The characters, universe, and alternate universe utilized herein have all been hijacked from their creators for the sake of this story. Chinese Fox gets to shoulder some of the blame, too.
This story contains slash pairings, starting with Ben and Dexter. If you're allergic to such things, you've been warned.
Chapter 1: Nothing Left to Say
The piercing shriek seemed to fill the entire cafeteria, momentarily silencing all conversation as the crowds of child soldiers and DexLabs employees and other sundry creatures looked up in surprise. After the initial shock a small murmur rose up as a pert girl marched into the large room, clearly on the warpath. All eyes turned to watch, surprise fading into something not very far removed from distaste at the display of teenage drama amidst a crowd of Kids.
Seated in a booth in the far corner of the cafeteria, Nigel Uno, code named Number One, drew a deep breath at the shout. He closed his eyes behind his dark sunglasses, collecting and bracing himself. His companions – Number Two, Edd, and Ben – grew tense and stopped eating as another ear-splitter rang out.
"Has she spotted us?" murmured Hoagie, poised to dive under the table to escape.
Ben grimaced. "My jacket's pretty hard to miss."
"Would you prefer that we leave?" Edd asked softly, flinching at another shout.
Nigel sighed. "No. I'd rather have witnesses."
"I could turn into Goop and really gross her out," volunteered Tennyson, more serious than not.
For a moment, Nigel was tempted by the offer. "No. No. Let's get this over with."
The comment and his tone made his three companions exchange surprised (and in Number Two's case, hopeful) glances. They all shifted in their seats as Lizzie Devine came stalking up to them, loaded for bear (or KND Supreme Leaders). A petite teenage girl with braided brown hair and glasses, her scowling attitude and hearty glares momentarily negated any claim she had to attractiveness. He knew his friends couldn't see why they had been going together for so long, and not for the first time of late, Nigel wondered the same thing.
They had been dating for years, though of late Lizzie had become even clingier and more demanding than normal. Always resentful of Nigel's devotion to the KND, she had tried in vain for all those years to shift that devotion to her. It was a losing battle and always had been, but Lizzie refused to give up and so had led Nigel on a merry dance. Now that they had lost contact with the Moon Base and Number 362, Nigel had become the de facto Supreme Leader of the Kids Next Door on earth. His responsibilities had increased exponentially, as had his stress levels. Lizzie, rather than offering support, refused to believe that she was not the foremost priority in his life as she claimed he was in hers. She was not an active participant in the fight against Planet Fusion and had little appreciation for the pressures and hardships of running a war.
"There you are!" snapped Lizzie, her brown eyes flashing behind her glasses. "Did you think you could hide?"
"I wasn't trying," Nigel replied evenly, knowing she wanted a loud scene. It was the last thing he wanted or needed, and so refused to rise to the bait.
She leaned across the table toward his corner of the booth. Ben very deliberately reached out and lifted his smoothie from the center of the table, forcing her to back down or get between a man and his beverage. She cast a narrow-eyed look at him, but Tennyson was clearly anything but impressed as he sipped his smoothie.
"Where were you last night?"
"DexLabs Medical with the Royal Canadian KND Flying Corp commander and what was left of her team."
By her skeptical expression, she didn't hear what Nigel was actually saying, didn't recognize the sheer tragedy of his words, and didn't believe that anything could be more important than what she had to say. It suddenly occurred to him that she had never really heard him.
"Her?" Lizzie echoed.
"Yes. 998 is female."
"You spent last night with another girl."
"I spent last night sitting up with a fellow KND operative who sustained a broken collar bone and burns over 30% of her body after she and her team were ambushed by some Dragon Fries over Hicksville."
"Dragon Fries?" she questioned sarcastically.
"Fourteen foot wingspan, spits gobs of acid," volunteered Ben, but Lizzie ignored him.
"You have time for another girl, time for all your little boyfriends, but you don't have time for me."
Number One glanced at his friends who stuck to him so loyally in the face of her wrath. He should be so fortunate as to call any of these young men his boyfriend, mused Nigel Uno. The notion distracted him so completely that he didn't bother responding to the jab.
"We had a date," she stated, annoyed that she was having little effect on him.
With a frown Nigel thought hard and fast, trying to remember setting up anything like that. "No, we didn't."
Meeting his frown with a patronizing pout, Lizzie folded her arms across her chest and said, "Last night was Sunday. The first Sunday of the month. We always go out for ice cream the first Sunday of the month, Nigel."
"We do?" he wondered, genuinely surprised.
"Well, we did until last night," she said with equal amounts of piss and vinegar in her tone.
As if he would be conscious of such a thing. Probably they had gone out once, possibly twice by pure chance, and now she thought it was a routine. Suddenly bone weary, Nigel said, "I'm sorry if you were waiting. You should have contacted me."
Not that it would have changed anything. How could it? Three of 998's team had been killed, all the others had been injured one way or another, two of them critically, and he had sat there all night as an excellent and highly capable team leader learned the agony of losing not just people she loved, but faith in herself.
"I shouldn't have to," was her quick reply.
"Obviously, you do."
"Why do I have to do everything?" she demanded. "Why am I the one always chasing after you to do things?"
Why did they always have to do something? What was wrong with just . . . being together?
"Uh, Supreme Leader of the Kids Next Door?" suggested Hoagie, pointing at his best friend.
"We're fighting a war here, Lizzie," Ben said sternly, rising to the Supreme Leader's defense.
She gave them all a scornful sneer. "If this is your idea of fighting a war, we've as good as lost."
While most people in the cafeteria had been listening for the fun of it, the audience's attitude suddenly shifted to something dark and highly unwelcoming. It was one thing to watch a dramatic breakup, it was quite another to have someone who wasn't even directly involved with the war insult them, their efforts, and their leaders. The silence was absolute. Lizzie noticed the bristling hostility aimed her way and did her best to share her ire with everyone.
"So keep up the good work, Nigie. You have to be a better leader than you were a boyfriend. You couldn't possibly be worse."
She paused, waiting. This was where, in the past, Nigel would have begged and pleaded and promised anything to get her to stay with him. He knew that about himself. While he did work well alone, he did not like to be lonely. Normally he had his team around him, but since taking over as Supreme Leader he had been forced to scatter his command team in order to utilize their years of skill and knowledge in training new recruits. Lizzie had been a constant, a habit even, but lately even when he was with her, his loneliness persisted.
It seemed the time had come to break the habit. Lizzie was in for a disappointment. She had never really tried to understand him, but had bent all her energies on trying to make him what she wanted. Nigel was done. He was tired mentally, physically, and emotionally, and he didn't want to do this anymore. It wasn't worth it. He thought of Ben, whom he rightly guessed was in a secret relationship with Dexter, and he felt a pang of envy not for what Ben had, but for how he had it. It was a difficult example to live with because Ben was blissfully happy and in love. Clearly he and Dexter shared a strong, healthy bond that was deeply satisfying for them both and therefore good for DexLabs and the war effort. What would it take to have that for himself? What did it feel like to be happily in love? He wished he knew.
"I'm sorry, Lizzie," he said quietly. He meant to sound apologetic, but somehow his words came out as a dismissal. "You're right. I am a better leader than a boyfriend."
Number Two was almost glowing with delight at being at ground zero for the Lizzie/Nigel showdown. He dumped gasoline on the fire as he said in the tiniest of whispers that only Lizzie could hear:
Never a fan of Hoagie Gilligan, she shot Number Two a dirty look. Unfazed by her disdain, Hoagie sipped his sweet tea and enjoyed the show, sensing before she did that things were not going to go as she expected, as they had time and again in the past.
Rather than make a scene and fight for Lizzie's forgiveness, Nigel simply sat still, waiting for her to catch up and realize exactly what he had said. It was a move so unorthodox in their up-and-down relationship that it took a few long seconds for her to realize that this was it. There was not going to be any drawn-out arguments, no promises of better behavior or begging for reconciliation. He was through with that. There were greater issues to deal with than Lizzie Devine's idea of how she should be treated, starting with a war and, far down the line, ending with Nigel Uno's wants and needs from a relationship.
"Well what?" goaded Hoagie when no one else bothered to answer her.
"Aren't you going to say anything?" she demanded of Nigel.
"What more can I possibly say, Lizzie?" Number One asked softly.
She drew in a deep breath, opened her mouth to speak, and paused. Lizzie was no fool. Clearly it dawned on her that anything she might say, any argument she might voice, had already been negated. He had apologized, agreed with her, and reaffirmed his rank and position. If she yelled or demanded anything more, she would be acting the complete shrew in front of Nigel, his cronies, and hundreds of witnesses. Caught in her own trap, unwilling to make more of spectacle of herself (even though, had things gone according to her plan, that's what she would have done to Nigel), Lizzie raised her chin in a show of defiant indifference. Ben Tennyson did nothing to help the situation as he noisily sucked up the last few drops of his smoothie through a straw, watching with open interest.
"Don't bother saying anything, Nigel," she snapped as if he'd been about to speak, which he hadn't. Lizzie turned to leave, throwing out a final shot, "I hope you and your boyfriends have fun without me."
"We will," Hoagie threw right back, his cheerful tone effectively nullifying her implied slander.
Only Edd watched her walk away, and even then it was just to make sure she left. He made a face, relieved she was gone, and he and Ben and Hoagie exchanged concerned looks as Number One let out a long and weary sigh, and then pushed his half-finished plate of food away from him.
"Dude, you've got to eat."
Number One shook his head. "I appreciate your concern, Ben, but I'm not hungry. I mean that," he added quickly, catching hid friend's eye. "I'm honestly not hungry."
Figuring a break up - even if it came as a relief - merited some time feeling blue, Ben let it slide. He wasn't totally convinced, but he also didn't want to apply pressure and possibly make things worse.
"I should have seen this coming," said Nigel, pulling off his sunglasses to rub his eyes.
"If you had, would you still be going out?"
The newly appointed leader of the Kids Next Door sat back in the booth, considering. It was quite late in the afternoon and he and Ben had lingered in the cafeteria until it gradually emptied, giving them some degree of privacy. "No," he finally said in a quiet voice. "I'd rather Lizzie find someone that can make her happy."
"Good luck with that," muttered Ben, leaning on his hand.
"You have no idea how fortunate you are. I envy you."
He knew what Nigel wasn't saying. Only a tiny handful of people knew about him and Dexter, and of that handful, only two (that he knew of) had figured them out. Sgt. Morton was one and Ben was presently drinking coffee with the other.
"Actually, I do know," corrected Ben, sobering a bit. "But that's only because I lost it once. That'll never happen again."
"Good. You deserve that happiness."
"What, like you don't?"
Nigel shrugged. "Apparently I'm not good boyfriend stock."
"Pfft. For Lizzie, maybe. I bet they'd be lined up around the block to date you."
Number One snorted in quiet disbelief at the notion. "Be that as it may, I've got too much to do and it takes time and energy to find a date."
"Oh, c'mon! Your schedule is at least as bad as mine. So add getting a significant other to your to-do list."
"Exactly. I don't have time for this sort of thing."
"My point exactly, Nigel."
They were talking in circles. Number One frowned, trying to figure out Ben's meaning as he returned his glasses to his face.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Leave it to me," Ben said impulsively.
"Leave what to you?"
"Let me do the sorting out and I'll come up with a short list of potential dates."
Number One looked over the brim of his sunglasses in disbelief. "You. A dating service."
Ben grinned. "Sure! You won't have anything to worry about."
He leaned into his hand, shaking his head. "Every alarm bell I have is going off full blast."
"You must not have too many because I can't hear 'em," Ben replied, shifting to lean close to his friend. His voice dropped to a whisper, just in case anyone could overhear. "Dude, there's no denying it's better and healthier for you to be with someone." He raised his finger in a sharp gesture to stop the KND's protest before it began. "You don't eat enough, you don't sleep enough, and you need someone that will get your mind off of KND stuff now and then and just let you have fun. You know, be a kid with a small 'k.' Especially now that you've been promoted."
Unable to argue, Nigel made a face. "Good luck finding that person."
"Hey, I managed it. Luckily I found someone with the patience of a saint that wants to be with me. If I can do it, you'll be a snap. When's a good time for you?"
"I'll be in the field until Friday afternoon," Nigel said. "That's fun."
He made a face. "No, it's not. Friday night date, then," decided Ben, the very picture of confidence. "Don't make any plans. Any preferences? Blondes? Tall? Short? Male? Female? Get your order in now. And no wanting to go out with any of my aliens."
He rolled his eyes at the notion, certain his dear friend had no idea of what he was getting himself into. "I'm not fussy. No aliens. Or animals. Or anything programmable. And I'm not overly fond of anything from the pits of hell."
"No Demongo, then. Can't say as I blame you. I thought you weren't fussy."
"I'm not. I just have standards."
"Gotcha. I'll be in touch." He stood, preparing to leave. "Don't get hurt, okay? You've got a date Friday night."
There was no way he'd be able to stop the older teen. Once his mind was set on a task, no matter how hopeless or stupid, Ben would not be swayed. Nigel Uno sighed and watched him leave, unable to believe anything good could possibly come of Ben Tennyson setting him up on a date.