Princess stormed into the recreation room and slammed herself down on the couch. Jason glanced over from the far wall where he was lounging, arms folded, absently watching television.
“Tough day?” he asked, taking in her demeanor.
She blew out a deep breath and uncrossed her arms. “Unbelieveable.”
“W-what now?” Keyop asked. He was seated at the dining table, slurping on a popsicle, completely surrounded by empty wrappers . A castle of used popsicle sticks stood in the center of the table. Keyop picked up the glue and added another stick to his sculpture.
Princess said, “It’s the public relations department. They got an offer from Smut Entertainment asking if I’d pose for Babes and Bikes. Some spread called “Bombs and Bombshells”. Can you believe it?”
Keyop gagged on his popsicle stick.
Tiny sighed and leaned back into the sofa, lacing his fingers behind his head. “I’ve seen that one. Good magazine.”
Princess threw him a withering glare.
Tiny quickly sat up and shrugged. “Well, I mean, I just look at the articles. They’re well written, you know.” Blushing, he took another bite of his sandwich.
Jason grinned. “So what did our PR czar have to say?”
Princess stood up and stomped about the room, waving her arms. “They actually considered it! They said it might help the war effort, get us some funding! Outrageous!”
“What is?” Mark asked from the doorway. He walked into the recreation room carrying an aviation magazine in one hand and a cup of tea in the other.
“Babes and Bikes wants Princess on the cover!” Keyop exulted.
“Why?” Mark asked as he sat down on the sofa. He placed his tea cup on the side table and opened his magazine.
Jason, standing behind Mark, turned away with a smirk. Tiny caught Jason’s eye and grinned. Keyop looked up from his popsicle sticks but didn’t say anything.
“Excuse me?” Princess asked, eyes narrowed. She glared at Mark.
Mark shrugged. “Why’d they pick you?” he asked again, speaking more slowly and clearly. He took a sip of his tea.
Jason had both hands in front of his face, choking back laughter. Tiny stood up and walked over to him. “Major mistake,” he whispered to Jason.
Princess crossed the room, eyes flashing. “Exactly what are you saying?” She stood over Mark, one hand on her hip, and thrust a copy of Babes and Bikes into his face. “You think I’m not sexy enough to pose for this lousy piece of trash?”
Mark spluttered over his tea. He looked at her in surprise. “No, no, I didn’t say that. I just … I’m surprised they asked you, is all.”
“Oh, you are, are you?” she said sharply, throwing the magazine at him. “Well, I just might do it.” She turned her back on him and stormed out.
Mark clanked down his cup, spilling tea across the side table. He rushed out the door after her. “Princess, wait …”
“Now, this I gotta see,” Jason said to Tiny.
“Definitely,” Keyop agreed.
From the doorway, the three boys watched at a distance: Princess wagging her finger at Mark. Mark shrugging his shoulders. Princess waving her arms. Mark nodding, looking helplessly at the floor. Finally, Princess threw her hands up and stalked off, leaving Mark standing alone in the hall.
“I’ve got an idea,” Jason said. He smiled at Tiny and Keyop. “A very evil idea.” His eyes twinkled. He ran down the hall after their angry teammate. “Hey, Princess, wait up.”
***Three weeks later …
“Don’t touch that!” Jason snapped, shoving Tiny’s arm. He took the magazine from Tiny, gently smoothed the cover, and placed it back in the center of the dining table.
“But the cover looks so real,” Tiny said in awe. “How’d you get her to pose like that?”
The two boys looked down at the magazine cover, where Princess was sprawled over her motorcycle draped in black leather and lace. Her long, dark hair snaked over the bike’s handlebars. A riding crop dangled from one hand.
“You’re drooling on the pages,” Jason observed, reaching over to shut Tiny’s mouth. “Not cool.”
Keyop dashed into the recreation room. “He’s coming!”
“Some scout you are,” Jason hissed. “Now scram!”
Keyop ran out as Tiny sat down at the table. Jason lunged for his usual spot on the wall, but overshot the distance. He slammed his elbow into the cement right as Mark entered the room. Jason bit his lip and tried not to wince.
“Hey, guys. What’s up?” Mark asked his teammates, eyeing them curiously. Noting Jason’s face, he crossed the room. As Mark passed the dining table, he said, “You okay, Jase? Looks like you hit your arm pretty ha …”
Mark froze mid-stride, eyes glued to the magazine on the table. His mouth opened and shut. Nothing came out. He stood still for a long time. Finally, he started walking around the room, looking dazed.
Tiny looked at Mark with concern and glanced over at Jason. “You sure we should do this?” he mouthed.
Mark continued pacing in smaller and smaller circles, breathing rapidly and balling his fists. After a long silence, he stopped in front of Tiny and spoke. His voice was steady, but a muscle in Mark’s left cheek kept twitching.
“Where’d you get this?” Mark said, pointing at the magazine. His voice was artificially calm.
“Uh, I got it at the drugstore today,” Tiny lied. He looked up at Jason for confirmation. Jason smiled and nodded. Mark didn’t appear to notice.
“Doesn’t she look great?” Tiny added.
Mark made a non-committal whimper.
“Oh, yeah,” Jason said, walking across the room toward Mark and Tiny. He slapped Mark on the back. “The Chief said that donations to the War Relief Fund are flooding in.”
“The Chief knows about this?” Mark said in a whisper.
“Yeah,” Tiny confirmed, “but he wasn’t too happy about that centerfold with Zark …”
“PRINCESS!” Mark bellowed. He darted from the room. His footsteps picked up speed as he ran down the hall.
Jason gave Tiny a high five. “Good job! I thought you were gonna chicken out on me.”
Tiny gave Jason a stern look. “I almost did. Don’t you think that was kinda mean? Did you see the look on his face?”
“Aw, he deserves it,” Jason said, picking up the magazine. “I mean, look at her. She’s hot.” The boys stared at the cover, not realizing that the footsteps were headed back their way.
“And give me that!” Mark ordered. He yanked the magazine from Jason’s hand before stomping back out.
Jason pushed a button on his wrist communicator as soon as Mark left. “Princess, he’s all yours.”
Princess sat in front of the mirror, preening. She didn’t look surprised to hear a pounding on her door.
“Princess?” Mark’s voice was stern. “I’d like to have a word with you.”
“Just a minute.” She spritzed on some perfume as she walked across the room.
Princess opened the door to reveal herself in a low-cut blouse and tight jeans. Mark didn’t seem to notice. He barged in and shoved the magazine at her chest.
“What’s the meaning of this?” he demanded.
“What are you talking about?” she asked, turning her back as she took the magazine from him. “I posed for Bikes and Babes,” she said to the wall. “So what?” She placed the magazine on her desk.
“So what?” He wheeled about, forcing her to look him in the eye. “You’ve let the team down.”
She faced him squarely and returned the look. “And exactly how did I do that? The Chief knew what I did. He encouraged it,” she lied.
Mark folded his arms. “You’ve let down Keyop. He looks up to you. How do you think he’s going to feel when he looks at that centerfold?”
Princess rolled her eyes. “Did you see the centerfold, Mark?”
“You posed with Zark! What more do I need to know?” His voice was shaking with anger.
She bit her lip to hold back the laughter. “Did you really look at the centerfold, Mark?”
He looked momentarily nonplussed. “Why?”
She handed him the magazine. “Look.”
He shook his head. “I can’t. I won’t.”
“Then I’ll do it for you.” Princess opened Bikes and Babes to the middle. It was only then that the doctoring of the magazine was apparent. There was no center photograph, only the words: Got you, Mark! She smirked at him and shrugged.
“So, this is just a joke to you, then.” Mark’s voice was seething with fury. He glared at her.
Princess threw up her arms and turned away from him. “What difference does it make?” Her voice raised in pitch. “You didn’t even look at the centerfold.” The hurt in her voice was apparent.
His blue eyes blazed with anger. “Why would I? I’m your Commander!” he shouted at her back.
Princess turned, put a hand to her hip, and yelled back at him. “Well, why wouldn’t you?”
“Because I love you!”
The room went silent. Slight scuffling noises could be heard from the hall.
Mark exhaled quickly and put his hand to his head. “Damn.”
Her green eyes widened. “You love me?” she repeated softly.
Mark nodded. “I thought you knew.” He shook his head and sighed. “I thought it was obvious. I can’t look at you like that because once I start, I’ll never stop.” He turned away. “I won’t be able to send you into battle, I won’t be able to …”
Princess touched her finger to his lips. “Shh. Let it go, just for now, please?”
Mark looked down at her. She smiled at him. After a long pause, he smiled back.
Princess laid her head on Mark’s chest. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly. They stood as one, swaying together, holding each other, until muffled voices drifted in from the hall.
“Oof, Keyop, watch it,” Tiny muttered.
“Bree…beep,” said Keyop, defensively. “Give it … urp … to me.”
“Shut up already!” hissed Jason.
Mark broke away from Princess, strode to the door, and swung it wide. Keyop quickly put the cup behind his back. Jason leaned on the nearest wall. Tiny nodded and whistled.
“Hey, Mark, what’s up?” Jason asked innocently.
“Show’s over, boys,” Mark said firmly. His voice held the edge of command. “Move along.”
Grumbling, Keyop and Tiny shoved and slammed their way down the hall. Princess flashed a quick thumbs-up at Jason, who grinned behind Mark’s back before following his teammates.
“Now, where were we?” Mark asked, as he closed the door. Taking one of Princess’ hands in each of his, he turned his luminous blue eyes toward her.
“Right about here,” she said softly, wrapping her long arms around him. She began to rub the nape of his neck.
“You know we can’t do this,” he said gently, caressing her hands as he pulled them away. “It’s not that I don’t want to.” He searched her face for understanding.
“I know,” she said, burying her face against his chest. “But can’t we forget? Just for a minute?”
“For a minute,” he agreed.
Mark stroked her hair, her shoulders, her back. Drawing Princess close, he tipped her head to match his. Their lips met in a long, deep, sensual kiss.
Then he backed away.
Her legs buckled. Princess collapsed on the bed.
“Don’t forget,” he said, looking down at her. “I love you.”
She sat up and smiled at him, wiping tears from her eyes. “I won’t forget, Mark.”
He picked up the magazine, coiled it, and pointed it at her. “No more posing for nude magazines, okay?” he said.
She shook her head no. But as he walked out the door, she whispered at his retreating back.
“It was worth it.”