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Thaw

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Kevin is not a big fan of Antarctica.

For one thing, most of the rock in Antarctica is buried under millennia-old layers of glacier, out of his reach. He's never absorbed ice or snow before and doesn't planning on trying; it'd be too fragile to be much good in a fight, plus he worries about frostbite. So fighting there is a pain.

Not to mention, Antarctica is freaking cold, and the summer sun glinting off the ice hurts his eyes, and also it seems bound and determined to kill Ben Tennyson. Seeing as Ben is kind of his best friend, not to mention the beloved cousin of his girlfriend, Kevin takes exception to the whole homicidal continent.

It was such a boring mission, too. Plumbers from the Outer Arm had sent word of water robbers spotted in the vicinity of Earth's solar system. With Gwen off helping her grandfather with a property dispute on one of Jupiter's moons, Kevin went along with Ben to stop the bad guys.

H2O poachers tend to go for polar ice caps when stealing fresh water, as they're usually less guarded, since most sentient species are smart enough to evolve in nice comfortable tropical or temperate zones. These poachers, Iniquids by the looks of their tech, had set down their giant collection ship on the western Antarctic shore and started lasering off mile-wide chunks of ice, enough to throw off the climate patterns of most of the hemisphere if they get away with it.

Kevin and Ben don't waste time on elaborate plans. With the Rustbucket III parked safely inland, Ben makes a distraction with a mid-air attack, dive-bombing their weapons array and counting on Jetray's speed to keep himself safe. Meanwhile Kevin sneaks aboard the ship to release the ice already collected back into the sea.

Then, with Ben having so much fun doing laser-stimulated loop-de-loops outside, Kevin decides what the heck, suits up and sets to smashing the engine for good measure. That'll keep these poachers from going back into business any time soon. The ship's running on a decrepit parallax drive, and by the time he puts a metal fist through the last transposition ring, every alarm the ship's equipped with is going off.

The Iniquid poachers decide to cut their losses and take off in their escape pod, just a twinkling star in the clear blue sky by the time Kevin sees it outside a port window. That was fast, he thinks; funny that they didn't even try to put up a fight...

Then he takes a closer look at the alarms, especially the jury-rigged ones.

"Ben, we gotta get out of here!" he hollers, and dives for the bay doors. As soon as he's visible, Jetray swoops in and grabs Kevin by the arms, hauling him off the ship.

"Fly faster!" Kevin advises as he dangles from the alien bat's talons, twisting around to get a look at the poacher's enormous collection vessel. The ship is listing heavily starboard, its stabilizers already submerged.

"I could if you weren't so heavy—can't you lose the metal?" Jetray whines, flapping hard.

"It's zero degrees, no way!" Kevin argues back. He has the cover courtesy of the ship's titanialloy, but even armored up he can feel the polar winds whipping his cheeks.

"Don't you have your insulation suit?"

"It's in my pocket, I don't want to drop it!" They're over the iceberg-strewn ocean, gliding low enough to see the white caps of the waves below.

Kevin feels as much as hears the rising throb of the ship's engine change. "There it goes!" he cries warning, raising his arms to cover his head, just as the ship explodes. The shockwave hits them head-on, tossing them end-over-end like a grasshopper in a wind tunnel, and smashing them into the sea.

They were high enough up that hitting the water is like running headfirst into a brick wall; Kevin feels the impact through his metal coating. Then he's underwater, blurry blue and freezing cold and he kicks and thrashes his way to the surface, shedding his absorbed skin in a hurry. Titanialloy's a lightweight metal, but still denser than water; it would drag him straight to the bottom.

Free of the metal, his head finally breaks the surface—damn but it's cold, the waves slapping his face like a whip, and inhaling is like breathing in needles. Huge white chunks of ice bob in the water around him—but no darker shape silhouetted against the snow and sea; no sign of wings or horns—"Ben!" Kevin hollers, as loud as he can. He gets a mouthful of icy saltwater, but no response.

His fingers cramping with cold, he fumbles for the little case in his pocket, pulls it out and triggers the button. The Plumber-grade insulation suit balloons around him, displacing the water as it spreads its gold membrane skin-tight over his clothes and hands and face. With his clothes already soaked it's still freezing cold, but at least the waves splashing him feel more like water and less like flails.

The membrane over his face is transparent and oxygen-permeable. Kevin draws the deepest breath he can through it, then dives, forcing his eyes open to peer through the water. Submerged, it's shockingly, endlessly blue. Then he sees a flutter of red through the ice and froth, and swims deeper as he reaches out for that faint glimpse of hope. By the time his fingers bump into leathery skin, his lungs are aching. He grabs the nearest talon and hauls ass for the surface, kicking for all he's worth, exploding up out of the water gasping for air.

Paddling over to the nearest iceberg, he claws his way out of the water onto the ice, dragging Jetray up alongside him. The alien bat is awfully heavy for a flying creature, and after he gets him out of the water, for a moment it's all Kevin can do to flop there, panting and shivering as he wheezes out, "Geeze, Tennyson, and you were whining about me having a few pounds of metal?"

Ben doesn't answer. Ben isn't saying anything, or moving—he wasn't moving in the water, either, even though Jetray can swim like a fish. Or ray. Whatever. He can last for a good long while without air, either, so he really shouldn't have drowned in the couple minutes he was under. But he's not moving, and Kevin can't tell if he's breathing either, and oh, hell—

Kevin doesn't know Jetray's physiology well enough to check him for injuries, but there's a way around that. He slams his hand down on the Ultimatrix symbol on Jetray's chest, and the maroon-skinned winged alien dissolves in green, reforms as a human kid, stretched out supine on the ice. Eyes closed and frost already crystalizing on his dripping clothes; small and pale and still not moving, not even to shiver in the cold.

Not even breathing, as far as Kevin can tell, and he grabs Ben by the shoulders, swearing, "Dammit, Ben, don't do this, man, don't make me give you mouth-to-mouth—" which really isn't a joke. It's not even that it'd be embarrassing to look the guy in the eye after a liplock, but Kevin wasn't paying as much attention as he should have been in that first aid class Gwen insisted they take. Which he's now seriously regretting, because Ben isn't breathing and they're floating on an iceberg a thousand miles from the closest hospital and freaking hell, he hates Antarctica—

Then Ben shudders and coughs and hacks up about a gallon of water. Kevin rolls him onto his side so he doesn't choke—has to, because Ben doesn't sit himself up; his eyes are still closed, the coughing a reflex. Kevin notices the blood then, a smear of red against the white skin at Ben's temple. When he pokes at the spot there's a bump swelling there. Must've been some blow to concuss Jetray's ridged skull—shrapnel from the ship, maybe.

At least it's not bleeding much—probably because it's starting to freeze. Kevin swears again, pats down the pockets of Ben's jacket until he finds Ben's own encased insulation suit and triggers it around him before he gets any colder. Then Kevin deactivates his own suit long enough to get out his Plumber's badge. Just a second without the insulation is rough, with the wind blowing over the sea; he's shivering too hard to stop by the time he brings it back on.

On the other hand, Ben isn't shivering, not really—he's shaking, but it's erratic, occasional shudders that don't wake him up. Definitely not good; Kevin doesn't need to remember the first aid class to know that much. He's not sure but Jetray's maybe coldblooded, so Ben would've come out of the water that much colder, not having been generating his own warmth.

Kevin opens the communication channel on his badge, totally blanks on the standard intergalactic distress signals and opts for, "Mayday, SOS, superhero down!" counting on the badge to translate. Really he's counting on Gwen and Max to be the first to pick up the signal anyway.

Only there's no answer, just static, even when he widens the channel's range. Interference from the parallax drive going boom, Kevin realizes—there's no smoke in the blue sky, but the whole electromagnetic spectrum will be scrambled in the area for the next few days.

No problem, though; Gwen and Max are due back on Earth anytime now, and as soon as Gwen realizes they're out of touch she'll come track them. The Rustbucket III might be outside the interference, and besides spectrum scrambling shouldn't screw up her mana detection. They just have to sit tight and wait for a pickup. It's not like the iceberg they're on is going to melt anytime soon. As long as Antarctica doesn't send a leopard seal after them—Kevin saw a special on them, big-ass seals who like to eat penguins, and really, Ben's not much bigger than a penguin. But otherwise they should be okay.

Except Ben's still not waking up. Or shivering. The insulation suit will keep him from getting any colder, but it's straightforward temperature regulation, no heating included, and that's a bigger problem than a hungry seal. A rescue's no good if it comes too late. Ben needs to warm up, but it's not like they have a space heater, or anything to fuel a fire even if Kevin had a match; they're floating on a chunk of ice in the middle of the freaking ocean.

There is one heat source on the iceberg, though. It's not Kevin's first, second or third choice, but it's still infinitely better than imagining Gwen finding them too late. Kevin sits down on the ice, settles his back against a pile of snow and props Ben between his legs, shoulders slumped against Kevin's chest and his head tipped against Kevin's shoulder. It's not really comfortable, but it's not too bad. He just hopes Ben doesn't wake up anytime soon.

There's not going to be any heat transfer between the insulation suits, though. Kevin takes a breath to brace himself for the cold, then retracts his suit and Ben's both. Shuddering at the wind chill, he puts his arm across Ben's chest and reactivates his own suit, covering the both of them in its microlayer insulation, wrapping them together like two little kids both squeezing into a pair of their dad's trousers. The golden membrane is elastic enough not to be uncomfortably tight, but it is close; Kevin can't move without shifting Ben, too, their arms and legs effectively tied together.

Not to mention, without any insulating layer between them except their damp clothes, Kevin can feel just how cold Ben really is. It feels like he's hugging a lump of ice, a snowman instead of a human being. "Come on, hero," Kevin says, "you're supposed to be the warm-hearted one," which is a dumb joke but he's cold, and Ben's colder, and Kevin takes a second to wish really, really hard for Gwen to hurry it up. Who knows, she might be able to pick up on it, if he's desperate enough, and he is pretty damn desperate right about now.

At least Ben's breathing, his chest rising and falling under Kevin's arm; but slowly, and his skin feels like a bottle of soda just taken out of the fridge. Maybe he's getting a little warmer—or maybe Kevin's that much colder; he's shivering again. Heat's like any other kind of energy: it doesn't come from nowhere; you have to make it, or take it. Or give it. Ben's cooling Kevin down as much as he's warming Ben up, though luckily Ben's shorter and scrawnier, when he's a human, anyway.

The Ultimatrix on Ben's wrist is flashing, a measured pulsing green, like it's impatiently tapping its foot. "You don't like it, then fix him already," Kevin growls at it, then shuts his mouth, wondering how far gone he is to be talking to a wayward piece of alien tech.

Maybe the watch hears him, though, or else Ben does, because he groans, turns his head against Kevin's shoulder. "Hey, you with me?" Kevin demands.

"K-kevin?" Ben's finally starting to shiver for real now, his teeth chattering, and his voice is faint, thready. So it's weird that Kevin feels warmer hearing it.

"You done being a popsicle?" Kevin asks him. "Because it's not one of your better transformations. Just saying."

"C-cold," Ben replies, showing a stunning grasp of the situation.

"Yeah, I noticed," Kevin sighs. Ben tries to move, all skinny sharp angles and elbows jabbing Kevin in the ribs. "Ow," Kevin says, "cut it out," and he wraps his arms a little tighter around his friend, to hold him still. "Calm down, we're okay." Which is a totally blatant lie, but Ben's maybe too far gone to notice—definitely too far gone, because he does like Kevin says and relaxes without questioning it.

After another minute it does occur to him to ask, "K-kevin, w-where are w-we?"

"Antarctica, remember?" Kevin tells him. "The ship blew up, we splashed down, you got conked out and then deep-freezed."

"Oh."

"How's your head? Hurts?"

"K-kind of..."

Kevin tries to remember what you're supposed to do for a concussion. Other than get the victim to the hospital. First aid classes aren't especially tailored for alien superhero lifestyles. "You know my name, that's good. You know your name?"

"B-ben?" Ben offers after a moment.

With Ben's teeth chattering Kevin can't tell if that was honest curiosity or sarcasm. The latter, he hopes. "Yeah, good...umm, and what's the date?"

"Th-Thursday."

"That's the day, not the date." Not that Kevin is sure himself what the date is, now that he thinks about it. The third? Or the fourth...had they crossed the international dateline flying down here? And if they had, did that make it yesterday, or tomorrow, or...

Ben goes to move again, trying to sit up, but the insulation suit binding them together stops him. "K-kevin, why are y-you holding me?" he asks, and his tone now is completely and genuinely bewildered.

"Because I'm trying out for a job as a teddy bear," Kevin says.

"Huh?"

Kevin sighs again. "Because you were going to freeze to death, and I thought that maybe you wouldn't want to."

"Oh."

Kevin shifts, trying to find an angle where Ben's elbow isn't digging into his side. One of his legs is starting to fall asleep and he wiggles his toes. They're all prickly from the cold anyway, so he can't tell if it helps. "Sorry it's not more comfortable. I would've just built a fire or something if I could've."

"No, s'okay..." Ben's voice is fading, like someone's turning down the volume on his stereo, and his head flops heavily back against Kevin's shoulder again.

"Hey, Tennyson!" Kevin jostles him. "Stay with me here!"

"T-tired," Ben mutters, hardly even a whisper.

Kevin is damned if he's going to let Ben check out after all this. "Wake up!"

Ben doesn't even answer that. "Come on, Ben," Kevin shouts at him, "don't do this to me, you jerk—don't do this to Gwen, she's going to find us soon and it better be in time, or else she's never going to forgive me, or herself, and that'll completely suck—"

Ben's body is weirdly heavy for such a scrawny guy, totally limp in Kevin's arms even when shaken, and Kevin's so busy trying to get Tennyson's stupid terrifying deadweight to respond that he doesn't even hear the ship's engines until it's right overhead, shadowing the sun.

Kevin looks up, through the churning ice mist frothing under the gusts from the Rustbucket Mark III's atmos-repeller generators. A silhouette leans out of the back hatch, stretching a hand down to them—bundled in a parka, but the hood's down and her ponytail is streaming out behind her like a pennant, red against the ship's green, and she's got to be about the most beautiful thing Kevin's ever seen.

 


 

Gwen has this thing, when she's been really, really worried, that she wants to both hug someone within an inch of their life and yell at them at the top of her lungs. Kevin can recognize the signs; the trick, he's learned, is to make sure you're the one who gets the hugs and not the yelling. The problem is that Ben knows that trick, too, and he's got years' more experience with hugs.

Ben's out of it now, though, sitting in the corner of the ship's cockpit wrapped in two electric blankets, with his grandpa taping up the cut on his head. So when Gwen comes back from getting another couple blankets from the bay, Kevin takes preemptive action, goes, "Hey, Gwen, thanks for the save there," and opens his arms.

Gwen charges into his embrace right on cue, with enough force to rock Kevin back on his heels. She loops her arms around his waist, presses her face against his chest and says, muffled by his shirt, "You guys can't even take down a few thieves without me? Come on, now!"

"Hey, we were doing great until Ben went and got himself knocked out," Kevin argues back, putting his arms around her. He's still cold enough to be shivering, even in the warmth of the cockpit, but Gwen's hug is better than any blanket. He doesn't even care that it's coming with yelling, especially since he knows how Gwen feels. Being worried sucks.

"Would he have gotten knocked out if you hadn't blown up the ship?" Gwen demands.

"Um," Kevin says eloquently. "...I mean, how do you know I was the one who blew it up?"

Gwen snorts, lets go of his waist to lean back and cross her arms. "Yeah, because Ben would really plan to explode the bad guys."

"I wasn't planning to blow them up," Kevin says honestly—the collection vessel had been outdated, but there must have been some tech on it worth scavenging. "I didn't realize how makeshift their safety system was, is all. And they didn't get exploded anyway; they all got away." Which is bad, because now the poachers are just going to get a new ship and steal again from some other world, and while he should be able to write it off as not his problem, it wouldn't be anyone's if he and Ben had managed to catch them.

But Gwen grins, says, "No, they didn't. We picked up their escape pod on the way out of the system. They're down in the hold now."

"Seriously? Awesome!" and he hugs Gwen again, mostly impulsive, maybe because he's still a little chilly.

Gwen makes a surprised noise but readily squeezes him back, gives him a peck on the cheek for good measure and then tosses the blanket draped on her arm across his shoulders. "You must be cold," she says.

"Yeah," Kevin says, "but not as bad as Ben." Then he wishes he hadn't said it, because Gwen's smile vanishes with a guilty start, and she turns and hurries back over to her cousin and grandfather. Kevin trails after her, pulling the blanket around himself like a cape.

"How is he, Grandpa?" Gwen asks anxiously.

Max's relieved smile is answer enough. "He'll be fine, as soon as he warms up. Minus the headache, of course," and he pats his grandson's shoulder sympathetically as he stands, giving them room to crowd in around the bench while he goes to check on the autopilot's navigation.

"Ben?" Gwen asks.

"Yeah," Ben says, lifting up his head to look at them, squinting like the cockpit's overhead lights are too bright. "I'm okay." His smile is sickly, and he's still pale, but he sounds way better than he did. He's not shivering as hard as he was, either, Kevin feels, when he puts his hand on Ben's shoulder.

"Glad to hear it, man," he says. Ben glances up at him, his eyes looking even greener with his face so wan, and smiles a little stronger.

"You really scared me," Gwen says. "As we were coming in—when I saw you lying on that iceberg—don't do that again!" but she spoils the effect of the reprimand by throwing her arms around her cousin, blankets and all. Ben hugs her back, looking relieved to have dodged a yelling, and a bit surprised. Of course Ben didn't see himself on the iceberg, all motionless and pale and cold as a corpse.

"We're almost back to Bellwood," Max reports, coming up beside them. Then he goes on, "Kevin."

Kevin starts, then says, "Yeah?" and makes himself turn to face the man. It's not really that he's afraid that Gwen's grandfather could give a scolding any worse than hers. But this is Max Tennyson, a legend even among the legendary Plumbers. And he nearly got Max Tennyson's grandson killed today.

Max doesn't look angry, though; he's smiling. "That was some good thinking, out on the ice. If you hadn't done that for Ben, he...it could've been bad."

It had been bad, as far as Kevin's concerned; but true that it could've been worse. "Uh, sure," he says awkwardly. "No problem."

"You should take it easy for the next couple of days," Max says. "It'll take you a bit to recover from that energy transfer, and you were hypothermic, too."

"Energy transfer?"

"Ben wouldn't be in this good shape without it," Max says, and holds out his hand. "Thank you, Kevin, for helping him."

Kevin doesn't quite get it, but he accepts the handshake. Max's grip is firm, and Kevin's fingers are still cold enough that he doesn't want to let go. He sticks his hands in his pockets instead, though that's not really warm enough.

Max pats Gwen's shoulder. "You take care of this boy tonight, Gwen," he tells her. "Make sure he rests well."

Kevin nearly chokes at that, even though Gwen only says, "I will," so innocently that Kevin wonders if maybe it's just him. Ben's looking away, though, and his ears might be pinker than they were. So maybe not.

"If we're at Bellwood, then I should take us down," Kevin says. Really the autopilot can handle basic atmospheric maneuvers, but it gives him an excuse to duck away before things get any more embarrassing.

 


 

They drop Max off at his RV, but since neither Ben's nor Gwen's parents have a high-velo descent platform in their attics, Kevin gives them both a lift home after landing. Ben's house is closer, so that's the first stop. He needs to get home anyway; he's not so pale now that he's dry and warmed up, but he's still looking wiped, curled up with a blanket in the back seat .

When Kevin pulls up to the curb, Gwen gets out of the car and gives her cousin a hand out. Ben stops before she closes the passenger door, though, leans back into the car again. His jacket's zipped all the way with the collar turned up and he's got his hands jammed in the pockets. "Hey, Kevin," he says through the collar. "Thanks for the rescue."

"Yeah," Kevin says, shrugging. "Anytime." He doesn't get what the big deal is. It's not like they haven't saved each other's lives before.

Gwen walks her cousin up to his house while Kevin waits in his car. Max called ahead; Ben's mom and dad are hovering at the door, anxiously ushering their son inside. With the windows rolled down, Kevin can hear their exclamations, not the words, but the distress and relief in their voices carries clearly until the door shuts.

It should be a balmy night, but the draft through the window is nippy. Kevin rolls up the window, crosses his arms to rub his biceps. He wasn't so cold driving, but sitting still now he can't forget that he was in Antarctica a few hours ago. Ben left the blanket in a pile on the backseat; Kevin swipes it and drapes it over his head like a hood to warm up his ears.

"Kevin?" The passenger side door opens and Gwen gets back in the car. Kevin hastily pulls down the blanket, but it's too late; Gwen is looking at him oddly. "Are you okay?" she asks.

"F-fine," Kevin says. He feels his teeth start to chatter, clamps them together as he tosses the blanket in back and starts the car. "It's chilly tonight."

"No, it isn't," Gwen says. She puts her hand over Kevin's, frowns. "But you're still cold."

"Just remembering being on the ice," Kevin says. "I'm okay." He pulls his car out into the street. "Next stop, drop you off home?"

"Wait," Gwen says. She takes out her cell phone, dials. "Hey, Mom? It's me. Yeah, we're back—yeah, Ben's fine. We're all fine. But kind of shaken up—is it okay if I stay overnight? ...Okay. Love you, good night." She hangs up and puts the phone back in her pocket.

Kevin glances at her sidelong. "Did you just lie to your mom?"

"No," Gwen says. "She didn't ask where I'd be staying." She takes Kevin's hand again, chafes it between her own. "You're freezing..."

Gwen's hands are usually cooler than his, but not tonight; he can feel the heat of each slender finger curled around his, bands of warmth sinking into his cold skin. He squeezes her fingers back, glad he can. For a while there, when he was stuck as a mixed-media freak, he'd only dared to hold hands gingerly, worried a metal or stone grip might crush her bones. But he's got regular human hands now, and he's not afraid to interlace his fingers with hers. She sets her other hand over his, pressing it between the warmth of her palms, driving away the aching chill lingering in his bones.

Kevin drives them back to the garage. He should give his mother a call tomorrow—it's too late tonight, and much too late to drive up to her place; it's over an hour away and he's tired. Besides, the mattress on the fold-out couch in the garage is pretty good. It used to be crap, but Gwen complained about the springs poking her until Kevin went and got a new one, supplemented with a Hedomite mallea-fiber pad, not even an inch thick but better support than anything available on Earth. Hedomites might build lousy spaceships, but they make damn fine beds.

Gwen's never stayed the night in the garage, though, and Kevin wonders if maybe he should sleep in the car—but as soon as he takes the key out of the ignition, Gwen leans across the seat, puts her hand to his cheek to turn his head and guide his face into a kiss that's better than a bonfire, the way it heats his blood.

Kevin can only blink at her dazedly when she's done. "Uh...what was that for?"

Gwen smiles at him, still leaning close, kneeling up on the seat with her arm around his shoulders. "A thank you, I guess."

Kevin grins back. "I should save Ben more often."

"Not for that," Gwen says. "For you."

"For me?"

Gwen feels so warm that Kevin's surprised to feel her shiver. "When we were coming into the atmosphere, looking at the scanner—you and Ben were so close together, there was only one heat signature showing. Only one life-sign in all that ice, and we didn't know whose..."

"Couldn't you sense our mana?" Kevin asks.

"Not from that far away. And I was having a hard time focusing." Gwen closes her eyes, tips her head forward so her forehead's pressed to Kevin's. "So. Thank you for being okay."

"Yeah," Kevin says. "Well, thank you for the rescue. Feels so good to be off that ice cube and warming up, you got no idea."

Gwen leans back but doesn't open the car door to get out. "Yeah, it's about time you warmed up." She smiles at him across the seat. It's the slow, suggestive smile, approximately as hot as the surface of the sun, the one that maybe only Kevin gets to see. It would probably flash-fry Tennyson's brain if he ever guessed his cousin could smile like that.

"I am still a little cold," Kevin says. He's not lying—his toes are a bit chilly.

"Actually, so am I," Gwen says.

From the flush in her cheeks, Kevin's pretty sure she is lying. He doesn't mind. "So should we warm each other up?"

"Sounds like a plan," Gwen says, and leans over to kiss him again.

 


 

In the middle of the night Kevin jerks awake with a gasp, heart pounding and lungs aching like he's inhaled freezing water. He can taste salt on his tongue. It's dark, though, no glimmer of moonlight on snow or white-capped waves; and the air doesn't smell of brine but vulcanized rubber and motor oil. For a moment he just breathes it in, relaxing in the garage's familiarity.

But he's still cold, shivering even under the blankets—he piled them on the couch, the comforter he picked up for two bucks at a yard sale, the afghan from his grandmother that his mom made him take back to the garage; but they're not enough now. Like the temperature in the dream was real even if nothing else was. Kevin curls up, pulling the blankets closer, and it's only after he's tugged them loose of the obstruction on the other side of the mattress that he remembers he's supposed to be sharing them.

Dislodged, Gwen snuffles in her sleep, rolls over and reaches blindly for her pillow. She gets Kevin's arm instead, apparently good enough, since she nestles her head on his elbow without waking up.

Her hair smells like some kind of fruit. Kevin's never gotten why you'd want to wash with food. He asked Gwen once, but she just rolled her eyes and said, "Boys!" But it's a good smell, even if it makes him hungry.

Not hungry enough to get up, though. Under the covers their bare legs are tangled together, and Kevin tucks his chilly toes under Gwen's smooth calf. Her sweet-scented hair's tickling his nose, and his arm's starting to fall asleep, and Gwen drools in her sleep sometimes. It's so weird, sleeping with someone—actually sleeping, not the other stuff.

Weird, but it's warm. And Kevin thinks he could get used to it. Thinks that maybe he wants to, and some other night that might have freaked him out, but tonight...tonight he falls back asleep hoping that maybe Gwen wants to, too.

 


 

"I swear," Ben says, noisily sucking down the last of his cup, "no ice skating rinks, no walk-in freezers—no sno-cones!"

"Says the guy who just polished off two frozen berry smoothies," Kevin remarks. Though really he takes Ben's point. Even two days later, sitting out here in the shining California sun, thinking of ice makes him shiver. He's not going to be planning a snowboarding trip anytime soon, that's for sure.

"I needed the sugar," Ben says, and that's probably true; he's still looking kind of wan, tired even though they haven't done anything all day. He sounds like his old whiny self, though, as he insists, "But seriously, I mean it. I don't care if Vilgax teams up with Dr. Animo and starts breeding dinosaurs down there—I am never going to Antarctica again. Or the Arctic. Heck, I'm never going Big Chill again!"

"Unless the Omnitrix decides otherwise," Gwen says, taking the lid off her lemonade to idly stir it with her straw.

"So, no letter to Santa this year?" Kevin asks.

Ben makes a face at him. "Only to tell him to bring you a super-sized lump of coal."

The picnic bench outside the smoothie place has been in the sun all day, painted surface baked warm when Kevin lays his hand against it. He doesn't usually bother absorbing wood; it's harder but not that much tougher than flesh, not compared to stone or metal. But he likes the feel of it, the smoothness of the paint over the textured wood grain.

And wood isn't that sturdy, but it's resilient enough, that when Kevin glimpses a shimmer of magenta out of the corner of his eye, he absorbs the table's protection automatically. Just in time—when Gwen releases her magical grip, the ice cube bounces harmlessly off his now-wooden back.

Ben isn't so lucky; the ice cube she was magically levitating behind him drops under his t-shirt's collar to slide down his spine. Ben jumps up with a shriek that would do a marmoset proud, pawing frantically at his back. "Yow! Get it out! That's cold!"

"No, really?" Gwen says, all wide-eyed astonishment. She picks another sliver of ice out of her drink—with her fingers this time, not magic—and pops it into her mouth.

Ben is boogieing around the table, wriggling and squirming as he tries to shake out the ice. "You are evil," Kevin tells Gwen admiringly, as he lets go of the shielding wood.

"And you absorb too fast," Gwen replies, flicking the ice water on her fingers at him.

"You get this smirk when you're trying something," Kevin says. "Gives it away."

"You could've warned me," Ben accuses. Dance of the ice cube completed, he sits back down at the table next to Kevin, shoulders hunched warily as he turns his most aggrieved puppy-dog eyes on his cousin. "What was that for? Kevin probably deserved it, but what'd I do?"

"Just making sure you weren't getting a weakness," Gwen says cheerfully. "It'd be embarrassing if the bad guys could ward you off with an ice cream cone. But the ice didn't scar you, so I think we're okay."

"You were only thinking of the good of the team," Kevin says, nodding wisely.

"Of course," Gwen says, nodding back.

"I hate you all," Ben says, fingering his t-shirt's damp collar.

"Aww, don't give us the cold shoulder, Tennyson," Kevin says, and slings an arm around Ben's shoulders. "Just play it cool."

"Ow," Gwen says. "Painful. Seriously."

"Chill out?"

"Watch it, dude, you're on thin ice," Ben says—and Kevin can read his smirk almost as easily as he reads Gwen, but he's not expecting a counterattack yet. So he doesn't react quickly enough, when Ben ducks out from under his grab, seizes his other arm and pulls them both behind his back. Hands off the table, nothing to absorb, and Ben says, "Hey, Gwen, you better test Kevin's freeze-phobia, too—for the team, right?"

"No—Gwen—wait!" Kevin tries to wrestle away, but Ben's been practicing holds with Gwen and this one's pretty solid. Even with his regular human strength, Kevin could break it easy, but not without hurting either Ben or himself. So all he can do is shake his head desperately, as Gwen picks up her cup with her wickedest grin, scoops up her last handful of ice and dumps it down the back of Kevin's shirt.

Three cubes skitter down his bare skin, laying freezing trails. Ben has to let go as Kevin jerks free, twists around tugging at his shirt to get the ice to slide out faster, as he shouts—totally not a shriek, a manly holler—"I am gonna kill you!"

Neither Ben nor Gwen are intimidated by this extremely genuine threat, however; they're both laughing out loud. "You mean, you're gonna ice us?" Ben says, and he might be a dead man but he's anything but lifeless now, and Gwen's grinning her huge hot grin, and for all the ice water dripping down Kevin's back, Antarctica feels like a million miles away.