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Secrets Of The Days
by shalott

Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.
But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart's knowledge.
You would know in words that which you have always known in thought.
You would touch with your fingers the naked body of your dreams.

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Chief Anderson's office was cool and quiet, the gently-circulating air flavored with sea salt. His back to the eerie underwater splendor outside the window, Mark worked steadily through the reports, cross-referencing similar mechs, marking techniques they'd used successfully, noting equipment that had caused problems. The Zark system was getting better at analyzing trends in Spectran mechs and directing the ISO research labs into the best counters, but it needed the detailed reports to keep on improving. So the whole team had to file reports on missions, and he had to go through them and condense the material into the appropriate format. And he'd let them pile up for too long, as Anderson had made very clear to him.

Well, now he was paying the price for it. Jason was ruthless when it came to exploiting a lapse in his attention to the quality of the individual reports, so now he had to deal with reports that ranged from overly short to terse to the prize he'd just come across: "Found a mech. Wasted ten minutes arguing with Mark about firing the missiles. Fired the missiles. Blew up the mech. Went home."

Granted, that mission really had gone something like that, but still—putting that into the Zark system would probably crash the damn thing. Or produce a recommendation that the bird missiles should be fired as soon as the target was in sight, which would undoubtedly suit Jason just fine. Mark sighed and leaned back, stretching to loosen the knot between his shoulder blades. At least Jason's reports had the virtue of being unpredictable. Writing these things is boring enough. Having to edit them is mind-numbing.

He idly toyed with the idea of asking the Chief to temporarily make Jason the commander of G-Force just before the next time the reports had to be done. That would be one way to get him to quit wanting my job. He grinned at the thought of Jason doing the reports. He'd've put them through the shredder and snuck out of Center Neptune by now.

Unfortunately, he was feeling pretty tempted to do the same. The stack of reports left to do was finally shorter than the stack he'd already done, but he'd been here since lunchtime, and after nine hours his brain was starting to rebel. Mark pushed the chair back and got up to wander around the spacious office. The filing cabinets were locked and probably had top-secret information in them anyway. The books were all technical—a few looked interesting, but he thought his current mental capacity was up to a comic book, if he was lucky.

The black melamine cabinet across from the desk had a television of sorts. There was no channel display and no power switch, but it was the most promising diversion he'd found, so he poked around the cabinet, and then, more hesitantly, in the unlocked drawers of Anderson's desk. The top one yielded an elongated remote, wrapped in a pair of small earphones. The power button activated the TV with a brief crackle, but the screen stayed blank pale grey.

Slipping in the ear buds, Mark examined the other controls—it wasn't a standard numerical keypad, and he didn't want to have to explain to the Chief how his private television system had gotten screwed up. It's obviously not secret, or he'd have locked it, he told himself, vaguely uncomfortable anyway. It wasn't that he really thought the Chief would mind his using the system, but he would rather not have to admit he'd goofed off and poked around the office instead of just finishing the reports.

Shrugging, he finally picked a button at random. The screen flashed, and he was looking at the Phoenix. The view wasn't stationary, either—it shifted in a smooth, unhurried arc around the ship, as though there was some kind of moving camera flying around the hangar. And I was hoping for cable. He thought ruefully that he should have known better. Anderson didn't even take coffee breaks—the idea that he'd have a large TV in his office for personal viewing was absurd.

Well, it was still better than the reports. Mark put his feet up and watched the ship for a while. He so rarely looked at the Phoenix anymore—she was just there, another part of the well-oiled machine that was G-Force. He spent time on his own plane, though he wasn't as fanatical about doing his own maintenance as Jason or Princess were, but he'd never thought of polishing the Phoenix or checking over her engines. She was beautiful, though, standing alone and proud in the dim, quiet hangar, the lights gleaming faintly off her hull.

Mark watched through three full cycles, making a mental note to try and spot the camera the next time he was in the hangar. It bothered him a little that he'd never noticed it before—lives depending on his noticing things like surveillance. But finally he tried another button, lower on the control. This one brought up a menu of choices—all of them cryptic abbreviations. Guessing, he used the arrow keypad to select the 'GF' one, which brought up another list of abbreviations: 'HL'. 'JT'. 'KR'. 'MA'. 'PR'. 'RR'. 'SB'. 'TR'.

He tried the first one. The screen displayed what he thought was a waterfront area—it was dark outside in the scene, but he could make out some small boats and the ripple of water. Nothing seemed to be happening, and he wondered what the place was—the outlines of a few buildings were visible against the night sky, but none of them were large. It didn't look like any ISO installation he could dredge up out of his memory, and certainly nothing related to G-Force operations. He gave up and went back to the previous screen. Maybe 'JT' would be more interesting.

For a moment, he wasn't sure what he was looking at—it looked like a flowing, abstract pattern. He even wondered if there was a button to adjust the image and looked down at the remote to see. And then a slow, pleased moan sounded in his ears, and the remote dropped from his startled hand and went skittering across the desk as he jerked his head up.

His face heated as another moan sounded, and he dropped his eyes to the surface of the desk as he groped for the remote. Just his luck to stumble over a couple of bored ISO employees making out in a quiet corner.

"Oh.... oh, Jason, yes..."

That brought his head back up. Nohe wouldn't... But now that he knew what he was looking at, the lean, golden-skinned body was unmistakable. Yes, there was the ridged, sandpapery scar Jason had picked up getting dragged on his back for half a mile by a Spectran mech, the thin white line where a piece of shrapnel had sliced through the birdstyle, all the familiar lines of muscle and tendon that he probably knew by sight better than his own. The woman's face was hidden; she was a pair of hands clenched in Jason's hair, long slim legs curling around Jason's thighs. Their skin shone like amber against the dark green sheets as they moved together, and Mark felt a thick, flushed heaviness spreading through his limbs. His mouth was dry.

"God—" Jason's voice slid straight into him, and despite his frozen-wide eyes, Mark felt blind, helpless. "Oh yeah..."

No. No. Mark fumbled for the remote, his hands suddenly clumsy. He couldn't pull his eyes away—Jason was moving steadily now, and his own body resonated with the visible rhythm of his strokes, with the soft, gasping sounds the woman was making under Jason's body. Finally, his hand closed over hard plastic, and Mark squeezed his eyes shut and lifted the remote.

"GodI could stay in you forever," Jason whispered, husky, sounding as if he were right there, right behind him, speaking directly into his ear, and Mark convulsively jerked the earphones out of his ears and snapped the monitor off.

Silence. Mark flung himself away from the desk, paced angrily. Why hadn't he turned it off right away—why hadn't he stopped—why had he even turned the thing on in the first place? He wanted to yell, wanted to rage and smash and break something. And what the hell is Jason doing screwing around in Center Neptune? He wasn't even going to be here this weekend

A sudden cold chill went down his back. Nothing could have made him turn the monitor back on, but it was amazingly easy to call the scene back into memory. There had been warm skin, dark hair, pillows, sheets, a metal wall—and a square patch of moonlight at the foot of the bed. Jason wasn't in Center Neptune. He was in his trailer.

Mark knew the taste of fear, was as used to it as anyone could get, but not this sick, cold dread that lurched in his gut. It was an effort to pick up the remote; he kept his face turned aside as he pressed the menu button and the power button simultaneously. But the caution was unnecessary: the monitor blinked back on to that list of cryptic abbreviations. He selected 'GF' again and then 'MA'. The monitor obligingly presented another scene.

It was a good choice of views, Mark thought clinically, staring into the living room of his apartment at the airfield. The kitchenette was partly visible from this angle, and the sleeping alcove was straight ahead—it would be hard to make a move in the apartment without being observed. The camera seemed to be somewhere above his small television. He checked the other entries in the listing. Princess, Tiny, and Keyop's rooms were also monitored. So was the rec room downstairs. The first location now looked familiar—the dock Tiny's uncle owned.

Turning off the monitor, Mark mechanically wrapped the earphones around the remote as he'd found them and put it back into the drawer. He neatened the two stacks of reports and left the finished pile in the inbox, put the others in the folder he'd brought in with him. After closing the monitor cabinet, he stood back to look the room over. Nothing looked out of place.

Then he went to get his team.

Jason got to the small rest area last, pulling himself out of his car through the driver-side window with a smoky glare in his eyes. Like the others, he'd worn different clothes as Mark had asked—an old pair of jeans and a t-shirt that both looked about two sizes too small, relics of the days before the war. Muscle strained against the fabric even while he was just standing still, and Mark looked away quickly.

"So what the hell couldn't wait—"

"Open your trunk," Mark said abruptly, interrupting him. Something in his tone must have worked, because Jason stopped, shut his mouth and went around to the back of the car. Mark followed him, and the others trailed after, looking puzzled. Princess's eyes widened as Mark silently slipped the bracelet off his wrist and laid it carefully inside the trunk. She took off her own bracelet and put it next to his, then nudged Keyop, who'd been watching with confused eyes. Jason and Tiny had caught on, and in a minute the five wristbands were securely locked in the trunk.

Crickets made inquisitive noises while Mark led them along the trail; everything else was silent. There were no services here, not even a restroom, so the drivers passed it by once it was dark and you couldn't see the Palisades anymore. At the scenic overlook, Princess and Tiny took seats on a wooden bench under the solitary streetlamp, and Keyop climbed up next to her and snuggled close when she wrapped an arm over his shoulders. Jason ranged himself against the railing, arms crossed over his chest, the frown on his face blacker than the darkness. "Now," he said flatly. "Tell us what's going on."

Mark breathed deep. "We're under surveillance."

"By Spectra?" Princess asked, quiet and tense.

It was harder than he'd expected to say it—to acknowledge that it was true. "By Chief Anderson. He's got all of our rooms bugged."

"The bastard," Jason said, his voice full of contempt and empty of surprise. "How'd you find out?"

Mark forced himself to speak normally. "I was working in his office and started flipping through channels on the monitor," he said. "I came across Harper's Landing first," he added, looking at Tiny. "Then I found a view of my apartment. After that, it wasn't hard to find the others." His throat was dry as dust, and he imagined it was because of the lies filling his mouth. I should just have told the truth. Jason would've been embarrassed, but that's all, then it would be overit's not like I kept watching, I just stumbled over it, I turned it off right away— He trembled all over and dragged his mind back to the conversation.

"We oughta quit," Tiny was saying, his usually placid face red with anger. "Here we are, saving the world twice before breakfast, and he's spying on us? I can't believe it."

"I can believe it, all right," Jason said. "But we can't just quit. It's not everyone else's fault that he's a jerk."

"We should go to Director Kane," Princess said. "He can overrule the Chief."

"What makes you think he's not in on it?" Jason said. "All he'll do is nod and say whatever'll make us happy, then tell the Chief to hide the cameras better next time."

"Why would he be in on it?" Princess said. "The Chief I can understand; he still thinks of us as kids that he needs to keep an eye on."

"And Kane thinks of us as five random teenagers stuffed with about twelve billion dollars' worth of cerebonic implants and equipment," Mark said flatly. The others looked at him. "I'd guess that he or somebody higher-up ordered the Chief to do it. The Chief might love to have us under surveillance, but he wouldn't do it just for personal reasons."

"Even if only because he'd be worried that we'd find out about it and get pissed off," Jason said grudgingly. "Yeah, that sounds right."

"So what do we do?" Keyop said. "Rip out the cameras?"

"That gets us right back to the 'hide them better next time' scenario," Jason said.

"We can keep an eye out for 'em now," Tiny said. "We're supposed to be a special ops team, aren't we?"

"I don't want to have to search my room every time I come home," Princess said. She had her arms wrapped around her.

"We don't have enough information," Mark said. "We need to know exactly who's behind the surveillance and why they're doing it—I don't believe for one minute that it's just to keep an eye on us. They wouldn't take the risk of infuriating all of us for something so minor, and if monitoring our movements was all they cared about, bugging Princess and Keyop's rooms in Center Neptune would be overkill—it's not like they don't already have security cams in every hallway in the place."

Jason nodded. "So they must want to listen in on our conversations. You think they've got our vehicles and clothes bugged, too?"

"I don't know, and I don't want to guess. I want to find out," Mark said. "But we have to be careful. If we let on that we know, whoever's behind this will make sure they've covered their tracks."

"Hang on," Princess said. "You want us to just go on as usual? Pretend we don't know about the surveillance?"

He nodded. "We need time to find out what's going on, and that's the only way to get it."

"Uhhh," Jason eyed him up and down. "Maybe you don't ever get the chance to do anything in your apartment that you wouldn't want someone watching..."

Mark flushed and scrambled for a response, but thankfully Tiny laughed and made it for him. "Huh. You only wish you were doing anything someone would want to watch."

"More than you, big guy," Jason shot back.

"Stop it," Princess said. "This is serious. I don't think I can do it, Mark. I get dressed in there—I can't just pretend that I don't know someone's watching. It's bad enough thinking that any of the creeps at work who give me looks might have seen something."

"Wait a second—creeps giving you looks?" Jason straightened, scowling. "Who exactly?"

"I can handle them myself, thank you very much," Princess said. "That's not the point."

"It will be when I get my hands on them," Jason muttered, but he subsided when Mark shot him a look.

"That gives me an idea anyway," Mark said. "Princess, I want you to find the bug in your room, openly, and take it to the Chief. Pretend you're worried that it was planted by Spectran agents or something like that."

"That gets the bug out of my room, but what good will that do if they just put another one in?"

"They won't put a new one in right away, not if they know your guard is up. And in the meantime, we'll do some surveillance of our own," Mark said.

"On the Chief?" Jason said.

Mark nodded. "If I'm right, and someone else is behind this, he'll have to tell them that Princess found the bug. Once we know who's really in charge of this, we can decide where to go from there." He turned to Keyop. "Think you can reprogram one of those Spectran units we found in the base last week? The ones with the built-in digital storage?"

Keyop's eyes were wide, but he nodded. "Bug the Chief's office?"

"Turnabout's fair play," Jason said, smirking.

Tiny crossed his arms over his chest. "Yeah. Serves him right. And it's not like we're bugging his bedroom."

"I'll plant the bug tomorrow morning, before the Chief gets back from his business trip," Mark said. "I've still got reports to do, so I have an excuse to be in there. Princess, you 'find' the bug in your room on Thursday, then we'll get our bug out of the Chief's office and meet here again that night to see what it picked up. Until then, it's got to be business as usual."

The sound of his own breathing woke him, heavy and gasping, and the dream dissolved into the blankness of the ceiling above him. Sitting up, Mark pressed his hands over his face, his chest rising and falling quickly. He couldn't remember what he'd been dreaming, but his body did, aching with a silent, persistent demand.

He gritted his teeth and looked over at the living room. After everything he'd said to the team, he still hadn't been able to keep from tossing a shirt over the bug when he got home. He'd tried to do it casually, but he wasn't usually messy, and the best he could hope for was that unless someone had been watching actively, they wouldn't realize what was blocking the camera. But even with the lens covered, if someone was watching, they'd be able to hear...

Lying back, he let his arms fall to his sides and breathed deep. That usually worked, but this time his body wasn't cooperating. He gave up and climbed out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom. He didn't turn the lights on—he never did, even before he'd known about the surveillance. Even though he knew it was perfectly normal, he couldn't help feeling a little bit guilty when he did this. The dark just made it more comfortable.

It was going to be quick this time, he could tell, urgency quickening his hands as he slid the boxers down, silk cool against his thighs. The sigh escaped him involuntarily as he gripped himself, starting the fast, regular stroke his body was craving. A drop of sweat rolled down between his shoulderblades, cold on his bare back, and he shivered briefly, his hips and hand working together to speed things up.

He focused only on the physical pleasure, tried to let all thoughts slide out of his head. But the remnants of the dream stirred in the back of his mind, and he could almost feel the heat of a lean, hard body pressing against his back, warming him, and he gasped and shuddered and climaxed with the memory of Jason's voice in his ear, the whisper, "I could stay in you forever."

"Oh God," Mark whispered, his eyes squeezed shut, leaning his forehead against the cool tiles.

He thought he might never move again. How could he look anyone—how could he look Jason in the face, ever again? His hands shook as he rinsed off and turned on the lights. In the mirror, he looked just the same, as if nothing had changed, as if he hadn't become someone else, someone who could feel this way, someone who could want—that. He felt sick.

Switching off the light, he left the bathroom and grabbed a sweatshirt before going outside. The concrete was cold under his bare feet as he padded along the airstrip and sat down at the end, as far away from the hangar and his apartment as he could get. The air was heavy and still, the sky too light for stars and too dark to call it morning, and his eyes strained, trying to make some kind of order out of the featureless darkness.

What do I do now? He always knew what to do, prided himself on always having a plan of attack. Now, though, he felt adrift. This was wrong—this wasn't part of the picture, wasn't part of him. He swallowed, closed his eyes and leaned against his knees.

I'll get over this, he promised himself silently. It'll go away. I'm not an idiotJason's straighter than he shoots, no matter whatwhat I am. He avoided putting a label on that for now. Nothing's ever going to happen, even if I wanted it to, and I don'tnot really. I've just been working too hard. I just need some time, and I'll get over this. It's just a matter of time.

He tried to believe that it was true.

Mark walked by the closed office door for the tenth time in the last hour, trying to act casual while swearing to himself as he saw that the light was still on inside. The Chief hadn't left for a minute since that morning, not even to eat, and in another twenty minutes the recording capacity on the bug would be exhausted. Then it would start copying over the earlier material, and since Princess had spoken to the Chief almost first thing that morning...

Just then the door slammed open and the Chief came out, looking furious. Mark scrambled for an explanation of his presence, but the Chief didn't ask him for one, just snapped out, "Did you know Jason was going to do this?"

Mark just stared at him blankly, his mouth hanging open. The Chief shook his head and said, "Come with me." Confused, Mark trailed after him, wondering what the hell Jason had done now.

A minute later, on the detention level, he was gritting his teeth and wishing he could have Jason alone for ten minutes so he could strangle him. The Chief seemed to feel the same way, judging by the glare he was leveling at Jason. "I can't believe you behaved in such an outrageous manner," he was saying.

"I behaved in an outrageous manner? I'm not a thirty-year-old pig leering at a teenage girl!" Jason snarled. "If you think I'm going to stand around and let those slimy assholes treat Princess that way—"

"The ISO has one of the strictest sexual harassment policies on record. If Princess felt she was being harassed, she would have lodged a complaint," the Chief said.

Jason folded his arms. "Over what? Being stared at? They'd just have denied it. They wouldn't be stupid enough to actually make a move on a G-Force member."

"And how exactly do you know that those guys were even the ones who did the looking?" Mark demanded. "Princess didn't tell you who was bothering her."

Jason glared at him and spoke through clenched teeth, "She had to do some work on her bike yesterday. I hung out and watched. It was pretty obvious."

"If it was obvious to an unbiased observer, then it could have been prosecuted through normal channels," Chief Anderson said icily. "And if it wasn't, then you just put two valuable ISO staff members in the hospital for no reason at all."

"There was plenty of reason," Jason said. "I didn't sail into them right off, I just made it clear to them that it was going to stop. I only beat the crap out of them after they gave me some bullshit about how a pretty girl like Princess had to get used to being 'admired' and how I shouldn't be so sensitive."

Mark winced. He could just imagine Jason's reaction to that. It was hard to believe that the techs had been stupid enough to make a comment like that to the Condor, but he supposed that they'd assumed Jason wouldn't actually do anything to them. Which was stupid in itself—when Jason wanted to be threatening, total strangers who didn't know anything about his capacity for violence generally took one look and backed down.

A knock came at the holding cell's door, and Chief Anderson answered it, then stepped into the hall to speak with the doctor, a woman who'd been treating the injured technicians. Mark watched him through the door, then jerked with surprise when Jason suddenly gripped his shoulder from behind and hissed in his ear, "What the fuck are you doing? Go get it." The hot breath on his skin scalded all thought from his mind for a moment, made him dizzy, and when he turned to stare Jason was already back in his seat, the defiant frown still fixed on his face.

Sudden comprehension flooded him, along with embarrassment that he'd been so slow on the uptake. Chief Anderson looked at him inquiringly when he came out into the hall, and he improvised. "Chief, I want to go tell Princess about this. She shouldn't hear it through the grapevine." He got a nod and escaped hurriedly, back to the now-empty office and the waiting recorder.

"What if you'd been wrong about them?" Princess asked Jason angrily, huddling in her jacket against the unseasonably cold wind blowing across the outlook.

"If I'd been wrong, they wouldn't have made asshole comments like that, and I wouldn't have given them what they deserved," Jason said. "But I was pretty sure I was right. I've heard them making comments about other women before."

"Can we just watch the tape already?" Tiny said. "It's cold out here."

"Wimp," Jason said. He was wearing a leather jacket and no shirt underneath it.

"Yeah, well we don't all have a hot head to keep us warm like you do."

Jason looked annoyed. "I told you, I planned the whole thing. The Chief always pulls an all-nighter when he gets back from a trip. I figured we'd need some way to get him out of there."

"You know, if you'd bothered to share your brilliant plan with the rest of us, maybe we could have come up with a solution that didn't involve committing assault," Princess said.

"And where exactly would you have suggested I do that?" Jason said. "We can't talk about this anywhere in the Center, remember? Besides, this way it took care of two things at once. Nobody's going to be giving you any looks anymore."

"And I told you that I would handle it!" Her voice rose again. "If I wanted them beaten up, I would have done it myself! Acting like a Neanderthal just reinforces all the stereotypes that make it okay to do that kind of thing in the first place."

"Oh, please," Jason said.

"Will all of you just drop it?" Mark said, a bite creeping into his voice. He'd given Keyop his own jacket, it was cold, and having to look at Jason's half-naked body wasn't making things any easier. "We should have planned for it in advance, but it's over now. We've got the recording, and as soon as Keyop's done, we'll know more about where we stand."

"Almost ready," Keyop said, stopping to push up the jacket sleeves yet again. "Just another second."

The others fell quiet, and Mark started wishing they hadn't—at least the bickering had been a distraction from the cold, and the view. Now Jason was lounging against the railing, looking like a pinup shot from a beefcake calendar, his too-long hair whipped around his face by the wind. Despite his earlier words, his nipples were pebbled with the cold. Mark dragged his eyes back to Keyop's work, his mouth watering. He wanted to know what Jason's skin tasted like, how those tight, dark red nipples would feel under his tongue.

Why is this happening to me? he thought desperately. He'd never been preoccupied with sex before, not like other guys—nothing like Jason, or even Tiny. It had always been a matter of pride with him to abstain, to put his work first. Maybe it's because I've never done anything. Maybe it's just a reaction. But he thought it hopelessly, and he didn't even try to convince himself.

"All set," Keyop said.

They all clustered around the small monitor. His heart thumping erratically, Mark struggled to keep his body from betraying him as Jason put a hand on his shoulder and leaned close to see.

Keyop fast-forwarded past the Chief's meeting with Princess, stopping at the tail end.

"I'll deal with this, Princess," the Chief said, setting the bug down on his desk.

"Thanks, Chief," her voice came, sincere, then the sound of the door closing.

"Lying jerk," Jason muttered, and Mark shivered involuntarily as the breath stirred his hair.

Chief Anderson sat down at the desk and put his head in his hands, then turned on the videophone. In a moment, he was talking to Kane. "Princess found the bug in her room."

"Damn it."

"I told you it would only be a matter of time."

"Yes, but I didn't expect it to be less than three weeks," Kane said. "That's not going to be enough to convince the Council of anything except that the team's even more capableand therefore dangerousthan they already think."

"You know what I think of this whole idea. Not one member of the Council has any business questioning the team's loyalty. What have any of them done for the war effort but undermine it with hysteria and political machinations?"

"David, that's unfair and you know it. They're not questioning the team's loyalty, they're questioning their maturity, and the wisdom of letting them run around with so little supervision. Their anxiety is understandable. G-Force is the only thing standing between their worlds and Spectran invasion, and now that the Council has learned about their ages—"

"Anxiety is understandable. Allowing that anxiety to lead us into a situation where it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy isn't. It's just good fortune that Princess doesn't have a suspicious nature. If Jason had found it, I'm certain I would have been his first suspect, not Spectra."

Tiny snorted. "He sure knows Jason."

"Shh," Princess said.

The Chief was continuing. "You have to let me pull the other bugs right away. If they realize that we're the ones putting them under surveillance, the effect on their morale and loyalty could be incredibly destructive."

"We discussed this before. If we stop the surveillance, we need to move the whole team into Center Neptune, and keep them all there full-time, as the Council originally demanded."

"And what reason am I supposed to give them for that? They're as dedicated as any adult twice their age. They have a right to what little normalcy they can get in their lives, and only Mark and Jason live outside the base as it is."

"And the two of them are the most critical members of the team. You know that if G-Force were ordinary officers, they would be required to live in quarters."

"If they were ordinary officers, they wouldn't be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and being sent alone into the most dangerous battles of this war!"

All of them were silent and tense now, listening to the discussion that was long over, waiting to hear what had been decided about their fate.

"David, arguing with me is futile. You know that I have no doubts about the team's dedication. I certainly wouldn't be unhappy to see them all in the base, if only for their own safety, but I've bowed to your judgement on that before. But the Council is the ultimate authority, and if we undermine that, we undermine the entire Federation. Give me an alternative that will keep them quiet, and I'll take it. But otherwise, your choices are surveillance, or moving them."

Anderson was silent for a little while. "Can you give me some time?" he finally asked. "It's almost a certainty that Jason will do something in the next couple of weeks that will give me an excuse to order him to move back in, and I'm sure I can convince Mark to do so as well."

Reacting instinctively, Mark reached out and grabbed Jason's hand, keeping it on his shoulder just in time to keep him from pulling away. He looked back at him, meeting the bitter, dark eyes, trying to make his own gaze speak. The hardness in Jason's face eased a little, the hand on Mark's shoulder settled, and everything was all right again.

And then Jason squeezed gently, thumb rubbing across Mark's shoulderblade, and it was dangerously more than all right. Swallowing, Mark turned back to the screen. He had to remind himself to breathe. Jason wasn't stopping, his hand kneading lightly away, and the rest of the world seemed pale and unreal next to that blazing point of sensation. The Chief was still speaking, but the sound didn't make sense, couldn't penetrate the thick, sweet haze that was wrapping itself around his brain. He wanted to moan. He wanted to beg Jason to stop. He wanted to beg him to keep doing it.

The call ended, and Keyop stopped the playback. Jason gave his shoulder a final pat and moved away, and Mark almost staggered, feeling like a puppet whose strings had been suddenly cut. He took a few steps away and tried to pull himself together, gulping cold air. Thankfully, none of the others had noticed anything, all of them preoccupied by the information.

"At least the Chief's in our corner," Tiny said.

"Yeah, that's really doing us a lot of good," Jason said sarcastically. "With his help, we'll end up living in jail cells under 24-hour surveillance, and if we're good they might let us out once in a while to fight for them."

"Well, I have to admit that it does make me feel better that he's not the one behind this," Princess said. "That's what I was really afraid of—if he could think we needed to be watched, who on earth would trust us?"

"Apparently, he doesn't think we need to be watched, but no one else on earth trusts us anyway," Jason said. "And since the Council's in charge, they're the ones that count."

"What was that bit about the Council knowing our ages now?" Princess said. "Do you suppose they just found out how old we are?"

"How young we are, you mean," Jason said, leaning against the streetlamp. "Sounded like it."

"I guess the Chief and Director Kane never told 'em before," Tiny said.

"Must be freaked," Keyop said. "Thought we were grown-ups, all of a sudden we're kids."

"I can't believe the Chief was stupid enough to try to keep it a secret." Jason shoved his hands in his pockets. "All of the senior staff at Center Neptune knows who we are—it was just a matter of time before it got out."

Mark gave his head a final shake to clear it and rejoined the conversation. "If he'd told them at the start, they probably would have refused to grant us the special dispensations we needed for interstellar military action. Now they might be nervous, but at least they're not trying to keep us from doing our job."

"If they lock us up and we go nuts, that'll keep us from doing our job pretty effectively," Jason said. "He's not just talking about making us sleep there—he wants us to stay in the base all the time."

Keyop looked alarmed. "Wait—what about school?"

"Your school days are over," Jason said dryly. "Don't worry, I'm sure they'll get you a tutor."

"Don't want to quit school! Not fair—we haven't done anything wrong." Keyop looked at Mark, his eyes pleading. "Can't do this to us, can they?"

The others all looked at him too, and Mark clenched his fists, trying to come up with an answer.

"Tiny had the right idea in the first place," Jason said abruptly. "If we threaten to walk out—"

"We'll just reinforce all their fears about us," Princess said. "And what if they call our bluff? The Chief knows us well enough not to believe us."

"But he doesn't trust us either, not really," Jason said. "Otherwise he'd have talked to us about this instead of plugging cameras into our rooms or trying to come up with some way to force us all back into the base. You heard him—he thinks that if we find out the Council doesn't trust us, it'll destroy our loyalty, as if we can't tell the difference between a bunch of politicians and the people we're protecting."

"Hang on, I think you've got something there," Mark said, an idea slowly glimmering. "That's the problem. He's trying to handle this without involving us—he's trying to reassure the Council about us without letting us know that they want to be reassured."

"So?" Jason said, looking at him.

"So, now we do know. So let's reassure them ourselves."

"How?" Princess asked. "Go to them and tell them not to worry, we're mature, really?"

"That'll go over real well," Jason said.

"We don't put it that way, but yes, basically," Mark said, shooting Jason a look. "We tell them that we know they have concerns, point out our record, let them ask us any questions that don't violate security, and make them ask us to comply with any measures they want put into place. It's one thing for them to tell Chief Anderson to make us do things—it's going to be another for them to have to tell us to our faces."

"You think they don't know that? If they wanted to talk to us themselves, they'd have asked Anderson to bring us to a Council meeting in the first place." Jason had straightened up, though, his eyes gleaming.

"We don't need to wait for an invitation," Mark said. "I can't see them turning us away if we just show up."

Tiny grimaced. "I don't know, guys. You really think the Chief's going to let us crash the Council?"

"Who says the Chief needs to know?" Jason said, smirking openly, and slowly, they all traded looks and grinned.

Mark relaxed on a deep breath. It was a great feeling, the rightness of a plan that was going to work, and it hadn't ever led him wrong. The Council would listen, and they'd let themselves be convinced. Things would get back to normal, they'd all go on with their lives, they could forget this had ever happened.

Any of it.

= End #

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