Caldera Madre by jublke
Summary: Mark must come to terms with his past, and his team has to deal with the repercussions of his secret.  (Note: This story is unfinished.)
Categories: Battle of the Planets Characters: Chief Anderson, Colonel Cronus, Jason, Keyop, Mark, Original Character, Princess, Tiny Harper
Genre: Angst, Character Study, Hurt/Comfort
Story Warnings: Adult Situations, Strong Language
Timeframe: Sequel
Universe: Alternate Universe
Challenges: None
Series: Fall and Rise of the Condor
Chapters: 19 Completed: No Word count: 20509 Read: 57078 Published: 11/26/2012 Updated: 03/16/2023
Story Notes:

This story began during a cross-country road trip to visit friends and family.  After making what I suspected would be my final visit to a very elderly relative, I began to ponder just how many secrets we carry with us that we never fully share with anyone.

This story falls within my Fall and Rise of the Condor series and is set roughly 18 months after the end of the BotP series.  My sincere thanks and appreciation to Becky Rock and Chris White for beta-reading the entire story, and to Amethyst for beta-reading the later chapters. Any remaining errors or typos are mine. 

As always, Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank by way of Tatsunoko.  No copyright infringement is intended.   

 

1. Chapter 1 by jublke

2. Chapter 2 by jublke

3. Chapter 3 by jublke

4. Chapter 4 by jublke

5. Chapter 5 by jublke

6. Chapter 6 by jublke

7. Chapter 7 by jublke

8. Chapter 8 by jublke

9. Chapter 9 by jublke

10. Chapter 10 by jublke

11. Chapter 11 by jublke

12. Chapter 12 by jublke

13. Chapter 13 by jublke

14. Chapter 14 by jublke

15. Chapter 15 by jublke

16. Chapter 16 by jublke

17. Chapter 17 by jublke

18. Chapter 18 by jublke

19. Chapter 19 by jublke

Chapter 1 by jublke
"Mark." Chief Anderson summoned me into his office with an awkward nod and a wave of his hand.  I know that one-two gesture well and my body tensed in response.  I made a practiced effort to relax.

"Yes, Chief?" I stood just outside of his door, trying to act casual.  On the outside, I was every bit the dutiful soldier.  Inside, I was a churning, swirling mess.  It's her, I know it's about her.  My life has been too calm lately.

Of course, I was right.  Intuition can be a real bitch.

Chief Anderson led me into his office with a gentle hand on my shoulder.  He shut and locked his office door before responding.  "She called again today, Mark.  She wants you to visit." As he sat down, his eyes shifted away from my face to his hands.  I knew he hated being caught in the middle, but damn, it was his fault to begin with.  I never asked him to intervene.

I sat on one of the Chief's uncomfortable guest chairs, trying to remain nonchalant.  Despite my best efforts, my stomach dropped through the floor.  I could visualize my intestines collecting at the bottom of Center Neptune, fresh food for the fish.  I stared at the floor, pondering my missing internal organs.

"I've spoken with her physicians, Mark." At this, my eyes did lift.  The Chief met my gaze, calm and unflinching.  "She's got less than six months to live.  I'm sorry."

I focused on the sound of his voice instead of the words.  Hollow.  Haunted.  How many times in the past have we gone through this charade, I wondered.  And yet, before, he'd always relayed her impending death with a slight roll of the eyes, a practiced wave of the hand, a denial of her date with the afterlife.

This time was different.  Even without the words, I knew it from the Chief's lack of expression.  Reality had finally caught up to her hypochondria.  He had no idea how to deal with it.  Neither did I.  We sat in stillness of his office in silence.  I listened to the second hand clicking around the dial of his desk clock, trying to quell my mind.  With sustained effort, my voice emerged, pinched and cracked.  Apparently, I was more upset than I knew.  "Can I take a week off?"

Chief Anderson nodded.  "I'll clear your schedule.  Jason can take the team out in your absence."

I blinked and shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts.  I shouldn't be putting so much on Jason, I thought. The Chief was still running tests on his implant, trying to deal with his intermittent fatigue.  Now wasn't a good time to add additional stress to that situation.  But then, it's never really a good time for someone to die, is it?

I glanced back at the Chief, who seemed to have read my mind.  "I'll put Darien and the R-Command team on high alert.  They can continue to run first call for the next few weeks, with G-Force providing back-up.  It's time for them to step away from your team and earn their stripes anyway."

I swallowed.  "I'd like to take Princess with me." I stared at him, calmly, rationally, while inside I was screaming.  Please don't make me do this alone!

He arched an eyebrow and I returned a calm, intense stare.  He didn't need to say it for me to know what he was thinking: fraternization.  Conduct unbecoming of an officer.  A man in need of emotional support.  Which would win out: duty or compassion?

Chief Anderson cleared his throat.  "If she concurs," he finally replied in a dry tone.  "She'll need to remain on call." He gave me a hard look, daring me to defy him further.

But I had the consent that I needed and I sighed before I knew it.  Suddenly, I realized how close I was to losing control.  I had to get out of there.  I wanted to meditate.  I needed time alone.  I desperately desired to get away from my memories of her, of all the times she wasn't there for me, of all the times she'd failed me.

The Chief must have read my thoughts, because his expression softened and he reached across the desk and gripped my wrist in a show of support.  I swallowed hard.

Death.  The ultimate betrayal.  The final nail in the coffin of my secret fantasy of a perfect family.  First, I had to deal with Cronus and his death.  Now this.

Sometimes I hate my mother.
End Notes:
Minor edit on 3/9/13. Another minor edit on 5/28/16. I really need to get better at keeping my timeline straight.
Chapter 2 by jublke
I never made it back to the apartment. Hell, I barely made it down the hall before the migraine hit, hammering my skull like a force of nature.  I tapped out a quick code on my wrist com and staggered to my Center Neptune dorm room before I fell down.

Jason arrived before I did with ice packs in hand, one for the crook of my neck, the other for the right side of my face.  I collapsed on my bed and he packed the ice around my head.  "Tough day at the office?" The words came with a smirk, but I saw genuine worry reflected in his eyes.  I had gone three months without a migraine, the longest span since my implant surgery, and we were both hoping that the headaches had finally gone away.  No such luck.  When it comes to our health, ever since Jason and I were hit with Dr. Glock's detransmutation ray, Lady Luck has eluded us.

I raised a heavy-lidded set of eyes to him.  "You have no idea."

He turned away from me abruptly to grab my desk chair.  After he had flipped it around so that he could sit backwards, he plopped down beside me.

"You can go now," I mumbled.

"No dice," Jason said. The tension in his voice caught me off-guard and I blinked up at him.  I wasn't prepared to be on the receiving end of one of Jason's tirades and he looked about to erupt.  "Now what the hell is going on?" my gunner demanded.  "First, you text me that you've got a whopper of a migraine and then the Chief grabs me in the hall and tells me that you're off-duty for a week and that he may be gone as well."  Jason's voice had risen in pitch, making him sound squeaky and petulant.  He must have realized the same thing, because he cleared his throat before adding, in a calmer tone, "I need to know what's going on, Mark."

I knew the truth would shock him silent. "My mother is dying," I explained. "I have to go and see her."

Jason's mouth opened, shut, and opened again.  "Your ... mother?"

Spikes of pain sliced across my head, crashing hard and fast into my cervical vertebrae.  I reached up with one hand to rub the bridge of my nose and massaged the base of my skull with the other before responding.  "Yes," I answered, with effort. "Can you shut off the light?" I grimaced and covered my face with my arm.

Blissfully, the light disappeared, but Jason seemed determined to pepper me with questions.  "You're going to see your mother?  Your mother is still alive?"

"Can't we talk about this later?" I mumbled, peeking out one eye from under my arm.

Jason shook his head.  "Unbelievable.  All this time, when Keyop and Princess and me would bitch and moan about not having any family ... you lied to us." He stood up, anger radiating from him in waves.  "I can't believe that you lied to us."

I grit my teeth and sat up.  "It's not that simple, Jason."

He paced around my dorm room, waving his arms.  "How's it not simple, Mark?  I've known you for what, thirteen years?  You don't think that once, in all that time, you could have mentioned this to me?  Why didn't you tell anyone?  Why haven't you gone to see her? For God's sake, Mark, she's your mother!"

I turned away from him and stared at the wall.  "Get out."

"Gladly," Jason spat back.  "For a guy who talks about loyalty and duty, you sure have a funny way of showing it."

He was halfway to the door when I spoke lowly, jaw clenched.  "You have no idea what you're talking about."

Jason whirled, arms folded, and regarded me with disdain.  "Enlighten me."

I was about to flip off a snide remark when another wave of pain racked me.  I shook my head and put a hand to my face.  It's so hard to concentrate with a migraine, why can't you see that?  It's so hard to live with her, with my memories of her.  She never wanted me.

Sometimes, I'd swear that Jason is telepathic.  He was back at my side in an instant.  "Come on, lie down.  I'll repack your head."

As he eased me back onto the bed, I whispered, "She didn't want me, Jason.  After Cronus left, she ..."

"Where's your medicine?" Jason interrupted.  I gestured at my desk drawer and he pulled out a small bottle, shook out a pill, and handed it to me, studying my face.  "She really messed you up, huh."

I swallowed the pill dry.  "Yeah.  Child protective services took me.  I was in foster care for months while they tracked down Cronus." I swallowed again, painfully, but whether it was from the bitter pill or the bitter memories, I wasn't certain.

Jason raised his eyebrows and walked into the adjoining bathroom.  He returned with a glass of water, half empty.  "Cronus came back?"  I took a sip and shook my head.  Jason frowned at me.  "Quit moving your head," he ordered, command-style, which I guess was appropriate since I clearly was in no shape to be in charge of anything.  "So Cronus didn't come back, played dead," Jason mused.  "How'd you wind up with the Chief? I always thought that Cronus handed you over for safe-keeping when he went undercover."

I started to shake my head again, caught Jason's somber gaze, and stopped.  "He's next of kin.  My mother is Chief Anderson's sister."

End Notes:
Minor edit on 3/9/13.
Chapter 3 by jublke
I must have drifted off to sleep, because I awoke to a gentle shoulder massage.  Opening my eyes, I peered about cautiously.  Yes, the headache was still there, but the pain was almost manageable.  I stretched out beneath a set of skillful fingers, relaxing more with each tender stroke.

"Feeling better?" Princess whispered as she leaned into me, her willowy arms nearly resting on my shoulders. Her long black hair dusted my skin and I could feel my heat rising.

"I always feel better when you're around," I admitted with a slow smile.  I rolled over to face her, arms wide.  "How did you know that I needed you?"

She pulled back from me then, her expression stilted and awkward.  "Jason ... um ... asked me to check on you,"  Princess admitted.  She lifted her gaze, but she wouldn't quite meet my eyes.  What had transpired during that conversation?

I sighed.  "So, he told you."

She nodded, pulling absently at her hair.  "He ... uh ... actually, he held a team meeting." She fidgeted uneasily, staring down at her hands.

I mentally filled in the gaps in her story.  Princess was upset with me, but she was worried about me and had come here willingly.  The problem was with Jason.  He must have been furious.   I thought for a minute.  If Jason had been upset by my disclosure, he most likely would have kept the meeting brief and darted off somewhere to sulk.  Then what?

"So, where is Jason now?" I asked anxiously, wondering how much damage control was necessary.  Was Jason mad at me or the Chief?  Had he confronted our mentor while I was lying flat on my back or was he saving that to watch me squirm?

She twisted her lips.  "Last I checked, he was attacking every punching bag in the weight room."

My tension level rose a notch.  "So has he spoken to the Chief?" I tried to keep my voice level, but worry seeped in anyway.  Damn. Had Jason told the team that the Chief was my uncle?  Would they ever forgive me for keeping it a secret for so long?

Princess took in a deep breath.  "No, Mark, he hasn't," she said.  She exhaled more than a hint of frustration.  "Why didn't you tell anyone?"

About the Chief or about my mother? I wondered.  But it didn't matter, because the answer was the same.  "The Chief asked me not to say anything." Seeing her dubious expression, I took her hands in mine.  "I never meant to hurt you."

She shook her head and pulled away.  "I'm a big girl, Mark.  You don't need to protect me like you did when we were kids." She sounded so sad.

Seeing her dejected posture, I stiffened.  Blinking and shaking my head, I tried to sweep away the pain and focus only on her.  "I'm sorry, Princess.  I should have said something sooner but I just didn't ... "

My words trailed off and I realized that I had no idea how to get them started again.  I must have looked as miserable as I felt because she patted me awkwardly on the arm.  "It's okay, Mark.  I'm more worried about you."

As long as my mind focused on Princess, on Jason, on the Chief, I didn't have to think about me.  I shivered involuntarily as the spotlight shifted.  Dying or no, I had little desire to visit my mother.  Seeing her would just rip open old wounds, reduce healing scars back to fresh gashes.  I wanted to tell Princess that I'd be all right, but I knew that my voice would crack and betray me before I ever managed to deliver the words.  So I pushed down hard on the fear and reached out to the woman who had taught me to trust.

"Will you go with me to see her?" I couldn't look Princess in the eye.  What if she said no?

Her answer was brief and immediate.  "Of course."

Chapter 4 by jublke
I hesitated at the doorway of my mother's hospital room and Princess nearly bumped  into me.  "This is it, this is her room," I whispered unnecessarily, my nerves getting the better of me.  Jason says that I have a tendency to lecture when I'm stressed.  I'll concede that point, but I don't normally babble like a five-year-old.

Princess put a comforting hand on my back and I opened the door.  And gasped.  That shriveled old woman couldn't be my mother.   I hadn't seen her in five years, but she had aged at least twenty.  Her once lush black hair, pulled into a ponytail at the nape of her neck, was streaked grey-white, and her face was lined with creases.  She smiled in my direction.  "Markus?"

My breath came in shallow gulps.  "Mother." I stood stock still, taking in the scene in front of me, assessing it like I would a Spectran mecha.  There was danger here, I was sure of it.

"Come here, where I can see you," she rasped, patting the mattress where she lay.

I walked awkwardly toward the hospital bed but stopped at a distance, arms folded, looking more like Jason than myself.  My normal confident swagger had been replaced with a wary loping stride.  Don't let down your guard.  Don't get too close.

Princess shut the door and my mother turned toward the audible click of the latch.  "Hello?" she called out.  "Who's there?"

It was only then that I realized my mother was nearly blind.  Shaking, I forced myself to sit beside the woman who bore me.  Taking her cold hand in mine, I said, "That's Princess.  You remember, the Chief took her in too.  You met once before, a long time ago."

Princess walked over and politely held out her hand, but my mother didn't shake it.  Instead, her eyes raked over my third in a way that made me decidedly uneasy.  "Are you his lover?" she asked roguishly.

Princess blinked and withdrew her hand.  "No, mother," I clarified, biting down on my anger.  "We're work colleagues." I stood up to lend my support to Princess.  "We're friends."

My mother shook her head slightly, a knowing smile playing at her lips.  "That's not what Roger tells me." She grinned wolfishly.  "I hear she's a tease."  Princess blanched and began backing toward the door.  Given that my mother was an attention whore and a chronic liar, I seriously doubted whether Chief Anderson speculated on my love life, but Princess didn't know that.  I wanted to rush to follow my teammate in a display of support, but I didn't want to add fuel to the fire.  My mother must have sensed my indecision because she turned in my direction and added, "And you're not man enough to bed her."

A pregnant pause underscored that remark.  Princess' mouth dropped into a perfect "o" of shock.

Fire raced across my field of vision.  I could feel flames of anger and embarrassment rising in my cheeks.  Princess sent me a panicked look and I concentrated on her face and reminded myself of my mission.  Focus.  Goal, objective, means.

Taking a deep breath, I unclenched my fists and tried to divert the topic.  "Uncle Roger said that you wanted to see me," I choked out.  "He said that you were dying."

My mother chortled slightly at my comments.  "Oh, did he, now?  I've been dying for the last five years.  Why didn't you come sooner?" Her light tone didn't mask the bitterness of the words.

I fought hard not to rise to the bait, but my insides were screaming.  Why should I visit you when you treat me like shit?  You have no respect for me, no respect for my boundaries or my life!  "I'm here now," I said, as calmly as I could.

"You must want this," she replied, reaching under her nightdress.  "It's worth money, you know." She was holding a thick gold band, worn on a chain around her neck.

I gasped.  My father's ring.  She unclasped her necklace and handed the wedding band to me.  I took a deep breath and swallowed hard.

"You always loved him more than me," she complained.  "I knew you'd come back for it."

Chapter 5 by jublke
"Mark, you need to eat something," Princess chided.

I looked up from my second cup of coffee to find that she had pushed the untouched plate of eggs back in my direction.  Her yogurt was nearly gone and she was spooning the last of the granola into her bowl.  How long have we been sitting here?  I glanced around, relieved that I wasn't on duty.  I could scarcely remember the walk from my mother's bedside, but the hospital was in clear view across the street.  Princess and I were the only customers in the aging diner and our waitress had long since abandoned us.

I gave Princess a slight frown.  "Sorry.  Not hungry." I pushed the plate back in her direction.

She looked affronted.   "Nothing to be sorry about, Commander," she replied crisply.

I had no idea how to take that.  Was Princess angry that I wasn't doing as she said, that I wasn't allowing her to nursemaid me?  Or was she still reacting to my mother's earlier comments and using my formal title to put distance between us, to remind me of how to behave, to remind me of my duty?

Duty.  The very word brought Cronus to mind and I fingered the newly acquired heavy band on my left hand.  My father's wedding ring.  His hands must have been larger than mine because the ring fit on my pointer finger.  Funny the things you learn about someone after they've died.  I couldn't remember him wearing the ring during my early years and his undercover duty - and a second family - precluded his wearing it later in life.  But my mother had worn this ring on a chain around her neck for as long as I could remember.  She had been devastated when Cronus chose his work - his duty - over her.  Despite her raucous and sexually adventurous ways, she had saved her heart for him, always hoping that one day he would return.  I had been completely unprepared for her to hand his ring to me earlier that morning.  I rubbed my eyes and took another sip of coffee.

"So, the Chief's sister Fiona is your mother," Princess said in a matter-of-fact tone.  I nodded at her, but she didn't seem to know what else to say.  Neither did I.  After a minute, she looked away.

"So," I parroted back, staring at my hands, noticing the marks on my nails for the first time.  This was where Mark, the mighty leader of G-Force, the one who didn't bite his nails, would rise to the occasion and deliver a practiced speech about duty, sacrifice, and compassion, but I just couldn't do it.  An hour at my mother's bedside had wrung every ounce of composure from my body.   I could still visualize each line of her face, down to the jagged scar on her left cheek, a permanent reminder of one of her more frequent paramours.  I felt my own cheek twitch in sympathy.

Where was the mighty leader of G-Force when she had been struck with a broken bottle?  Why hadn't he protected her?  I could remember hiding in the closet as a young boy, wishing that my father were there to protect me, hoping that the large man wouldn't come for me next.  Cronus' criticisms of me echoed through my mind at the memory, but one thought loomed large:  I was a fraud, an inept little boy playing at being a hero.  I frantically tried to recall the relaxation techniques that I knew were ingrained in me, but I came up empty.  My hands started to tremble.

Princess reached across the table and clasped my left hand in hers.  "I'm so sorry, Mark," she said, eyes bright and watery.  "I had no idea."

I could feel myself tense, my outer shell hardening to protect my weak spots.  "I'll be all right, Princess," I said, absently patting her hand as I tried to come up with an appropriate response.  "I'm glad I got to say good-bye.  It  was good of you to come."  My gaze settled on the grease spots on the far wall of the diner.  How did they get grease all of the way up there?

"Please don't do this," she whispered, so softly that I wasn't sure she'd actually spoken.  "I didn't mean to push you away too."  She blinked back the tears.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.  What more do you want from me?  I have nothing left to give.  Nothing!  Opening my eyes, I stared straight at her, my focus blazing with frustration and anger.  Why can't you see that?  I - am - nothing!   Leave me alone!

My eyes started to burn.  Princess grabbed my other wrist and squeezed both of my hands in hers.  Her eyes searched my face; the earnestness of her expression chipping away at my pain.

"I love you," she said.  Pink streaks colored her cheeks the instant the words escaped her lips.  Given my mother's earlier insinuations, I knew that admission came at a price.

Her tender revelation caught me off-guard.  Before I could think through the implications of what I was admitting, I blurted back, "I ... I ... love you, too, Princess."

Lights flashing in tandem brought us back to reality.  It was a slow blink from our wrists this time, with no accompanying vibration or siren.  Not an emergency then, but a lesser security matter, one that still required us to report in immediately.  Why was I getting the page? I was off-duty.

My intuition flashed red and my stomach lurched.  Long before we called in and Chief Anderson explained to the team why he needed an escort to the funeral, I knew that my mother was dead.

Chapter 6 by jublke
The funeral director spoke earnestly to the Chief, arms gesturing at various locations in the mortuary.  Princess, Tiny, and Keyop crowded around our guardian as if to protect him from the horrors within.  Everyone was clothed in the somber, monochromatic tones of funerary attire.  I wondered how long Engineering had worked on this particular batch of our civilian clothing.  In our line of work, it was prudent to have funeral wear on hand.

My mother's coffin lay open on a pedestal at the front of the room, surrounded by sprays of white flowers - lilies and roses from the Chief, carnations and daisies from the team.  Even at this distance, I could tell that embalming had turned her skin a peculiar shade of greenish-white.  Swallowing hard, I averted my eyes and studied my family.

At some level, the Chief wanted us there for comfort as much as protection, not that he would ever admit it.  His face was blotchy, eyes red-rimmed, and he looked like he needed a good cry but couldn't quite let himself break down.  Princess stood near him and held his hand, something she hadn't done since she was a child.  Tiny stood on the Chief's other side, one hand resting lightly on Keyop's shoulder.  The kid twisted under his grip, looking bored.

Jason slipped in a side door to stand beside me, hair slicked back, clad in a charcoal gray suit and a black tie.  "How're you holding up?" he whispered.

I shrugged.  It was all so surreal. I reached into the pocket of my sport coat.  "Hanging in there, I guess," I whispered back.  He gave my arm a quick squeeze and it was only then that I noticed the wrist brace.  My eyes flicked to his face.  "You all right?" It came out louder than I had intended and Princess shot a glance in our direction.  The funeral director droned on in artificially soothing tones, blissfully unaware of our conversation.

Jason rolled his eyes and pulled me back by the elbow.  When we were several steps behind the others, he hissed, "Jose talked to Engineering again." He shook his head and gave a disapproving snort.

Despite his annoyance, I felt myself relax.  Not a serious problem then and not a sign that his repaired implant was failing.  Jose - Jason's new personal trainer - had probably noticed a flaw in his regular training regimen and was concerned about an overuse injury.  If Jose had bothered to speak with Engineering, though, Jason's wrist brace was currently part of his required civilian uniform.  It was certainly an effective way of ensuring that he wore it.

I sighed.  Jason had struggled to maintain his fitness ever since implant surgery. I knew that the Chief had assigned numerous staff to find ways to reduce the physical demands on his body.  Unfortunately, the brace was another indication that the Chief had yet to isolate the root cause of Jason's fatigue.

It was still an adjustment to get used to Jason with such obvious physical limitations.  Surely, he had had them before, but in the past, he had gone to great pains - and nearly died - before he would cop to any.  This Jason - the one with prescription lenses, a wrist brace, and his own personal trainer - was far more vulnerable than the one I was used to, and I had the uncomfortable realization that our retirement from active duty - while not imminent - might be closer than any of us dared to think.  Implants could only do so much to protect the human body from years of extraordinary and repetitive wear and tear.  Yet, somehow, standing next to Jason, I also had the strangest feeling that he was stronger now than he had been before.

I cast a surreptitious glance at my second.  Jason's arms were folded, his eyes flitting about the room at regular intervals as he absently chewed a stick of gum.  On guard, I thought, but not tense. Apparently, he had worked through his anger at me.  I wondered if Princess had said something to him about my visit to the hospital.  I swallowed uncomfortably at the memory.

Jason turned to face me, eyes dark and somber behind his glasses.  He tipped one shoulder toward the front of the room.  "They're starting, Mark," he said, gently.  It was only then that I understood - while I might be standing there, concerned for him, Jason was actually the one in control of the situation.  He had assigned himself to guard me.

End Notes:
Minor edit on 3/9/13.
Chapter 7 by jublke
Author's Notes:
My sincere thanks to my beta-readers, Chris White and Becky Rock, for their support and encouragement.

Understated and quiet, my mother's memorial service at the funeral home passed quickly, with a few generic bible passages and some kindly words from a rented minister who clearly didn't know the deceased.  Only a few of the Chief's confidantes were in attendance, along with a handful of women in garish make-up and somber attire, presumably friends or former work acquaintances of my mother.  Everyone was appropriate and respectful and I found myself breathing a sigh of relief.  In retrospect, maybe that's why I was caught off-guard by the fiasco at the gravesite.

 

It wasn't like Chief Anderson hadn't prepared.  The man was always prepared.  As far as the outside world knew, he had brought along his five children to pay their respects to a deceased aunt.  However, well aware that word of his sister's funeral had made the papers - both mainstream and tabloid - Chief Anderson was prepared for trouble.  Insiders knew that the Chief wanted the five of us close in case Spectra tried anything during the ceremony.  Only a handful of those insiders also knew that I was off-duty, that the Commander of G-Force was grieving his mother, and that I needed the team for moral support.  

 

A gentle breeze blew outside and I reveled in the fresh air after the dank atmosphere of the funeral parlor.  Following the others, I arrived at the newest portion of the graveyard, a grassy field with a colorful array of wildflowers.  I was walking toward my mother's freshly dug gravesite when I noticed Jason's cheek twitching. 

 

"Damn," he muttered through clenched teeth.  

 

Looking up in surprise, I caught the tail end of a non-verbal exchange between the Chief and my gunner.  Apparently, Jason had spied trouble, and the Chief had already warned him not to act.  

 

I glanced around wildly.  What had I missed?  My steps faltered as I took in the signs just beyond the wrought iron fence separating the graveyard from the street.  I heard the chants and saw the angry faces of the protesters about the time that I realized that a tabloid reporter with a telephoto lens was aiming a camera in my direction.

 

"God hates prostitutes!" a woman screamed, staring straight at me.  "You can't bury her here!  This is a Christian cemetery."

 

My mouth dropped.  I had always suspected that my mother's profession was less than honorable, but the Chief and I had never formally acknowledged it.  Hearing those words aloud, I wished the earth would swallow me whole.  I was four years old again, drunks on the stoop leering at my mother, unable to defend her.  Riveted, I stared at the protestors in horror.

 

"Hell is for whores!" a man yelled at us, real venom in his tone, his words matching the blood-red letters scrawled on his sign.

 

Jason's strong arm propelled me forward, and I caught myself just before I stumbled.  "Ignore them, Mark," he said quietly.  "Tiny's got it."

 

Tiny's got it, I repeated internally, watching as the big pilot lumbered toward the fence to exchange a few terse words with the ringleader of the protest. 

 

Tiny and Jason are in charge, I thought miserably.  I'm a useless bystander.  Clearly the Chief had given them additional instructions about the funeral.  Why hadn't he warned me that there might be protesters?  What else hadn't he told me?

Chapter 8 by jublke

I had finally convinced the team to leave me at home after the funeral. Sitting at my chipped formica table, however, staring at the cabinet beneath my kitchen sink, I was starting to wonder if this was such a good idea.

I can handle it, I told myself. I just need to think of something else. I loosened my tie and tried to relax.

It was impossible. My mind replayed every facet of the service, right down to the crunchy fried chicken served by the Galaxy Security social committee. Snapshots of the funeral clicked through my mind: the Chief's stoic face, Jason scanning the crowd for signs of Spectra, Tiny flirting with the minister's daughter, Keyop doodling on the memorial cards, Princess holding my hand. I tried not to think of the wall of photographs showing my mother at various ages, but I couldn't help but be drawn to it.

She had been a beautiful child, laughing and carefree in photos where the Chief was his usual somber self. Sometime in her teens, you could see the changes - shadows overtaking her eyes, darker facial expressions - but she was still gorgeous. There was a photograph of her wedding to Cronus, a dashing young soldier smiling down at his beautiful bride. Thinking of it, I felt a lump form in my throat. I wanted that picture. It was the only proof I had that Cronus had ever loved her.

This is stupid. Go to bed. You've had enough for one day. My eyes flitted to the cabinet again. Don't go there. You can do this. 

I glanced at my left wrist. If I call Jason now, he'll be here within half an hour. I sighed. If I call him, I'm going to have to explain why I want him here. And what am I going to say? Because I'm afraid to be alone? Afraid of what I might do? I stared at the cabinet again. That's certainly going to be confidence inspiring. I thought of the wrist brace Jason had worn to the funeral, the tired look in his eyes by the end of the service, the relief on his face when he knew he could head back to the trailer and crash. 

No, Jason's out. He doesn't need to babysit me. I knew all about his implant fatigue and he was finally making an honest effort to let me know when he was drained. As his commander, I needed to ensure that he got enough rest.

Keyop was out, too. He's so young, so impressionable. There's no easy way to explain this. He looks up to me. What's he going to think?

Princess? I knew she'd come as fast as her motorcycle would carry her. I started to punch in her call sign but then I stopped. Fingering the empty flask in my jacket pocket, I tried to imagine telling her. Remember the day my mother died? How I told you I was okay? Well, I lied. I shook my head in disgust, recalling the furtive stop at the liquor store, buying the bottles and the flask, promising myself that it was okay, I would control my intake this time. She'll be so disappointed in me. What if she stops loving me? What if she leaves me like Cronus and my mother? 

Heart hammering, I stared at the cabinet and then at my wrist. That left me with Tiny. I thought of the many times I had watched Tiny in action at Jill's bar, working as a bouncer, tossing out drunks in disgust. 

A sick feeling spread across my stomach. I had no one left to call. I started pacing around the kitchen. Running through the options in my mind once more, I arrived at a different conclusion.

One drink won't hurt. I walked across the room, knelt down, and opened the cabinet.

Chapter 9 by jublke

I breathed a sigh of relief. It was my first day back since the funeral and things were finally looking up. We had dispatched the enemy drones quickly and efficiently.  No wasted bullets from Jason. Princess had intercepted the enemy's transmissions with ease and Keyop had used the data to find a weak spot in the armor of the attack ships. Tiny deftly piloted with a relaxed smile on his face.

"Incoming transmission, Mark," Princess said, a surprised look on her face. "It's Zoltar!"

The purple freak appeared on every view screen. "How nice to see the illustrious G-Force back in action," he said with a sneer. "I trust you had a nice little vacation, Commander."

I cocked an eyebrow. What the hell?

"But I wonder if you are truly ready for combat." He whirled around in his command post, pushing a second person into view. When his purple and red cape stopped swirling behind him, I gasped. I was staring at my mother, fifteen years younger and scantily clad, with a terrified look on her face. "Do you like my new consort, Commander?" he cackled. 

My stomach rolled in a sudden wave of nausea. It's not really her, my mother is dead. I repeated those words over and over but it was hard to concentrate. I heard a gulp behind me and knew that Jason had also caught the resemblance to Anderson's late sister.

The transmission ended abruptly, replaced by an interstellar field that included Zoltar's escape pod. Jason was behind me in an instant. I forced myself to give the order in a calm, rational voice. "Fire now."  His fist punched the bright red button and Zoltar's ship exploded on screen. I swallowed, hard. Even knowing she wasn't really on board, I could feel my hands start to shake.

The lights came up in the simulation room and Chief Anderson's voice boomed through the loudspeakers. "Report to my office at once for individual debriefings. Do not discuss the simulation. I repeat, do not discuss the simulation."

My eyes dropped to the floor, raw emotions surging through me like ricocheting laser fire: fury, anger, shame, vulnerability, aching loneliness ...

I felt a hand on my knee and looked up. My entire team stood in a protective arc around me. Mindful of the speakers catching our every word, no one spoke. Jason simply shook his head. Tiny, Princess and Keyop nodded in agreement. Unacceptable.

I smiled.

We left the training room and filed into Chief Anderson's office as a unit. To his credit, the man didn't appear surprised when we refused to leave, refused to be addressed as anything less than a team. He simply stood behind his desk, stern-faced, arms folded, and regarded us with a frown. My teammates nodded encouragement to me.

In as calm a voice as I could muster, I spoke. "Chief Anderson, that training exercise was categorically unacceptable. If you or your team intentionally inflict emotional abuse on me or any other member of my team in the name of training again, we will walk out. Is that understood?"

I could see Jason out of the corner of my eye, arms folded. Predictably, fury was pouring off of my gunner in waves. But my easy-going pilot also stood in a similar posture, eyes clouded, a deep scowl on his face. I expected that Princess and Keyop wore similar looks of disapproval.

The Chief gave a slight inclination of his head and stared at the floor. "Understood," he said in a very quiet voice. It didn't occur to me until we were storming out of his office that maybe this training nightmare hadn't been his idea after all. Maybe President Kane had asked Professor Mahoney, our team psychiatrist, to test both of us. 

Did we pass?

Chapter 10 by jublke

I sat alone at the bar, nursing my drink. Tiny had gone to the marina with Keyop in tow. Jason was in the back with Princess, checking on a leak in the plumbing for Jill. I was so relieved to be away from Center Neptune that I didn't really care who was there. The Chief had kept me under lock and key for weeks, ever since Jason had slapped a tabloid on his desk with my photo on the cover.

"Fiona Anderson's Secret Love Child Heartbroken at Funeral!" screamed the headline. That telephoto lens at the grave site had caught me dead on, a tear in my eye with Jason's hand on my shoulder. Some jerk had found a high school photo of my mother, blown it up, and highlighted the similarities in our features.

The Chief had not been amused. "You need to lay low for awhile, Mark. Let this blow over. This fascination with my sister is fueled by my enemies, I'm sure of it. Unfortunately, I've made a lot of them." He cleared his throat awkwardly. "But the real risk here is that some over-zealous reporter will stumble upon your true identity. Anti-stalking laws can only do so much, and by then it will be too late."

Fortunately for me, a new scandal broke out when the daughter of the Rigan monarch eloped to Earth with one of Zoltar's cousins. With a new haircut - I hate my hair short - and a plain T-shirt and jacket designed by Engineering, I was finally allowed to leave the base. The timing couldn't have been better. Ever since that training exercise from hell, I had a strong desire to set some explosives in the simulation room. Instead, I headed to the bar at Jill's.

Jason slipped onto the stool next to me. "What a day," he said. I could tell he was trying to draw me out. It's amusing to watch Jason try to be subtle under the best of circumstances. This was far from the best. I took a long drink and turned away from him.

"Got the pipe fixed?" I asked, signaling the bartender for another beer. I turned back to find Jason eying the empty glasses in front of me. 
"When're you planning to head back to the airfield?" he asked pointedly.  I shrugged. "Because I'm driving you home," he finished, arms crossed.

I glared at him. "I am not drunk," I hissed. 

"No, but you're not sober either," Jason observed.

"Whatever," I replied. I stalked over to the juke box, drink in hand, before I followed through with my desire to deck him. Uncurling my fist, I eyed the titles, looking for some music to suit my mood. Finding nothing appropriate, I leaned back against the nearest wall - I was not going to be interrogated further by Jason - and watched the crowd file in.

Jill's Place, with its bar and grill, draws various groups depending upon the time and day of the week. This Friday evening, the crowd was young, a mix of suits and dirt-encrusted jeans. The energy level was electric and I could sense trouble on the way. I caught Princess sending me a questioning look from behind the bar and I nodded in return.  She sometimes asks Jason and me to stay late as informal bouncers. Tiny's the only one officially on Jill's payroll, though. His irregular hours cover his space burger tab.

Jason threaded his way across the dance floor to stand near me. "Rowdy place tonight," he observed, soda in hand. I had to strain to hear him over the din of the crowd.

I shrugged. "Always like this on payday," I shouted back. Downing my glass, I made my way back to the bar.

Legally, Princess is still too young to serve drinks. Ironic that she's already spent three years putting her life on the line in this godforsaken war. I waited for an open bar stool and sat down with relief. When the barkeep drew near, I flagged him over. "Another beer, Charlie."

He narrowed his eyes at me, and I did my level best to appear sober. Frowning, the man handed me another glass. "You want something to eat with that, Mark?" 

I shook my head and handed him enough cash to cover the drink plus a healthy tip. Next time, I'd have to get Flora to serve me. That girl can't even keep her orders straight, much less keep track of how much people have imbibed. As I made my way around the bar, avoiding Jason, I made a mental note to avoid Charlie too. Once I was out of their lines of sight, I slipped my hand into my pocket, drew out my flask, and added a splash of whiskey to the glass, just like I had to the others.

Hearing a commotion in the corner, I capped the small metal bottle and tucked it back into my jacket. Drink in hand, I bounded over to check things out. Finally, some action. But when I saw that it involved Princess, my breath caught. She stood there in her frilly apron and short skirt, gaping at a large, filthy man seated at one of the small tables near the dance floor. My mind flashed back to an image of my mother, alone and unprotected on the stoop of our apartment, surrounded by a group of lecherous men. 

"Come on, you know you want me," the man leered, grabbing at her skirt. He laughed and stood up to thrust his pelvis at her. The whistles and hollers from his friends rang in my ears.

I threw the glass aside. This asshole's going down. No one treats my girl that way and gets away with it. My fist connected with his jaw, knocking the man flat with the first punch. I whooped a battle cry and dived on top of him, pummeling him with my fists. 

"Mark!" Princess screamed, but it wasn't the happy cry of one being rescued.

Jason's strong arms grabbed me from behind. "Stop it, Mark," he ordered, command-style, as I fought and flailed against him. "You're going to kill him!"

It was only then that I looked down. The man barely conscious. Bruises were starting to form on his face and my fists were covered in his blood. I started shaking uncontrollably as Jason pulled me away.

"He attacked George!" one of the bloody man's friends screamed, staring at me. 

Jason turned and growled back, "George sexually harassed our waitress." He pointed at each of George's friends. "All of you. Get. Out. Now." Jason made a fist and cracked his knuckles for emphasis.

With the help of his friends, George stumbled to his feet. Once their table had cleared, Jason shoved me toward the rear exit. "Come on, buddy, let's go," he said, for the benefit of any onlookers. The bar was so loud that few people even noticed. But Princess cast me a look - worried, disappointed, afraid - as Jason and I left the bar and stepped out into the dark alley.

Chapter 11 by jublke

Give me your keys." Standing in the alley behind the bar, Jason held out his hand expectantly.

I flexed my own hands in return, staring at the blood stains. What have I done? I narrowed my eyes at Jason, trying to make sense of the situation. "Why?" 

"Because you just beat a civilian senseless! You're obviously plastered and I'm not having you throw up in my car." I don't argue with Jason when he uses that tone with me. He reserves ordering me around for when I'm acting like a complete idiot. Trusting his judgement over my own, I threw him my key ring.

Jason was shaking his head as he opened the door and sat down in the driver's seat. I fumbled around on the passenger's side until he reached across and opened the door for me. "What in the hell were you thinking?" he demanded as soon as I sat down.

I shook my head. My vision was starting to swim and I felt nauseous. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes. Jason must have rolled down the windows because I suddenly felt a cool breeze against my cheek. I started to relax, feeling the rhythm of the car as Jason backed out of the gravel-packed alley and rolled onto the smooth blacktop of the city streets. I had almost fallen asleep when he hissed, "And what would you do if we got called out right now? Huh?"

One of my lectures, back to haunt me. At the realization, my eyes popped open. I tried to answer him but the ringing in my ears was so loud and the lights were so bright that I couldn't think of anything except, "Pull over. I'm gonna puke."

Jason screeched to a stop in front of a little bungalow and I stumbled out and threw up on someone's rose bushes. Fortunately, the streets were deserted and no one seemed to notice. 

When I got back into the car, Jason was sitting there with a hand to his forehead. "Are you done yet?" he snapped.

I nodded. "Sorry."

"Whatever," Jason replied, and threw the car into gear.

Fortunately, the remainder of the drive passed without incident. When he pulled up to the rented shack I call home, I said, "Hand me the keys. I'll unlock the door. You can take my car home."

Jason shook his head at me. "Mark, you are out of your mind. No way in hell I'm leaving you alone when you're like this." He set the parking brake and stormed out of the car. I followed behind meekly.

I'm embarrassed to admit that Jason had to help me up the steps. "No way you could be this out of it based on what I saw you drink," he said. "Just how many beers did you have?"

"Boilermakers," I clarified, and groaned as I realized what I had just admitted to.

"That would do it," Jason replied, opening the screen door and helping me over the threshold. "Easy now," he said, guiding me to the sofa. I flopped down hard and rolled over on my stomach.

"Kill the lights," I mumbled, and blessedly, the room went dark. 

Chapter 12 by jublke

I woke to the delicious smell of freshly brewed coffee. My delight in the aroma was quickly doused, however, by the sight of my second sitting at my kitchen table, bleary-eyed, head propped on one hand, looking as if he was the one recovering from a hangover instead of me.  

“Hey,” I said softly.

Jason startled, then turned his intense gaze in my direction. “Hey,” he echoed, without inflection. “You’re up.”

Trepidation rising, I rose from the sofa to join him at the table. “That was some night, huh,” I said. Noticing the dried blood caked under my fingernails, I tried to hide my hands.

Jason nodded, his mouth set in a grim line. “You could say that.”

I stood. "I’m going to get a cup of coffee. You want me to top that?” I asked, indicating his half-empty mug with a tip of my head.

Jason blew out a deep breath and shook his head. “We need to talk, Mark.”

“About what?” Turning my back to him, I washed my hands thoroughly in the kitchen sink. I tried to busy myself with preparing my coffee, but since I take it black, it wasn’t long before I was sitting back down, facing a deeply unhappy Condor.

“I called the bar last night,” Jason said. “Princess is worried sick. You’re damned lucky that guy didn’t press charges.”

I shrugged and looked down at the fresh coffee rings on my kitchen table. Downplay, I told myself, downplay and deflect.

“I talked to Charlie. He said he never served you anything stronger than beer last night.” At this, my head snapped up. Jason caught my eyes and held them until I broke my gaze away. “I searched your pockets, Mark,” he said. “Care to explain this?” He held out a small metal bottle. Damn him.

Balling my fists, I fought to keep my voice level. "You had no right to do that," I finally ground out. Trying to calm myself, I attempted to sip my coffee. 

Jason ignored my reaction. Opening the flask, he took a sniff. “Bringing liquor into a bar.” He slowly shook his head. “Never thought I’d see you do something like this.” He capped the flask and used it to gesture at the cabinet under the sink. "I found the rest of your bottle of whiskey, too."

I blanched. Hands trembling, I set the cup down. “You know as well as I do how hard it is to get drunk with an implant.” Cronus had taken us to poker night with the Red Rangers for my eighteenth birthday. For awhile, Jason and I had matched the Rangers shot for shot.

Jason goggled at me. “With good reason, Mark!” He slammed the flask on the table, jostling my mug and sloshing coffee across the formica. No doubt he was remembering that the Rangers eventually wore us down. The night had ended in a blackout, my first. I didn't drink for well over a year after that. “I sat up forever last night while you were sleeping, thinking about things.” He swallowed hard and crossed his arms, fixing me with a Condor stare. “I should take this straight to the Chief.”

Heart hammering, I fought to stay calm. Downplaying isn't working. Time to deflect. “You'd do anything to take command,” I said with a sneer.

Jason didn't respond. Instead, he opened both arms wide, palms up. “Answer me this. How many times have you failed to show up for a meeting, claiming you had a migraine, when you were actually hung over?”

Shit! I bolted upright, nearly knocking over my chair in the process. “Just what are you trying to say?” I threw some Eagle venom into my tone.

“Exactly what it sounds like.” Jason growled back, rising to face me toe to toe. He leaned into my face, his expression dangerously calm. “Tell me the truth or I go straight to Anderson.”

I stared him down and made a final attempt to deflect the conversation. "You know the implant filters that stuff out. I'm fine."

“Answer my question.”

I answered him with a right cross. Jason was so startled that I nearly hit him. He grabbed my arm at the last minute and pinned it behind my back in one fluid motion, twisting it slightly for emphasis. "Start talking."

Defeated, I broke away. Taking a deep breath, I stalked across the kitchen to stand near the window. The ground fog was burning off, swirling in the pale blue sky. An old-fashioned biplane rose to greet the morning. As if in unison, I could feel the bile rise in my throat. Wrapping my arms around my stomach, I turned to face Jason. “Once.” At his relieved expression, I clarified my answer. “Maybe twice.”

Jason swore. Taking off his glasses, he rubbed his eyes and shook his head at me in disbelief.

My eyes fell to his feet. In a very small voice, I said, “I'm sorry, Jason. It won’t happen again.” 

“You don’t get it, do you? I trusted you, Mark. I trusted you completely. No questions asked. You could lie to me even now, even after everything that's happened, and I’d still believe you.” He swallowed and grimaced. “How can I believe anything you say?”

I forced myself to place my shaking hands flat on the table. “Ask me.”

“Why?” he said. “Why did you do it?”

I sat down and reached for my coffee, twirling the cup in my hands. “I don’t know. Seemed like a good idea at the time and then it got out of hand.”

“How long has this been going on? I’m with you all of the time, Mark. How could I not have known?” He put his glasses back on and raked his fingers through his hair.

I stood up and paced around the apartment. “I’m good at hiding it,” I said, grimly. “I think the first time was after Cronus died." I shook my head. "I rarely drink because when I do …” I sat down hard on the sofa and covered my face with one hand. “It’s hard to stop.”

Jason was beside me in an instant. “You should have said something.”

“Like what?” I asked, miserably. “Lock up the liquor?”

“No. Tell me what’s bothering you. You don’t have to go through everything alone.” His expression, earnest and concerned, unnerved me. The irony of his words hung in the air like an accusation. I wasn’t used to seeing my gunner like this and it took every ounce of composure I had not to bolt from the couch.

“It’s nothing, really," I said, crossing my arms. "Just work.”

“And the funeral.”

“And that,” I amended. “Not like I was really close to my mother or anything." My voice cracked over the words, defying my efforts to hide the pain.

Jason just looked at me. Despite his calm demeanor, he was chewing absently at his knuckles, a sure sign he was deeply upset. I could hear the words he wasn’t saying: Talk to me, Mark. Please. I can’t handle seeing you like this. 

It didn’t make me want to talk. If anything, it made me want to punch him again. I stood up instead. “You should go. Take my car.”

Jason stretched out on the sofa and crossed his legs, arms threaded behind his head. “I’m not leaving until you start talking.” 

I swore at him. “What do you want me to say, Jason? I loved my mother and she died. There, are you happy?”

“No. Because that isn’t what’s bothering you.” He sat up and looked me square in the eyes, locking me into his steel blue gaze. “You tell me the truth and I’ll leave you alone.”

My eyes dropped to the floor. I shrugged. “I don’t know what else to say.”

“Start at the beginning.”

I swallowed hard. “I don’t know.” I rubbed my hands up and down my arms. It felt like the temperature was dropping rapidly inside the apartment. “It’s hard to describe." I looked over at Jason. He was staring pointedly at his wrist communicator. If I didn't say something fast, he was going to call the Chief. Rattled by this role reversal, I blurted out the first thing I could think of, which just happened to be the truth. "It's like I don’t know who I am any more.”

Jason’s voice was gentle. “What do you mean?”

I sank miserably into the recliner. "Now that R-Command is active ... I got used to being on call 24/7 and now we're not,” I said, staring at the scuff marks on my shoes. It was hard to talk and feel at the same time. It felt like the fog outside was seeping in and wrapping itself around my brain. "You and I have both been through so much with implant surgery ... now that the second team has been activated, I don't feel like we're needed." I looked at him. "We could be replaced."

Jason nodded.

"Things should be easier, but now that we have more free time, I don't know what to do with myself. I have too much time on my hands. Too much time to think." I twisted the heavy ring on my finger. I could feel my raw open places coming to the surface; it was getting harder to breathe. “I can’t talk about this any more,” I blurted out. Blinking back tears, I buried my face in my hands.

Jason stepped out of the room and returned bearing a roll of toilet paper.  I tore off a strip and blew my nose. Patience isn’t normally one of the Condor’s virtues, but he sat down quietly on the sofa near me and waited for me to regain some composure.

“If Cronus could see me now,” I said, with a faint laugh.

“Cronus was an ass,” Jason replied, patting me awkwardly on the back. “I know he was your father and all …”

“Actually,” I said, cutting through Jason’s words with a smirk, “that’s the funny thing. He wasn't.” I gave him a rictus grin.

“An ass? Are you kidding? Of course he was.”

“No. He wasn’t my father.”

Jason just sat there, mouth open, so I continued, twirling the heavy ring on my left hand.  “After the funeral, I had some time to kill on the station because of those tabloid reporters so I started sorting through my mother’s papers. I found my birth certificate a couple of weeks ago.” I heard Jason’s sharp inhalation of breath, but I couldn’t look at him. I swallowed hard before continuing. “My father isn’t listed. You know Cronus. He would have demanded paternity if he could. I have no idea who my real father is.” I yanked Cronus’ ring off my finger and hurled it across the room.

Chapter 13 by jublke

Jason stuck by me like glue that afternoon, applying subtle - and not so subtle - hints that I needed to get my drinking under control. After sharing a pizza for dinner, I tried my best to ignore him while he scanned websites with obnoxious titles like, "Is Your Friend an Alcoholic? Take Our Quiz and Find Out." By the next day, he had worn me down enough to call a team meeting. I agreed in the vain hope that we could move past the issue and he would finally leave me alone. Jason thought it best to discuss such a sensitive topic away from Center Neptune and the prying fosdic of Zark. On that score, I couldn't have agreed more.

I watched the team file into my apartment and tried to read their posture. How much has Jason told them? Quite a lot, apparently. Princess was pensive; Tiny, anxious; Keyop, wary. Only Jason seemed ready for whatever it was I had to say.  I couldn't remember the last time they'd all been to my place at the same time.Tiny sat in the recliner but refused to get comfortable. Princess cowered on the couch and wouldn't even look at me. Keyop sat cross-legged on the floor, a defiant look on his face. I shot a panicked glance at Jason, who had taken up residence at my kitchen table. He flashed me an encouraging smile, which was, quite frankly, almost as unnerving as the dour expressions from the others.

I stood near the table, touching it absently as I cleared my throat. "I asked you to come here today ..." I faltered, staring at my hands. I can't do this, I thought. At the same time, a tiny voice inside of me whispered, You have to, you promised Jason you would. He'll never leave you alone until you do.  I rubbed at the spot on my finger where Cronus' ring once lay. The room was so silent that I could hear the sound of a Piper Comanche coming in for a landing. Taking a deep breath, I looked at my team and began again. "I owe you all an apology."

As my subordinates traded uneasy glances, I forged ahead. "I had too much to drink the other night and nearly killed a civilian." I stared at the clock on the wall, trying not to see the shock on Keyop's face nor the dismay on Princess'. "You all had to deal with my mess." I turned to Jason. "You had to drive me home." To Princess, "You had to clean up the bar and talk to the police." Tiny wouldn't look at me, so I spoke in his general direction. "Tiny, I appreciate that you cut your fishing trip short to cover for Jason and me at the bar. And Keyop," I said, turning to our youngest team member, "I ruined your holiday with Tiny. I'm sorry." I swallowed hard and sat down opposite Jason at the table. He slid a glass of water in my direction and I gulped it gratefully.

"Well," Tiny said, frowning, "Just don't let it happen again, Mark." 

My hand faltered, suspended in mid-air, as I attempted to set the glass down. It will happen again. And again, and again, until I get this under control.

Jason locked eyes with me and I knew that he was thinking the same thing. If I didn't profess it aloud, he was going to say it for me. 

"That's the problem, Tiny," I acquiesced. "Unless I get some help, it will happen again."

Three additional pairs of eyes locked on me and I could feel my cheeks burning. "I have a problem with alcohol," I admitted, a gnawing anxiety growing in the pit of my stomach. I wrapped my arms around my midsection. "Once I start drinking, I can't stop."

The silence was long and protracted. Tiny had his eyes screwed shut. Keyop stared ahead with a vacant expression. Only Jason reached across the table and briefly gripped my arm in a show of support.

Princess spoke first. "How can we help, Mark?"

I glanced at Jason, then back at the rest of the team. "I need you to understand something. Most of the time, I'm fine. I don't drink often." Catching Jason's hard look, I put a hand to my head and amended, "At least, I didn't before my mother died." My voice broke over the last three words. I sat there for a moment, head in my hands, fighting for composure, until I felt Princess' arms around my neck. When I stopped trembling, she released me. Instead of sitting back down on the sofa, though, she knelt on the floor near my feet and leaned her head against my leg. I put my hand on her shoulder and she reached up and took it.

"Jason is going to go with me today to talk to the Chief. I need grief counseling and I can't bring myself to work with Mahoney." I saw nods of agreement around the room, no doubt recalling that disastrous simulation with the image of my mother. "I agreed to go on one condition: we don't talk about my drinking. I don't want that on my service record."

Tiny raised his head in surprise; Keyop gave me a hard look. Princess dropped my hand.

"But I am planning to quit," I said, giving the young man a firm look in return.

"Today." It was the Swallow, not Keyop, who locked eyes with me. 

I turned away first. "Yes, Keyop. Today." I walked over to the kitchen sink. Opening the cabinet beneath revealed a half-empty bottle of whiskey. I picked it up, unscrewed the lid, and emptied its contents into the sink.

Tiny and Keyop appeared surprised; Princess, relieved. Jason, however, regarded me with a skeptical expression. "And?" he said, standing up to face me.

I frowned. "What do you mean, and?"

He turned that Condor gaze on me and I felt like I was under house arrest. "Where's the rest of it?" he demanded, arms folded.

Oh, God. He's right. As I recounted my mental list of hiding places, I realized that I'd stashed away more liquor than I'd thought. What's happening to me?

My expression must have given me away. I hated seeing that look of disappointment on Princess' face, reading the anger on Keyop's. I crossed my arms and tried to bluff my way out of it. "I don't know what you're talking about." They don't need to know the extent of my problem, do they? I can always throw that stuff out later.

Jason shook his head. "Either you go cold turkey or there's no point in doing it this way." He locked eyes with me. "If you can't do this, tell me now. There's no shame in that, Mark. But if you're seriously addicted, I have to tell Anderson and get you into an alcohol treatment program."

An alcohol treatment program? Images of my mother crowded my mind: dancing and stumbling to the stoop, arm-in-arm with a stranger; passed out on the sofa, with me unable to rouse her; the awkward hug she gave me the first time she went into rehab. 

Am I that far gone? Have I become my mother?

I slumped to the floor and put my head in my hands. My throat felt tight; my hands, cold. It was hard just to breathe. Jason must have gestured to the rest of the team to give us room because it was only him and me when I opened my eyes.

"I'm scared," I whispered, drawing my knees close to my chest. I hadn't said those words aloud since I was a small child. "What if I can't do it?"

"Mark, you are the bravest person I know," Jason replied softly, kneeling by my side. "You can do this." With a firm hand on my shoulder, he asked in a louder voice, "Where's the rest of it?"

"Bedroom," I whispered, staring at the floor. "Under the bed. And ... and the bathroom. Medicine cabinet."

"Done." He jumped up and started rifling through my things, leaving me alone on the floor, surrounded by my demons. The rest of the team sat quietly in my apartment, a world away, staring at me with a mixture of concern and disappointment.

I wanted to die.

Chapter 14 by jublke

I approached the Chief's office with a level of trepidation that I hadn't felt in years. That sick feeling in my stomach was back and I seriously considered bolting to the nearest rest room. If it wasn't for Jason's hand at my back, I would have taken a walk through the mazes of corridors in Center Neptune until I settled myself down. But Jason was on a mission and he was insistent that we keep to our timetable.

"You can do this," he said through clenched teeth, knocking on the Chief's door. I had a feeling that he was talking to himself as much as to me. 

"Come," the older man said, sounding his usual unflappable self. By comparison, my heart was hammering and I was starting to see spots before my eyes, a personal warning from my body that a migraine was on its way. I blinked rapidly and tried to slow my breathing.

The Chief was on his feet in an instant. "Mark, are you all right?"

"No, he's not," Jason snapped, his mouth set in a grim line. "That's what I told you on the phone." He shut the door. The Chief helped me to a vacant guest chair and Jason sat down beside me.

"What's going on?" As the Chief eased into his plush office chair, he cast worried glances between Jason and me.

Jason looked at me expectantly and I tried to find my voice, but after a few false starts, I just couldn't seem to find the words. Jason jumped over my silence in frustration. "That little stunt you pulled in the simulation room pushed him over the edge. Look at him! He's been a mess ever since."

The Chief absorbed this information without comment and raked his eyes over me. I felt like I was five years old. 

"What in the hell were you thinking?" Jason continued, his voice rising in pitch. His tone took on that nasal whine he gets when he's deeply upset. "Why would you do something like that? What kind of sadist are you?" He leapt to his feet for emphasis, eyes blazing.

I felt my stomach lurch. With a subject this heated, Jason wouldn't feel like the Chief was really listening until he got at emotional reply in response. As the older man leaned back in his chair and stroked his mustache, I had the uneasy feeling that the Chief was fighting just as hard to remain calm.

"Sit down, Jason." As the Chief glared at my gunner, I put a hand to my head and slunk down further in the chair. This was not going to end well.

"Look at him! You did that to him." Jason was in full fury mode now, arms gesturing left and right. "Do you have any idea what kind of hell you've put him through? You -"

"I said, sit down, Jason!" the Chief thundered back, rising from his seat to lean across his desk.

" - bastard!" Jason screamed.

Silence. I stared at the floor. I could hear the Chief fighting to calm his breathing. I didn't have to look at Jason to know that he would still be standing, glaring at our mentor with a mixture of fury and desperation.

I heard Chief Anderson's dress shoes click against the cement tile. When he spoke, his voice was muffled, and I knew he was speaking toward the large glass windows. "The simulation wasn't my idea. I didn't find out the details until the damage had been done." I heard additional footsteps and looked up to find the Chief on the verge of tears. Jason must have noticed too because he didn't say a word as he finally sat back down beside me.

"Fiona was my older sister and I loved her very much. But as you both know, she wasn't an easy person to love." He sat down heavily. "I thought that keeping you away from her would spare you the pain, Mark." He reached across the desk to clasp my arm. "I'm sorry."

Jason spoke very quietly. "Is that why you've kept him at arms' length all these years?"

The Chief looked surprised. "What do you mean?"

Jason crossed his arms and stared at the floor. "Mark's your own nephew. Have you ever once told him ..." His voice trailed off.

"... that you love him," I finished, speaking for the first time since I'd entered the room.

The Chief blinked a few times, then shrugged, his eyes glassy. "I thought you knew." He looked pointedly at Jason. "I thought you all knew."

Jason cleared his throat. "I came here today to make sure that Mark gets some help. But it ... uh ... it occurs to me that maybe ... maybe we all deserve a better team psychiatrist than Mahoney." He locked eyes with our mentor. "You, too, Chief."

Chief Anderson tipped his head to acknowledge Jason with a slight cast of amusement. "I'm afraid that my seeing the team psychiatrist would be a breach of protocol."

"You need to talk to someone." I was surprised to hear the sound of my own voice, firm and insistent. As the Chief looked at me in surprise, I continued. "I need help and so do you. We've kept so many secrets and buried so much pain, Chief. Isn't it time to let it go?"

Chief Anderson didn't reply.  

"I want us to go together to see a civilian psychiatrist." Before the Chief could argue, I added, "Nothing about our relationship with Fiona is classified. I'll still work with the team psychiatrist, too, provided you give me someone other than Mahoney."

The Chief sighed. "I'll see what I can do. Perhaps I can bring a grief counselor on staff."

I gave the Chief a hard look. "I don't want to work with another shrink in a professional capacity. I want to talk to someone about my mother. About your sister. About our family. Someone who doesn't report to President Kane."

"There are security risks ..."

"There are always security risks!" I slammed my fist on his desk as I jumped to my feet. "Every time I walk out that door, I risk someone finding out about my true identity. I'm sick of the lies and secrecy. Just once, I'd like to talk to someone about what I'm really feeling."

"Mark, you know you can't ..."

"Yes, I know I can't be honest about everything. But I can be honest about this one thing. My mother. She was an alcoholic, drug-addicted prostitute and I loved her!" Once my words stopped ringing in the air, Jason reached over and patted me awkwardly on the arm.

Chief Anderson sighed deeply and removed his glasses. After rubbing his eyes methodically, he stared at the far wall for so long that I thought he wasn't going to speak. When his voice finally emerged, it was faint and halting. 

"You have a point. This is a private matter. Perhaps a private family counselor could shed some light on the issue."

"And Mahoney?" Jason asked, his voice firm.

"Will be replaced as soon as possible," the Chief assured us.

"I'd like to sit in on the interviews," I said, and Jason smiled at me.

"Agreed," the Chief replied. "Mark, I suggest that we terminate this meeting and resume our discussion when you're feeling better."

Jason turned and stared at me. "You're awfully pale, Mark." 

"Migraine," I ground out as the pain spiked into my head.

"Jason, get him up to his room and make sure he takes his medicine before he crashes. If you get called out right now, you'll go a man short."

"Yes, sir," Jason said, taking my arm.

"And Mark," the Chief added as we walked out the door, "I'm going to get you the best help available."

I shuddered, sincerely hoping he could come up with someone better than Mahoney.

Chapter 15 by jublke

After two days of truly horrid medical testing - which culminated in the tweaking of my serotonin levels via the implant - I felt a shift in my internal bleakness. During my time in the infirmary, the Chief dumped most of my administrative tasks on Jason and Princess. I hated losing control of my life, but I wasn't given much choice. I started therapy immediately upon my release, seeing both the new team psychiatrist and a civilian one in what felt like a constant battering of my psyche. Thank God we weren't called out to fight Spectra during that time. 

Now, nearly four weeks later, I was finally starting to feel like myself. I still had three therapy appointments per week - two with my civilian counselor Christina and one with the new team psychiatrist Dr. Mitchell - but I had taken back all of my duties as commander. And the team had finally stopped walking on eggshells in my presence - most of the time.

I had noticed a shift in my relationship with the Chief too. At least in the confines of our joint therapy sessions, I could ask him the hard questions.

"Why have you kept my father's identity a secret?"

That didn't mean that the Chief jumped right in to answer. He cleared his throat and glanced uneasily at our therapist before turning back to me. "I think this discussion is best left for a different time, Mark." Crossing his arms, he looked exactly like Jason does when he's been pushed too far.

Emboldened by a nod from our counselor, I pressed him further. "Don't you think I have a right to know? I'm not a child. You don't have to protect me from the truth."

The Chief hid his expression in a swallow of water and Christina took the opportunity to speak. 

"It's natural for Mark to have questions about his biological parents, Roger. And Mark, it's normal for such questions to make your foster father uncomfortable, particularly given what you've both told me about Fiona."

At the mention of my mother, the Chief caught my gaze and held it. Just for a minute, I saw the pain and vulnerability he normally kept hidden.

"Regardless, I think Mark has a right to know. Whether that disclosure occurs in my office is for you two to decide." Christina sat down and masterfully managed to blend into the background. I made a mental note to ask her how she does that before I redirected my attention to the Chief.

"Cronus was your father, Mark," he was saying.

"No, he wasn't!" I insisted. "Don't lie to me. I saw my birth certificate!"

Instead of the shock and dismay that I expected, the Chief simply frowned and shook his head. "I ran your DNA test myself. We verified the Rigan origin of the Y-chromosome." I glanced at Christina, who cocked an eyebrow but said nothing.

"That doesn't prove anything! It only shows that my father was from Riga." Even as I said the words, I knew how foolish they sounded. Despite a healthy trading relationship between Earth and Riga, interplanetary ex-patriots are uncommon.

"I can show you the test results, Mark."

It was my turn to grab a cup of water and swallow hard. When I thought my voice wouldn't waver, I asked, "But why? Why didn't ...?"

"Your parents made foolish choices. I wish I had a better answer."

"I don't understand."

The Chief sighed. "Fiona and Cronus fell in love quickly and got married. But she turned out to be unable - or unwilling - to settle down with one man. Cronus was angry that she was sleeping with other men behind his back, but he was unable to stop her. When he found out that she was pregnant, he refused to accept paternity to spite her."

"But couldn't she just write his name in on the birth certificate?" I asked, nonplussed. "You had the DNA confirmation, right?"

"Yes." The Chief nodded. "But Rigan law requires the father's signature and Cronus refused to give it."

I blinked, trying to process this information. I had a sudden urge to go looking for Cronus' ring so I could throw it again.

The Chief must have read my expression, because he added, "Your father loved you, Mark. Despite his anger at Fiona, he checked up on you from time to time. He was proud of the man you were becoming." The Chief cleared his throat. "At the same time, I think he recognized that he had lost the opportunity to be a formative part of your life ..."

"Which is why he put me down so often," I interrupted, and the Chief nodded. My love-hate relationship with Cronus was starting to make sense. My resemblance to Fiona couldn't have helped.

Christina stepped into the pause in the conversation. "I think we've covered some good ground here today, gentlemen. Mark, I'll see you on Monday for your individual appointment. Roger, Clara will see you on Thursday. And we'll meet back here on Friday for your next joint session." She gave us an effusive smile. "You've both worked very hard these last few weeks."

I shot a look at the Chief to gauge his reaction of this compliment. The man was actually smiling! When he clasped one hand on my shoulder and patted me affectionately, some part of me that I hadn't even realized was tense finally relaxed.

Chapter 16 by jublke

I hesitated at the door to Jill's Place. One month ago, I had entered this bar and grill emotionally numb, looking for an escape, and had planted my fist into someone's jaw. Emotions that had eluded me that night flooded me now: rage, fear, desperation, loneliness. I bit my lip and flexed my hands. Emotions, nothing more. You don't have to act on feelings, I reminded myself. The bar is closed. I'm only here for a team dinner. Shoving my fears aside, I pushed open the door.

Princess rushed from the back and greeted me with a quick hug. "You're early," she said, casting a glance over her shoulder. "I need to -" A timer went off and she hurried toward the kitchen. As the galley door swung closed, I thought I caught a whiff of vanilla.

I sat down alone at the bar, feeling an eerie sense of deja vu. My hand slipped into my jacket pocket out of habit, expecting to find a small metal flask. Cursing myself, I was startled to touch a slip of paper. Pulling it out revealed a handwritten note.

You can do this. - Jason

I managed a slight smile. Jason had left similar notes all over my apartment. Since the night we had dumped out my liquor, he had scarcely left my side when we were off-duty, going so far as to move half of his belongings into my living room. I was starting to think of my sofa as his bed.

The bell by the front door jangled loudly, interrupting my thoughts, as Tiny and Keyop burst in.

"Mark!" Tiny exclaimed. "What're you doing here so early?" He glanced uneasily at the clock.

I shrugged. "The Chief and I had lunch after our therapy session and I stayed downtown."

Shoving Keyop out the front door, he hissed, "Take it around back." As I arched an eyebrow, Tiny lumbered over to sit beside me. "How's it going?" His voice was tentative.

Eying my hands, I shrugged. "Okay, I guess."

"That's good," Tiny said absently, drumming his fingers on the counter. 

I could sense him pulling away from me. Thinking about the day's therapy session, I sighed. Turning to face my teammate, I admitted, "Actually, Tiny, it's hard. It's hard just to be here." 

The big man dropped his eyes, rubbed his hands together, and said nothing. I wrapped my arms around my stomach and took a deep breath.

Fortunately for us, Princess re-entered the room. She was wearing oven mitts and looked flustered. "Where's Jason?" she asked.

Tiny shrugged. "He was working out in the training room when I left."

She frowned and slipped the mitts off. "I'd better make sure Keyop isn't ..." She darted back into the kitchen and we soon heard her wail.

"Eating the food," I finished, and Tiny rewarded me with a slight smile before staring at his hands again.

I touched him on the arm. "You okay?" 

He pulled away from me. "I'm fine," he said. The inflection of his words was just pointed enough to sting.

"What's that supposed to mean?" 

He shrugged. "Nothing." I watched him fold into himself, legs crossed, arms wrapped protectively about his body.

"No," I insisted. "Don't lie to me. What's eating you?"

"I told you, I'm fine."

Again, there was that curious inflection to his words. I decided to push him. "And I'm not?"

Tiny shrugged again. "Won't catch me drinking or drugging."

Wow. I blinked at him, trying to remember the last time my laid-back pilot had called me up short. "I guess ... I guess that's good," I stammered.

Tiny frowned and put a hand to his face. "Sorry, Mark," he mumbled, shaking his head and closing his eyes. "That came out wrong."

Just then, Keyop bounded into the room. "Hi, guys! Thecake'salmostbreepreadyitlooksdootdootgoodwhatdoyouthink-"

"Shut up! Just shut the hell up!" Tiny hissed from behind his hands.

Keyop stood stock still. His eyes flicked between Tiny and me several times in rapid succession before he fled back into the kitchen.

"What's your problem?" I jumped up and gestured in the direction that Keyop had scurried. "You'd better have a damned good explanation for that."

Tiny appeared to consider and shook his head as if to clear it. "Sorry, Mark. This is bringing up some really bad stuff for me."

I gave him a curious look. Where is this coming from? I bit my tongue and let the silence stretch uncomfortably long.

As Tiny's face contorted and grew red, I pushed my bar stool closer to his and sat back down.  After another long pause, he said softly, "My father was an alcoholic." Rubbing one eye, he took a shuddering breath and really looked at me for the first time since he had entered the room. "He drove drunk the night my parents were killed."

I didn't know what to say. I had known that Tiny's parents had died in a car accident but we had never discussed the details. "I'm sorry to hear that."

He bit his lip and twisted on the bar stool. "Finding out you were drinking too ..." His voice trailed off and he shook his head. "This is hard on us, too, you know."

I placed a tentative hand on his arm. "Tiny, I can't change the past. But I promise you, I'm doing everything in my power to stay sober." I squeezed his arm. "It's going to be a lot easier if I have your support." Tiny looked at me, eyes watery, fear splashed across his face. He nodded. "I can't promise you I won't relapse, Tiny. I wish I could." I stared at the tile floor, remembering the night the drunk bled beneath my fists, his face pale and battered.

"But he's got thirty days clean behind him," Jason said from the doorway. Tiny and I both startled and Jason laughed at us. "Some ninjas you are," he said with a smirk, removing his jacket awkwardly. Using his left hand, he hung it on the coat tree.

"What happened to you?" I asked. Jason was sporting a new piece of hardware.

"Back handspring gone wrong," he said, cradling his right wrist. "Overcompensating, I guess." I wrinkled my brow. Jason was only a month out of the brace he had worn to the funeral for a strain of his left wrist. This support appeared more substantial and affected his dominant hand.

"Broken?" I ventured, really hoping that I was wrong.

"Sprain," he replied in his I-really-don't-want-to-talk-about-this voice.

I cast a glance at Tiny and he returned my concerned look with an added dash of reproach. I heard the accusation as clearly as if he'd spoken: Jason's pushing himself too hard because of you. Great, as if I don't have enough to feel guilty about already. 

Keyop poked his head in from the kitchen. "Safe to ... come in ... yet?" Tiny and I looked at each other and nodded.

"Awesome!" he effused, dragging a flotilla of helium-filled balloons behind him. "Party can start now." I watched as he untangled the strings and the balloons began their curious walk across the ceiling.

"Party?" I echoed, as Princess came in bearing a small, if slightly lumpy, cake. It was frosted in white icing with the words, "Way to go," written in the center, surrounded by pink and purple flowers. I had the distinct sense that a few candy flowers were missing.

Quirking an eyebrow, I asked, "What's this for?"

She smiled at me. "It takes a month to break bad habits."  

I looked around at my team, realization dawning. "We're not having dinner?"

"Actually, we are," Jason said. "We're going to the pizzeria uptown. We wanted to give this to you first."

"My idea ... for the balloons," Keyop said.

"It was Tiny's idea to throw you a party," Princess added.

I gave the big man a curious look. "You?"

He gave me a lopsided smile. "I said it was hard. Never said I wasn't proud of you."

I returned the smile and pulled him close. Keyop was the first one to glomp on, followed by Princess, and finally Jason, who joined the hug one-handed.

"Happy thirty days of sobriety, Mark," Princess whispered. Her lips grazed my cheek, the first intimate physical contact we'd had since she had witnessed my meltdown.

Finding her hand, I squeezed it tightly before I whispered in her ear. "Thank you."

Chapter 17 by jublke

"You need to go home." 

Jason and I were crashed out in my living room, full of cake and pizza. Having debated the merits of the movie the five of us had seen earlier (too many love scenes, I said; not enough explosions, he added), I had taken up residence in the recliner. Jason hadn't moved since he had flopped down on the sofa, ice pack in hand, long limbs sprawled in every direction. He raised his injured hand from his face to look at me, and I felt, rather than saw, the accompanying wince.

"Got everything I need right here," he replied, patting the sofa with his good arm. He repositioned the ice pack before closing his eyes.

"Except for a comfortable bed," I said, kicking his leg with my foot. "Come on, Jase. Go home. You need a good night's sleep." Our implants can do miraculous things when it comes to healing injuries, but you have to reach deep sleep for them to work properly. Jason's repaired implant was less efficient than mine during the best of times. I was fairly certain that crashing on my couch every night wasn't improving his fitness.

"Too tired to drive," he mumbled.

I frowned at him. Does he mean that or is he afraid to leave me alone? I thought of Tiny's accusatory look at the bar earlier that night. Should I insist that he go home? 

I didn't ponder long. When the sound of Jason's snoring filled the apartment,  I decided that things were good enough. I can always kick him out tomorrow, I reasoned, and I turned off the lights in the living room and went to bed. As things turned out, I was lucky that Jason - and his car - stayed at my place.

The alarm came, insistent and blaring, in the dead of night. I ran down the hall to rouse Jason, who had somehow managed to remain asleep. He blinked blearily at me from the sofa.

"Scramble," I said, and he sprang into action beside me: reaching for his glasses, ripping off the wrist brace, shoving his feet into his shoes. I was out the door and halfway to the hangar before I remembered that my plane was docked in the Phoenix for repairs.

Swearing, I ran to Jason's car, reaching it just after he did. He looked up, face uncertain, as I skidded to a stop beside him. His expression quickly hardened into determination.

"You drive." The words were clipped, as if admitting he needed my help was causing him physical pain. I wondered briefly about the severity of his injury, but I didn't have time to ask. We dashed into the civilian version of Jason's car, me in the driver's seat, Jason in back, and I sped off toward our nearest rendezvous point.

"Transmute!" Our arms moved in tandem, a sparkling halo of light enveloping our bodies. Our clothes shimmered and transformed, everyday wear replaced by the impervious second skin of our uniforms, complete with assorted weaponry. It's a heady feeling. With the accompanying surge of adrenaline, I knew I was ready to take on the universe. The grunt of pain from my second was unexpected.

"You okay?" I asked, turning back to look at Jason, thinking of the uniform compressing his wrist. Birdstyle provides decent support for minor injuries, but the process of getting into it can hurt like hell.

"Fine," he snapped. "Eyes on the road." As if on cue, his vehicle lurched into the final sequence of transformation - the tires - and I had to fight to control the steering. Jason would kill me if I trashed his car. During the car's transmutation, the Chief's voice blared continuously through our wrist communicators.

"Team, this warship regatta slipped through our outer defenses undetected and was belatedly picked up by Susan. R-Command is currently engaged in a battle with Spectran allies from Möbius in the vicinity of Riga. It is unclear if the Möbius faction is working directly with Zoltar or if Spectra simply took advantage of the timing. Regardless, the lull in their attacks appears to be over."

Hearing the low rumble of the Phoenix overhead, I downshifted and applied the brakes. Tiny deftly picked up the still moving car and the nose cone sealed around us. Jason exited first, taking longer than usual to pull himself through the tunnel to the bridge of the Phoenix. Or perhaps I was just impatient.

"What's the status of the G-1?" I asked the Chief as soon as I emerged on deck. It was all I could do not to run to my plane and check on her. The last email I had received from Maintenance indicated that they were still waiting on a part. 

"The stabilizer is operational, but not optimal." The Chief gave me a hard look. "Be careful out there."

I nodded and the Chief's face on the view screen disappeared, replaced by coordinates and still footage of the warships when they had passed the Early Warning Station on Pluto. I turned to Princess. "See if you can intercept their internal transmissions."

"Roger."

"Keyop, analyze the schematics and look for any structural weaknesses." I paused after the words left my mouth. Didn't I just say these same exact things during that simulation from hell?

"Commander." Jason's formal tone drew me up short and I realized that I'd lost precious time daydreaming. "The squadron is entering the thermosphere."

"Step on it, Tiny," I said.

My pilot shook his head. "We're at maximum speed for this altitude, Mark."

I watched the live video feed captured from the satellite array, but we were almost close enough now to see the ships with the naked eye. I had hoped that we could engage the squadron before they entered Earth's lower atmosphere, but we weren't going to reach them in time. Damn. Where are they going to land?

No sooner had I said, "Jason, get me the -" than he pulled up a schematic with probable targets in the nearest metropolitan area. A nuclear power plant. The emperor's palace. A reservoir of drinking water. 

"How many ships exactly?" I said.

"Four," Keyop answered promptly. "But they can ... brrp ... split into pieces. Make sixteen." He gestured wildly with his hands.

"Then we need to hit them with bird missiles before they separate," said Jason, moving up to the shiny, red button on the bridge.

"They see us." Princess, on audio, had finally picked up a transmission. "They're going to fire!"

"Battle stations, everyone." No sooner had the words left my mouth than a missile streaked from our arsenal and blasted one of the ships into shards. 

Keyop whooped. "Nice shot!"

Jason rubbed his wrist and followed up with a second, less precise hit, which nonetheless blew another ship from the sky. The remaining two attackers split into four smaller fighters apiece, and soon the eight tiny ships swarmed the Phoenix like so many flies. Only Tiny's precise steering saved us from a belly full of bullets.

Swearing, Jason turned to me in frustration. "They're too tiny to hit with bird missiles. We need something smaller."

"We can't take much more of this, Mark," Tiny warned, as an alarm sounded. Red, flashing lights strobed across the cabin. "Our oxygen supply line's been hit!" he cried.

"Tiny, evasive maneuvers. Set us up for an attack run. Keyop, lock down that line and activate our backup supply. Check how much time we have left. I don't fancy running out of oxygen." I ran toward the lift. "I'm taking out the G-1."

"The Gatling gun might work," Jason said. The uncertainty of his voice gave me pause. Is he worried that the gun won't be effective or that he's going to have trouble working it? I didn't have time to ask.

"Princess, man the G-2." She rushed into action as Keyop came back on deck and grumbled that he wanted to fire the big gun. I made a mental note to discuss insubordination with him later.

"Time, Keyop?"

"Fifty-eight minutes."

I swore. "Then we get this right the first time. Tiny, clear out after thirty minutes regardless of whether I'm back."

"Big ten."

"How long until we're in position?" 

"Five minutes." 

I took the lift, ran to my plane, and started her up. There's nothing quite like the sound of that engine. I reveled in the soft whine, my hands on the controls, itching to get out there and tear up some sky. This has to be done just right. When Tiny released the docking clamp, I let myself drift back before adjusting the wings and stabilizer.

Bad move. My little plane lurched and flopped in the wake of the Phoenix. I swore. I had forgotten to adjust for the decreased efficiency of the stabilizer. As I struggled to control the pitch, attack planes began to close in on my position. I couldn't even begin to retaliate; I had my hands full just staying aloft. A bullet grazed my windshield, another hit the right wing.

"Cover me, G-3!"

The nose cone partially retracted to reveal the space mobile, gatling gun at the ready. I could see Princess' white helmet at the wheel. Her shooting isn't quite as accurate as Jason's, but it didn't need to be. Princess could only fire in whatever direction Tiny pointed the Phoenix anyway. With the exposed G-2 as a distraction, though, the little planes began to swarm back toward the bigger ship, firing at close range. It had just occurred to me that the car was more exposed than I would like when I saw a bullet graze past the car and enter the belly of the Phoenix.  My stomach lurched as I watched smoke pour from the front of the ship. I could hear a change in the sound of the engines even over the motor of the G-1. The big plane began to list. 

"Phoenix, you've been hit!" I screamed over the wrist com. "Get her down, Tiny, get her down now!"

No response. No way for me to get back on board and help. Sensing victory, the fly fighters pounded bullets into the Phoenix, ignoring me. In response, I shot down every last Spectran attacker myself.

Chapter 18 by jublke
Author's Notes:
My thanks to littlewolf and Clouddancer for helping me come up with appropriate insults for Mark's inner voice of Cronus.

I sat in the parking lot and stared at my car's headlights reflected in the convenience store windows. After dropping Jason off at my apartment, I had intended to drop by and grab something quick for dinner, but the urge to run in and buy something alcoholic was almost overpowering. I sat there, afraid to go in but too hungry to leave. Cronus' mocking voice echoed through my head. 

"You know how to fly that thing? If you did, your team wouldn't be in this mess. You're not a leader. You're going to get someone killed." 

Despite Tiny's best efforts, the Phoenix had come down hard, crushing one of the grapples holding Jason's car. Princess, fortunately, was fine. But ground rescue had to use the jaws of life to pry her out of the G-2. It looked like a tin can with the top rolled back. 

Debrief seemed endless. "Why did you authorize prolonged use of the G-2 in such an unsafe manner? Why did you have so much trouble handling the G-1? What could you have done differently to prevent this accident?" And on and on. Just when I thought I was through the worst and could go down to Medical and check on my team, Chief Anderson had pulled me back toward his office. I closed my eyes and put my head on the steering wheel, remembering our conversation. 

--- 

"There's something we need to discuss." The Chief's voice, firm and unrelenting, gave me pause. Surely he doesn't blame me for the accident? He was the one who told me the stabilizer was malfunctioning in the first place. 

I followed him into his office and he shut the door and locked it. Not a good sign. After we sat down on opposite sides of his desk - me in an uncomfortable wooden guest chair, him in his plump office chair - he finally spoke. 

"Mark, I've run additional analyses of your post-mission blood sample. It's only right that you should know." He steepled his hands and stared into his fingers as if they might help him divine an appropriate course of action. 

"What?" I didn't have to act nonplussed. I had no idea what he was talking about. 

The Chief pulled out a manilla envelope, opened it, and handed me several grainy black and white photographs, the kind you might obtain from surveillance equipment. "One of my field agents brought these to me."  

I flipped through the stack slowly. "You've been spying on the J?" I couldn't keep the incredulous tone out of my voice. 

"Take a closer look, Mark." 

The last two photographs ... Oh, God. In the first, there I was in all of my alcohol-fueled glory, one drunk with his fists raised over another. And in the second, Jason had his hands firmly planted on my shoulders, hauling me out. Neither photo bore a close shot of my face. Can I bluff my way out? I tried to blank my expression, but my hands refused to stop shaking. I placed the photos on the Chief's desk and crossed my arms.   

The Chief cleared his throat, but said nothing. Raising my eyes to look at him, I felt my bravado waver. Behind the anger, deeper than the disappointment, I could see genuine concern reflected in his eyes.

In a softer tone, he added, "These photographs were taken two nights before Jason brought you into my office, said you were a mess, and demanded I put you in therapy." I tried to look away but the Chief held my gaze. "I've gone back and reanalyzed the last six months of your blood work. As you know, given the filtering strength of your implant, any trace of alcohol in your system is considered irregular." 

I hadn't realized that I had dropped my head into my hands until the Chief was standing over me. "Is there something you want to tell me?" 

Mouth dry, I lifted my head, squared my jaw, and forced myself to speak. "I never drank on duty. After ... after that night, I quit." 

The Chief sat down on the edge of his desk and regarded me. "Did you ever once consider mentioning this to either of your therapists?" There was more than a hint of anger behind the tone. 

"I didn't want it on my service record," I mumbled, staring at the floor, wishing I could drop through the tile.  

"That's why we have a civilian therapist," the Chief reminded me. "As I recall, you insisted on it."

Swallowing hard, I looked up at him and fought to keep my voice level. "I didn't want to disappoint you the way my mother did." My throat constricted as I said the words. 

The Chief sat back in stunned silence. Finally, he clasped my shoulder, hard, and shook his head. "You've never disappointed me, Mark." Clearing his throat, he walked around his desk and sat back down. 

"So, what happens now?" I asked. I sat on my hands so he couldn't see them tremble.  

"Does the team know?"  

I nodded. 

The Chief sighed. "That helps explain Jason's abnormally solicitous behavior toward you as of late."  

"Are you ... will you ... are you going to report this?" I crossed my legs in a futile attempt to stop fidgeting. 

"I don't see any reason to."  

"But the blood-alcohol tests -" 

"- all came back clean," he finished. "Including the one you took today." 

I felt myself relax for the first time since I had entered his office. Then a thought crossed my mind. "So you were bluffing all along! You had no proof I was drinking."  

The Chief stared at the far wall. "I had my suspicions." He brought his gaze back to me. "I've fought my share of demons, too." He twisted his hands in a way that looked all too familiar. 

"Alcohol?" I said softly, not wanting to derail his train of thought. 

"Amphetamines," he admitted. "I was in graduate school at the time." He crossed his arms. "Cronus was the one who confronted me." He shook his head at the memory. 

I don't believe this! I can't wait to tell Jason. My thoughts were quickly doused by the realization that I would never break the Chief's confidence.

"I will be monitoring you from time to time," he was saying, sternness creeping back into his voice. "And I expect you to address this with your civilian therapist." As I nodded, he added, "I appreciate you talking to me, Mark. I dislike having to spy on you."  

"I appreciate your confidence in me, Chief," I said, standing up to shake his hand. "I won't let you down." Then, to change the subject, I added, "Any news on the team?"  

The Chief glanced back at the computer on his desk. "Tiny's rib was patched up and he's resting in his Center Neptune dorm room. Keyop has been cleared but he's staying with Princess in the infirmary." 

"Infirmary?"   

"Smoke inhalation," he said. "It's just a precaution. I'd prefer to keep Jason there, too. Since his bout with pneumonia, he's susceptible to getting it again. But he's insisting that you take him home." The Chief gave me a hard look. "Given the circumstances, I'm inclined to concur. He needs uninterrupted sleep more than anything else, and he won't get it in the infirmary. And you ... " His voice trailed off. "Have you been alone since ... since you stopped drinking?" 

I shook my head.  

"Well, today isn't a good time to start your solitude." He removed his glasses and looked at me, his gaze slightly unfocused. "Take Jason home with you and get some rest."  

"Yes, sir." I started for the door and then turned back. "Chief?" The man had his eyes closed and he was rubbing his forehead methodically the way I do when I'm getting a migraine. He blinked up at me. "You get some rest, too."  He nodded in silence. 

---  

Sitting in the convenience store parking lot, watching the neon beer light blink in the window, I rapidly weighed my options. Jason was out. He had actually fallen asleep in the car on the way home and it had taken me forever to maneuver him into the apartment. I had let him collapse on my bed. I could take the couch for once. 

Princess? I bit my lip. If I went to see her, I'd have to deal with Keyop, who would likely be wound up and want to talk. I just didn't have it in me to see him quite yet. And Tiny, with his broken rib, needed to rest. That left me with only one person to call. 

"Chief? Remember what we talked about earlier? Well, Jason's asleep and I could really use the company. Can you meet me for dinner?" 

For once, he set aside his work and said yes. 

***

to be continued ...

End Notes:
As always, thanks to my fantastic beta-readers - Chris White, Amethyst and Becky Rock - for polishing this story for me. You gals are awesome!
Chapter 19 by jublke
Author's Notes:

Omg! It only took me ten years to write a new chapter! Lol.

 As always, not mine, don't own. My thanks to my husband for beta-reading.

 Amethyst, I wish you were here to see me pick this story back up. I miss you. 

I woke with my body halfway off the couch, one hand touching the carpet, and one thought on my mind: I need a drink.

Abruptly, I sat up. 

More than thirty days sober — I thought I was past this. Pathetic.

As if in agreement with my damning self-assessment, I saw Cronus’ ring peeking out at me from under the sofa. Without giving it much thought, I put on the jewelry.

My mind whirled ahead without my consent, thinking through every nook and cranny in the apartment as I walked to the bathroom. Jason and I had thrown out the bottle of whiskey under the sink in the kitchen, the bourbon under my bed, the shot bottles in the medicine cabinet.

Is there anything left to drink in here? The fact that Princess’ vanilla extract crossed my mind was sobering to say the least.

Get a grip, Commander, I admonished myself, staring at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Your ship’s down, your team... 

Needs you, is what I wanted to tell myself. Could have died yesterday, is what I actually thought. I gripped the sink tighter, appalled by the sudden urge to drink mouthwash. 

I need to get out of here.

***

Normally, I love living at the airfield. Having my plane nearby is a comfort, similar to how Jason waxes poetic about life at the track. But today, it just served as a reminder that the G-1 was back at Center Neptune, finally undergoing that repair on the stabilizer.

My mind flashed to sitting in the cockpit of the G-1 the day before, watching in horror as the Phoenix stuttered and fell, leaving trails of thick, black smoke in her wake. My stomach cramped at the memory, and I had to stop my morning run. Bent at the waist, I tried not to lose last night’s dinner.

Logically, I know the damage to the Phoenix isn’t as severe as after the attack of the space octopus. We’ve survived worse and come back stronger. But watching the crash as an outsider felt so different. I can’t erase the images, can’t unsee our vulnerability, no matter how much I want to. I resumed my run, trying to ignore the hitch in my side. 

Can’t even run properly, Commander? That was Cronus’ voice in my head. I should have thrown that ring deeper into my apartment the minute I spotted it. I gritted my teeth and pushed myself harder.

***

By the time I returned home, I was soaked in sweat and longed for a shower. Slipping the key in the lock, I expected to find the apartment empty and quiet. Instead, the scent of freshly brewed coffee greeted me. Jason was seated at my kitchen table wearing clean sweats and one of my old T-shirts, hair wet but combed, a mug of coffee in his left hand. The expression on his face stopped me.

“What’s wrong?” I closed the door and locked it.

“We need to talk,” he said, and I flashed back to that horrible morning after I had punched out a civilian at the J. Jason had confronted me about my drinking then. Could he possibly know how badly I’m craving alcohol right now? 

“Let me get a cup of coffee first,” I replied. My hand shook so much when I poured the carafe that I spilled some coffee on the counter. I surreptitiously wiped the spill with the hem of my sweaty T-shirt. Trying to regain my bearings, I took my first sip staring out the window. A light blue Cessna, not unlike my own, took to the air.

Some Commander you are, Cronus reminded me, and my mind flashed again to the Phoenix going down.

I had hoped some of the Spectan warships would take the bait and chase me in the G-1, but after landing a few hits they swarmed back to the Phoenix like it was yesterday’s garbage. Princess and I had to work to avoid shooting at each other, with her manning the Gatling gun in the nose cone of the Phoenix and me flying circles around her in the G-1. With eight fighters to keep track of, I missed a key shot. One of the mini-mecha streaked past me, firing a missile alongside the G-2 and directly into the hull of the Phoenix. 

"Phoenix, you've been hit!" I screamed over the wrist com. "Get her down, Tiny, get her down now!"

“Mark?” Jason’s voice held a question, and I realized that I’d spaced out again.

I walked over to the table and sat down facing him. “Shoot.”

“It’s about our mission yesterday.” Jason set down his cup of coffee and looked at me, eyes cold. “I didn’t say this in debrief, but you need to know. You handled things badly.” 

I blinked at him, too stunned to reply. Is he reading my mind? 

“You shouldn’t have sent Princess to work the Gatling gun,” he added, and I could now hear the anger underlying his words. “I would have made sure we got the retractable shields up sooner. Not that it’s her fault - that’s something I know from experience.” He blew out a breath through clenched teeth. “You second-guessed my fitness for this mission and it cost us the Phoenix.”

“Jason, I—"

“You do it again, Mark, and I won’t hold back.” His tone held a challenge, and I rose to the bait.

“Deal,” I said, holding out my hand. He responded automatically, and I crushed his hand in a firm grip, giving it a solid shake.

“Damn it,” Jason yelled, dropping my hand and cradling his own. He continued to swear at me.

“You want to tell me again how I screwed up by not sending my one-handed gunner to work a two-handed gun?” I leaned back, sipped my coffee, and watched him massage his wrist.

“I’d have managed.” His voice took on an uncharacteristic pleading tone. “Mark, you know that.” 

My second is facing enough obstacles at the moment without me adding to them. “I do know that, Jason,” I admitted, sighing. “Trust me, I’ve gone over and over yesterday’s mission, trying to figure out where we went wrong.” I set down my coffee cup and folded my arms. “Maybe you’re right.” 

“Look,” Jason said, leaning across the table. “I’ve been in command just enough to know how much it sucks. That’s why I didn’t go on record.” He studied me. “But between you and me? I don’t want any more secrets. You’ve got a problem, or you’ve got a problem with me? You tell me, and I’ll do the same for you, okay?”

I nodded and gave him a sardonic smile. “I’m guessing you don’t want to shake on that.”

He slugged me with his good arm and swore at me goodnaturedly.

“What did the medics say about your wrist?” I asked, attempting to shift our focus off my failings. “Why didn’t you get it taped up last night?”

Jason shrugged. “Seemed like a waste of time, given the dog and pony show today.”

I rubbed at my eyes. “I forgot about that.” Chief Anderson had mentioned at dinner that he was setting up a press briefing for this afternoon.

“He’s getting one of the new recruits to stand in for Princess, but he wants the rest of us there in birdstyle.”

I looked up. “What’s wrong with Princess?”

Jason winced. “That smoke inhalation really got to her. It’s a good thing she stayed in the infirmary overnight. Keyop’s a mess. He was with her when she started having trouble breathing.”

Spots danced before my eyes and I felt like I couldn’t breathe either. I should have asked the Chief about the team first thing this morning. Jason obviously did. Why didn’t I think to do that? Because I wanted a drink. What kind of leader does that make me?  

“She’s okay, right?” I managed to squeak out.

Jason must have realized how panicked I was because he gentled his voice. “Yeah, she’s doing a lot better now. The Chief just wants to keep her on oxygen a little longer.” He caught my frantic gaze and held it. 

I tried to focus on Jason’s face, but it faded into buckled metal and rubble and a screech as the jaws of life ripped into the G-2...

“Mark.”

The top of the car pulled back like a can of sardines. Princess sat, unmoving, inside, helmet off. Her long dark hair spilled out around her. I could smell burnt plastic and see sparks from the bolt cutters. My chest tightened

“Hey, Commander!”

Jason’s words were overlain with his previous accusation: You shouldn’t have sent Princess to work the Gatling gun. My mind packed in a few helpful condemnations of its own: Look at you, panicking. You aren’t fit to command. 

I felt Jason’s arm slide around my shoulders. “Mark, it’s okay. We’re all okay.” I swallowed hard and nodded. 

“Breathe with me, all right?” I heard Jason counting off our inhales and exhales. This only served to remind me of Princess, who taught us this relaxation technique in the first place. But I tried to follow along as best I could.

When I’d finally calmed enough that I was fully aware in my apartment, I realized that Jason was watching me. 

“What?” I snapped.

“I think we should get an apartment together.”

“What?” I repeated, this time in wonderment. I wasn’t exactly opposed to the idea, just surprised. The same thought has occurred to me before. If we lived together, I could keep tabs on Jason’s health and support him when he needs it. Why is he bringing this up now? 

“I’m tired of sleeping on your sofa,” he complained. “No one should have to sleep on that lumpy old thing.”

I blinked at him. “So, go back to your trailer.”

But if Jason hadn’t been here this morning, would I have tried the mouthwash? I couldn’t seriously entertain thoughts like that with Jason in the next room. But without him?  

He studied me. “Is that what you want?”

I looked at my hands. Twisting Cronus’ ring around my middle finger, I fought the urge to fling it again. Walking over to the stove, I opened the cabinet above it. Allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg...I didn’t realize just how many baking supplies Princess has squirreled away over here. My fingers found two bottles of extract: vanilla and almond. I took them back to the table and plunked them down in front of Jason. 

He stared back.

“I’m an alcoholic, Jason.” My voice trembled. “I stopped at a convenience store last night and almost went in to buy liquor. I woke up craving alcohol so much that I considered drinking this.” I picked up the glass bottle of vanilla and threw it as hard as I could. It exploded against the wall, raining glass shards. Brown rivulets ran down the beige paint, rivaling the residual coffee stains left over from one of our more explosive fights. The heady scent of vanilla filled the room.

“I didn’t even know I had this one,” I added, picking up the little bottle of almond extract. “But if you hadn’t been here, yeah, I probably would have drunk it next.” I threw the second bottle as hard as the first, releasing a whiff of cherry. 

Trembling, I turned back to Jason. “I don’t want you to have to babysit me.” I blinked back my emotions. “But I think I need you to right now.”

He nodded. “Okay.”

“Okay, what?” I insisted, dropping onto the nearest chair, feeling giddy and hysterical at exposing my demons. “I bear my soul to you and I just get an ‘okay’?” I gave him a watery smile. “You really want to live with a crazy alcoholic who throws glassware?”

Jason shrugged. “I’m living with you now, you idiot.” 

“But—"

“But nothing!” Jason interrupted, his voice taking on a harsher edge. “So, you need someone to keep you on the straight and narrow. I do too.”

“You—“ I started, feeling a blaze of panic. Did my gunner have a heretofore unknown substance abuse problem that I’d somehow failed to detect?

Jason held up a hand to interrupt my racing thoughts. “I like a beer now and then, Mark. I’m fine.” He looked away. “But it’s been...” He fumbled for the right word before shrugging and admitting, “...nice having you drive us home after missions. You get us food, make sure I sleep. I kinda suck at that.”

Jason does struggle with taking proper care of himself, and getting enough rest is crucial given his implant problems. I nodded back at him. “So roommates, huh? We livin’ at the track or the airfield?”

Jason frowned. “It’s not like you can park your Cessna at the track.”

“Airfield it is, then,” I agreed with a smile.

“Two bedrooms. At least,” Jason insisted. “And we buy a new couch.”

“Deal.”

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