Mark let his head fall backwards and stretched his neck from side to side. His muscles were tight after 100 laps in the pool, but it was a good tight. He felt young and alive - complete. Massaging his left calf, Mark contemplated doing twenty minutes of yoga to cool down before going to the Snack to meet the others. He checked his watch. It was late, but there was still time. He crossed the hall towards the open- floor gym and was surprised to see light filtering out from beneath the door.
"Who the heck would still be here on a Friday night?" he asked the empty hallway.
Not surprisingly, it did not answer him. He had hoped the gym would be vacant. Mark toyed with the idea of skipping the yoga, then imagined the calf cramp that would attack him at three in the morning. He shrugged and went inside.
Wristband on the floor, wearing track pants and a black t-shirt that said ‘try it and see’, Jason was beating the snot out of a punching bag. Only the slightest flicker of a glance acknowledged Mark’s arrival.
Mark sauntered over and pretended to listen for the punching bag’s heartbeat.
"I think you can stop now." he joked. "No signs of life."
The corner of Jason’s mouth turned down in a ‘I am not amused’ kind of way, then he continued to pummel the deceased punching bag. The force bumped against Mark’s chest and caused him to take a step back. Inwardly, he sighed. So much for yoga - as commander Mark never got a break. Subtlety wasn’t Jason’s strong suit. He wouldn’t be here this late or be so intent on the hapless punching bag if something wasn’t eating him. Mark took a minute to consider his options. With the others it was easy. Just smile and ask Princess ‘what’s wrong?’ and she’ll tell you. Give Keeyop a ride in the plane, ask ‘what’s wrong?’ and he’ll tell you. Take Tiny for lunch, ask ‘what’s wrong?’ over burgers and he’ll tell you.
Not Jason. Never Jason.
With Jason it was like pulling teeth. Mark set himself to the task, however, and steeled himself for the mental contest. He could have just let well enough alone, but Mark wasn’t the type to turn down a challenge.
"You should give it a rest," Mark pointed to Jason’s shirt, "You’re drenched and you stink. You’ll have to shower now if you are going to make it to the Snack."
"Not going," Jason did not look up from the bag.
*Right jab, right. Left.*
"Come on, Jase. She’s going to be disappointed. You know how she likes this family stuff."
"I said I would give her ten bucks."
"That’s not the point. You’re supposed to come so we can decide what to get him for father’s day."
*Left jab jab jab.*
"I don’t care what she gets him."
Mark held the swinging bag steady to give Jason some resistance. Interesting. Was he in a mood because of Princess? Someone else on the team? So far he had successfully inserted himself into Jason’s work-out and kept the conversation was going. It was time to dig a little deeper.
"You don’t care?" Mark asked in a mock puzzled tone.
"It’s just a stupid gift."
*Right, left, right.*
"What about Princess? She’ll be upset." Is it Princess?
"She’ll get over it." Jason wiped his forehead with his taped hand.
No. Not Princess.
"Are you at least going to be there on Sunday when we give it to him?"
*Upper left, left.*
"I don’t know. Who cares? It’s stupid. Let Princess give him the friggen gift."
"Is that what you really want?" Vague, but requires an answer.
"Stop it Mark. Just leave it alone, okay? No head games tonight. I’m not in the mood."
"You’re still mad at him for punishing you?" Mark pressed. Keep at him, and he’ll eventually crack.
Jason ignored him.
"I can’t believe it. You are sulking about the house arrest?" Try to get a rise, he’ll take the bait.
"You don’t have a clue."
*Right jab, JAB*
"You stayed in the race and ignored the emergency," Mark reminded him.
"And if I hadn’t, you’d all be DEAD," Jason kicked the bag to accentuate his sentiment.
"Very nice," Mark scolded him, brushing the dust from his shirt. The kick had sent a little cloud of chalk pillowing from the bag. Mark was genuinely annoyed now. It wasn’t like Jason to hold a childish grudge
because of Anderson’s reprimand. So what if the Chief thought Zark’s idea of punishment was too lenient? Jason DID ignore an emergency summons after all. House arrest didn’t seem all that unjust. Jason should know better. A race should never come first…
"Just suck up all that self pity and go have a shower for crying out loud." More bait.
Jason ignored him and continued his ministrations.
*Right, left, right.*
"It’s special Jase. It’s father’s day. What’s the deal?" Honest approach.
Jason lifted his eyes to meet Mark’s.
"Are you trying to tell me you actually consider him to be your father?" it was almost a whisper.
"Are you saying you don’t?" Mark ignored the reference. He would not be distracted.
Jason stopped. He stepped back from the bag and raised one fist.
"Either knock it off, or get out. The next time you answer me with a question, I’m going to hit you."
Ultimatum. Come clean or get off the pot.
"Alright!" Mark raised both palms defensively. There was more to this than he had first thought, and Jason wasn’t giving it up easily. So far his line of questioning had backfired. Things were never easy when it came to his second., and now they were straying into sensitive areas. But there was no way he was going to get anywhere unless he gave a little himself.
"Alright. Yes, in a manner of speaking. Cronus is … he was … the Chief was as much a father to me as Cronus ever was." Mark swallowed the tightness in his throat. Please let that be enough.
Jason looked at him sideways, then began punching again. Silently.
*Upper, right, right.*
"What do want from me? No, Anderson wasn’t the perfect father, but he was all we had. All any of us had. He’s the only father Princess and Keeyop have ever known. And I don’t think Tiny would hesitate for one second to agree with that."
Jason didn’t respond, but the look in his eyes spoke the question.
*I asked if YOU considered him your father.*
"No. Not my father. But the closest thing to a dad that I ever got. He was there … when Cronus wasn’t."
Jason nodded, accepting that answer as enough.
"I used to. When I was a kid." he replied.
"Nothing has changed Jason. We’ve all grown up, but he still thinks of us as his children."
*Right, LEFT, LEFT.*
"You definitely. Keeyop, maybe. Not me."
"You’re being ridiculous."
"Am I? After I made it back … when I went to see him … he didn’t even give me a chance to tell him what happened. It didn’t matter. I was knocked out of the sky with that beam, nearly trashed the G-2. It didn’t matter. He was just waiting for the chance to crucify me."
"He was upset. He assumed…"
Mark was starting to break a sweat holding the bag in place.
"Even after I told him … he didn’t even bother to ask. Not even a hint of concern. It was just ‘get your ass out there and protect the others.’ And after we got back? He tore me to shreds. You get a full physical and 2 days rest. I get a strip torn off and house arrest."
"With you that’s the same thing as rest." Mark smiled.
Jason didn’t return it.
"Come on Jase. Things may seem a little rough right now but if you look past it I know you’ll see things differently. We’re not the typical family, but we are a family. We all care. Even the Chief."
If it is possible to grunt with sarcasm, then Jason did just that.
*Right, jab, upper right.*
"Jason. I mean it. I know him. He just doesn’t express himself well. You have to believe me. Just meet him halfway. Talk to him. You’ll see."
"You he talks to. Not me."
Mark smiled at the concession. He was going to be exhausted tomorrow, but he had accomplished his goal - Jason had opened up to him. It was enough. Enough for tonight anyway. Now if only he could convince Jason to go back to the Snack with him. If he didn’t, he’d be up half the night with Princess as well. Not that that would be a such a bad thing…
"So he treats us differently. We’re different people. You’re the bad-ass remember? You’ve been training him to respond that way to you since you were seven." Mark teased.
"Ever since I took the heat for you for breaking his windshield. Are you ever going to own up to that?"
"Who knew that would be the turning point in our lives?" Mark looked to the sky, his expression angelic, "You were holding the bat. I was holding the book. The Chief drew his own conclusions. Am I to blame for that?"
Mark blinked the stars from his vision. Feeling slowly returned to his tingling fingers and feet. He had fallen backwards on his behind to the mat, and his throbbing jaw was testimony to how he got there.
"What the HELL?!" Mark pounced to his feet, the heat of anger swelling inside him.
Jason was standing above him, one arm hugging the punching bag, his legs crossed in casual stance. Mark’s anger quickly dissolved. He hadn’t seen that boyish lopsided grin on Jason’s face in a long time.
"I warned you not to answer me with a question!"
Mark returned the smile, although his was a more feral grin. Taking advantage of Jason’s unguarded posture, Mark tackled him by the knees sending him tumbling to the mat. Laughing, Jason tried to roll to the left but ended up with an elbow to the ribs for his trouble. Countless throws, a dozen swears and two ripped shirts later, the two men squared off face to face, panting heavily.
"Are you coming with me back to the Snack?" Mark challenged, chest heaving.
"You’re going to force me, aren’t you?" he grinned.
"Why don’t you make it easy on yourself and just give in?"
"Never!" Jason roared and rushed forward.
Mark flipped him, then spun to counter attack. He charged with a growl, then slowed and stopped.
Jason wasn’t even looking at him. He was turned away from his aggressor, standing rigid still, jaw set. Mark followed the direction of his stare towards the open gym door.
"That’s quite enough," Anderson scolded, "The two of you will go home immediately. Mark you have a press conference in the morning. You should know better than to give in to these adolescent shenanigans."
Anderson turned to look directly at Jason.
"Is it too much to ask that you act like an adult once in a while? I would prefer it if Mark did not have to face the cameras with a black eye. If you have some energy to burn off, you are welcome to sweep the level 2 parking garage. Is that clear?"
"Yes … Chief." Jason said between clenched teeth.
Anderson’s eyes narrowed, "We’ll discuss this … and your attitude … in the morning."
Jason didn’t reply.
"Goodnight gentlemen," Anderson turned and the door shut quietly behind him.
Mark let the silence hang. Even if he could think of the right thing to say, he knew it was better off not said. Instead, he walked beside Jason back to the showers, mulling over the last ten minutes in his mind.. The Chief had managed to undo everything Mark had accomplished with a few careless words. Surely Jason would realize that Anderson meant nothing by it. It was late, he must have been tired. Any other day and they would have laughed it off. It was just bad timing. A bad choice of words. That was all.
Jason didn’t stop at the showers. He went straight to his locker and pulled a ragged oversize UCLA sweater over his head. Lips pressed tightly together, he undid the tape from his hands and replaced his wrist communicator.
Jason grabbed his duffel bag, and shoved his hands deeply into one pocket. He retrieved the contents and tossed the crumpled piece of paper over Mark, then left without a word.
"He didn’t mean it." he said to the empty room.
Standing by himself, cold tile beneath his feet, Mark unfolded the paper he had caught.
It was a ten dollar bill.