Finding Johnny in the Skrull stronghold was the easy part, even Ben had to do it without Sue and Reed’s help—his comm gave out about five minutes after they separated to search.
When he spotted Johnny through the transparent walls of the cell, Ben’s heart leapt into his throat. Johnny was lying sprawled on the floor, unmoving seemingly unconscious. Fueled by his worry, Ben didn’t waste any time. Backing up to gain momentum, Ben sprinted toward the wall, shattering it to pieces upon impact. The debris scattered across the floor, fortunately in the direction opposite Johnny. The moment the wall fell, Ben knew the cause for Johnny’s unresponsive state: the air inside the cell was absolutely frigid. He could feel a distinct chill even through his rock-like skin. No doubt the icy temperature was the Skrulls’ attempt to subdue Johnny’s flame abilities.
Rushing over to him, Ben immediately reached for his wrist, checking his pulse. Strong and steady—that was something, at least. If nothing else, Johnny was damn stubborn; it was one of his qualities that Ben found both infuriating, and, though he had yet to admit it to anyone, least of all Johnny, attractive.
“Hey, Matchstick, it’s me,” Ben said, shaking Johnny’s shoulder gently. “You all right? Are you hurt?”
Beyond a soft groan and the briefest flicker of his eyelids, Johnny did not respond. With no time to lose, Ben slipped one arm under Johnny’s knees and the other under his shoulders, easily lifting him, and started through the entryway he had created earlier. But no sooner did Ben make his way to the next corridor then did they encounter a group of Skrull guards.
“Slimy, green bastards,” Ben grumbled as he kicked open the nearest door, trying not to jostle Johnny as he did. “How you doin’, Hothead? You with me yet?”
Still no reply. Ben’s worry increased, but he couldn’t let his own feelings interfere with Johnny’s welfare. Instead, Ben concentrated on channelling his concern into determination.
The door swung inward and Ben dashed inside, instantly shutting the door behind them and reaching over with one arm to barricade it with the nearest stack of shelves. The meager defense wouldn’t hold for long, Ben knew, but it would at least slow the Skrulls down, giving him time to develop a plan. With one teammate unconscious, the other two out of contact, and the enemy in hot pursuit, he needed to devise some kind of strategy, something that would give them an advantage.
All of the sudden, the Skrull forces surged through the door, knocking the shelves and equipment to the ground. The contents smashed on the floor, and a blur of light and motion forced back the Skrull guards. Then a portal was swirling before them, hissing and sparking with sparking. An idea flashed through Ben’s mind when his eye land on the transmitter projecting portal.
Making a split second decision, Ben pushed forward, grabbed the transmitter, and leaped into the portal with Johnny, leaving the Skrulls and their stronghold behind. Sure, it was a risky move—he had no idea where the portal would lead, but it beat getting fried by the Skrulls.
Color blazed before Ben’s eyes as they fell, his stomach plummeting as they plunged through empty space, but then the ground rose up to meet them. Though Ben braced himself for impact, the collision with the ground wasn’t nearly as rough as he expected: a blanket of snow somewhat cushioned his fall. Luckily, Ben landed on his back, Johnny safe in his arms.
The crash to solid earth seemed to rouse Johnny, at least. His eyes fluttered open. “Ben? What’s . . . Ben—my watch—”
“Don’t talk. You need to rest.” Truthfully, Ben was relieved Johnny had finally regained consciousness. Rising to his feet and being cautious not to disturb Johnny, Ben surveyed their surroundings: a landscape covered with snow as far as he could see. Nowhere was there any indication of what planet they were on, or even what universe they were in. Wonderful. Maybe he should have stayed to bash those Skrulls after all.
A swirl of icy wind, and then more snow began drifting down from the sky. Ben sighed and glanced down at Johnny to find that he was gazing up at him. His heart jumped in his chest as he found himself the unexpected subject of Johnny’s attention, but he inwardly scolded himself. Now was not the time to be focusing on his romantic affections for his teammate, not when that teammate was nearing death in his arms.
“Thanks.” Johnny’s normally bright blue eyes looked glazed and dull. They had always reminded Ben of the summer sky, but now they only looked like an ocean overwhelmed with pollution. “For coming back for me.” His teeth chattered with every word.
“Yeah, well.” For once he wasn’t trying to be deliberately gruff, but he didn’t could form a more substantial response without giving his emotions away, not with Johnny as feeble as he was and getting worse by the minute. To Ben’s worry, the color was beginning to recede from Johnny’s face. He wouldn’t survive in these cold conditions when he was already weakened, Ben knew. “Susie would have my head if I didn’t help her and Reed find you.”
“Hm.” Johnny’s eyes slipped closed again, and his body began trembling in Ben’s arms.
That settled it; Ben needed to act now, or else Johnny wasn’t going to last much longer, and the latter was an outcome Ben staunchly refused to allow. Squinting to discern shapes across the snow-covered terrain and against the white sky, Ben detected what he thought were cliffs in the distance. Even though he would have to move against the wind to get there, if he could find an overhang to take shelter from the snowfall, or better yet, a cave, Johnny’s chances of survival would greatly improve.
“All right, kid,” he told Johnny, starting forward. “Let’s get you out of the cold.” He started onward at a rapid pace, determined to make sure Johnny survived. Forget himself; no way was he going back and telling Susie that her baby brother died in his care. The very notion brought Ben’s stomach to twist unpleasantly, and yet, if they remained in the cold, the odds of Johnny’s death were higher than his survival.
The trek to the cave seemed like an eternity. Normally, Johnny’s body temperature was astronomically high, so much that any type of precipitation turned to steam when it came within six inches of his form. But now, Ben needed to periodically stop to dust the snow off of him. As if the conditions weren’t dire enough, the snow wasn’t the lightweight, powdery kind, but the type that was dense, wet, and heavy. Less than an half hour into their journey, Johnny was soaked through, and it agonized Ben that there was nothing he could do to help. But the only choice he had was to keep moving.
The cliffs seemed no closer no matter how far Ben walked, and more than once he despaired of arriving there in time to help Johnny. The snow was slippery, wet slush beneath his feet that allowed him little traction, thus delaying his progress. The driving wind rendered visibility difficult, and several times before reaching the cliffs, Ben couldn’t help but wonder if there was perfectly suitable shelter he was simply unable to see. But Johnny couldn’t afford for him to question his strategy at this point, and so Ben pushed onward, reaching his destination at long last.
Miraculously, Ben found a cave at the base of one of the cliffs with an opening wide enough for him to duck down and squeeze through. He swiftly brushed the snow off of himself and Johnny, and then situated himself so he was sitting, with Johnny slumped against his shoulder, sideways across his lap. Immediately, he set to rubbing Johnny’s back and hands, trying to stimulate the blood flow.
“Sorry my hands are so cold,” he said, not certain that Johnny could actually hear him.
“S’okay,” Johnny muttered, his eyes closed.
“My comm went out back before we were brawling with the Skrulls. You got yours?” Ben didn’t expect a positive answer, but he wanted to keep Johnny alert and talking.
“Skrulls wrecked it.” Ben had to strain to hear Johnny’s voice. “Ben . . .”
“Yeah?” Ben asked, still massaging Johnny’s hands. “What is it?”
Johnny managed to open his eyes and sit up somewhat straight, though tremors wracked his frame from the effort. “Wanted to tell you . . .” He trailed off, but then, moving with speed Ben wouldn’t have thought him to possess in his exhausted state, brought his lips to Ben’s in an intense kiss, only pulling back after several moments to catch his breath.
The action left Ben stunned with surprise and disbelief. “I—what—you—” He couldn’t even speak a coherent sentence. This turn of events was unbelievable. Could it really be that Johnny felt for Ben what Ben felt for him?
“Since we met at flight school.” Johnny dropped back to lean against Ben’s shoulder. “That’s how long I wanted to do that.”
“You never said .” Ben was still too flabbergasted to form a more detailed response. But his astonishment was fading, replaced by a sudden warmth spreading throughout his body. Johnny had kissed him. Johnny wanted him.
“Wouldn’t have happened. You were engaged. And my CO.” Johnny sounded like he was beginning to drift back into unconsciousness.
With a jolt of worry for Johnny, Ben remembered his priorities. “You’re right,” he said. “I wouldn’t have dated anyone under my command, even if I wasn’t engaged.” He ignored the voice in his head telling him that Johnny wasn’t under his command anymore , that now he could act, especially since Johnny reciprocated his feelings. None of that was important at the moment; the focus right now had to be Johnny’s survival.
Johnny sighed. “Doesn’t matter. Just wanted to tell you. In case I—”
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence!” Ben rubbed Johnny’s fingers more vigorously. “We’re gonna get out this mess. I promise.”
“My watch,” Johnny rasped. “Signal.”
Ben frowned quizzically, wondering if he had heard Johnny correctly. “What?”
“Signal watch. Like Jimmy Olsen and Superman. Sue gave it to me. Said I was always getting in trouble.” Even ill and fatigued, the affection for his sister was evident in Johnny’s tone.
For the first time since entering the Skrull stronghold, Ben grinned, setting off the beacon on Johnny’s watch. “Never thought I’d say this, Matchstick, but I’m glad we’re always bailing you out of trouble.”
A harsh buzz of static emerged from the watch, and then Sue’s voice crackled over the channel. “Johnny? Where are you?”
“It’s Ben. I’m with Johnny. He’s not in that great of shape,” Ben reported.
“Hang on.” A brief pause ensued where only static was audible, and then Sue’s voice faded back in. “We’ve got a lock on your coordinates. We’ll be there in less than ten minutes.” Static almost overwhelmed her last few words.
Relieved, Ben smiled at Johnny. “You hear that? Reed and Sue are gonna be here soon.”
Johnny gave the barest smile, obviously struggling to stay awake. “Phenomenal,” he grated out.
Hesitating for a moment, Ben decided to go ahead and take a chance. Besides, with Reed and Sue were on their way, he had done all could at the moment. “Johnny,” he started. “I know this ain’t the best time, but when we get back . . . would you like to go to dinner sometime?”
A hoarse chuckle left Johnny’s mouth. “Are you trying to give me enough motivation to survive?” he teased. “I guess you must know that to me, living and dating are the same.”
Ben scoffed, but there was no heat to it. “What kinda answer is that?”
Johnny reached out and grasped one of Ben’s hands, bringing it back to cradle against his own chest. Ben could feel the tremors wracking Johnny’s body, and he wrapped his other arm around him even more tightly. “Of course. I’ll even let you pick the restaurant.”
Ben snorted. “The ultimate sign of true love.”
The faint smile on Johnny’s face grew a tad wider. “ ‘Love,’ huh? Do you love me, Ben?
“Well, I, um,” Ben stammered, not prepared for the turn in the conversation. Fortunately for him,
The familiar humming of the Fantasticar’s engine filled their ears; the ship was hovering just outside.
The instant the sound registered with Ben, he lifted Johnny up again, carrying him toward the entrance of the cave.
“You know, this wasn’t so bad,” Johnny said as they drew closer to the ship.
“By ‘this,’ do you meaning nearly dying in desolate arctic wasteland?” Ben asked skeptically.
“I mean you charging in like a knight in shining armor to rescue me, and then me lying in your arms, confessing my feelings, which you then returned.” Johnny grinned. “Ten out of ten, would repeat—though I guess me admitting that I’ve wanted to get with you since flight school wouldn’t really be all that novel the second time.”
“Hmph.” Ben rolled his eyes but grinned. “You know, I’m gonna be happy to go to dinner with you, kid. At least I’ll be there to keep you out of trouble.”
Leaning up again, Johnny kissed him once more, laying his lips gently on Ben’s cheek. “I’ll tell you something, Ben. I’m looking forward to it, too.”