under the underpass. 

   His arms slipped around my shoulders and brought us closer, his back against one of the stone columns and his hand in my hair. My arms were around his hips, hands clasped behind his back as our lips meshed together for the first time in awhile. Kissing Ben was a rare experience, which, yeah, sounds bad in retrospect, but we don't see each other that much, and when we do, we're either fighting off some alien foe or playing video games with Bobo in our line of sight. It felt like such a dumb reason, now, when all I wanted to do was kiss him. Why don't we spend more time together? Who cares if there's no opportunity, I'm Rex "Thrill Me" Salazar, I'll make an opportunity. I never want to let him go again. Whatever's bothering him, whatever is causing him to runaway and not tell anyone but me- can wait for another day. Or better yet, it's gonna get its butt kicked, literally or metaphorically, by me. The only thing that can mess with Ben is me.

   Or Gwen...or Kevin. Maybe Bobo if we're feeling nice(he'll probably say something either way).

   This kiss was different from all the other ones, the quick goodbye kisses, the "half asleep" kisses we'd share when he'd sleep over in my bed, the "let's piss off Bobo" kisses, the "I'll give the Gossip Channel something to report on" kisses. They were all quick, sometimes playful, teasing pressing of the lips. 

   But this kiss, it wasn't like that. It sparked something in my chest, like winning a long and hard battle, or jumping off a cliff into the ocean. It was like flying, the wind blowing my hair back, but instead it's Ben's fingers. He was the pancakes we had this morning and the dew from the ground around us; he was conflicting, always conflicting. 

   He was fire and dirt and smoothies and chilli fries. He was bravery and pain and arrogance and adoration. He was one to be admired. 

   Ben Tennyson is an enigma. And no one knows him but me. 

 

   The rest of the day passed in a blur. We traveled a lot, hours and hours of travelling. We'd only stop when something caught Ben's eyes. Something shiny, antique, mysterious. An abandoned playground with metal slides, an old broken down cabin, always in the forest. There was green and there was green and there were trees and shrubs and valleys and a new species of bird and the remains of an EVO nest now filled with hundreds of them. I made a mental note to tell Holiday about the place when I got back home. Evening rolled by and we were officially lost, something Ben seemed to be happy about. We crashed on the roof of someone's house and woke up to a deep grey sky. The neighborhood was surrounded by trees and for a while I thought the people just went about living in the middle of nowhere, but a further look down the street showed a road leading out into the rest of the world, and so I layed back down. 

   "Have you done this before?" I asked Ben. 

   He opened his eyes and looked at me, his hands under his head. "What?"

   "Ran away?"

   He thought about it. "Yeah, but not like this. I was eleven and wanted to continue going on adventures with my Grandpa and Gwen, despite having to go to school the next day." He closed his eyes. "So I got on an alien spaceship without telling them and got stuck in my alien forms, then had to fight off Azmuth's dad."

   I raised an eyebrow. "The dude that made the Omnitrix?"

   "That's the one."

   I hummed. 

   "I'm pretty sure it went a little different from that but I can't remember it that well," he said. "Gosh, that was, what, six years ago? Dude. "

   "Now you got the best of both worlds. Being a high schooler and your universe's most famous superhero." I said as Ben moved onto his side and placed his hand on the lone tile between us. We were still on this random family's roof, weren't we? I put my hand over his. 

   "I'm barely a high schooler! I don't even go to class unless I have to so that I can barely pass a test the next day." 

   And he video chats with me those nights so I can help him study. Speaking of school, isn't today a Monday? Or is it summer already? It is late May.

   I decided not to comment on it. "Don't they give you leeway? Since you're, like, literally saving lives?"

   "Yup, but I'm pretty sure I've taken too much advantage of it. I'm barely passing and they can't keep covering for me. Sometimes I wonder if it's even worth it. It's not like I'm not already set for life in the job category."

   "Have you ever thought about it? Dropping out?

   He paused,"...Yeah. Well, doesn't everyone?"

   "I wouldn't know. But I don't think so." I said as he let go of my hand and rolled back onto his back, arms behind his head and eyes on the sky.

   He went silent again. "It just seems like a waste, I guess. And what would my parents say?" He sighed. "I mean, Gwen happened to finish high school early, but I doubt that I could even try to do something like that."

   After another long pause, I said, "Whatever, man. Let's not worry about it."

   "You're the one that brought it up though."

   I scoffed. "Do you think I know anything about anything?"

   He pursed his lips. "...Nah, you right." He agreed, and I laughed.

   "Do you really think you'll be carrying the Omnitrix for the rest of your life?"

   "If my thirty-year old self is anything to go by."

   "But I mean after that? Like, when you're old and need adult diapers."

   He laughs. "If I need adult diapers I'm probably not going to be able to go out in the field anyway." He sighed, glancing at me and then back up at the sky. It was getting dark. "Dude, I'm almost eighteen."

   "We'll be legally allowed to vote."

   "And pay taxes."

   "And own your own house."

   "And be off my parent's insurance."

   "Dude." I said. 

   "Dude." He said back.

   "Hey!" Said a completely different voice somewhere below us. Sitting up slightly on the roof, we looked over the lawn and saw a guy standing in the middle of the cul de sac, his skateboard in one hand. "You're the famous guy, right?" He was yelling at us. 

   He was probably talking about me. I raised an eyebrow, hollering back in a question. "Is this your house?"

   "Nah! It's my friend's!" He replied. "You wanna join us for a potluck?"

   Ben and I shared a look. 

 

   "Can you believe Brittany is taking that gorilla looking guy to the ball?" Asked Girl 1.

   Boy 1 laughed, moving back and forth into his crossed-legged position on the floor next to her. "That sounds like something out of a princess movie."

   "Ok, you guys gotta tell us who these people are, cause we're complete strangers," Ben reminded casually, patting my shoulder. I doubt these kids even know who he is, which would be a first. I made the news more in Ben's reality than Ben has in mine.

  Girl 1 said, "She's just this girl in our friend group. She was supposed to be here with us but she stood us up for the party thing at the city civic center."

   "And the Gorilla guy is this dude at our school who, just, looks like a gorilla." Said Boy 2. 

   Skateboard guy and another person came into the room from where I guessed was the kitchen. He had a bowl full of cheese snacks and the possibly nonbinary person had cards in their hands. The two sat down on the carpet with us. 

   Ben reached his hand in and grabbed some. "This isn't poisoned, is it?"

   "Blasphemy." The skateboarder said with a bland face and voice. 

   "God, I wish. I wanna die." Said Possibly Nonbinary Person. 

   "Bro same! Hit me up with that bleach, bro," Ben agreed, to my horror. He stuffed his mouth with the puffs.

   "Umm," I began. 

   Girl 1 interrupted me with a lifted hand. "It's a Gen Z joke."

   Ben shrugged. "Life is the art of dying."

   "You telling me they don't teach you about memes at Providence?" Guy 2 joked, bringing a handful of the junk to his mouth. 

   I laughed on cue. The guy's friends did too. Ben didn't. 

   The rest of the evening passed with a barbeque in the backyard and talk of Brittany, who apparently was the joke of the group. Brittany, who took the nerdy guy to the dance because he had no one to go with. Brittany, who bought the group all tickets to a Trendbenders concert. Brittany, who was supposed to bring the fireworks but instead dropped them in the back of Guy 1's car and went off with Gorilla guy. The teens were celebrating their graduation, and the fact that Brittany wasn't there was shameful and traitorous(Guy 1 said as a joke).

    "So do we hate Brittany or?" Ben asked. 

   "You can't hate Brittany. Even if you hate Brittany, you love her." Guy 1 replied.

   Ben and I stayed for the fireworks, holding sparklers to each other's faces so close we could almost feel them popping on our cheeks, and while the group wasn't paying attention, we left. The food was good, but we were ready to set out for the city. The sky was completely dark by the time we left, despite only being around eight o'clock. 

   The city was bright and yellow. Cars honked and zoomed through the black pavement of the streets. People of all shapes and sizes and colors walked the sidewalks, bumping into each other and dancing for money. We looked over it from the top of a tower crane. Ben twirled about on the edge, arms lifted as if to hug the air, his eyes closed. He sucked in a deep breath. "It's a sign of the times," He said. "when empty streets at 5 am are more exciting than bustling ones at midnight."

   I didn't understand. 

   He stopped and looked me in the eye. "Ready to lose your mind with me?"

 

   We bought some masks and two blazers from a random store on our way to the civic center and paid a 15 dollar fee to get into the party, and avoided another 15 for suits because of the blazers that covered our shirts, with a discount because we counted as a couple. We walked into the ballroom with murals on the ceiling high above our heads and lights from the chandeliers blinding in comparison to the city lights outside. The masquerade had started hours ago and there were men and women and others dressed in dresses and suits and jumpers all around. The atmosphere was classy and my cheeks were warm. 

   Ben was looking around too, but his focus was on something else. "You think we can spot Brittany?"

   I swept over the crowd, person to person. "You think that's her?" I nodded toward a tall female with long dark brown hair and a crow's mask above her nose. 

   "Nah, we're looking for a 'basic white girl.' She's supposed to be blond, and average height." He said. "Maybe her." He tried to discreetly point at a younger-looking girl on the other side of the room. I pushed his hand down before taking it in mine. 

   "Let's try this," I say, pulling him to me and putting one arm around his waist so that his chin was on my shoulder and my lips were next to his ear. "This way it just looks like we're slow dancing."

   He shivered slightly, his ear turning pink. "Oh. Great, right, yeah." 

   I smirked at the slight tremble in his voice. "Aww, you shy?"

   "Shut up." He mumbled into my shoulder. 

   We stayed like this for awhile, pointing out different people and asking each other Is that Brittany? and laughing over and over again. 

   "You smell like fireworks," I take in the scent of his hair as he sighed. His arms were around my neck now, and mine around his waist. 

   "You smell like bananas." He replied. 

   "This is my natural smell now. Blame Bobo."

   "Why does he always have your clothes?"

   "He uses them as a napkin."

   "Ew!" Ben pulled away, making a face. 

    I pulled at my blazer. "Well obviously not this one!"

   "Then why do you smell like bananas?" He asked loudly. 

   "Cause the smells embedded in my clothes now!" We stared at each other for a long second before we started laughing again. 

   "Wait, wait wait-" he said, holding onto my arm. "Look, look!" He turned me so that I was facing whatever he was pointing at. I saw it immediately. "Is that-"

   A big looking man was walking towards the punch table, his curly hair brown and hanging down his shoulders. He stood above everyone else in the room, but he didn't seem like anyone important. His face was almost all hair, a beard and mustache so scruffy it barely looked like he had a face under the mask. 

   "Gorilla dude!" We exclaimed together, glancing at one another before turning our gazes back to him. Someone much smaller was following behind him, and we didn't see them until they reached the actual punch table. A girl in a long prom dress was beside him, her long, dirty blonde hair swinging to a stop as she paused behind him. Her ponytail was tight and the mask wrapped around her face was furry and sparkly. We both gasped audibly, "Brittany!" 

   Ben wheezed with laughter, holding onto his stomach and my arm as I gasped for breath. Some guard looking guys were coming towards us, screaming hey! but we ran out before they could get us, the crowd all seeming to turn towards us as we raced to the exit. 

 

   Ben stole a car.

   My mind was racing with my heart, my nanites tingling in the palm of my hands and the tips of my fingers. Ben's face was flushed red, his knuckles white on the steering wheel and his eyes sparkling with green with the streaming lights of the city passing us by. 

   Ben stole a car, I couldn't stop thinking. Ben stole a car Ben stole a car Benstoleacar-

   He was glowing. No, more like igniting. The wind was flipping his hair back and behind his red ears, red as his face. He was grinning, but it wasn't like any I've seen on him before. It wasn't even like the ones I've seen on him today. His teeth were as pearlish as the whites of his eyes and his thin lips stretched over them like a shark's, hungry and searching. 

   My heart started pounding more. I realized it then: he was looking for something, something to eat, something to fulfill his hunger, and he wasn't going to stop until he got it..or collapsed. "Ben, we have to go back."

   He didn't look at me, kept his eyes on the road, wide and unbothered. "What? We just got away from those guys!"

   "You stole a car!"

   "I'm just borrowing it, we'll bring it back later, we'll just say it was an emergency super he-"

   I was raising my voice, "I can literally turn into a car, we don't need emergency vehicles! I am an emergency vehicle!"

  He shut up, his grin fading and whatever was igniting him quickly dispelling. 

   I put a hand on his arm. "Ben… I don't know what's with you, but you've got to tell me what's wrong."

   His hair slowed down to a light wiggle as he pressed off the gas, finally. Air stopped thrashing against my face from the open passenger door window. I hadn't really noticed it until now, caught off guard by the bizarre situation I found myself in.

   If Ben kept going like this, he'd just keep searching for more and more. For some… I don't know, unattainable high that'll probably get him killed in this line of work. That'll start with him stealing cars and end with him overdosing on something. How far would he go until he realized that he was searching for something that wasn't worth it? Until he was the villain that that one news anchor was trying to make him out to be?

    "Talk to me," I begged to his profile, verbally and with my eyes. He wouldn't look at me. He was too busy clenching his jaw, moving his tongue around in his mouth. His eye was almost twitching with what I just realized was exhaustion, the lines under it more pronounced. But it didn't seem like the kind of exhaustion that meant sleep. It was more like he was tired.    

   I squeezed his arm softly, lowering my voice. "Ben," I said slowly, pausing for emphasis, just like Six used to do with me. "We slept on someone's roof in a city we didn't even know the name of."

   I wanted him to tell me what had happened in Bellwood, but when he finally looked at me, I felt like I already knew. 

 

   Well..maybe he was a little sleepy, too. 

 

   The night ended where it began. Ben found us a place in the middle of nowhere to park the car and look out into the stars. We were away from the city and surrounded by trees, with the sky shining dim stars through the front window and moonroof. It was dark, but neither of us moved to turn the lights on. 

   Ben's hands were still on the wheel. "So, um," his voice cracked and instead of continuing he put his forehead to the wheel and stayed like that for a few minutes. I watched his movements for any signal of crying but he seemed to be breathing normally. His blazer was on the seat under him. He'd taken it off and thrown it on the seat before he got in back when we'd left the ball. 

   Ben lifted his head. His eyes were dry but his nose was pink. "So, yeah, anyway, yesterday sucked and life is meaningless."

   "Ok." I nodded. "Explain."

   He looked at me, dropped his hands onto his lap, and looked back up at the sky. "There was a…" he sighed, then closed his eyes and thought for a moment, clenching his jaw again. "We messed up."

   I nodded for him to keep talking. 

   "We were too late."

   That's when my heart started pumping. I knew what that meant and already I felt the blood draining from my face. It suddenly felt ten degrees colder. 

   I didn't have to press him for him to continue. He said, "We just wanted to go fishing, but they-" he drew in a shaky breath. "Max, Rook, and I saved as many as we could, but there was no way to know how long they had been in there…"

   In a sudden, thoughtless movement, I put my arm around his shoulder and drew him closer. "You don't have to." I said. I didn't need to, didn't want to hear anymore. I knew what messing up meant in this line of business. I knew it personally. 

   "They ran out of oxygen, and Rook," Ben breathed out a silent laugh, putting his head down on my shoulder. "Rook got mad at me."

   "For what?"

   "For not caring, apparently." Ben snorted. "Sorry I feel numb from the death of hundreds of people! And you know what? Yeah, I get it. I don't handle emotions very well. Sue me! I've been out here risking my life since I was ten!"

   He's raising his voice now, lifting his head off my shoulder and meeting my eyes with his anguished ones. "And it never ends, Rex! Bad guys just keep showing up! Do you know how many times I've killed Vilgax?"

   "Three times?"

   "Apparently none! Because he keeps coming back!"

   "Oh, dude, that's," I blinked comically. "Relatable as heck."

   He laughed. Good. I'm glad to be able to get rid of some of the tense air. I smile as he grasps onto my arm and leans his head on it, sputtering out a laugh. 

   "You know a guy by the name of Van Kleiss?"

   He laughed a bit more. A heavenly sound. "We're both fucked, aren't we?"

   My brain didn't register the sound of Ben cussing. "Uh huh," I breathed out and nodded. 

   "I miss you so much sometimes, Rex. You're the only one that makes everything bearable." He admitted. "Please don't leave me. You're the only one that understands me. Everyone says they do, but they don't. Not really."

   

   We both knew that was a lie. Gwen and Kevin knew. Six knew. Heck, Five from Six's old crew most likely knew. Max Tennyson probably knew it best. Rook would probably know it someday, or something like it. I'm not sure how old he is, or even if he was forced to go into Plumber training, but he'd know the stress of saving lives for most of his conscious life someday. Of being thrown into a dangerous situation after situation, right after the other, again and again and again. 

   Or, at least, I hope Ben knows that. That we aren't alone. 

   "I'm not going anywhere, Ben." I cradled his neck with my hand, staring deeply into his eyes. "I mean it. I don't wanna lose you. Ever."

   He didn't say anything for a long moment. The car filled with the sounds of nature: cicadas harmonizing, frogs groaning, trees bustling in the wind. Then he said, "You're really easy to talk to."

   "Well I hope so, I'm your boyfriend." I laughed, sliding my arm around his shoulder again.

   He relaxed into my side. "Shut up, I'm trying to be serious." But he was smiling. "I feel comfortable with you. Safe."

   "Ooh," I teased. "Sounds like someone's in love~"

   "You know, I was gonna say you feel like home or some mopey trash like that, but now," he shook his head and sucked in his lips. "I'm not so sure."

   "Look me in the eye and tell me that's not something Kevin would say."

   He gave a fake thoughtful look before nodding. "Yeah," he said in a comical high voice. "You got me there." He sighed. "Seriously, I never get to feel like this. Just..relaxed. I wish I could talk to everyone like I can to you. It's so hard sometimes."

   "Why?"

   "I don't know," he said. "I just don't get along with people much, even about the simplest things. They never seem to really understand what I'm saying." 

   "Like not knowing that drinking bleach is a meme." I nodded. 

   "I," he stopped, smiling and taking in a deep breath through his nose. 

   "Ok, I'll stop."

   He continued. "I just..feel empty? Sometimes? Like, it's awful, because I'm usually feeling so much and then it's suddenly nothing right after. Like, sometimes it gets too much and I don't even realize that I've left the place I just was and I'm wandering all over Bellwood not even knowing how I got there."

   "Um," I furrowed my eyebrows down at him. "That sounds..medical? Have you talked to someone? Not me, but like, a doctor?"

   "No, I don't think it's that serious. And even if it is, it's probably got more to do with my watch than anything. It's happened before, with Big Chill, before I-" he paused. "Anyway, what's the saying? Time will heal all things?" He furrowed his eyebrows down at his watch. "I'm not so sure. I've met my future self, and what if he's pretending just like I am?" 

   "Ben," I said. "He's you. If you decide you want to change, then you will."

   He smiled at me again, but it didn't look convincing at all. Maybe it wasn't meant to.    

   "Well, enough about me," Ben said, then asked,"I wanna know about you. How are you, really?"

    How am I, really? I hadn't really thought about it. How was I?

   A few seconds passed. Ben leaned over to see my face and I looked up from the dashboard. His voice quiet, he asked, "Are you happy?"

   "No." I said, suddenly. My brain caught up with my mouth and I started to take it back. "Or... Well, it's not as bad as yours. Actually, it's probably a first world problem."

   "You know the first world problem meme but not the bleach drinking meme?"

   "What, that's a meme?"

   "Nevermind." He said, tired. "Keep going." 

    How should I say it so I don't sound like a complete idiot?

   I look up at the sky through the smudged windshield. Whoever owned this car needed to get it washed. 

   "It's gonna sound stupid." I warned. 

   Ben put a hand on my shoulder. "Dude. It's me."

   I bit my lip. "Yeah…" I trailed. "Ok." I sat up in my seat and got it out in one breath. "NowthatevosaregoneIfeelpurposelessbecausetheresnothingleftformeanymore..!" I took in a deep breath and let it out as Ben stared at me silently. I caught his eye and shrugged. "Like I said, first world problem."

   "That's a totally reasonable problem." He said in a brisk tone. "Dude."

   "But is it really?" I made a face. "Oh, the world's saved, but oh no! Looks like I'm irrelevant!"

   Ben was looking at me with a stern face. His thick eyebrows were knitted together between his hooded eyes. "You can't actually believe that."

   He's right. I don't. But I don't know how else to explain how I feel about it. Fighting Evo's was most of my conscious life. What do I do now? Bust tables? Retire at seventeen?

 "Everyday it's like I'm waiting for something that's not going to happen." I close my eyes and lean my head back against the headrest. "It sucks."

   "I get that. Except I usually don't have to wait long for something to happen." He replied. 

   "Don't get me wrong. My life isn't perfect, but I'm thankful for everything I have. It's the anxiety I can't get rid of. I mean look at us! We could be the sky if we wanted to. Everyone knows us," At least, in our realities. "I just don't know if I deserve that anymore.."

   "Of course you do. You're, like, the coolest guy I've ever met."

   "Even cooler than Paradox?"

   "Of course."

   "Are you lying?"

   "...Not a lot? You're about half and half." Ben put on a sheepish face. 

   "That's about right." I tried for a small smile. "I know I'm awesome. That's not the problem. I'm just..I don't know. I don't know what I'm doing. Or what I'm supposed to be doing..."

   Ben went quiet for a few seconds. "Sorry.."

   "Huh?"

   "I feel like I'm saying stupid stuff. I don't mean to make you feel like your struggles are insignificant. They aren't. And also," he rubbed a hand over his face. "For getting us in this situation."

 

   "Ok, first off, nothing you've said is stupid, alright? And second, it's fine. We'll take the car back and file a report and be on our way."

   "Yeah," he said quietly, standing up in his seat, grabbing onto the edge of the moonroof, and lifting himself up into the fresh air. "Yeah. Right." He repeated with more conviction. "But what about after that?"

   I furrowed my eyebrows. "What about after that?"

   "I mean, I still did it! I shouldn't have, but I did. I was completely aware of everything that was going on around me- what if," he sat on top of the car with his legs hanging down through the opening in the moonroof and his hands cupping his face as he hunched over. He sighed heavily. "What if I do it again?"

   "What?" I looked at him incredulously. 

   "What if I'm a bad guy?" He had a look in his eyes like he was about to cry. Red bags that he hid under his hands before he leaned back and laid down limp on top of the car, his legs swinging down beside my seat. I knelt in my seat and moved into the backseat, bypassing his long legs, to make it easier to get up on top of the moonroof beside Ben. He moved over as I sat beside his prone form. "I am. I'm a bad guy."

   I said, "If you were a bad guy, I'd be obligated to beat your butt until you remember you're good again."

   A few seconds later he moves his hands away from his face and over his head, staring at me blankly. "That's so cheesy."

   I shrug. "You love me because I'm cheesy."

   "You wouldn't even know if I went full evil. It's not like you visit my reality regularly."

   "You come over frequently enough that I usually don't have to." 

   "Because I miss you, jerk." He said, side-eyeing me. "You know how boring it is going on stakeout all night? And having to explain my jokes to Rook all the time? The only thing keeping me up is the thought of getting to hang out with you the next day. Or calling, if I can't do that."

   "Well, why don't you go to sleep?"

   "Cause at two a.m. all I can think about is you…"

   "...And you said I was cheesy," I grinned at him and poked his cheek. He fake grumbled and smacked my hand away, turning his face away so I couldn't see. Too bad for him- I could still see how pink his ears were. 

   " This, exactly this. This is what I miss, man," he muttered. "I can't stand being so far from you, all the time. How do you deal with it? Does it even bother you? Do you think about it, too? Me?"

   "Are you kidding? Noah hit me in the face with a basketball 'cause I wouldn't stop talking about you! Holiday had to end session, well, 'class', early the other day because I kept daydreaming about you. Even when I tell myself to focus, you're all I can think about." He turns back to me and I try and fail to move his bangs out of his face. "There's nothing that can take my attention away from missing you."

   Ben grinned, successfully brushing his hair back with his hand. "Oooh, there he is!"

   "He's back!" I cheered. 

   "That was a good one." He nodded, then paused. "You really don't think I'm bad?"

   "I think you make bad decisions, but, like, you wouldn't be my boyfriend if you didn't. It's the thing we have most in common." I smiled. "But no, you're not a bad guy. And, in the future, I'll be here to make sure you won't be… Also, you listen to too much Billie Eilish."

   "There's nothing like the bond between two people with shared childhood trauma." He looked up at the sky. I did too. He said, "I don't like myself right now. But...I'm gonna change. I want to change. Also, I'll never stop listening to Billie Eilish."

   "I'll wait for you," I said. "Just know that I'll always be on your side."

   A glance. "You're such a Brittany."

   "What does that mean?" I turned over on my side and lifted myself up on my elbow.

   "You're a good guy, Rex." 

   Not sure if that was an answer or if he was ignoring my question. I laid back down. "I support you, monster guy."

   "Haha, me too, robot boy."

   I breathed in the cool air as the stars sparkled trillions of miles above us. "Long distance will be nothing for us."

   I said. But we both knew that was a lie. 

 

   Control yourself. Take only what you need from it. 

   The radio played in a low murmur throughout the cab car as we slid into the backseat. The car trembled as another passed by us, hurriedly. Ben already had his head on my shoulder and was half asleep when I started telling the taxi driver the directions to the area close but not too close to Providence. I pressed a kiss to his forehead. He grumbled something. 

   "Why won't you let me love you?" I pouted, despite the fact he couldn't see it with his eyes closed. Or maybe he could. Who knows with Ben?

   "I'm mentally exhausted. Let me rest." He mumbled. 

   "Oh, it must've been all that crying," I poked my tongue out at him as he peered at me through one eye. I whispered so the driver couldn't hear us, "and car-stealing. And telling me how much you love me." 

   "Shut up, I didn't cry."

   "Not to be a jerk, but I totally saw tears."

   He scoffed. "If you don't leave me alone and let me nap you're never gonna hear an I love you from me again." And so I let him sleep, and he slept just like that, on my shoulder, all the way home.

   

   We flew the rest of the way to Providence and Ben used the last of the juice in his watch to turn into Big Chill to sneak us in. My room was quiet aside from Bobo's loud snoring. He was laying on his hammock, arm off the side and mouth wide open. He sounded like a bear. Ben rolled over to the far side of my bed as I laid my jacket over the monkey's head to muffle the sound. It didn't do much but we were so tired I'm sure we'd get through. 

   I laid down facing him. Surprisingly, he wasn't asleep yet. "What time is it?" He asked. 

   I checked my pocket for my phone, forgetting I didn't bring it with me, then the floor. It was on the floor by my feet and I squinted at the harsh light as I checked the time. 

   "2:13 a.m." I read. Huh

   "Oops," Ben said as I laid back down. "Six said get you home by ten. Guess I'll die."

   "Nothing I can do for you now, buddy." I played along, staring into his eyes, silently challenging him into a blinking contest. 

   "At least that means I don't have to go to school today." He didn't look away, so I took that as a yes. "Who's gonna be the first to say goodbye..?"

   "Don't talk like that." Cause that could mean a lot of things, and I didn't want to think about him having to leave. I looked back and forth between his two eyes, like a clock, watching for him to mess up.  

   "You searching for something?" He asked softly. 

   "Yeah," I said absentmindedly. 

   "What do you see?"

   "Depression."

   He laughed. 

   "Exhaustion," I continued. He nodded sleepily in agreement. "Anarchy."

   "Yeah, yeah," he softly agreed. 

   "Loneliness…"

   He furrowed his eyebrows and shook his head, closing his eyes. "Wow, ok, hitting kinda deep there, hold on."

   "Sorry," I whispered. "Also I win."

   "You always do."

 

  Six sighed inaudibly in relief. He let out all the stress of the day in one small breath as to not wake up the two wrapped up in each other, or the breathing jacket in the corner. The door-shaped yellow light streaming into the room slowly became a slit as the agent closed the door and made his way down the hall, making sure to tell Doc Holiday and White knight through their comms that everything was fine. 

 

  Ben woke up before sunrise and finally checked his phone. He ignored the 63 messages and hit Gwen's name in his contacts. He typed:

    It's Ben. I'm not dead, I'm with Rex.

   And went back to sleep. 

 

   I blinked slowly, trying to cling to sleep and ignore the movement beside me. And under me. I lifted my head as Ben pulled his arm free from underneath it. I pulled my own arm from around him, drawing it to myself and struggling to go back to sleep. 

   He groaned softly and I opened one eye to see his face. He was sitting up, squinting at his and/or my phone with a scrunched up face. He let himself fall back onto the bed again, Omnitrix hand on his face with his eyes shut as if to go back to sleep. He finally said, "I have a final in two hours."

   I opened both eyes. There weren't any windows in my room but my body clock said it was already early morning. I took a few seconds to register what he said. If he had a final today, that meant he had school, and if he had school, that means he skipped yesterday. I felt another wave of excess sleepiness go over me. "Um," I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to get the tiredness out. I heard how hoarse my voice was as I asked, "Do you need me to.." I dozed off, wracking my brain for the words. "Need help driving there?"

   "No.." He sounded just as tired as I did. "I might just skip.."

   "You sure?"

   "Mm," he hummed. "...No."

   But I didn't hear or feel him make any move to get up, and before I knew it, I was back to sleep. I woke up to a annoyed monkey prodding my side with his foot. I slapped it away in disgust. 

   "You've been asleep for fourteen hours! I don't know what kind of partying you were doing yesterday-" Bobo was in the midst of saying when Ben suddenly sat upright, exclaiming:

   "Fourteen hours?"