Later, Rook would remember thinking that it didn't begin like an unusual day. That was because it wasn't.

His eyes opened to the sound of his alarm going off at five in the morning, to the tune of a Revonnahgander folk song that he'd had it set to since he first left for Plumbers' Academy years prior. He had meant to change it before, but it was his mother's favorite song and it reminded him of home. And even if it hadn't, it was a good tune regardless. As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, sitting up and yawning, Rook nodded along to the chorus in his head.

Öyleyse iki mezar kaz, çünkü öldüğünde,
yemin ederim yanından ayrılmayacağım.

Beni cehenneme sürükleyebilirsin,
Bu senin elini tutabildiğim anlamına gelirse.

He let himself listening to the familiar tune before rolling out of bed and getting ready for the day. Rook showered, brushed his fur, got his Proto-Armor on, and made sure that his bed was made and his room was spotless before arriving at the cafeteria. There, Rook grabbed a Plumber-approved ration of protein bars and ate them quickly before reaching the Plumber Fitness Training Center at five-thirty sharp.

It was so early in the morning that hardly anyone else was there, so Rook had pick of the machinery. His normal routine was fairly simple: two-hundred pushups, sit-ups, and squats, followed by a twenty-mile run, before doing a hundred deadlifts and bench presses. He had more, but usually saved the longer workouts for the weekend, when patrol with Ben started later — that was just his Thursday routine.

Speaking of Ben, Rook was right on time to pick up his partner for work. At seven-fifteen, he pulled up alongside the driveway of the Tennyson residence. He saw the curtains shift and, a minute later, Ben ran out the door with an apple in hand, shrugging on a jacket. It was heavier than his hoodie, but just as personalized — black with electric green accents and the number "10" emblazoned over his heart.

It wasn't exactly cold outside, with the temperature right around fifty-degrees-fahrenheit, but Ben had explained passionately that for California, fifty degrees might as well be freezing. Even if Rook wasn't cold in the slightest and there was no hint of snowfall. But it was December, and he doubted that Ben's mother would let him leave the house without a coat anyway, especially not with the wind whipping as it was.

"Catch," Ben said cheerfully, tossing Rook his apple as he slid into the passenger seat. "Mom's on a fruit juice cleanse this week. You have no idea what I had to go through to wrestle that away from her without having to send it through the blender first."

Rook smirked, amused, and took a bite out of the fruit. Apples weren't very similar to Amber Ogia, but the slight tang mixed in with the natural sweetness left the same feeling on Rook's tongue. "Really? All of that effort and yet you did not even plan to eat it." He took another bite. "Is a juice cleanse not a good thing? I thought that you liked smoothies."

Ben made a face. He finished buckling himself in and folded his arms over his chest, slouching down in his seat. "No way. She keeps going on about "removing the impurities" from her body and won't stop putting kale and beets in everything. Seriously! Who mixes beets and cucumbers?" He shuddered overdramatically. "Besides, I need actual food occasionally, you know. Dad's trying, but he's not a very good cook."

Setting down the half-finished apple, Rook started the TRUK. He pulled away from the curb and out of Ben's neighborhood, winding his way out of the suburbs and into downtown traffic. "Did I not watch you drink a smoothie made with peanut butter, pineapple, and raw onion just the other day? Kale and beet seems rather delicious in comparison," he teased.

Shaking his head, Ben made an expression of mock disappointment. "I'm wounded, Rook. Forsaken by my own best friend. This is why I have trust issues."

They shared a laugh as Rook made a beeline for the nearest Mr. Smoothies. Even if it wasn't a substantial breakfast, it was better than letting Ben go hungry, even if he seemed determined to be. They would be a little late to patrol as a result, but Rook didn't mind all that much. It had been quiet recently.

"I can't believe that the Plumbers don't give us a Christmas break," Ben sighed. He had one arm propped on the table, cupping his chin, and the other was fiddling with the straw of his empty cup. Across from him at the Mr. Smoothies, Rook was taking his time in finishing his own drink. "I mean, I got one when I was in high school. Two whole weeks, Rook. Do you have any idea how important that is to a teenager? How sacred?" He let out a frustrated huff. "Mom and dad haven't even put up the tree yet. They keep insisting that they don't mind waiting for me to have time off to do it as a family."

Truth be told, no, Rook really didn't understand what Ben was going on about. Revonnah wasn't big on holidays. The Harvest Festival was really only a celebration for the completion of months of labor and toil. They didn't have a school system like humans apparently did. They either worked in the fields during the Harvest or were working in their settlements otherwise. Rook had fond memories of sneaking away under the Harvest fireworks to read Plumber textbooks while his father was busy.

"Why do you need to hang porcelain ornaments off of a dead tree together?" Rook asked with a frown. "I have read up on this holiday, Christmas, but I admit that it does not make much sense to me. What does any of this have to do with the death of your messiah?"

There was a snort, like Ben was trying not to laugh. "It's not really about Jesus or religion, Rook," he said with a dismissive flick of his hand. The motion yanked his straw out of the smoothie cup and Ben began idly fiddling with it as he talked. "Besides, he's not my messiah. Mom and dad were never super religious and… I don't know, I guess "God" doesn't mean a whole lot once you've recreated the universe." He smirked to himself. "It wasn't even that hard. I don't know why it took God seven days. Anyway, Christmas is more about spending time with family and friends. You know, recognizing the people who are important to you." He looked to Rook expectantly.

"Wasn't the last holiday about that?" Rook asked. He had finished his smoothie, but he wasn't in any hurry to get back on patrol. He was enjoying their conversation. "The one about turkey and thankfulness. Why do you not decorate a tree for that event or hang lights everywhere?"

Ben made an impatient huff and stood up, apparently having decided that they were done. He tossed his empty cup toward a trash can several tables away, narrowly passing the rim and managing to get it in. "That's a completely unfair comparison. Christmas and Thanksgiving are totally different!"

Arching a brow, Rook hummed curiously. "I fail to see the distinction, other than one celebrates a religion and the other celebrates the founding of your country." He fell into step next to Ben, making their way back toward the Proto-TRUK. He dropped his garbage into the trash can without the need for fanfare. Idly, he wondered if Ben was cold. They probably should have sat inside, but despite the biting wind, sitting under the green Mr. Smoothies umbrella was something of a tradition.

"You're too focused on how those holidays started and not how they changed," Ben retorted. "Sure, maybe some guys a thousand years ago thought that putting stars on top of trees was a great way to thank a dude for dying on a cross, but only religious people really think about Christmas like that anymore. And some religious people have different holidays because Christmas doesn't reflect their beliefs." He made a hopeless gesture with his hands, looking strained. They had to pause to get into the TRUK, but Ben didn't hesitate to continue once they were both situated. "Okay, this is probably coming out totally wrong, but… Thanksgiving is about being thankful for everything you have in life, and Christmas focuses a lot more on family and home. That sort of stuff. I mean, for me it does, anyway." His expression smoothed out and he shot Rook a grin. "Plus, when I was six, I got a really cool remote-controlled monster truck out of it and chased Gwen around with it for days. I guess you could say I'm a little nostalgic."

Ah, yes. The gift-buying was another little tradition that Rook couldn't quite wrap his head around. Revonnah had gift-giving, of course, but it was usually only done between courting pairs or family on specific occasions. Gifts during the Naming Ceremony were the most important tokens of affection that Revonnahganders received in their lives.

"Does the gifting not get tiresome?" Rook asked. He tapped a string of commands into the Proto-TRUK's touch screen to open their Thursday patrol route and started them off in that direction. "You and Gwendolyn share a birthday right after Christmas, on the 27th, do you not?"

That made Ben perk up from where he had been slumped against the window. He nodded rapidly. "Oh, yeah! We do. Huh. I guess I forgot." The look that he gave Rook was mirthful. "I'm going to be seventeen. Man, I gotta text her and work out some plans. We have to celebrate together, obviously. I mean, that's what we've done everyday since we were born. Same hospital and everything," he stated matter-of-factly. "When's your birthday, Rook?"

He tilted his head thoughtfully, considering it. Birthdays weren't a huge deal to Revonnah society. Birth was more of a formality — you weren't considered one of the tribe until you lost your bi'nthak and became an adult, anyway. "In Earth measures of time, I believe that my birthday falls somewhere in the spring. I will be twenty-years-old," he explained.

For some reason, that surprised Ben. He shot Rook a thoughtful look. "Really?" After a moment, he shrugged it off. "Well, you can still come to our birthday party, even if you are getting old. I mean, Kevin only turned eighteen back in April."

After that, their patrol was quiet. Not in a bad way — it was only that neither of them had much to say. Rook took that to be a good thing. Unlike when he first became Ben's partner, he didn't feel the need to fill the silence with pointless conversation. They both watched the city blur by out the window in comfortable silence.

The only exciting part of the afternoon was when they got a call for a burglary in progress. Rook got them to the scene as quickly as the Proto-TRUK would allow, but by the time they arrived, the perpetrator had already been cuffed. One of Fistrick's thugs had been attempting to rob a pharmaceutical development building for experimental performance enhancers, but had been stopped rather easily. They were lackeys for a reason, after all.

While they were there, Rook and Ben decided to help with clean up. They had nothing better to do and neither of them wanted to do the paperwork to process a criminal that they didn't even catch. Rook used the Proto-Tool's laser to seal the cracks in the road caused by the explosion, while Ben used Upgrade to repair and improve hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of expensive machinery that was damaged when half of the building collapsed. The rubble was moved and collected by bulldozers and the experiments were moved off-site for safe-keeping while the facility was under reconstruction.

It was while Rook was finishing up his self-designated task that the barricade set-up to hold back the press and onlookers was knocked over. Thankfully, they didn't go near the ambulances or crumbling building. They made a beeline for Ben, unsurprisingly.

Rook hung back, watching them shove microphones in Upgrade's face, no longer as perturbed by his alien forms as they had once been. He shifted back to his human form in a flash of light, which only seemed to excite the crowd more. One particularly ecstatic girl shoved her way forward to ask Ben to autograph her "Ben 10: Live!" graphic t-shirt. A news anchor was practically screaming in an attempt to get Ben's attention.

Personally, Rook didn't see how his partner could manage it all. It looked unbearable.

He was too far away to make out what they were saying very well, but Ben smiled sheepishly for the cameras and did a great job at looking casual as he (presumably) answered questions about the incident. The crowd probably could have held him up for another few hours, but the head of Plumber Public Communications — a human female that Rook didn't know the name of — came over to relieve Ben of the attention and politely guide the onlookers back to a safe distance. After that, no one seemed to have very many questions.

A part of Rook wanted to ask if handling all of those people was as exhaustive as it looked. He wasn't sure why he didn't, just that the look on Ben's face said that he appreciated the quiet as they walked back to the Proto-TRUK.

Once seated and buckled in though, Rook sighed, giving into his concern. "Ben, are you—?" He started, only for the radio pinging to catch his attention. He answered it immediately, as he was taught to. "Rook Blonko, responding. What is the emergency?"

Whoever was on monitor duty — a male who didn't sound human — replied anxiously. "There's been an accident. A power line snapped and started a massive electrical fire on a block of old buildings. The local police can handle the fire, but they can't get everyone out. Do you two—?"

Without a moment's hesitation, Ben swiped the communicator from Rook's hand. "Consider us already there. Just send the address," he ordered. His forlorn expression was gone, replaced by that hardened look Ben always got when he knew that a situation was serious.

"Can do," the cadet replied. He hung up their call and the TRUK's computer pinged as it received the address.

It wasn't far, thankfully. Rook slammed on the gas and shot out onto the road, before hitting the breaks and performing a perfect U-turn in the middle of traffic. He sped forward like a bullet, tires spinning out as he crushed his foot to the breaks not a minute after leaving their last location. He only just remembered to put the car in park.

When they had been told that the fire was taking up a block, it hadn't been an exaggeration. Flames lapped at the clouds, smoke unfurling lazily and blotting out the pristine sky like a blanket. It was an older part of town and the buildings were mainly homes and small businesses, all smoldering even as firefighters already on the scene struggled to hose everything down. The broken power line that started it all laid sparking in the street, still being whipped around by the powerful wind.

"You see what you can do about getting some of those people out of there, Rook," Ben instructed, already flipping through the Omnitrix's options. "I'll handle the fire. The sooner that's gone, the easier it'll be to get everyone out."

Rook nodded as he reached for the side-pouch at his hip. From it, he pulled out a face-mask that would allow him to breathe. He only had an emergency fifteen minutes of oxygen, but there was a lot that he could do in that amount of time. "I am on it. Good luck," he said with a nod as he turned away from his partner.

There was a flash of green light from the Omnitrix and Rook shot a look over his shoulder to see that Ben had selected Heatblast. A Pyronite was a good choice for the situation — with his pyrokinesis managing the fire would be a short task.

He selected an older-looking building that a group of firefighters were working on. The flames hadn't reached it completely yet, but they were having trouble breaking the crumbling pieces out of the way to get at a group of people still trapped inside. There were two firetrucks on scene, but one didn't have a ladder installed on top and the one that did was in use for saving others. Hatchets could break down doors, but entire sections of walls? Rook didn't say anything. The firemen took one look at him and any protest immediately quieted as they recognized him. Or perhaps they simply saw the inhuman creature approaching and assumed that he had something to do with Ben Tennyson.

The Proto-Tool was already in his hands, so Rook simply extended the staff function and, pushing off from the ground, used the support and his powerful legs to land neatly through the third-story window. He had his face-mask on for easy breathing, and while the heat was uncomfortable, his enhanced eye-sight made it easier to see through the smoke and he could hear the weak cries for help that human ears wouldn't have been able to pick out.

Carefully, but quickly, Rook worked his way through the crumbling building. He wasn't sure what it was before the fire — some sort of home that doubled as a shop on the first floor, perhaps? — but there wasn't a lot to search. He buzzed through the mostly-empty top floor, where most of the smoke was, and dropped to the second through a hole in the floor. The flames were worse there but Rook could see better. He strained to hear over the rushing of fire, faintly able to pick out voices.

It took using the butt of the Proto-Tool to break a door down but, in what appeared to be a bedroom, he found a woman pinned beneath a collapsed wardrobe and what looked like her husband trying to help her. A little boy gripped the man's pants. They all looked out of breath and unhealthily flushed. The heat was starting to get to Rook, too, but he had been in the fire for far less time than they had.

Now secure that he had found them, Rook used the Proto-Tool's vacuum function to clear the air around them. In the long run it didn't do much, but it seemed to relieve the small family. "Please, do not panic. I am an agent of the Plumbers and I am here to help get all of you out of here," Rook said. As he spoke, he used his Tool's hose to dampen the worst of the flames eating at the floor. He didn't have a lot of reserve water, but it was enough to do the job. "Is there anyone else trapped in her with you?"

The man shook his head, wrapping on arm around his child. The other firmly clasped the hand of his wife. "No, just us." He coughed violently. His face was streaked with ash but, underneath, it was pale. "Please, my wife… She's pinned, and I think that she broke her ankle when the wardrobe collapsed. I heard something crack."

Rook nodded. He said nothing and instead flipped the Proto-Tool back into a staff. He jammed the end of it beneath the wardrobe, pushing down with all of his strength. Whatever was in the wardrobe made it obscenely heavy but, thankfully, he managed to get it up enough that the woman could wrench herself free and crawl out from underneath. She whimpered and hissed in pain all the while. At the sight of her leg, Rook couldn't blame her. It was much worse than a broken ankle.

On the floor beneath them, something collapsed and the entire house shuddered. Rook clench his jaw unhappily, muttering a quick thanks that the child was being so quiet and still, before saying to the man, "Please carry your child, and follow me. We will all be leaving now." He knelt next to the woman, setting his Tool over his shoulder as he did so. "Pardon me, but I will have to carry you." No time to ask for permission. He looped his arms underneath her, mindful of her twisted leg, and darted out of the room with the father and child in tow.

Thankfully, the Proto-Tool had a hands-off feature. Rook found a window with an unobscured view. It led out to the main street below, where an ambulance had finally arrived. Hopefully, more were coming. He had a feeling that they were going to need it. He launched his grappler at the ground below and waved the man forward. With the small boy nestled in one arm and clinging to his shirt, the father grabbed on to the rope and slid gracelessly to the bottom. He stumbled on the pavement, but it didn't matter. Paramedics were already waiting to receive him.

For his part, Rook retracted the grappler and adjusted the woman in his arms as carefully as possible. She had her face hidden in his neck, wetting the body suit beneath his armor with her tears. That was fine. It was better that she not witness what he was about to do.

Rook jumped up onto the window ledge and dropped, absorbing the shock of the fall easily. Unfortunately, he couldn't completely avoid jostling the woman. The noise she made was raw and ragged, her grip on his shoulder tightening to the point of discomfort even through his armor. It felt like she was trying very hard not to cry out.

"I apologize," Rook muttered. He carefully pried her hands off of him and deposited her gently onto a gurney.

His heart was pounding and everything still felt hot, despite the fresh air running through his ash-clogged fur. Idly, Rook watched to make sure that she was being taken care of. He knew that he still had people to save, but he was out-of-breath and still a little stunned by what had happened. There wasn't a lot of time to process everything while he was running on instinct and adrenaline. That was three people saved, but how many more were left?

He turned to look down the street, intent on finding a building in dire need of evacuating, only to catch on something else instead. Ben, still as Heatblast, wasn't focusing on the buildings. He had turned his attention to the broken power line, which had somehow wound up out of the street gutter and onto the sidewalk. That couldn't be good. The building that it was next to look particularly fragile with strokes of fire painting its sides — like it might fall down if the wind blew a little too hard.

Rook jogged over, making sure to keep a good distance from the live wire. Electrocution was a serious risk, though Ben didn't seem to care all that much. As his partner drew closer, though, Rook felt the need to intervene. "Ben!" He cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting to be heard over the noise of all that was going on around them. "Ben, what are you doing? That power line should be handled by the proper experts!"

"I am the proper expert!" Heatblast called back, lips made of liquid magma stretching to give Rook what was probably supposed to be a grin. "I keep putting out the fires, but this thing keeps reigniting them! Don't worry so much, Rook. I'll just melt it and cut off the feed that way."

He bit his lip, uncertain and fidgeting. "Wouldn't an electrical alien suit this task better?" Rook tried, but Ben was no longer listening.

As he moved forward, Heatblast's hands outstretched to curl around the wire, the wind turned for the worst. A harsh gust blew through the street, kicking the flames into a frenzy. One building collapsed and Rook, surprised, whirled around to stare in horror as it fell. It wasn't until he heard a shout of pain that he remembered the live power cord. Why hadn't anyone shut it off manually yet?

"Ben!" Rook turned back to be greeted by a green flash and his partner was suddenly very human again. Ben looked dazed and frazzled, no doubt the result of getting himself electrocuted. He winced, clutching his arm, and it was then that Rook noticed all the sparks that the Omnitrix was kicking up. Had it been what got electrocuted, and not Ben?

Dread sank into Rook's stomach. He watched Ben back up, obviously avoiding the frizzling power line, and then stiffen as he slowly turned around. Behind him, the old building was hanging on its last legs and nearly every inch was spurting flames. It was the sound of something inside of the wooden structure snapping that made Rook jerk out of his surprise and into motion, but by then, it was too late.

The building tipped forward. Ben slammed on the Omnitrix, to no effect. Rook started forward and gloved hands wrapped around his arms, holding him back. At the last second, his partner whirled around, and later, all Rook would be able to think about was how green Ben's eyes looked in that second before the building collapsed and crushed him.

Someone was screaming. It took Rook a moment to realize that it was him.

He tore himself free of the men holding him back, though only succeeded because they were too stunned to keep holding him in place. Rook sprinted faster than he ever had in his life, as if that might make a difference with the building already…


No, Ben had to be alive. He was going to squirm out of the rubble as Ball Weevil, or blast his way out as NRG, or phase out as Ghostfreak. Then he would see Rook's face, smeared in ash save for two matted tear tracks cutting through his fur, and would awkwardly laugh and apologize for worrying Rook so badly and nudge him while he offered to buy the next round of smoothies as an apology.

Ben couldn't die. He couldn't. Rook refused — he wasn't going to allow it.

But there was no flash of green light from beneath that pile of rubble. Even as Rook fell to his knees and began desperately clawing through the debris, ripping one of his claws out in the process, there was no laughter followed by a smug "gotcha!" No matter how frantically Rook tore into the cement and smoldering wood that was keeping him from his partner, Ben didn't resurface. He didn't make a single sound.

He pushed a rock out of the way and Rook felt something inside of him wither. Ben's arm stuck out at an angle that he was certain humans weren't supposed to bend to. It was his left hand, the Omnitrix still sparking on his wrist. For the first time, it looked less than perfect, greyed with ash and dented. Almost as though, when the building had fallen, it had crushed more than just Ben's body.

Rook swallowed bile, leaning back on his feet. His hands were shaking. He wasn't crying, but his pupils couldn't have been bigger than pinpricks. "Ben…" Something possessed him to reach out. He wasn't sure why he bothered. Even before his fingers brushed the still-warm skin of his friend, Rook knew exactly what he was going to feel when he nudged the Omnitrix strap out of the way and curled his fingers around Ben's wrist.

No pulse.

It took all of his willpower to not scream, but Rook swallowed the shout building in his throat. To cry and wail would mean acknowledging it. And he wouldn't. He couldn't. Ben would be fine, like he always was. He had to be, or else…

Or else Rook wasn't sure what he was going to do.

The sound of Plumber-brand sirens didn't reach Rook's ears until he felt a hand on his shoulder. As soon as someone touched him, he whipped his Proto-Tool out and whirled on them, baring his fangs. He was growling, a wounded noise deep in his chest that his parents would have been appalled to hear one of their children making.

But the human Plumber staring down the muzzle of his gun didn't even flinch. She looked at Rook with sad eyes and said, softly, "Agent Rook, please either help us remove the rubble or step out of the way. We won't force you into anything, but…" A flash of heartbreak in her eyes betrayed her mask of calm. "We can't leave him like that. He needs to… be returned to base so that a decision can be made."

He didn't need to ask what sorts of "decisions" she was referring to. Should they make a galaxy-wide announcement about Ben's death? Would he be cremated or buried? Who would be invited to the funeral?

Oh, God. Ben's funeral: the two words that Rook never thought he would have to put next to each other.

He choked on his growl, the Proto-Tool falling from his hands with a clatter. "I don't— I'm not—" Rook winced, but not at the language that he was using. He really wasn't dreaming. This was all his reality. "I'm sorry," Rook settled on finally. He kept his head down and turned away from the Plumber that he didn't know, fixing his eyes back on Ben's arm. On Ben's body. "I… yes. Of course I'll help. I'm sorry." He swallowed thickly, making no effort to move. His gaze was locked on the place where Ben's arm emerged from between the rubble, as though he was still clawing for the surface. "He's my partner."

He was Rook's partner.

The female Plumber set a hand on Rook's shoulder, patting consolingly in a way that was so human — so Ben — that it almost brought him to tears. "I know," was all she said, murmured, as though she didn't believe it either.

There was a team of other Plumbers waiting on the sidelines that came forward when the female gave them the clear. Together, the six of them pushed the rest of the building out of the way and dug Ben out.

No one seemed to want to touch him, so they dug around him instead, clearing out space to avoid having to look at him while they waited for the arrival of the casket to signal that it was time to load him up. The fire sputtered on the buildings around them, finally being beaten back by the firefighters on scene, as though they had died right along side Ben.

It didn't feel real. Unlike the others, Rook couldn't seem to tear his eyes away from Ben. The worst of the rubble was out of the way, but he didn't move away. He stood above his partner and stared blankly. He looked but didn't see, his mind thousands of lightyears away from that broken spine and bruised collarbone and blood-splattered skin. It couldn't be real.

How could it possibly be real?

It was the same female Plumber from before that startled Rook out of his ugly reverie. She set a hand on his shoulder, tugging with no real intent to pull him to his feet. He didn't look at her, gaze fixed on the Plumbers who had arrived with a casket. How long had they been there? A minute? An hour? It all felt the same to Rook.

"You should head back to base, Blonko," the female said. Her tone was coaxing, almost pleading. As though she already knew that he was going to refuse. "You don't have to give your report on the incident until tomorrow. The death of a partner is difficult."

There. Someone had finally said it. Death.

Ben was dead.

"Ben's dead." Rook blinked hard, looking up at her as though confused. It was either that or start crying and he didn't think that he had the energy for it. "What do I do now?" He wasn't sure why he thought that she would have the answers. Maybe it was because Rook didn't. Maybe it was because he never did, always relying on Ben for direction.

Maybe it was because of her sad, green eyes.

"Go back to base," she said again, more firmly the second time. "You should rest. We can handle contacting Magister Tennyson." Her expression faltered, pained. "He… He should know about this."

Before she had finished, Rook was shaking his head. He straightened up, using willpower that he didn't have to brush her comforting hand away. Ben used to touch his shoulders a lot — usually when he was the one to initiate contact, it was to set a hand on Rook's shoulder with the intent to console. It suddenly struck Rook that he had never actually felt Ben. Not without gloves and armor in the way. And he thought of the way that Ben and Gwen hugged or how Kevin would put a hand around Ben's shoulders or those times when Ester latched onto Ben's arm and placed a kiss on his cheek, and it made Rook feel like he had missed an opportunity of some kind.

He realized that he had been standing there with his mouth partly open for nearly a minute and shook his head, forcing the thought away. What a bizarre thing to be thinking about.

Of course, Rook could always touch Ben now. He was right there, a few yards away, being tucked as tenderly as possible into the metallic casket. Rook could touch him, but it would be cold. Empty. Meaningless.

"I'll tell Magister Tennyson," Rook managed. "He deserves to hear it from me. I'm Ben's partner. I'm the one who—" he choked and couldn't get the rest of the words out. The one who failed him.

It seemed like the female wanted to say more, but Rook didn't want the comfort or the pity or the lies. He turned away from the gruesome scene, blood splatters caked with dust and already drying, and pulled his Plumbers' badge out of one of the pouches on his armor. It took several minutes of standing there, staring ahead of him at nothing, until Rook finally worked up the courage to call.

The line was answered immediately. "Rook." Magister Tennyson sounded breathless and ragged. Raw, almost.

His tone made Rook wince. He started to stay something, but his mouth had gone dry. It took a few tries to get the words out. "Magister Tennyson, it… Ben. There was an accident."

"I know," he said, almost consolingly. There was a tinge of desperation behind his words that made Rook wish that he had just let someone else handle the call. "I sent out the order for the ambulance. Is he….?" Max didn't finish. Rook was surprised that he got that far at all.

He sucked in a sharp breath. "Ben, he… an incident with a power line caused the Omnitrix to malfunction. A building collapsed. He didn't make it." Then, whispering and certainly not crying, "I'm so, so sorry, sir."

Magister Tennyson was quiet for a long time. So long, in fact, that Rook thought that he had hung up. He wasn't sure what he was waiting for. To be comforted? Or to be lectured? Fired on the spot?

In the end, all Rook heard was a long, shaky sigh. "Come back to base, son," Max said, sounding decades older and so exhausted that it hurt. "There's… nothing that can be done for him now. We have to make preparations. Let the rest of the family know about… w-what happened. And you should take some time to process this. I can arrange for an appointment with a licensed Plumber psychiatrist if you need it."

Rook was all but certain that talking to someone wasn't going to help. He somehow felt worse after the offer, after Max's kindness. A part of him was waiting to be berated and reprimanded and punished. Why was no one placing the blame on him when it was so clearly Rook's fault?

"No," he whispered, shaking his head. "I… I should be the one to tell Ben's parents. And Gwendolyn and Kevin. And Ester, if she hasn't seen it on the news already. I should—"

"Rook." Magister Tennyson's voice cut through what had rapidly become a self-loathing spiral, startling Rook badly enough that he immediately snapped his mouth shut. "Rest. I can handle everything with family. We can talk about this tomorrow. You've been through a lot." There was a pause. And, almost as though he didn't want to say it, Max managed, "You know that it's what Ben would want you to do. You're using contractions."

He almost snapped at the Magister for that: for worrying about fucking contractions when Ben was dead, and gone, and crushed, and he wasn't ever coming back, and it was all Rook's goddamn fault

But then something inside of him deflated, uncompressed, as though Rook had lost the ability to be angry or sad or confused. He felt so lost. "Okay." He swallowed thickly. "Okay." The line went dead. Rook automatically put his badge away and started walking.

The Proto-TRUK was ahead of him. The casket was behind. Rook walked past the first responders, past the news vans that were gathering like vultures, past the fire damage and the rubble and the broken electrical line. He didn't look back.

The only thing that saved Rook was how instinctive driving was. He stared at the road but didn't see it, letting his subconscious guide him back to base. He didn't want to be there, not surrounded by the pitying stares and depressive atmosphere, but his room was at the base and Rook needed to be alone. A part of him almost wanted to go to Ben's house, one of the few places on Earth that he considered welcoming, but the idea of facing Ben's parents filled him with such an acute sense of dread that Rook found it hard to breathe.

On the drive back to base, his communicator rang. A glance at it — which he would never ordinarily do when he was driving, but being aware of the road had never mattered less to him than when the passenger seat was empty — showed that Gwendolyn was calling. He ignored it. Then she called again, and a third time, a fourth, fifth, sixth, until Kevin tried, and then Rook reached over and turned the communicator off entirely. He wanted to crush it, hurl it at the ground as though the shattering parts would somehow bring Ben back. As if breaking something would earn him a cry of, "Woah, Rook, calm down!" and a small hand on his shoulder while Ben awkwardly tried to soothe him.

He should at least tell Ester. She was Ben's girlfriend and she deserved to hear it from him before the news lit up with the story. It would be world-wide in an hour, if that, and known across the galaxy in a day. It was important to hurry, and yet…

Rook parked the Proto-TRUK in the Plumber base's garage and only just remembered to turn it off and lock it before he was swinging out of the hanger. Other Plumbers were staring at him, some looking like they wanted to talk to him, and panic set in. What started as a walk turned into a jog and then running and then Rook was sprinting through the halls. The walls began to blur. There were so many stupid memories — their first day on the job together and Ben had shown up late and unhappy with a smoothie in hand, when Dr. Psychobos had broken in and taken a piece of the Omnitrix and Rook watched his partner sink to his knees in agony, loading up to fight the Incursean invasion and hating how quiet it was without Ben all the while — small, fleeting things that Rook had taken for granted, and they burned.

He slammed into his room panting and sweating like he'd just run a marathon, locking the door as though it would keep Ben on the other side of it. But even though he had never been in Rook's room, the lack of Ben's presence was in of itself a memory. It struck him that he had never been in Ben's room, either. It struck Rook that he had missed a lot of opportunities to be a better friend.

With fumbling hands, he ripped his armored chest-plate off and dropped it angrily at his feet. The leg braces and boots and gloves followed, leaving Rook in a solid black jumpsuit. He couldn't be bothered to wriggle his way out of it, with his fur always making that a hassle. He glanced at his bed and considered laying down for about a second before dismissing it.

Ben… He really was gone.

Clenching his jaw so tightly that it ached, Rook bared his fangs at the floor and snarled like an animal. There was no decorum or civility in the way he pulled his leg back and kicked his armor as hard as possible, slamming the chest plate into the wall with a deafening crack. He didn't care. What did it matter how Rook acted? His insides felt hollowed out and raw, like something ugly was clawing to break out of his chest. And Rook wished that it would, wished that the pressure would alleviate because he couldn't fucking breathe.

He grabbed his single pillow with his claws, tearing it and letting the plush inside scatter over his bed. He slammed a fist into the wall and did it again, uncaring of the bruising or the blood welling from the splits in his knuckles. It dried in his fur, an ugly shade of red, like the smear left on the pavement once they had carted Ben away. Furious — at himself, at the Plumbers, at the world — Rook flipped his compartment closet onto its side and sent his fake plant flying and shoved all of his textbooks off of the bookshelf before knocking that over, too. He moved to the nightstand and, as instantaneously as flipping a switch, the anger was sucked out of him.

His scowl melted into a frown and Rook sunk down onto the mattress slowly. It was only then that he noticed that his hands were shaking. And so was the rest of him. Rook reached for what had grabbed his attention. It was an empty picture frame, pink and covered with flowers and glitters and hearts. Ben had given it to him a month ago as a gag gift, something he had seen in a store and "reminded" him of Rook. He had never bothered to put a photo in it. The price tag was still on the back of it. Seeing it, Rook felt something huge and yawning open up in his gut and his heart plunged into it. Forget being partners — he was a terrible friend.

With as much gentleness as he could muster, Rook set the frame back down and wiped his eyes with trembling hands. His fingers came back damp. He swallowed, something heavy locked in his throat, and scrambled for the right words.

"I'm sorry," Rook breathed. It felt weak, but there was no accurate way for him to describe the depths of his remorse and regret and guilt with words alone. "Ben. I'm sorry."

He fell back on his bed, staring up at the blurring ceiling. His legs were still hanging off the edge but Rook couldn't muster up the energy to lay down correctly. He closed his eyes and, after hours and hours of miserably tossing and turning, sleep came as a mercy.

A/N: Since this isn't my main work at the moment (go read my other Ben 10 fanfic, "Diamonds Are Forever," if you want something consistent) and is mostly something that I'm writing as a passion project/side interest, updates won't be regular. I'll post them as I finish chapters. I do have something of an ending panned out, and I know the hows and whys and whats of the plot, but whether or not I ever properly finish this fic is something that I can't guarantee (but, as always, reviews are great motivators, especially since I'm juggling this one between two other side projects and my main work).

I know that the first chapter isn't super great, but it's mostly set-up for the future chapters. This is going to be a slow burn, so don't expect any sort of love confession any time soon. I have a bunch of ideas for future chapters in the works, but just know that it's going to get angstier before it gets cute or romantic (and even then, it's still going to be pretty angsty).

I'm also hoping to make these chapters shorter, hopefully closer to 5k or 6k words in the future. Consider this chapter an outlier just because it's the first one.

Anyone want the playlist for this fic?