Still dark ... still stormy by jublke
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It was a dark and stormy night. Jason stood in front of the small living room window, absently watching rivulets of rain roll down the pane of glass. He tried to concentrate on the storm, but his mind kept returning to Princess, driving at the same unanswerable question:

_What was she thinking?_

A flash of lightning revealed a row of trees bent low by the heavy wind. Jason flinched at the resounding boom of thunder and anxiously looked back at the sofa.

_Good,_ Jason relaxed. _He's still asleep._

Jason walked over to Mark and pulled the blanket back over his teammate. Another flash of lightning revealed Mark's swollen left eye, the bruises dark against his pale skin. Jason debated whether to put ice on Mark's eye and decided against it.

_He needs rest more than ice,_ Jason thought. As the thunder rumbled, he amended, _Not like he's going to get much sleep tonight._

Jason shook his head. _This never should have happened. Never. If I had been there, I would have stopped Zoltar once and for all. What in the hell was she thinking?_ He paced back and forth in the small room until Mark groaned in his sleep. _I need to think about something else._

Jason scanned Mark's bookshelf for something to read. Mark's selection of reading material seemed to fall into three categories. _Aviation magazines. Planes of the past. Planes of the future._ Jason rolled his eyes. _What I wouldn't give for a good racing magazine._

He sat in Mark's recliner and was just starting to get comfortable when the phone rang. Jason rushed to grab the receiver, relieved that the noise didn't awaken Mark. "Hello?"

"Hi, Jason," Princess started, her voice sounding hesitant. "How's Mark?"

_How am I supposed to answer that?_ Jason wondered, shaking his head. _Great except for the black eye and concussion?_

"Fine. He's asleep. Do you need something?" His voice was intentionally sharp.

"No, I ..." Her voice trailed off. "I just needed to know he was okay." Princess seemed to linger at the end of the sentence.

Jason shook his head again and began to pace around the small kitchen, trying to find a way to hang up the phone without starting another fight.

"OK, bye," he said, but Princess cut him off.

"Jason, I ... I need to tell you something." He could hear her inhaling deeply. "I'm sorry about what happened today. It won't happen again." Her voice sounded strained but resolute.

"Good." Jason spoke the word aloud before he realized it.

Princess continued as if he hadn't spoken at all. "I won't be seeing you at school tomorrow, either. I ... I'm ... going to drop out."

Jason stopped pacing and stood perfectly still. "What?"

"I can't do this. I can't just sit here and try to read Shakespeare and pretend like nothing happened." She sounded like she might cry. "Mark could have died today."

_I can't deal with this,_ Jason thought. _Not now. Not ever._ He fought to keep his voice level. "But he didn't."

"But he could have," Princess insisted.

_But he didn't!_ Jason wanted to shout the words, but Mark was sleeping in the next room. He settled for a fierce whisper. "Mark is fine."

"You don't understand ..." Her voice trailed off.

_You're damned right I don't understand,_ Jason thought angrily.

He continued aloud, "Fine. Whatever. Drop out of school, stay in school, I don't care. Just leave me out of it." Jason slammed the receiver down and stared at the newly formed crack in the plastic.

_Great,_ he thought. _Mark's going to blame that on me, too._


The artillery barrage was incessant. Jason stumbled out of the recliner. _Is Spectra attacking?_ He checked his wrist but the communicator was silent.

A flash of lightning revealed Mark's living room. Hail was pounding the window and a clap of thunder rattled the pane of glass. Jason was amazed that Mark could sleep through the din. He walked over to the sofa and looked down at his commander.

"Mark," Jason shook his sleeping teammate gently. "You all right?"

"Mmmrrgh," Mark mumbled back. "I'm sleeping, Jason. Can it wait?"

Jason smiled at him. "Sure, Mark."

Mark rolled over on the narrow sofa, thrashed the covers around, and settled back to sleep.

Jason could feel the smile drain from his face. He was completely awake now and the unpleasant thought he had successfully fought back earlier crept into his consciousness.

_Mark could have died today._ Princess' words echoed through his mind.

_But it was your fault,_ Jason argued with his mental image of Princess. _You should have been watching his back._

Jason shook his head. _I should have been watching. I should have been there._

Jason moved to the window and stared at the night sky. The hail had stopped. The streetlight revealed rain falling in uneven lines across the parking lot. The trees were now bent in the opposite direction; the wind had shifted. Jason scarcely noticed. His mind kept replaying the moment Mark went down.

_Why did I go back to the Phoenix? I should have waited for them._

Jason closed his eyes and tried to recreate the events leading up to Zoltar's attack. _It was my fault. I should have waited for Princess to signal me that she and Mark were ready to go. But I didn't wait; I just assumed they'd be okay. If I can't rely on Princess and Mark, who can I trust?_ He took a deep breath. _If I had only been there, this never ... ever ... would have happened._

Jason's eyes snapped open. He walked back to the sofa, replaced Mark's fallen blanket, and sat down in the recliner. Jason didn't bother to set the alarm; he knew he wouldn't fall asleep again.
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