Hello again, readers. My apologies for taking a long while to update the story, but between periods of writer's block and increased hours at my current job, I haven't been able to write as much as I would like. However, I aim to deliver this story in its intended complete form no matter what. So, without further wait, here's Chapter Seven.
Chapter 7 - Wounds
Hex was in his library, diligently reading a thickly-sized history book based on twelfth-century China when the telephone rang. Startlingly disrupted from his research by the shrill noise, he cursed that he ever agreed to have such an irritating modern invention installed in his home after Charmcaster had started dating Benjamin, all so his niece could keep in contact with her boyfriend whenever she was visiting Earth. Muttering under his breath that he should have just purchased one of those mobile phones for her instead, he pushed himself up and away from his chair, leaving the book behind on the armside table, and went to answer the device.
Plucking it from the receiver, he held it to his ear and spoke, "Hello."
"Benjamin," Hex replied slowly, anticipating the likeliest reason for the young man calling. "I must apologise. Hope is not here, she's back in Ledgerdomain."
"No she's not!" Ben cried. "She's here at my place!"
"What?" Hex exclaimed, his eyes widening in disbelief. "That's impossible. She has not come back through my portal."
"That doesn't matter! She's here, and she's wounded. Badly."
Cold terror ran through Hex as he sensed the fear in the last two words Ben had spoken.
Something had to have happened in Ledgerdomain, as he had long suspected it would, but something that was severe enough to make Charmcaster risk her life further by forcing herself through the boundary between dimensions without the use of an established portal, a dangerous act that could very well have killed her on its own. Hex's eyes narrowed as the consequences involved in his summation hit him.
"I shall be right there."
Ben hung up the phone and returned hurriedly to Hope's side. His girlfriend was lying, prone and unmoving, along the length of the living room sofa with her head propped up on a cushion, being watched by his mother. Even now, Sandra was checking Hope's breathing and vital signs, alert for any drastic negative change in her health. Ben glanced around the room again; his dad had moved from guarding the front door to keeping a lookout through the window to see if anything monstrous or spectral had followed Hope there.
Conceding his dad had seen nothing alarming yet, he turned his gaze back to Hope as he knelt down on the floor. He felt his mother's eyes on him as he raised his hand to tenderly stroke Hope's face. A sudden rush of misery gripped him when she did not answer to his affection, bringing back the freshly-recent harsh memory of her losing consciousness on his doorstep and collapsing into his arms to rush through the annals of his mind. He remembered vividly his screaming of her name, his parents running toward them, their combined breaths of shock as they saw the number of wounds that Hope was suffering from, and how he had been gently coaxed by his parents to lift Hope up and take her to the sofa.
The memory of his mom checking Hope's pulse and breathing the first time was a little more hazy; Ben was sure he had heard his mother say that it did not look good, but as for right after that, he drew a complete blank until the moment that he made the decision to call Hex. How long did it take for him to make that decision, he wondered. Obviously not long as neither of his parents pointed out to him how hesitant he was being. The memory regained full clarity from there as it took him to when he was at the phone and dialling the number, something that now really did not surprise Ben; he had felt a lot of impatience in waiting for the call to connect and for the sorceror to answer, an experience that was far too stark for him to forget easily. It was Hope's life on the line after all.
Having recalled all of that, Ben prayed inwardly that Hope was not beyond her uncle's help.
"Um, Ben?" Carl asked nervously.
"Hope's uncle. What does he look like?"
Ben bit his cheek; he had forgotten that his parents hadn't ever met Hex yet. "Very pale skin. Red and black cape and hood, with thin black clothing. Black and yellow eyes. Carries a staff with him at all times. Why?"
"Uh, cos someone fitting that description just appeared out of nowhere on our front lawn. And he's running to the door."
"Good," Ben sighed with relief. "Let him in."
At his son's word, Carl stepped over to the door and pulled it open. Never once breaking in his pace, Hex brushed past him, entering the house. His calculating eyes darted into the living room, where he saw his niece lying unconscious on the sofa with Ben and Sandra tending to her. He stiffened as he took her injuries in, a single shocked gasp escaping from his mouth. With a sense of deliberation, he charged forward. Ben clambered out of his way, allowing him to stand where he had been kneeling. Hex looked down at Hope, worry and fear dominating his face as he examined her wounds in closer detail.
"Magic," he confirmed quietly, slipping down to his knees. "Oh child. Why did you bring yourself to this?"
"Can you help her?"
Hex turned to Ben. Calmly, he took in the boy's shaking worried eyes and concerned face and answered, "I can. But there is something else that must be required."
"The first thing," Hex explained, " is that I can heal her but her recuperation will be very fragile, so fragile that while I am helping her, it is important that she must not move under any circumstances. In order to prevent that, I have to place a strong calming enchantment on her beforehand. The issue with that is, when I turn my magic to the healing process, that enchantment will grow weak without my attention and it will fade completely." He closed his eyes, drawing in air to make the request he was aiming for. "But it will have a stronger chance of holding if I cast it on you as well."
Ben's fearful expression flickered, changing into a firm stare of determination. "What do I need to do?"
Hex rose, climbing to his feet again. His eyes flashed with a bright white light, quickly returning to their normal shade of black and yellow as he cautiously muttered an incantation aloud. The same white light emanated around Hope and, slowly, her inert form was raised into the air. Ben watched, mesmerised by how beautiful she was appearing floating in mid-air despite the wounds that marred her body. Hex suppressed a knowing smirk at the obvious attraction Ben was showing toward his niece and spoke to him again.
"Sit down where her head will lie."
Ben shook his head roughly and attempted to hide the regretful blush that displayed how taken in he had been by his girlfriend's natural beauty. Following Hex's instruction, he slid into the seat on the sofa, removing the cushion as he did so, and nodded to Hex that he was prepared. Recognising that Ben was indeed settled comfortably, Hex accepted the response and directed his eyes to his levitating niece. Mouthing another incantation, he commanded the spell he had surrounding Hope's body to lower her back down to the sofa. He, Carl and Sandra gazed on as she descended, her form coming to land on the soft surface with her head resting on Ben's lap.
"Now before I cast the enchantment," Hex resumed speaking, pulling everyone's attention to him. "Benjamin, you must remain calm every moment until Charmcaster awakes. No panic. No stress. No fear and worry."
"Got it," Ben nodded.
"You do any of those things and the enchantment will break quickly."
"Not yet you don't," Hex remanded. "The second and final requirement is for you to never leave her side, for if you do…
"The enchantment breaks," Ben guessed.
"Correct. So no, as you say it, going hero. You stay and remain calm, which means," Hex carried on, turning grimly to Carl and Sandra. "Mr and Mrs Tennyson, it falls to you and I to act as protectors if something or someone dangerous has pursued my niece here."
Carl and Sandra spared a look between them, silently exchanging words. They decided in two seconds. Sandra left Ben and Hope, moving out of the room and into the kitchen; everyone heard her rifling through the drawers and cupboards and were amused when she came back in with a steel broom handle in one hand and a rolling pin in the other. Carl strode over to the other side of the room, to where he had been keeping his father's old blaster hanging, and he took the weapon into his hands. Charging the power pack and arming the mechanism to fire a lethal dose of plasma, Carl eyed Hex resolutely and said, "Nobody hurts our family on our watch."
Hex smirked at the reply, acknowledging both parents' dedication. As Carl turned away to survey the outside, Hex rounded back to Ben. "Remember what I said. Now, are you ready?"
Ben exhaled in a quiet, low breath, contemplating to himself the difficulty of the task he had volunteered to handle. No moving was fine; he could do that. Being there for Hope as Hex would heal her was also easy. Remaining calm, unstressed and without fear however would be hard for him as he was often told he behaved very emotionally in times of crisis, or worse tried to mitigate a bad situation with jokes.
The most arduous thing of all though, abstaining from going hero, especially when there could be a reason to like the potential danger that might have followed Hope, would open a floodgate that would leave him overwhelmed and drowning in guilt as someone anywhere in Bellwood or the world was likely in trouble, screaming his name for him to come help them. Worse still, he noted darkly, if Hope's attacker was to arrive as Hex was suspecting, he was to be forced to let his parents fight the threat alone.
But there was someone right here who needed him, he reminded himself as he stared down at Hope. As his eyes centred fully on her face, all the scenarios he was thinking of halted and slithered away to hide from the new, brighter feeling Ben was having. This was for her. This was for Hope.
Ben nodded for Hex to begin, stating his commitment with a solidly spoken single word. "Yes."
Hex put his staff down and spread his hands outward. "Then calm yourself and relax. When you are, keep it that way." Ben nodded again, following the command by regarding Hope and warmly cupping his hand to her cheek. All form of emotion except his devotion to her, he gradually locked away as he focused upon his task.
Sensing Ben vacating all of the conflict swarming within him, Hex turned his own attention to summoning the magic he needed. In his mind, he reached into the metaphysical realm, journeying to find a pathway to connect with Hope's spirit and soul. Arriving at an avatar shape of her and of Ben in the exact same positions they were in reality. Hex brought his power forth, calling to Hope. A hole opened up in her spirit form, allowing him passage. In both this place and the physical plane, he bade his spell to enter, speaking the words for the enchantment in a soft, naturally soothing manner.
"Ben esse apud vos modo. Maxime tranquillitas. Maxime tranquillitas."
Hope writhed in Ben's embrace for a scarce moment, then as if she had recognised Ben's presence, she lifted her left hand from where it had been lying limp on the sofa and moved it over her body to curl her fingers into a grip around the hand Ben had at her cheek. Quietly, she smiled.
Hex exhaled. The calming enchantment was working. He could put his focus to the more imperative work. Eyeing Hope's form, he re-examined her injuries, guiding his magic to circulate through her to inform him of the extent of the damage done to her body. He came at last to the realisation that none of the wounds would prove fatal so as long as he mended them both efficiently and effectively.
Issuing out another long breath, he had his magic transform into another spell as he began to initiate the healing ritual.
A blurry white outline came into being, crafting itself to circle perfectly around Hope and tightening to her skin until it had adhered all of its shape to her. Ben held in all the instinctive panic that had been born in him when the outline had appeared, knowing from noticing that Hex had not given into alarm that this was part of the spell he had been meaning to enact.
"Redige sui illius ardens."
Flashes of light matching the colour of the outline splashed all over Hope. Ben's eyes widened as he saw wherever there had been burns on her body were now morphing to become clear, untouched skin.
"Hinc eius carnes contusione defatigatus."
The flashes of white moved to covering the bruises. Ben, Carl and Sandra watched, mystified, as the blotches progressed from their sickly-looking black, through the various stages of purple, to red, to pink, to a light brown, until finally there was nothing to suggest that Hope had never been bruised at all.
"Signa plagas eius."
Ben blinked suddenly with horror, wishing that he was hearing things. Did Hex's voice sound like it was starting to strain? No, he had to ignore that. Calm and relaxed, he repeated in his head, calm and relaxed. He forced himself to keep looking at Hope as Hex continued his ministrations. Before his eyes, all the cuts and scratches, the only things left that were evidence she had suffered in battle, were closing. Every wound was gradually being knitted over as the skin reattached bit by bit. For Ben, this seemed to be the longest part by far, waiting as each mark appeared to be repairing itself, leaving faded pale lines and curves in their place. But even when they were all magically sealed, the job was still not done. Sweat poured down Hex's face, proving to Ben that he may in fact have heard right, as the sorceror concentrated laboriously on the lines and curves. When they disappeared from view, he moved on to the next part.
"Implete ea vita navitas."
The white outline brightened in intensity, taking on a more definite appearance, glowing so vividly that it made Hope look like she was surrounded with an angelic aura. Hope moved, nearly startling Ben and everyone as her lips parted to release a pained cry for air, but she soon settled back calmly as her lungs drew fresh oxygen into them. Hex sighed; it was now far too obvious to everyone in the room apart from him from the sweat matting his creased forehead and the tired moan on his breath that he was getting worn down. He himself ignored the signs, applying more of his energy.
"Sana eam…revertetur…ad eius plenam…salutem," Hex heaved, pushing the words out of his throat. The aura cast over and around Hope glimmered one final time, before eventually dulling into nothing, leaving her body clean of any injury. Hex relaxed, raising his hand once more. "Maxime tranquillitas."
A slight moan escaped from Hope. She stirred for a moment and then fell back into a motionless sleep. Hex smiled, nodding with approval, and he looked to Ben. "She will be alright now," he spoke wearily. "But she needs to rest and recover. Let her sleep some more."
Ben nodded with understanding, turning his eyes back to Hope. Hex staggered over to Carl's armchair, groaning as he called his staff back to his hand. Sandra abandoned her weapons, coming to him as he limped within reach of the chair and helped him to sit down.
"Thank you, Mrs Tennyson."
Sandra shook her head, smiling gratefully at him. "No. Thank you, Hex," she whispered, glancing over at Ben and Hope. "If the worst had happened to Hope, it would have destroyed Ben."
"Hmm," Hex frowned, leaning back into the chair and moving his eyes to also gaze at the young couple. "I have a strong feeling that it would be the same if the situation occurred in the reverse manner."
Sandra eyed him with concern. He stared back at her, saying, "After she lost her parents, Hope kept her emotions guarded with a strength like that of an impenetrable shield. She'd never open up to anyone, not even to me. It was a difficult thing for me to endure through the years, never once seeing her make a genuine smile." He sighed, his eyes shifting to Ben and Hope again. "There were times when I reacted badly to her attitude, times that I wish I could have handled in a better, more patient way. And then of course, there was that boy, Michael. When he broke her heart, I truly thought that was it, that she'd never be happy again. And then - - -
"There was Ben," Sandra concluded.
Hex nodded. "When she told me of her feelings for him, I scarcely dared to believe it, but there it was. Inside that young woman in love, I could finally see the niece I've always wanted back."
"And when they started their relationship?"
"I could not have been happier," Hex said, a smile forming on his thin lips. His mood changed; his vision began to blur. He covered his eyes with one hand and let out a groan.
"Are you alright?" Sandra asked him.
Lowering his hand, Hex replied, "Yes. I just need to rest. Replenish the energy I used in healing Hope."
"That did seem more long-winded than Gwen's usual spells," Sandra chuckled.
Hex rolled his eyes, smirking in amusement. "Healing, life-preserving and restorative spells are the most powerful, and therefore the most costly, forms of magic. It is not wise to tinker with such power by abbreviating the mystic language."
"Oh," Sandra blushed. "In that case, you go ahead and rest. Carl and I can look after things for a while."
Hex considered her offer. "Very well. But wake me when Hope regains consciousness."
Sandra was about to give him a verbal answer when the phone rang, interfering with her response. She first turned in recognition of the noise, but she moved back around to give Hex a nod. Hex nodded his head in return before lowering his chin to his chest and shutting his eyes. Sandra walked out into the kitchen, feeling the eyes of her husband and her son on her back as she left the room. She picked the receiver up from the cradle and brought it to her ear.
She paused, waiting for the caller to reply. When she did so, she perked up. "Oh, hello Kevin. It's a good thing you called because we've had some trouble here." She stopped again. This caused Ben to wince; that meant one of the two things. First was the caller had just rudely interrupted and she would scoff loudly. His mother did not scoff, which meant it had to be the other thing.
Ben leaned his head back to get a careful glimpse of his mother through one of the slots in the wall and gauged her reactions. There was her concerned stare first; a downward curve of her eyebrows, edging close to the sockets. The expression changed afterwards to a shocked one where her eyes trembled, the brows rose sharply up to her hairline, and her lower lip spasmed, revealing her teeth. And then, when it appeared that Kevin had gotten to the most important part of his message, came the response that Ben realised only just then was the one he feared he was going to see the most.
Sandra raised her spare hand up towards her cheek. Her mouth fell open in complete shock, paired with a low, raspy gasp that matched with the level of the runaway emotions she had been experiencing. Then, as the impact of what she had been told sunk in, she stopped in mid-reaction. She closed her eyes, bringing her eyebrows back to their normal height. Her jaw relaxed as she took a breath and exhaled coolly. Her spare hand slipped, curling down to rest by her waist.
She opened her eyes again and replied words that struck Ben with grief. "No, Gwen hasn't come here yet, thank goodness. Has anyone else seen any sign of her?" The answer must have been a negative one as she followed that up with another question. "Who else is out looking for her?" As if she could tell her son was watching her, Sandra turned around to face Ben as Kevin gave her the details. The contemplative stare she was wearing was one Ben knew all too well; it was the same face she made whenever she was considering a hard-to-choose decision. She resolved it fast though, as she put all focus in replying.
"Kevin, I want you to listen, and to tell Max everything I say. Hope's here at the house right now, and when she showed up, she was sustaining some very bad injuries. Hex said that magic was the cause. It may not have been Gwen but I don't want to leave it to chance, not with the mood she's currently in." She listened to the comment Kevin was making. "Yeah," she spoke again. "I wouldn't want her to know Hope's here either. Please let us know when you've got her again. Thanks. Goodbye, Kevin."
She hung the phone back on the receiver. Returning to the living room, she groaned and shook her head miserably.
"Mom," Ben said, dragging her of her stress.
Sandra glanced at him and saw the struggle to stay calm in her son's eyes, and she steeled herself for what was about to occur.
"Ben. Remember you have to stay calm no matter what."
Ben tensed, coming instantly to the conclusion that Gwen had done something else terrible and in the process made things worse for herself. As he had before Hex initiated the healing process, he let all emotion slide out of him. With a composed voice, he asked the question that was on his mind.
"Mom, what has Gwen done now?"
At the same time Ben posed the question to his mother in regards to the news of Gwen's aggressive escape, Kevin was asking himself a very similar one. Had Gwen really gone so far over the edge that she would actually attack Charmcaster without a sense of provocation? With all that had happened lately as well as what he had learned from Max's description of the escape, he was unsure. His girlfriend usually had a level head when it came to troubling situations, at least for those that did turn out to be troubling, but this was disturbingly different. Gwen had become temperamental, unreasonable, questionably manipulative and, worse, apparently deranged.
In other words, crazy, he thought in his head, knowing that even by putting that word to her, he had answered his own question. Gwen could have done it.
The memory of being held prisoner in Julie's house by Gwen threatened his concentration. Throwing it to the side, Kevin glanced out the windshield of his car, his concerned eyes darting in every possible direction in search for his wayward girlfriend. Seeing nothing once more, he switched his gaze over to the passenger he had in the back. Kai, also on the lookout for Gwen, had been steadily quiet since they started the search. Kevin sighed; he knew the reason for her silence.
Though Kai herself had chosen to wait and be patient until Max had concluded his investigation in spite of all that Gwen had magicked her into doing, Kai's grandfather was a different story. In an angered drive to see justice done, Wesley Green had applied to the Plumbers' Commission to have Gwen face trial. Kevin recalled how cold Kai informing him of that had made him feel; he, after all, had gone through the same process.
When the Plumbers on Earth were reactivated after the summer that Ben had first put on the Omnitrix, the newly established Commission chose to make an example of Kevin to show extra-terrestrial criminals as well as the terrestrial ones aware of alien life that Earth was no longer going to be a pushover planet.
The trial was the first thing, and in Kevin's experience, the worst. He was allowed into the courtroom without restraints, a fact that led him to think about an escape plan, until he was told that the room would be reinforced with an energy field while the trial was in session and that any attempt to escape would be held against him and he would be immediately handed a life sentence in the Null Void. Figuring that the governance of the Plumbers would likely ensure he remained in the Null Void for the rest of his life, for the first time since he had run away from home, Kevin surrendered to authority.
Inside the courtroom, he faced three Plumber officers, selected by the Commission to be his judges. All throughout the proceedings, he only ever experienced one, unfamiliar, sensation.
The judges and the prosecution trialled him like an adult instead of a juvenile as he had been expecting. He moved his eyes warily to every face; their stern glares gave him the impression that he was going to end up in the Null Void for life after all. The prosecutor confirmed that feeling on his own part, suggesting that sentence to the tribunal as a fitting and appropriate punishment for such a repeat offender.
The lawyer the Commission appointed to defend Kevin then stepped in and said about things about Kevin that Kevin was positive he did not like being said about him. That he was a poor kid who suffered abuse from his stepfather. About how, to avoid further abuse and feeling that he had noone else to turn to after his mother refused to act against his stepfather, Kevin fled from his home and lived a horrible life on the streets where he and his own self-interest were the only things that mattered. And how that all of those events led to his wrongdoings, symbolising he was nothing more than a troubled child who had no idea how to form positive and meaningful relationships with other people, and that he required help and guidance instead of a punishment to remedy his problems. All that despite being the truth made Kevin furious enough to want to speak up, but his defender continued on from his speech by announcing a pair of statements from character witnesses to prove that point.
The first statement was from Kevin's mother. Kevin remembered how much he had gaped as her written words were recounted for the judges to hear. They were words he did not dare believe, words about her failure in her role and responsibility as a mother, her deep regret that she could have done more for him, and a wish to be given another chance when and if Kevin came home. Listening to the sincerity in which her mother had written the statement, Kevin had wept quietly. The tears did not last long however as the announcement of the identity behind the second statement rocked him.
It was from Max Tennyson.
Kevin stood, stunned, as Max's statement was read out, beginning with the revelation that the old man had worked with his late father in the Plumbers and that Max had lost contact with his fellow Plumbers' family until the day Ben tried to befriend Kevin. Max had recognised Kevin on that day and he went on to investigate what could have made Kevin turn out the way he was. He got his answers at the end of the summer, having had a talk with Kevin's mother and discovering what had happened in the passing years.
The statement was concluded with Max requesting the tribunal to be kind to Kevin and for him to be the guidance Kevin's defender was pleading for, along with an offer to Kevin himself to help repair his physical form. The tribunal then took a brief recess to decide Kevin's fate. Upon their return, it was ordered that Kevin serve a sentence of four years and six months in the Null Void, during which he would be allowed separate monthly visits from his mother and from Max.
From there, Kevin was sent into the Null Void in energized chains to the prison where he would endure nearly five tough, gruelling years amongst a crowd of convicts, with only his permitted visits being a bright spot in his life.
Kevin recalled the first time Max visited him. It was a memory that he looked back on before with fondness, as that visit in particular led to a lot of other better visits, but right now he relived it with nothing more than a hollow feeling.
He and Max were given a bare room to talk in and a table to sit at. Kevin asked about his father, never having heard much about what kind of man he was. He sat enraptured and inspired, listening as Max regaled him with stories of his father's bravery and dedication, the times that he was often reckless, and how he always thought that his own sense of humour was fun and witty while Max's was very dull. It was there that Kevin began to realise the legacy his father had left him and how poorly he was measuring up to it, and from that sprang the buds of his dream of becoming a Plumber after he had served his time.
Towards the end of the session, Kevin chose to touch upon the question he had been meaning to ask since his trial.
"How are you going to get me back to normal?"
Max smiled at him. "Not me," he answered, turning to call at the door. "Honey, come on in."
Kevin's ear perked up at the mention of the word, honey. Unless Max had brought his wife, there was only one person he knew that word could refer to. Sure enough, as he gazed at the opening door, his mutated eyes feel on a familiar young girl with green eyes and a red hair, a girl that spent the next three years fixing and curing him. A girl whom he eventually developed a crush on, fell in love with, and whom he was with in a long-term romantic relationship.
The ensuing line of years of memories was broken as Kevin's facial nerves were triggered to the presence of the solitary tear sliding down his face. Wiping it away with one hand, he returned his focus to the search.
"See anything, Kai?" he asked his passenger.
"Not yet. Maybe we should check in with Max and the others."
"Yeah," Kevin replied, pressing in the all-signal code on his communications console. "To all search teams in the Bellwood sector, this is Kevin Levin. Any sign of the target?"
For Hope's sake, Ben kept his full reaction to being told about Gwen's escape reined in, displaying his distress briefly by closing his eyes and gritting his teeth before exhaling and resume the state of calm he had been keeping. Sandra relaxed, noting with a sense of pride how mature her son was acting as she left him and Hope to keep watch by her husband's side.
Ben turned to Hope, reopening his eyes to look at her. So far she had not made a single move since Hex had cast all the healing spells, which was starting to worry him. He thought about her wounds again, asking how she could have gotten so many. To overpower someone as powerful as Hope, he figured who or whatever attacked her had to be either very powerful in their own right, or they were cowards who caught her by surprise in some kind of ambush. Having been in both situations before, Ben found it easy to imagine Hope at the centre of either scenario. He pictured her putting up a terrific fight against her opponent, bravely struggling as she was starting to be overwhelmed and falling when her wounds were taking their serious toll on her.
Then, unbidden, a third scenario came to mind. Hope was returning from Ledgerdomain with the intention of coming to see him, only for someone they both knew to strike her from behind with a blast of mana energy. Hope would turn to face Gwen; Gwen launched another assault. Hope reacted defensively, choosing to use shielding spells to protect herself and thinking on what spell would be best to restrain Gwen without harming her. But Gwen's fighting style was changing, devolving into that of an enraged animal, her obsessive need to prove herself right taking over and pushing her to throw attack after attack in blind rage. Leading to - - -
Leading to this.
With pain, Ben drew mental images, recalling from memory all of the wounds Hope had sustained from her attack. He wondered sadly if Gwen could really have been so brutal as to have inflicted them and, if she was and did, then what would that mean now? A small, hardened part of him gave him the answer, as if it had already been considering the question long before the rest of his mind had.
He and the others had to stop her. And take her in. Or bring her down. The mere thought was enough to engulf him with guilt. Gwen, his cousin, the closest thing he had to a sister, his strongest rock of emotional support and advice throughout his years of going hero and saving the universe, was now someone he was going to have to fight.
Ben cringed, his mind letting the image of that particular battle to surface. Why, he asked himself. Why did Gwen have to act like this? She had to know, to see, that her actions were maligning her into being labelled as an enemy. But then, he reconsidered, she was not able to see the bond between him and Hope, or else had seen it and instead continued to deny it over some misplaced need to protect from any danger that Hope might have presented to him. Again as he had when he revealed his and Hope's relationship to Gwen, he questioned if there was any other he could have proved to his cousin that the love he and Hope shared was real and if he had handled the whole thing wrong.
"It's not your fault."
Ben blinked. Just from the sound of her voice he knew that the person who had spoken to him was Hope, but he was almost sure he had heard her from outside of his head rather than from within. He glanced down at her. Hope began to stir, her cradled head rolling slightly.
"It wasn't Gwen who attacked me," she spoke clearly, her body still in the process of waking.
"Hex," Ben called to the sorceror. Hex's eyes snapped open and he rose from the armchair, stepping over to Ben and Hope. Carl and Sandra also turned away from their posts, directing their eyes to their son and his girlfriend, waiting for the verdict of Hope's recovery.
Finally, Hope's eyelids lifted upward, revealing a pair of dazed violet eyes before the lids blinked over her eyes again to wash the dizziness away. Hope moaned, pulling herself up into a sitting position and rubbed at her eyes. Ben moved his hands to support her, cupping her at the back and side of her waist.
Hope lowered her arms in recognition of his touch and she glanced at him. Seeing the devotion in his eyes, she smiled and grasped his arms with equal feeling.
"You were here for me."
"Of course," Ben shrugged nonchalantly. "Why wouldn't I?"
Hope saw that he meant it as a rhetorical question, but she chose to answer him anyway. Widening her smile in a sly enigmatic manner, she loosened her grip and slid her hands up along his arms to clasp the tops of his shoulders and leaned in closer, never taking her eyes away from his.
"I love you too," she whispered, plying a light kiss to his lips.
"That much is obvious," Hex interrupted sternly, causing the two to start and separate. "Given that you came to his domicile instead of coming to mine when you were in danger, in spite of common logic that I would have treated your wounds sooner had you done the latter."
Hope frowned guiltily. "I did mean to come to you first, Uncle Hex. But as I was preparing the portal, I thought - -
"You thought if you were beyond my help, that your wounds were fatal, you wanted to spend your last living moments with Ben."
"Yes," Hope nodded, feeling Ben's hands freeze after she spoke her answer. Sensing that it was because the conversation had given him another dark thought like the ones she had sensed him thinking just before her waking, she stroked her thumbs in circles down and up his shoulders to calm him.
Hex resumed speaking to her. "You mentioned to Ben before you woke completely that it was not Gwen who attacked you. If not her, then who, or has the absence of the Alpha Rune from around your neck already revealed that to me?"
Hop reactively flinched in response to the dangerous flash in her uncle's eyes as he questioned her. She put her hand to her collarbone where the necklace of the Alpha Rune was supposed to hang from. Her fingers touched bare skin. Sighing despondently, Hope confessed.
"It was Adwaita. He and his forces surrounded the castle and -
Hex cut her off, growling in frustration as he stepped over to the wall.
"Adwaita!" Ben exclaimed. "He's back? Again?"
"Yes, again," Hex scowled. "Waging war after war until he has control of Ledgerdomain once more, which he now seems to have accomplished and nearly killed Hope for it."
Ben turned his face towards Hope, his eyes and mouth agape with horror. "Why didn't you tell me about this? I could have helped."
Remorseful tears beginning to slide from her eyes, Hope circled her arms around him completely. "I know you would've, Ben. That's what worried me. The fighting was that bad I couldn't ask you. I was afraid that if I ever involved you or your friends, you'd never come out of it alive. Losing you would… would…
She trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. In that moment, Ben understood. Just now, in the past couple of hours, he had been holding her with her close to death. He had almost crumbled into a wreck from the second she had collapsed into his arms, covered in her wounds, and listened to everything Hex said to him during the healing ritual with all the dedication he had in order to keep the worst from happening, praying that it would never happen. Nevertheless, Ben spoke his own feelings.
"And how do you think I would feel if you had died there? That I'd never see you again? That you kept the truth of what you were going through from me? Can't you see that losing you would destroy me?"
Hope gazed back at him strangely, as if she was using her magic to probe the intensity of the emotions behind his words and the hurt expression on his face. She believed when she had departed for Ledgerdomain that he would have been devastated had she perished in battle, but what she saw now unpredictably stunned her to the core. Once again, Ben surprised her, as he had since she had begun falling for him. Throughout the development of their relationship, her perception of Ben had changed totally; all these years, Hope had thought him to be a crude, disgusting, insensitive boy who cared only about the thrill of going hero and his alien alter egos getting him all the glory in the battles he, his family, and his friends fought in.
It was the time he, Gwen and Kevin helped her to liberate Ledgerdomain that Hope began to see a different side to Ben. She saw the care he displayed for his cousin and his best friend and how he had openly suspected she would turn on the three of them, indicating to her that he not only did care for the safety of others and was cautious instead of being reckless or naïve, but that he also had a deeply hidden sense of maturity. It was those signs that made her watch out for him the time she tried to bring her father back from the grave, an event that she knew afterward caused Ben to drop whatever trust he had for her entirely. Even after Gwen gave her another chance in those days, Ben had refused to, which meant by the time Adwaita had abducted Hex earlier in the year, and after finding out that Gwen had lost faith in her ever being good, when she had gone to Ben next for help, Hope realised that to get him to trust her, she had to put her trust in him.
All through the mission to rescue Hex, Hope opened up to Ben, going on to tell him everything she had lost and struggled with in her life. After so many trying conversations, Ben finally let his guard down, telling her how he was finding being a hero to be less fun than it used to be when he was ten. That now, as a globally and sometimes galactically recognised hero, he constantly felt he had to follow the expectations people held of him where he had to save the day and battle monsters and liens every time that even so much as a minimal threat popped up without ever thinking that he could want some time to relax and have a personal life, and how all of that performed a major contribution to the breakdown of his relationship with Julie.
Hope did not know precisely when her feelings towards Ben changed to romantic, but it was obvious it had to have been during one of those talks. For all he spoke about hating to endure the costs of being a hero, Ben leapt right back into being one, tackling Adwaita's forces without thinking. But for Hope, the lesson was learned. Ben Tennyson was initially who he appeared to be, as she would discover again when they later began dating, but he was also a thinking, feeling human being who wanted someone to understand all the different aspects to him. An understanding which she gradually came to hold, knowing she was in need of similar personal attention from dealing with the stress of ruling an entire dimension. An understanding that brought her and Ben together as girlfriend and boyfriend, where she had fallen in love with him so much that she could not bear him being harmed on her behalf. And now, that same understanding had deepened again, leading her to a final revelation.
Ben wanted to be there for her, love her, help her, risk his life for her, no matter what. He was in love with her too.
Tears began to emerge in Hope's eyes. She tried to put all she was feeling into words but nothing she was thinking of saying could amount to the powerful surging of her emotions. She stared into Ben's eyes; her attentive gaze caught that her traumatic reaction had taken him aback, making him appear as if he was going to apologise for the way he had spoken to her.
No, she thought decisively. Ben was right. She had been so afraid of losing him that she had failed to see how deep his devastation would truly be if she ever lost her life without him near. She had failed to count his own feelings into the matter. Were she any other girl or Ben any other guy, a moment like that would have made her doubt whether their relationship would have any standing in the future. But the thing there was she wasn't any other girl and she did not want to lose Ben in any way.
And she was not going to let him apologise for showing her how much she meant to him.
"I'm sorry. I should have realised."
Ben flinched, startled again by her emotional apology. Still believing that he spoke to her too harshly, he moved his arms forward and pulled Hope into a hug as her tears fell from her eyes. Resting his chin on her head, Ben answered, "It's okay. Let's just promise to avoid keeping secrets like that from each other."
Hope nodded against his chest, smothering the tearwater on his shirt and jacket.
Silence fell between the two. They held each other lovingly, contented with the embrace they were sharing. Interpreting their conversation was at an end, Hex deigned to speak to his niece, intending to ask her more questions about Adwaita's takeover. He paused, taking a second look at the young couple, and then drew back from them. Perhaps it was best to bring the incident up at a later time.
The quiet of the Tennyson living room was eventually broken by Hope. While remaining in Ben's arms for what appeared to her was nice, comforting, long length of time, a single thought was occurring in her mind. During her period of unconsciousness, she had sensed turmoil from Ben, turmoil that he clearly had to keep hidden due to the requirements of the healing ritual. When she started to reawaken and re-established the connection to her powers, Hope sifted through his emotions to find the source of the turmoil.
The first things she encountered were the stress he had in seeing her lingering between life and death and his struggle to keep the rushing whirlpool that were his emotions in check. Knowing that was all tied to the healing spells her uncle used to restore her to health, Hope gradually moved past those to go deeper. She finally came to what she had been seeking; Ben's wild and paranoid suspicions. Hope froze in surprise as it was revealed to her that Ben did not once suspect Adwaita as the one who had wounded her. This puzzled her immensely. Ben knew the tyrannical sorceror was her most recurrent nemesis; to Hope, it was like her not ever suspecting that Vilgax could be the cause of any injuries Ben would suffer from. Her confusion led her again to curiosity, asking herself why Ben did not suspect Adwaita as his turmoil was making it clear that there was someone he did suspect.
She was therefore shocked upon learning who that someone was.
Now that she had recovered, lifting her head up to face Ben, Hope asked him the inevitable question. Why did he and the others think that it was Gwen who attacked her? When Ben failed to respond verbally and looked away instead, she sought the answer from his parents. Carl, similar to Ben, took to staring out the window, his grip tightening around the blaster rifle he had in his hands. Sandra appeared to follow in their aversion, but that was turned into a momentary reaction as she redirected her eyes from facing the floor back to Hope. With a small sigh, Sandra explained everything.
Once upon a time, Hope would have treated all she was told with openly expressive glee in that her former rival had not been the perfect little magic girl hero Gwen always made herself out to be, but now all she could feel was shock and horror toward the fact that Gwen had fallen so far in the time she had been away in Ledgerdomain. She wasn't sure how she was able to process the facts and understand them as truth; Hope had known Gwen to act irrationally and bluntly some of the time, but the redheaded girl always had one of the strongest forms of common sense of logic she had ever tangled with.
And yet there were all these acts Gwen had pulled. Calling in two of Ben's old flames to seduce him. Her frustrated responses when she, for whatever reason, could not see the truth. The taking of Julie, Julie's father and Kevin prisoner. Possessing Kai into throwing herself at Ben. Failing to contemplate the truth again, even after all her machination had fallen apart when Ben resisted and broke the spell she had placed on Kai. And finally, Gwen's violent escape and promise to pursue her crusade. None of that was sounding like the Gwen Tennyson she knew at all; it certainly wasn't the Gwen Ben knew either, judging by how broken he was looking as Sandra recounted the events for Hope's ears.
Hope stayed there on the sofa, sitting stock still next to Ben once Sandra finished speaking. Their arms circling around one another, the both of them pondered on why and how Gwen could have let herself take a massively dark downfall like that. Hope glanced around the room; she predicted it as a given fact that her and Ben were not the only ones asking themselves these questions. She found that she was right; everyone else, Sandra, Carl and her Uncle Hex all bore their characteristic inquiring stares. She regarded her uncle's reaction more specifically than the other two. Like her, Hex had just as much reason in the past to view Gwen being a nemesis to him more so than Ben, and it made her curious what his full reaction to all of it was rather than his usual, understated one where his face was framed by a mostly-impassive glare and a small frown.
Her musings were interrupted when the search parties involved in hunting for Gwen stopped by the house. Max returned in his trusty RV, looking tired and haggard. Kevin and Kai arrived not long after him, the former of the two making suggestions to the other to go back out and keep searching, with Kai retorting that he could do that by himself because she was going to get some of the rest she wanted and that Max advised they all should get. Julie and Ship came in through the door an hour later, having tiresomely investigated every inch of the forested areas outside of town.
Sandra took the hint from the arrivals that her house was becoming a sort of rendezvous point and dutifully went into the kitchen to begin arranging refreshments. By the time she was finished, with at least three platters of snack foods and a large bottle of cola with paper cups set aside, the gathering was joined by the Plumbers' Kids and, surprisingly, by Frank and Natalie who had taken up their own search for their daughter. All of them had just about as much luck as the others, coming to the house exhausted and disheartened.
All this confirmed one thing for Ben and Hope.
That despite the best efforts of the people surrounding them, Gwen had not been found.
Where is Gwen hiding? You'll find out in the next chapter.