Undercover by JaneLebak
Summary: Three months after the events in "Liars," Jason is ready to rejoin the team. There's a slight problem, though, involving Susan, an undercover mission, and the inconvenience of realizing he's falling in love
Categories: Battle of the Planets Characters: Chief Anderson, Jason, Mark, Mary Sue, Princess
Genre: Action/Adventure, Romance
Story Warnings: Mild Adult Situations, Mild Violence
Timeframe: Other
Universe: Mostly Canon
Challenges: None
Series: Scavengers
Chapters: 1 Completed: Yes Word count: 14027 Read: 2058 Published: 02/26/2008 Updated: 02/26/2008
Chapter 1 by JaneLebak
Undercover
by Jane Lebak
first draft, October 2003


Jason awoke to the chaos of a thousand birds that lived in the trees surrounding his trailer. He ought to tell Susan about the birds sometime, although she'd never be around to hear them. During his shower, he found himself singing (off-key, but the birds didn't mind) and he even enjoyed an extra bowl of cereal.

It was October. He'd mentioned that to Susan last night as they'd sat in his car outsider her apartment building. At the end of October, he would be reinstated to the team, and she'd been happy for him.

He brewed coffee to take into Manhattan, along with a second cup for Susan, then radioed her to let her know to be ready in fifteen minutes.

He slipped into Sweetheart's front seat and found himself ejecting one of his usual CDs for something more cheerful. He sat for a moment, key halfway in the ignition, and glanced in the mirror.

He looked good this morning. Jason couldn't have quantified why, since he hadn't done anything different to himself. He was wearing the grey ISO security uniform that had been his since the aneurysm surgery, but otherwise he was pretty much himself.

No, that wasn't right either. Jason didn't finish turning on the ignition. He glanced at the two travel mugs of coffee, and next realized he was looking forward to picking up Susan.

Driving Susan into Manhattan was nothing new. He'd done it for most of the summer, ever since the Chief had put him in charge of her training. It was just--he'd never thought before about how much he'd come to enjoy having her with him in the car, sharing coffee on the drive in, making snide remarks about the news stories, talking about the songs on the radio, discussing the latest missions for the team or his temporary position as ISO security. She told him about whatever book she was reading, and sometimes she read him a chapter she thought he'd find particularly interesting. Surprisingly, he usually did. At least, he found it interesting to hear about what she'd found so interesting.

_Oh, crap,_ Jason though. _I'm in love._

#

He drove to Forest Hills without seeing the road. This had totally snuck up on him, but he could see it in retrospect--all the hours spent together, the times she had put up with listening to him talk about cars and engines and racing, and how she'd surprised him often with her observations about the people they dealt with or the people in the news. Jason had spent the summer recovering from the aneurysm, so it made sense he'd develop a crush on her. Proximity. Availability.

_So it's not that bad,_ he told himself. _You just wait it out, and the whole thing will fade._

Heaven only knew Jason had experienced crushes before. Sometimes you just couldn't act on them, and eventually those faded. He couldn't avoid Susan , but he could continue to behave normally, not go out of his way to be with her, and she wouldn't find out.

Unless she happened on his thoughts inopportunely.

_Well, that only complicates things a little._

Susan had taught him how to resist psychic probes. That would help. And he knew by now not to dwell on certain topics. Just add one more to the list, and he'd be good to go.

All the same, it dismayed him to find himself smiling broadly when he saw her waiting on the front steps of her apartment. Meeting his eyes, she smiled in return, then let herself into the front seat.

Jason pulled back out onto Queens Boulevard.

"Thanks for the coffee." Susan unzipped the top of her jacket in the warmth of the car, then settled her long blond hair back over her shoulders. "What's the lesson plan for today, Coach?"

Jason shrugged. _Act naturally._ "I thought we'd work on the whirlwind pyramid some more."

Blue eyes bright, Susan winked. "I fall out of it with such grace."

Jason sighed. "That's more than I can say for myself," and she laughed.

_I wish I hadn't realized._ But it felt relaxing to talk to her, so easy. He wasn't on his guard any longer.

Susan turned on the news. They heckled the reports together and shared hazelnut coffee all the way in to UN Plaza.

#

It would also be easy to hide, Jason realized, because no one knew about it. G-Force wasn't high school, where one person's crush became the entire grade's business. He hadn't told anyone, nor would he, so he didn't have to worry about anyone else slipping. No secrets to keep.

Before reporting for duty, Jason stopped in the Chief's office to check in, but the Chief detained him. "I'm going to be coordinating an assignment, and I want your input. I've already called the general security office and pulled you for a special detail."

Jason settled himself on the couch to finish the coffee. Momentarily, Mark joined him. "We've got a conference this weekend. There were worries that the hotel might not be secure, so we'll be checking it out."

Jason foresaw a few overnights with a team of ISO officers babysitting a couple dozen worried scientists with no social skills. Hallway duty. Lots of it.

Mark chuckled. "Try to hide your enthusiasm."

"I'd love to go." Leaning back, Jason folded his arms. "It's overtime. I'll miss Saturday's races."

"You shouldn't be racing yet."

"I'm not. Pit crew." Jason took a deep breath. "It's not as if they need me, but I like being there."

The travel mug of coffee was empty. He set it to the side.

The Chief turned to them. "Jason, Mark and I were wondering if you might consider returning to active duty a little early."

The Chief might as well have asked a six-year-old if he wanted Santa Claus to visit every day. Jason nearly jumped off the couch.

"Oh, good." The Chief turned away a moment too late to hide the smile.

"It's actually rather boring," Mark said, "so I didn't want to do it myself."

"I'm setting up false identities for you and Princess to go undercover into the Windham hotel where the conference will be held. You'll appear to be a regular tourist couple, but you'll be exploring the hotel for signs of Spectran activity."

"When you don't find anything, Mark said, "you can radio home."

"And if we do find something?"

"You radio in anyhow after you discover the nature and extent of the infiltration."

Jason frowned. "What have you found so far?"

The Chief bit his lip. "Not enough to be sure, but enough to puzzle the Philadelphia region's chief of security."

Mark walked to the window. "I still think you'll be bored. It's just a little sneaking around to get you back into the mindset before you have to do any combat."

Heck, he wouldn't even mind hallway duty, as long as he could do it as a member of the team again. "So, where have you been hiding my uniform?"

The Chief went to the Top Secret safe. "Don't get too exited. I changed the combination after the last time you liberated the uniform."

It had, admittedly, been a little dumb to sneak the uniform out of the Chief's office in order to teach Susan the whirlwind pyramid. But she'd really needed someone to demonstrate, and no one else had been around. Many words had been exchanged later--or rather hurled at Jason, since he'd been too nauseated and headachey to contribute much in his own defense. Something about centripetal pressure and unhealed injuries. But he'd survived.

The Chief presented Jason's uniform back to him with the right amount of ceremony (none) and Jason changed immediately out of the grey uniform. "When should I head out?" he asked as he buckled the belt.

"I'm going to beat you up first," Mark said. "For old time's sake."

For the next hour, Mark put Jason through a nasty workout, and Jason limped out bruised, gasping, and invigorated. He'd flown again in the birdstyle, felt the power of the uniform and the smoothness of the weapons. It had been okay carrying a Glock with the ISO security team, but he really preferred his own gun, his own shuriken.

Afterward, in the shower, he reflected on how easy this was going to be. With being back on the team to distract him, he would get over the crush all the faster. This was a terrific excuse for any stray good feelings Susan managed to catch, and he'd be away from her for a while. He couldn't have asked for a more perfect solution.

When Jason exited the shower, he packed an overnight bag for a few days of playing tourist. That done, he returned to the Chief's office to find Mark, Princess and Susan already there.

Jason said to Princess, "I hear we got married."

Princess grinned. "I asked for a divorce. Susan is going instead."

He really, really tried not to look like he felt--honestly tried. All the same, Princess said, "What's wrong?" and Susan took a quick step backward.

"Jason--" She looked at the carpet to hide the sudden twist of her mouth that wrenched his stomach. "--if you don't want me to go--"

He was talking faster than he was consciously thinking, a state where he actually functioned excellently. "Chief, I'm not in top form. I can't in good conscience be responsible for her!"

Mark stepped closer. "Don't sell yourself short. I didn't hold back at all--you're ready to go."

Princess said, "Susan's capable. All she's lacking is experience, and this is an easy way to get some.

Jason glanced at Susan, who still looked stricken. "I don't want you to get hurt because of me."

She forced a smile. "I'll hold my own, Coach. I promise."

The Chief said, "She'll be able to verify if someone is Spectran easier than Princess would, and she can detect surveillance cameras."

Logically, Jason should have no more objections. He was ready to go; it was an easy assignment; Susan was well-suited to it; and they already worked well together because he'd been training her. It played to her strengths and it gave him a chance to critique her in action. He couldn't object. It just felt as if Fate had played him dirty.

Swallowing, Jason said, "If you think it's safe, I'll go with that."

The Chief nodded. Princess was still giving Jason an inquisitive look which he ignored. The Chief handed out their fake IDs, a fake registration for an ISO unmarked armored vehicle, a credit card, cash, and a folder with travel information--directions, a reservation number, and free passes to several Philadelphia-area museums. Jason held up the last. "You really think we can use these?"

"If it's all clear, there's no need for you to hang around a secure hotel all day."

Looking toward Susan, Jason found it hard to meet her eyes, but he forced himself. "Are you packed up yet?"

"I only just found out."

"I'll go look over the car. We can leave whenever you're ready."

Downstairs in the motor pool, Jason inspected the car, put on the correct set of fraudulent plates, and scolded Fate. _Not nice. Not nice at all._ He imagined or hoped that Fate felt at least a little apologetic for getting him into this disaster.

He developed a new plan: although he'd still try to avoid detection, if caught he would just have to be honest and say he was doing his best to ignore the whole crush and that Susan didn't need to feel awkward or to let him down easily. If she were to discover, she might even be able to help matters by keeping her distance. It wasn't all bad.

Upstairs again, Jason poked his head into Susan's room and asked her to bring some CDs for the trip. He browsed his own music collection looking for anything unromantic. He settled for Creed, The Guess Who, and in a sudden burst of inspiration, Aimee Mann, who didn't seem to have a romantic bone in her body except for songs that said, (rough paraphrase,) "Love sucks." It made for a nice touch.

Before leaving, Jason made sure the G-2 was properly docked in the Phoenix. Of course it was--he hadn't been allowed near his car the whole time he was off the team, so he'd driven either Sweetheart or an ISO sedan. The car had taken some damage during a recent battle, and Jason noted it in a repair request form before squaring his shoulders and heading up to face Susan.

Halfway upstairs, he forced himself to laugh. _You shouldn't be afraid of her,_ he imagined the guys at the track saying. _You could always beat her up!_

Ah, yes, good old machismo, always missing the point. It got Jason a laugh just before the elevator doors opened.

Susan was ready. He braced himself, and they headed out.

#

With Princess he'd joked they were married, since the undercover personas were married. It still startled him when Susan said, "I'm not nervous. Shouldn't a bride be nervous?"

He tried to make some kind of noncommittal comment acknowledging that what she said was funny. She turned on the radio and channel surfed. Jason glanced at the clock. They'd arrive in Philadelphia about 6 PM. Later if they stopped for dinner, but he thought it might be best to eat in the hotel restaurant.

When Jason found the silence awkward, he asked Susan if she'd brought a book, and that spent the next half hour without any subterfuge on Jason's part. Susan had picked up a copy of Charles Gillenkamp's Dragon Hunter, about archaeologist Roy Chapman Andrews' central Asiatic expedition to China. She related to him all the main points and read out loud parts she'd found interesting or amusing.

This was, Jason had often reflected, just like going to high school again except without all the boring parts. He'd even felt tempted to borrow some of her books, if only he ever had the time. As it as, he felt he'd read almost all of Molto Agitato already, a history of the New York Metropolitan Opera house. He never would have thought any of it interesting if Susan hadn't found it interesting first.

Maybe that should have clued him in sooner. The Chief had dubbed it miraculous when one of his girlfriends had convinced him to make regular forays to the library.

It was different then, though--studying in order to spend time with someone was different than being interested in what she found interesting. And it was interesting material, too--things he might never have learned on his own, aspects of life he'd heard about but never considered twice.

Yeah, he had it awful. Bad Fate. No cookie.

#

They arrived at the Windham Hotel and parked in the circle, then made their away across the marble floor to the service desk. Susan craned her neck to admire the vaulted ceilings in the foyer, which extended through the first three stories. Jason, with typical New Yorker nonchalance, registered the scene without admiration. The vast room had an indistinct echo, as if sounds mingled and blended into oblivion without ever fading.

Jason gave the clerk the reservation number and his assumed name, and he glanced around while the man got them checked in.

The exposed two floors--the second and third: he disliked that immensely. It was too easy to imagine a Spectran with a concealed weapon taking sniper shots at that half-open corridor, making notes as to which attendee had entered which room, and after correlating that with a conference schedule, knowing how long that individual's room would be empty.

Jason felt Susan take his hand. he looked at her, startled, and she flashed him a sweet smile.

Susan sent, He's thinking we don't act married.

Jason, who had never witnessed any married couples closely interacting, squeezed her hand. He figured that might count as subdued affection. Or something. He couldn't think with her hand on his. She wove her fingers through his and then clasped both hands around his own.

The clerk asked for their credit card, and Jason was relieved when she released him--he could breathe again. Shortly afterward they had two room keys (coded cards--Jason hated those because they were so easy to track) and then brought their bags upstairs. The elevator from the garage terminated in the lobby, where they had to walk past the front door in order to reach the main elevators (another point of surveillance) and then upstairs to their room.

Jason's first thought about the room was that it had only one bed. "I call dibs on the floor." It emerged softly.

"Thank heaven--I was terrified for my virtue." Susan dumped her bag on the bed, then hesitated, a funny look on her face. Jason's eyes widened.

"Something wrong?"

"I'm not sure." Susan looked at the window (curtains drawn) and then up at the corners of the ceiling. I feel watched.

In here? Jason's eyes swept the room, but nothing seemed amiss. He dropped his own bag on the bed and sat, inspecting the corners. In addition to the one bed, it had a television, a dresser, a tall cabinet that probably held a bar and a mini fridge, a desk with a phone as well as an end table with a phone, a small round table for two with a pair of chairs, and a couch. The couch wouldn't be long enough to sleep on, so it really was the floor for him. No problem--it wouldn't be his first camp-out on a mission.

He checked all the sprinklers and the smoke detectors, all of which seemed normal. The mirror over the dresser was a real mirror, no wires or camera behind it.

Susan remained frowning. I don't know--it's not definitive enough. I can't say where it's coming from. Or really if I'm even feeling it. Maybe I'm just nervous.

Jason paused. He couldn't come up with anything he could accomplish by remaining here right now. If she was nervous, getting out of the situation would help. There was no reason for the hotel staff to have suspected them enough to put them in a cameraed room. Susan might well be picking up his own tension--not sensing a reason why he should feel it, she might be unnecessarily on edge.

"Dinner," Jason said. "Hotel food cures a multitude of ills."

#

In another negative about the hotel, the Windham's restaurant was located in an elevated portion of the main lobby. It was noisy, and Jason felt exposed.

"You don't like this place," Susan murmured after ordering.

Jason kept his voice low. "It's the least defensible hotel I've ever seen host a convention."

The waitstaff didn't seem rude or stupid enough to be Spectran spies. Susan chatted with the waiter, found he knew a few of last year's blockbuster movies and could talk baseball; he said he'd worked here three years.

After dinner, Jason conducted some "free market surveillance," checking out the gift shop's candy section for typical Spectran fare...and found a little stack of Bit O Honeys. Since he knew no humans who ate them, but Spectrans ate them wherever they could find them, that was a black mark in his mind. Not enough to call down G-Force (try explaining that one to the Chief--"They had a crappy selection of candy, Chief! They must be Spectrans!) but it added fuel to any suspicions.

Back upstairs, Susan felt watched again, but not very watched. He had no idea what to make of this. She let him feel some of it--like prickles on the back of his neck. But not as strong as she'd usually feel if someone were watching her. They went back into the hallway, and the feeling dispersed.

They stopped at the vending machine. No Bit O Honey here--must be stocked by corporate.

Jason said, "Have they talked about the difference between hard surveillance and soft surveillance?" When Susan shook her head, he continued, "Hard surveillance is if they've got your phone tapped or our car is being tailed. Soft surveillance is less targeted. The ISO building is under constant soft surveillance--every spy satellite that passes over it takes pictures. Spectra probably knows the license plates of every car that parks there."

"So this may be soft?"

"I have no idea, but it may be like department stores that have security cameras."

"I don't feel those, though. They're not manned. No one's watching."

Jason bought a Coke from the machine, then put in a second dollar. "What do you want?"

"Coke's fine." She played with the ends of her hair. "It's definitely connected to the room. Oh, thanks."

"Was the desk clerk overly suspicious?"

"Not especially. Just that he thought we weren't acting like a normal couple." Susan popped the top on her soda. "I didn't want him to remember us, that's all. He didn't run our license plates or scan our faces into a computer. He was only doing his job."

"All the same, we've got two indicators that we've got Spectrans, neither one solid." Jason leaned against the wall. "Tonight we're going to go spying ourselves. I'd like to wait until about midnight so there's not as much activity, at least not in the maintenance areas of the hotel."

Susan nodded. "We should get some sleep before then. I'll try not to talk too much in the room--just enough to keep any listeners happy."

They brought their sodas back to the room, watched some TV sitting in bed, and then at nine thirty Jason felt himself drifting off. He'd done a lot today: the workout, the drive, the tension--the double tension. He planted a message to himself in his own mind: I will wake up in two and a half hours. I will wake up before midnight.

{end part one}
Undercover, part two
by Jane Lebak
first draft, October 2003

_I will wake up before midnight._

Jason turned his head to check the clock, and it was 11:30pm. He sat up to find Susan looking at him, wearing a serious tension on her face.

"You're awake," she said pleasantly while Jason felt her simultaneously making mental contact.

There was definitely someone watching. She couldn't trace it back because the person was watching several rooms at once, but she got the sense that the watcher wasn't looking for state secrets. He wanted free live-action porn.

Jason blinked rapidly. "Yeah, I'm awake now."

_Where's the camera?_ he thought.

_I think it's in the television, but I can't be sure. Remember how we noticed the cabinet doors had been removed because the set was too big? I think that's why. I don't feel watched in the bathroom or the entryway, but it seems to have a pretty wide angle lens. It also still detected me when I turned off the lights._

Infrared. Damn it. That meant even if they tossed a blanket over the TV, the watcher would know when they left the room. They'd see the quick flash of light from the transmutation. They'd have Susan and Jason's pictures from the camera, and they'd backtrack to match faces to G-Force members.

_So we've got to get the guy to turn off the camera,_ Susan said as matter-of-factly as "We need to change the color of the sun."

_You're going to give the guy a conscience?_

_That would never work. You can't make someone's core values change telepathically. I was thinking of making him impotent._

Jason burst out laughing, as did Susan. Their eyes met in one mischievous moment. _What I'd really like to do,_ Susan sent, _is just get him to leave the camera bank. They wouldn't have done all this just for a peep show, so you assume Spectra arranged it for ISO's conference, and this guy found the setup and is using it for himself._

Jason sent, _If we look like we're fighting, he'll assume no sex from this room and change channels._

Susan brightened.

Jason frowned. _What do married couples fight about?_

_Anything, Jason._

Jason got out of bed and composed himself, then turned to glare at Susan. "Why were you flirting with the waiter?"

Susan blinked. "What?"

"Don't think I didn't notice. Then you told him our room number. Did you think he was coming here?"

"They billed dinner to the room! I had to tell him!"

"Why didn't you just tell him your dress size?"

She cocked her head. "Why did you get us lost driving all over creation without directions?"

Jason took a step toward her. "I knew where I was going!"

Susan laughed derisively. "Let's see--the sun sets in the *west,* so we need to go... Where's Philadelphia again?"

Jason rolled his eyes. "Look, I brought you here because you wanted to come. I've got ten thousand places I'd rather be."

"All of them with a beer," Susan retorted. "There are ten thousand bars in Cincinnati, right?"

Jason turned away and folded his arms. "I shouldn't even bother with you." Then he looked over his shoulder at her. "You're totally hopeless. You want to believe the worst of me, and then you go looking for reasons why I'm the worst there is. Dig deep enough and you'll find that about anyone--even my sainted brother, if you really want to know. Or do you still wish I was him?"

Susan's eyes had gotten huge, and she didn't respond.

Jason felt his pulse racing. _This isn't real_, he reminded himself. But oh, it was difficult.

Susan said, "I'm sorry. I had no idea."

In his mind, Jason heard, _He's still watching. With more intent._

Trying to look furious, Jason replied, _Enough to track him?_

_No. We've got competition._

_Let me think._

Susan physically turned her back on him and sat at the edge of the bed. She had her hands pressed over her eyes as if trying not to cry. It was all an act for the camera--of course it was. She needed to get the watcher's attention and have his totally on her, and when that happened , she could track him back and link up. It sounded simple in theory.

Jason's chest tightened, because if the guy was looking for porn, there was one way to get his attention.

The other option was to back down now. They'd satisfied the minimum requirements to prove the hotel unsafe. But giving up galled him.

Jason went to Susan's side of the bed and moved to sit immediately behind her, his legs out on either side of hers. He clasped her around the waist and rested his head next to hers.

He felt her question.

_You track him,_ Jason thought. _I'll work on getting his attention. You have to trust me, though. I'm not going to do anything to you, I promise._ He felt that she trusted him, though nervous. _There isn't a guy on earth who hasn't wanted to say we have to make out to save the universe._

Susan chuckled. _I'm with you._

Jason thought, _Just ignore me and do your best._

He started with her hair because he knew that looked erotic and wasn't obscene. He smoothed it back, lifted it away from her eyes, and ran his hands through its length. She rested her head back against him, and he continued.

_He's watching._

Taking a deep breath, Jason lifted her hair off her neck and rested his cheek against her shoulder, then nuzzled at her neck and the base of her ear. Wrapping his arms around her, he hugged her tightly then kept his head beside hers and waited a moment.

Susan felt tense in his arms. Her mind was somewhere in that mess of wires, and he knew he wasn't distracting he at all from tracking their watcher. The trouble was distracting himself. It had taken about twenty minutes for him to fully relax after she'd taken his hand at the check-in, and right now, because of how he was sitting, she had to know how he had reacted. There was nothing to do about it. He only hoped she thought it normal.

He hadn't ever fantasized about her body--not until right now. It was a hell of a time to develop a physical attraction for someone.

Jason put his hands on her knees and ran them up the outside of her legs to her hips, then traced up the outside of her arms to her shoulders, where he massaged them for a moment. It was hard to think of things to do--no, it was hard to think of things he should do. He had no problem thinking of things he wanted to.

He nuzzled her throat again. She was all right here. His head was swimming. He pulled her closer, kept his eyes shut, and crossed his arms around her. It was almost like having her inside him. It wasn't enough.

_He's paying attention! Hold him--talk to me!_

Jason's mouth engaged before he was truly thinking. "You don't know," he murmured, "you can't realize--I don't want it to be like this." He couldn't think clearly about what he should be saying. What would a married couple say? What would they say after a fight, before going to bed? "You have no idea how beautiful you are. You don't know what you mean to me. Even I don't always realize." He took a moment to smooth back her hair again. Hair was nice, neutral territory. "Let me show you." He couldn't even remember her cover name. "Sweetheart, let me show you how I feel."

He felt a thrill spike through Susan--she had the watcher. Jason kept silent and held her closer--it was almost over--he'd have to let go--and she poured all her energy through the link she's made to the voyeur. It took only a moment, and then she relaxed in his arms.

"I got him," she whispered. "He's not watching anymore. He won't be back for a while."

Jason murmurred, "I love you."

If he hadn't reacted at all, she might have thought he was still in character. But everything was all combined, and Jason's judgment was bad--he was tired, he was at war with his body and his emotions. He thrust himself away from her and walked across the room and wouldn't look at her for nearly a minute.

Back turned, he said, "I'm sorry."

When he finally looked at her, she just seemed startled. Not angry, not upset, but very surprised. She started to speak, but he interrupted her.

"Not now. We have work to do." Jason shook his head. "Do you remember what I told you about compartmentalizing? Now's the time."

He pulled the television away from the back of the cabinet. Susan went to help him, and they found a second wire alongside the coaxial cable. It disappeared into the wall at the same spot. Jason folded his arms. "I want to find and destroy the television banks where that guy was watching. It's a good bet he was set up to transmit any pertinent data to an offsite location where it would have been catalogued and transmitted back to Spectra in bulk." He looked at her. "We have to take out both at the same time. If ISO cancels the conference, they'll suspect they were detected and move out operations immediately. If we take out only the surveillance unit, we'll lose any hope of tracking their backup or any local nests."

Susan said, "I'm with you. Just give the orders."

They transmuted and moved into the hallway. Jason moved aside some of the hanging tiles and verified that the red cables were meeting up and traveling together. They traced them along until the cables disappeared upward; Jason and Susan took the stairs, stopping every few floors to verify that the cables still went toward the roof.

They encountered only a few hotel guests, all of whom were easily avoided. It was after midnight, and most people were either still out or else had gone to bed already. The late night-life hadn't ended yet, giving them an effective no-man's land of two hours which during plays or concerts weren't letting out and the bars hadn't yet closed.

Jason said as he checked the cables again, "What did you do to the guy?"

Susan shrugged. "The brain and the stomach are intimately connected. you know, butterflies in the stomach?" She shook her head. "I made him sick to his stomach. Easy enough to do, isn't permanent or fatal, doesn't go against his core beliefs, and will keep him away from the monitors for a couple of hours."

At the top floor, Jason and Susan found themselves in the building's ventilation system and maintenance areas. Both had their weapons drawn, and Susan cast out her thoughts. "There's no one around," she whispered. "Even spy-guy."

"Was he a Spectran or an Earth-human?"

"I thought Spectran, but I wasn't certain."

Despite her assurances, Jason moved with caution through the floor. At the third of the maintenance offices, the only one with a double-lock and a bar-blocker on the door frame, Jason found several banks to television monitors, many switching from channel to channel or room to room. The cameras showed either a normal (if grainy) image, or else an infrared view. He fiddled with a few controls and discovered it was possible to scan for rooms with activity versus unoccupied rooms, that you could pick up sound, and that it was possible to flag certain channels as being interesting.

"Clearly Spectran." Jason played with the computers a bit. "It looks like this isn't the place where the data is being processed, though." He looked over the other equipment. "We need to find their preparation facility."

Susan said, "What are you looking for?"

"Some kind of wireless network."

They hunted for a few minutes, Susan every so often opening her senses to scan for anyone nearby. Eventually Jason used his bracelet to track the signal. "It's not strong. It can't be going far."

The desk held no phone numbers, no directions, no room numbers. Jason wired up a small thermal bomb (just a lot of heat, enough to melt the computer equipment before setting off the sprinkler system and flooding out any computer equipment that remained.) He set it to go off at his command. "But not before we find and root out the next," he said. "We've got to get them first, or they'll scatter."

Jason pulled two "bugs" from his belt. The first he dispatched along the wires coming into the computer, to trace it way back along the cable coming in. "It will stop at the first place the cables diverge," 'he said, "and then eat through the wires. It's not a big deal, but it will hassle them if they try to hook it back up." The second bug traveled up a different wire. "This one is going to look for the transmitter where this one is sending the signal out." Early indicator are the machine went up, so Susan and Jason climbed a secure hatch to the roof.

Under the stars, they found the little bug beeping happily atop a small wireless transmitter the shape of a duffle bag (if only made of metal.) Jason fitted it with a second thermal detonator.

Susan still had her hand on her weapons. "Where is it transmitting to?, is the next question."

Jason pushed a different button on the tiny blue bug, and it waddled laps around the transmitter until it stopped in one direction. They looked out the way the bug was pointing and saw only one building between the hotel and the river.

"How far is this thing transmitting the data?"

"Not enough to clear the river." Jason replaced the bug in his belt. "Scan the building--tell me who's awake."

Susan said, "Do you want their social security numbers and their mothers' prize recipe for banana bread too?"

"If you can get it." Jason smirked at her. "Is that a problem?"

"Not for someone of my vast intelligence." Susan pointed. "There's one light on about the fifth floor. I'd bet if we have any guys to get, they're in there."

"Make sure." G-Force had caught a few villains who happened to be in the wrong place--way wrong--and Jason hated apologizing. Susan looked through a pair of field glasses until she caught a view of one of the occupants. She sent the image to Jason, who nodded grimly. Two Spectrans visible.

"You got a lock on any of them?"

"Not enough to get that banana bread recipe."

Jason drew his gun. "I hope the whole building isn't full."

"I only get the sense of about a half dozen, a dozen max."

He stood up on the edge of the wall surrounding the rooftop. Susan climbed up beside him. "The weapons won't be much use if it's a small room," Susan said. "Mine in particular."

"You can handle yourself in close combat," Jason said. "I'd go alone if I doubted that."

Susan regarded him momentarily, but whatever she was thinking she didn't say.

Jason aimed his cable gun, then reached out an arm for Susan. She stood a little nearer, and he fired the gun across the street and into the wall just above the window. When he tugged, it held. Good. He grabbed Susan around the waist and jumped, reeling in the cable.

The force thrust her into his chest, and she locked her arms around his waist and tucked up her legs. He angled as he flew over the street beneath. Just before they reached the window, he whipped his legs forward and hurled her backward through the window so she sent shards of glass showering along her cape like the spray of a waterfall. She cannon-balled along the floor and came up onto her feet in time to send Jason the layout of the room and the locations of all their attackers just before he arrived.

As Jason leaped in, he fired to the left while kicking out to the right. Susan turned to fell the two closest to her.

The effect as total chaos as far as the Spectrans were concerned. Jason flung five shuriken with two swipes of his hand, shattering the monitors on the computers in the corner and the Spectran closest to the computer banks so he couldn't trigger an alarm.

Mark and Jason together always fought as one unit. They instinctively knew how to cover for one another--or rather, Jason knew where Mark would be next and what he would do, then always positioned himself to cover Mark's weak areas and so Mark could see to cover his. Susan didn't have that same familiarity, but she had made a psychic link to him, and that made enough of a difference to help it work.

There had been eight Spectrans to start. Shortly they had all been dispatched, and Jason was looking over the computer equipment again.

Staring at the fallen Spectrans, Susan whispered, "Is that it?"

"This looks like the most of it I would imagine they're bundling up things here to take home all at the same time or else send somewhere on Earth for analysis."

Jason raised his bracelet. "G-1? G-2 here. Respond."

After a moment came a groggy, "I read you."

"G-1, we just cleared out a nest."

"What?" Mark awoke in a hurry. "What did you find?"

"Major surveillance equipment and at least nine enemy soldiers." Susan had just finished securing the last of these. "No telling how many more. You're going to need to--"

"I know what to do. Hold on." A momentary silence. "We'd better get down there. You've got nine enemy soldiers and their computer equipment."

"Eight captured, one indisposed." Jason shok his head. "We're going to go exploring in a bit and see who else turns up." Jason grinned at Susan. "I suspect you'll want at least some of the computer equipment preserved."

"The essentials." Mark's voice had changed again--he sounded echoey, as if on themove. "We'll be there in half an hour. The Chief will alert the local ISO office."

"You'd better have him alert the police too and have them cordon off the building. We're across the street from the hotel, towards the highway."

"Can you give me a better location than that?"

"We didn't come in the main entrance."

They explored the corridor outside the computer room. It proved to be mostly empty office space on that floor, which made sense if Spectra wanted to keep observers to a minimum. Jason found what appeared to be crew quarters, along with four more sleeping crew which he and Susan rapidly subdued.

The place was a mess. Jason turned over a waste paper basket and pointed to the contents, grinning. Susan noted all the "Bit O Honey" wrappers and laughed.

After twenty minutes, the low whine of the Phoenix's engines reached them. Jason activated his bird scramble to guide Mark in, and Tiny dropped the team off atop the building.

Jason and Susan showed the team the detritus, and Mark transferred the prisoners to the ISO security team.

Mark checked the time. "Have you gotten any sleep?"

"A couple of hours." Jason shrugged. "More than you'll get."

"We've already had five--that's enough. You and Susan get back to the hotel."

Jason said, "You need to take care of the surveillance equipment first." He tossed the trigger to Mark, who detonated it.

Because it was a thermal, there was no explosion, just a lot of heat. Enough to melt the computer equipment on the top floor. And then enough to set off the sprinkler system. And a moment after that, enough to set off the hotel's fire alarms and evacuate the entire building.

Mark and Jason watched the crowd begin to form on the street outside the hotel.

"I'm only truly happy after creating the maximum amount of chaos, yes," Jason said, grinning. "Why do you ask?" Now no one will notice a couple of extra people coming back to their hotel rooms at three o'clock in the morning."

It was actually closer to four before the fire department cleared the hotel and called it safe. Jason and Susan, back in t-shirts and jeans, made their way back with everyone else and found their room.

Just inside the room, Jason waved Susan back to the door, then moved to the television. He yanked the coaxial cable out of the back of the television, then ushered her into the room before installing a surveillance robot by the door.

At that point, he turned to her where she stood at the foot of the bed, and he folded his arms. "DO you want me to find someplace else to sleep?"

Susan frowned, shaking her head. "Of course not."

"I could spend the rest of the night in my car if you want. It's too late to find a new hotel--"

"Jason--"

"But I also don't feel comfortable leaving you alone in a hotel with known Spectran activity."

"Then shut up and get ready for bed." Susan offered him a smile. "I'm not afraid that you're going to spontaneously seduce me, and I can defend myself if you try."

Jason avoided her eyes. "You think so?"

"Do you want to find out if I was kidding about making the voyeur permanently nonfunctional?"

"Ouch."

Jason grabbed his duffle bag and went into the bathroom to change. The adrenaline surge had left him after the battle--it felt as late as it really was. In the mirror, he looked pale and in need of a shave. What he needed was sleep. Sleep and the ability to do today over again.

When he came out, Susan was wearing a sleep shirt and a cotton pair of shorts. Jason pulled the top blanket and one pillow off the bed and folded the blanket over to form a makeshift sleeping bag. It bothered him that Susan had changed when he could have walked out on her. But then again, she had changed clothes in front of him and Mark before during missions. She did something to their perception--they just didn't notice.

She crouched down next to him and helped smooth out the blanket. "About before--?"

"I don't want to talk about it now."

"I do." She looked through the closet and drawers until she found another blanket and an extra pillow. "I know how you work, and I'm not letting you go get all moody on me and making me wonder all night what's going on until I'm tempted to look into your head. I need to sleep too." She tossed him the blanket. "Were you serious?"

He took a deep breath. "You don't have to let me down gently. It's my own fault, and I was doing okay at ignoring it. It's just a crush, that's all." He met her eyes, and she didn't flinch. "I don't want any of the usual 'Jason, I like you, but--'"

Susan sat on the little couch. "I'm not trying to hurt your feelings."

"So don't have this conversation at all. I shouldn't have said anything, and in my right mind, I wouldn't have." He shook his head. "But the way things were--"

Susan chuckled. "Testosterone poisoning."

He smiled at her. "You got it."

He sat on the folded blanket and looked up at her on the couch. "You can get some sleep now, okay? No moody." He looked away, his brows knitted. "I don't do that really."

"You retreat and leave everyone thinking about what just happened and wondering what's going on in your head. It looks moody." She nodded toward the couch. "Get over here."

Jason opened his hands.

"Not yet, it's not over." She took a deep breath. "I've been surprised by you. You're a great teacher."

Jason stood up and walked across the room. "But."

She waved at him dismissively. "And I've liked spending time with you in the car, talking. It's been fun."

Jason forced a dry smile. "But."

She stood up and walked over to him so they stood face to face. "You're not going to listen to me at all, are you?"

"I asked you not to let me down easy, not to do it at all. It's not necessary."

Susan stood on her toes and kissed him quickly on the lips.

Jason's eyes flew open. "Do that again."

Susan went back to the couch and sat. She looked nervous. He followed her, and when he sat, she kissed him again, this time a little longer.

Jason wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. Relief flooded him, and a thousand irreverent thoughts--but mostly relief.

When they parted, she said, voice shaking, "Have I got your attention?"

He nodded.

"Good. I wasn't sure what else would."

He swallowed. "What-- What was I feeling?"

"It's something with telepaths. You can't really kiss and not share thoughts."

It had been the most remarkable sensation, this double-touch, as if his fingers were touching each other so he was touching back, kissing back. She wrapped her hand around his, and he felt a little of the same thing, a little of her thoughts, some of her physical sensation. he could feel she wanted his arms around her, or maybe his arms ached to wrap around her again. "This is dangerous," he whispered.

She put her hand into his and looked up into his eyes, and that was when he realized--she really was about to let him down gently. And in that moment, he felt a flood of rage at her first--deceived--and then rage at himself for wavering in his own determination not to give in--and then total disgust at himself--the ugly and shameful thing that was him overreacting, rude, deformed, stupid, an embarrassment to everyone around him, incompetent, and a profound disappointment.

Susan's eyes flared, and she grabbed his hands tightly. Abruptly there came another image in his head--himself tall, strong, self-composed, inspiring.

"It's me," Susan whispered. "I promised myself I wouldn't date for two years after my parents died. It's not time yet."

Jason pulled back. "Oh, for crying out loud! It's just a deal you made with yourself!"

"And you'd be angry at anyone who made me break a promise. Didn't you promise not to date anyone for six months after Alyssa, to clear your head?"

But he hadn't anticipated *this*--not at all.

"It doesn't matter," Susan said. "My original reason is still valid. I'm totally out of my element. I was pulled out of my world before I was ready. Everyone died. I'm only eighteen, Jason."

Jason felt himself swirl with confusion. "I was fighting a war when I was eighteen."

"And I was supposed to be still in my high school, not orphaned, relocated, and put into hiding. Not sent into a totally different culture, forcibly separated from all my people, and trained as a soldier." Her eyes glistened. "I'm still figuring it all out. I still miss my mom and dad. The first thing I wanted to do when you said it before was call my mom and ask her what she'd have me do. I don't even know who I am any longer. I still have to figure that out."

Jason honestly felt as if he were drowning. He was almost mad at her again--why tell him any of this if she was just saying no, only more elaborately--?

She hugged him and pressed her face into his shoulder, and it came into his mind: because she felt the same, she wanted to let him know, but she'd been hiding it because now wasn't the right time. Hadn't part of his objection been the inconvenience?

And there was also the fear that if she'd let it go unsaid that he'd have moved on before she was ready, that he'd take silence for the rejection she didn't want to give. And because she really had wanted him to hug her, to hold her. She had wanted to kiss him, and he'd kissed her back.

Jason had his head next to hers. He was too tired to think. He knew he couldn't make a decision now for any reason.

It came into his mind--then don't make any decisions. Go with what you decided before, that now isn't the right time, that we can ignore things for now and become better friends first.

It felt so good right for this second to keep holding her. He felt totally relaxed, almost as if the two of them together might make a shelter against the rest of the world and the rest of time. Only reluctantly did he release her and she move away from him.

She murmured, "I noticed that the back cushions come off the couch too, so you could make a kind of bed.

"This is fine," Jason said, sitting back on the blanket as Susan got into her own bed and shut the lights. "I could sleep on broken glass and hot coals right now."
#

Jason dreamed about working out in the gym, facing the mirrored wall. Showing Susann a new move, and he placed her standing in front of him. _Watch me in the mirror._ Her reflection came right in front of his. He took a ready stance and so did she. They moved together at the same time, watching themselves and one another in the mirror, doing the same moves, teaching and learning at the same time. It was a good dream.
#

At nine in the morning, Jason awoke and realized he was still thinking about her. Not good. He grabbed his duffle bag and made his way through the dark room to the bathroom where he turned on the shower.

He lathered up until the bar of soap should have screamed for mercy. This was so unfair. When had he ever been nice to her? He'd started out on very tense ground. Maybe he wasn't hostile any longer and he did make her coffee when he drove her into Manhattan, but still. And he had let her drive Sweetheart back when she was learning to drive--he'd gotten a good ribbing from everyone for that. Maybe it had been happening back then? But he'd never come on to her. He'd been civil. He'd trained her as asked, and you had to be civil for that. And they'd watched TV together, or read a book together, or listened to a book on tape in the car. But it wasn't like he'd gone out of his way. He'd never been nice.

And now that she knew it--where the heck *had* they left off last night? Just to let things ride? Was that even possible?

And there was a slightly more immediate problem, too. Jason turned the shower all the way to cold and stood with his teeth clenched. Not good. Not good.

Jason left the shower just as unsettled. When he stepped out of the bathroom--bathed, shaved, dressed--he found Susan just waking up.

She looked sleep-rumpled and soft-eyed. His throat tightened.

"Sleep well?" Her voice was raspy.

"Fine." He averted his eyes from her in that rumpled, shapeless shirt in that big bed. "I'm going to go poke around downstairs, see what the fallout is. I'll bring back some coffee." She looked surprised as he left. _I'm sorry._ It wasn't her fault his mind had gone haywire. Last night she'd called it testosterone poisoning. What was the half-life of testosterone? Too long--far too long. What he needed was time to get his act together. He hadn't processed any of what had happened last night. Not yet. So unreal, all of it. But she'd said not yet. Not no, but not yet. So he shouldn't stay in the room gawking. At the very least, she deserved that much distance.

In the lobby, he found a long line of angry hotel guests at the service desk. The morning paper had no mention of ISO's strike, but most likely because of the press time. Maybe if Philadelphia had afternoon editions, it would appear later.

Jason got close enough to hear the manager apologizing profusely and the clerks at the hotel desk apologizing profusely. Two ISO officers stood beside the desk doing paperwork and commandeering onf the computers, but Jason could tell neither was the officer in charge. It was probably better that way, less chance of being recognized. Jason waited until he got a chance to speak to the manager.

"Rough night." He folded his arms. "I'm not going to ask for a refund, but I want a later check-out time. My wife is still sleeping."

The manager looked relieved. "We can accommodate that. May I have your room number?"

While he typed, Jason added, "You seem short-staffed this morning."

"A third of the employees didn't show up." The manager met Jason's eyes. "I think they were afraid Spectra would strike." He added quickly, "The ISO is here to make sure everything is secure--they're here for your protection."

Jason shook his head "Nothing could be safe enough. I intend to c heck out as soon as my wife wakes up, but she's pregnant and needs the sleep." Oh, yeah--better be on the safe side. He glared. "If anything happens to the baby because of this--"

"I assure you, the situation is under control I've also given you passes for complementary breakfasts or lunches, and you may check out at any time before six pm."

Jason meandered to the coffee machine more than a little disturbed by the implication of a third of a morning shift not showing up for work. It was possible some were illegal aliens of the human variety, trying to avoid detection. Twenty Spectrans in custody, though--there was no doubt this was a nest.

Chief Anderson would have to cancel the conference. How could he expect to provide security in a situation like this? For every Spectran you caught, four escaped, and always the leader got out. They might be regrouping.

At the coffee machine, he made himself and Susan two large styrofoam cups of liquid wakefulness and fixed hers the way she preferred, then headed upstairs. He braced himself: no sentimental garbage. Just business. They had a mission to do.

She let him in when he knocked, and he was relieved to find her dressed and ready for the day. "Thanks." She took the coffee with a smile that utterly disarmed him. "Is everything in a state of confusion downstairs?"

"Not as much as you'd expect."

"We'd better hurry--checkout is in less than an hour."

"I got them to push it back." Jason grinned at her. "After all the irate people demanding their money back, the manager was relieved I only wanted a few hours." He sipped his coffee. "Oh, by the way--I made you pregnant."

"Thanks for telling me." She gave him a curious look. "I kind of hoped to be an active participant if that ever happened."

Chills spiraled up Jason's spine. He returned his attention to the coffee.

"We need to call Chief Anderson, don't we?"

Jason shrugged. "He knows. He'll call when he needs us to do something." He grimaced. "I hope he cancels the damned conference."

"He's got scientists flying in from six planets. I doubt he will."

Jason shook his head. "Holding it here would be insanity."

Susan didn't disagree.

Jason went into the bathroom to grab his toiletries and shove them into his suitcase. As he entered the room, the scent of her shampoo made his eyes cross. He hadn't expected that, the cocoanut scent of her hair, the scent in the air. It wouldn't have occurred to him to bring his own shampoo to a hotel any more than it would have occurred to him to bring his own mattress.

This is never going to work. How could it? Wouldn't it just be an elaborate game of pretend?

Returning to the larger room, he shoved everything into his duffle bag and tried to avoid looking at her. "G-2 to Chief Anderson."

"Anderson here. Uneventful night's sleep?"

"Hah." He concentrated on repacking his bag. "What are your orders? Shall we head for home?"

"Negative, G-2. I want you to head for Binghamton, New York."

{end part two}
Undercover, Part Three
by Jane Lebak


One hotel-restaurant lunch later (buffet style since many of the waiters were working other jobs at the hotel now) Susan and Jason sat in the ISO car heading northward.

_Talk about awkward._ Either because they were exhausted or embarrassed, neither Susan nor Jason spoke much. He played the radio (good thing he'd picked non-romantic songs, although for a different reason) and they sang along sometimes. For the last hour of the drive, Susan shut off the radio and read out loud from _Dragon Hunter,_ occasionally stumbling over dinosaur names she'd never heard or seen before but which he could easily recall from his own childhood play-set.

Now would have been the perfect time to really talk, he knew: if possible, have those heart-rending discussions in a moving vehicle and you can totally avoid eye contact with the person whose heart you're breaking, or who is breaking your heart. But at the same time, neither one would have been able to leave if it had come to that, so instead he kept his mouth shut. Yeah. Awkward.

They checked in again as a married couple, this time not even trying to play-act. They both looked as if they'd been up for three days running, and the hotel clerk didn't even notice. They got their room keys and schlepped upstairs with their luggage. Susan did little more than look around the room, pronounce it free of listening devices and hidden cameras, and then curl up on the double bed. Jason took the couch.

Two hours later, he startled awake to the chirp of his bracelet. "Hey, G-2? You still alive?"

"Barely." Blinking, Jason looked around, remembered where he was, and sat up. "What's up, Commander?"

"Just wanted to let you know we're here despite the logistical nightmare you created yesterday, and all our flock of scientist sheep will be arriving tonight or tomorrow morning. And find out if we need to redirect them to another location."

Jason glanced at Susan where she still slept. "We haven't investigated yet, but nothing suspicious so far."

"Then get your lazy butt out there and do some investigating. We need to know."

Fine, fine. Jason signed off, then approached Susan. And in the next moment, he hesitated. She lay still, warm and sleepy and soft, and he didn't want to wake her up. Yesterday had been a nightmare. It didn't seem fair to wake her up to do the same thing all over again, especially when there seemed no immediate need. So instead he pocketed his room key and went exploring on his own.

What he found pleased him immensely. This hotel, unlike the one in Philadelphia, had the ambiance of a cinder block and the same general shape. No grand balconies to impress the scientists before the snipers picked them off. No echoing lobby the size of a basketball court. No exposed restaurants or glass elevators or choke-points at the entrances. In short, much harder for ISO to patrol and fifty times as hard for Spectra to easily control. As far as he was concerned, in the Jason Guide To Hotels, this one rated five stars. They even gave a triple-A discount.

All the facilities checked out, too. A swimming pool that barely qualified as swimmable, with no care for how it looked, along with an unattractive locker room and an "exercise room" with precisely three pieces of equipment. The kind of place you'd travel across five star systems to visit? Not at all. The kind of place Spectra might not think to target? Exactly.

One at a time, the Eisenhower-era hotel passed Jason's strictest tests for acceptability. All that, and there was no Bit O Honey at the newsstand.

It was then that he felt Susan ping him. _You okay?_

_I'm checking out the hotel. You looked exhausted._

How much more she was able to pick up, Jason didn't know. He wasn't sure if she could pick up the underlying protective feeling, the concern, the nervousness that after last night's discussion she'd just pitch his heart out the window and feed it to the raccoons. That need to let things be for now balanced by the need to work together in order to protect the conference-goers.

_Thanks for letting me nap. I didn't mean to go completely asleep_. He felt a momentary shock. _Wow, it's lots later than I thought. Did you find anything troublesome?_

_Nothing._ He detested talking in his head. It always felt so unnatural to think instead of speak. _I'll be right up and fill you in._

Five minutes later, sitting as far across the room from Susan as he could manage, Jason reviewed the general layout of the hotel and explained why he felt secure and what he had been looking for, what he had found and what he hadn't. He mentioned the people he'd spoken to in passing (the guy in the coffee shop who'd worked there six years, for example, and said no, they probably weren't hiring except in the kitchen--and really, you didn't want that job because the managers were all scumbags) and how their answers reassured him that this was an actual, vital hotel operation that hadn't been infiltrated. Susan listened as if taking notes.

He was glad she was letting it lie. Glad and worried.

After debriefing her, he radioed Mark and told him it was clear, and Mark thanked him. "We'll be there in about three hours, by the way."

"In the _Phoenix_?"

"We're running shuttle duty right now because we figure it's safer this way. I'm really beginning to think I'd have been better off taking your job."

"Hey, we can't all be as lucky as I am," Jason said, and Susan giggled.

With that, he signed off, and then he looked at Susan, wondering what to do next. He remembered holding her last night, the way he'd felt her heart in his and her fear, her nervousness, her anguish that she wanted to say yes and felt required to say no. And how well she'd form-fitted to him. How right it felt.

Yeah, great train of thought to have alone in a hotel room with an attractive female who loved him too. So Jason turned on the television.

After watching something of no consequence for a while, they meandered downstairs to find a non-memorable meal in the hotel restaurant ("Memorable prices, though," Jason said. "Would you like the fifteen dollar burger, or the seventeen dollar burger with cheese?") and afterward they used the hotel pool. Mark checked in at about nine o'clock letting them know the scientists had all arrived, and Jason dried up to go to the lobby to find what he termed the Geek Brigade, as the abruptly overburdened hotel attempted to cope with a herd of scientists using a lot of intelligence, a dozen different languages, and few social skills.

Chief Anderson came up beside him at some point. "Good work in Philadelphia."

"I thought you'd promised me something boring and relaxing," Jason said. "Something where Susan couldn't possibly get hurt, so I didn't have to look out for her."

"I never dreamed you'd find that bad an infestation." The Chief shook his head. "Regardless, you and she did a terrific job. Mark said you've combed this building and found it safe."

"No Spectrans here. Actually, even I don't want to be here." Jason chuckled. "You can go downstairs if you want at some point to see how warm the heated pool is. As it turns out," he added, "it can be ice-free at thirty-four degrees Fahrenheit."

"Thanks for the warning." The Chief squinted. "How did Susan do?"

"She aced it." Hoping nothing showed in his eyes, Jason consciously put on his best poker face. "She kept her cool and pulled off a near-miracle distracting the guy who was watching the monitors." _Don't ask how. Please don't ask how._ "She didn't even seem to mind when I threw her through a plate glass window fifteen stories up."

The Chief flinched. Little details like that ought to pique his curiosity, but instead Jason had learned from long years together that instead it would guarantee a change of subject. The Chief gratified him by saying, "And she hasn't detected any trouble here, either?"

"None whatsoever."

They reviewed a few other details, and then the Chief said he'd decide in the morning how much longer Jason and Susan needed to remain. "This isn't Philadelphia," he added. "There aren't any tourist spots."

Susan had already determined that by looking through a book of local attractions. "We could collect trucks on route 17," had been the most exciting pastime they could come up with.

So Jason returned upstairs to what he hoped would be an uneventful night of watching TV and going to bed early, and although it took a couple of short answers to Susan when she asked otherwise-normal questions, he was able to insure it happened that way.

#

Night two on the couch passed uneventfully. Jason made certain to wake up first, get the shower first, and "go exploring" while Susan showered and changed.

Really, this "running away from her" thing wasn't all that difficult once he got used to it. If he could manage in a hotel room, he'd be able to manage anywhere, right?

Mark and the Chief met them for breakfast in the hotel restaurant, home of the eight-dollar pancake. ("Would you like a pat of butter?" Jason asked. "Only a dollar!") The Chief looked as tired as Jason had felt yesterday, and Mark looked...well, Mark looked like Mark. The team had spent the night in the Phoenix, not the hotel among scientists, so they'd remained pretty well rested.

Jason tried not to look at Susan that often--well, not more than normal. And not less than normal, either. How often was normal? He honestly couldn't remember right now, and he wondered how tense she was feeling too, if she felt tense at all. He wanted some space from her, just some time to think alone in his own head, and he wasn't sure how to get that until the Chief suggested he could go home.

"There's nothing vital here for you to do," he added. "If you're still tired or you'd prefer to cut your first mission a little short, you can leave. Otherwise, it's babysitting a bunch of scientists."

With a dismissive wave of his hand, Jason said, "I'm fine. It's good just to be back on duty."

The Chief said, "As you wish," and then proceeded to outline a schedule for the first day of the conference.

And that was pretty much it. Meetings began at ten o'clock. Jason and Susan had nothing explicit to do other than patrol the hotel by wandering, using the various facilities, and making sure they were in the hallways during "passing periods" between seminars.

"This is the cake run we should have had in Philly," Susan commented as they returned from the pool a couple of hours later.

"Every so often in this job, you cash in some good luck." Jason laughed. "You didn't have to splash the lifeguard, by the way."

"It was a total accident," Susan said, "except for the fact that I had to do it on purpose." When Jason glanced at her, she said, "He kept staring at me. I'm sorry, but if you're a lifeguard, you do your job. That means making sure people aren't drowning."

Rather than mentioning that he'd looked at her a couple of times too, Jason said, "I'd have splashed him for you."

"I got him pretty good, no worries." Susan looked mischievous for a moment. "He'll remember me."

They got back to the room, and Susan showered while Jason laid down on the couch, and then she emerged and he scrubbed off the chlorine. They had fifteen minutes until the scientists broke for lunch, at which point they needed to be in the dining room as listening ears.

He came out to find Susan sitting on the bed brushing her hair. "I hate the water up here." She huffed at her bangs, blowing them up away from her eyes. "It makes my hair all frizzy."

"I hadn't noticed." Jason only had to towel his hair off and it would end up looking about the same way it would if he spent half an hour working on it.

"How could you not? It's like a little halo. Now Princess? She has gorgeous hair. I'd kill for that." Susan frowned at herself in the mirror. "It's glossy, thick, and it curls just a bit at the ends so it looks pretty. Mine? Either it lies there limp or it frizzes." She lifted the ends and held them away from her face. "See?"

Jason stepped closer. "It's not really that noticeable."

"You're a guy."

"And that impacts my vision?"

As Susan turned back to the mirror, raising the brush, he caught it out of her hand. "Here--"

And before he fully realized what he was doing, he ran it slowly through the length of her hair.

Susan stiffened. "It's like combing Medusa's hair."

"It hasn't bitten so far." He did it again, running his hand and the brush through her hair together, then lifting it off her neck and taking it from the very ends in little strokes, then gradually lengthening the strokes so he worked halfway through, then up on her scalp, then the whole length.

In silence, he arranged the hair on her neck so he could work better, and momentarily he noticed she had her eyes closed. He lifted it and brushed along the bottom, then worked back from the bangs. Over and over, rhythmic, whisper-soft. He spoke in a low voice. "You have beautiful hair."

She looked as if she wanted to reply, but said nothing.

He worked along the other side of her head, and then, when he draped the hair back over her shoulder, he leaned around and kissed her lips.

It was instinctual, but his instincts came right, because she turned to him, face tilted toward his, eyes still closed, and she kissed him in return. He held her, and they stood together, the hairbrush limp in his hand but not fallen to the floor, his other hand on the top of her neck, and her arms around his shoulders. He kissed her throat, her shoulders, then again her mouth, and she held him, returned the kisses but otherwise only held him.

He released her and just looked into her eyes. She seemed as thrilled and frightened as he was.

"We can't," she whispered. "We agreed."

"I know." He kept his voice low to match hers. "I'm sorry."

"But you're not sorry. You're--" She looked aside. "I'm not sorry. I'm just-- I don't know."

He took a step back, and she followed him and put her arms around his waist, then put her face against his chest. A swirl of emotions churned up through him--hers--and he couldn't make any sense of them. Which, he suspected, was the point. She didn't even know what she wanted. She wanted him. She wanted immediacy. She wanted time. She wanted space. She wanted her family back.

He tilted his head back toward hers, inhaling the scent of her shampoo and her hair, and he said, "I didn't mean to upset you."

It had just happened, one thing to the next to the next. Business detachment to friendship to laughter to personal conversation to intimacy. A cycle as inevitable as the seasons: they were going to shift back to businesslike detachment now because they'd scared one another off, and then at some point they'd forget and be friendly, and the friendship would lead to more and then to too much.

Jason laid the hair brush back on the dresser and said, "It's time to go downstairs. We'll talk later."

Except that he didn't talk to her later. What he did instead was tell Chief Anderson that after thinking about it, he really was kind of tired, and he'd rather go straight home. Susan, he said, should stay out the conference, but he'd drive home alone. And although she was right there when he said this, she didn't protest at all. Without her, he returned to the room, packed his bag, and then drove back to Queens.

#

Three days later, Jason lay on his back in his bedroom at the ISO building, listening to the team's return.

It was a patois he'd gotten used to as an insider, but he could translate it perfectly well from behind his closed door. He could tell who would be going into the Chief's office, who'd be checking out equipment, who would be checking email, and who'd be on the phone in five minutes or out the door. Susan he couldn't predict as well, not having done missions with her, but he suspected she'd have fit herself into the general flow by now without changing it much, and the sounds through the walls proved him right.

After they'd been home ten minutes and everyone had settled down, he buzzed her on the bracelet and asked if he could talk to her.

"You're here?" Her voice over the bracelet sounded a little uneasy.

"I'm in my room, but I'll meet you in the library."

They actually met in the hallway, but he didn't move close to her and didn't say anything. When they went into the room, he sat across the oval table from her and set a shoebox on the highly glossed wood. She took a seat gingerly. He'd deliberately positioned himself so he'd be further from the door, and he'd left it open when they entered. She looked ready to run and ready to apologize at the same time.

"I hope you don't mind," he said, "but I've been thinking."

Smooth opening, he told himself. Just the kind of intelligent dialogue that women love to hear.

She didn't seem to notice. "About what?"

"You're right. It's really soon since your family died. It takes a while to get that worked down in your heart, and you've had too many other changes to really do that yet." He swallowed. "Anyhow, not long ago, my memories of my family returned. I'd never remembered anything about them, but it returned all over again, like I'd lost them yesterday."

Her eyes glistened as she nodded.

"And it's bad when you don't even have a grave for them. So I thought--"

All of a sudden, his idea sounded supremely dumb. Like, dumber than a box of rocks. He broke off.

She said, "What did you think?"

Well, he'd committed himself now. He said, "If you don't want to do it, that's fine. But I thought it might help. I mean, it helped me. But you can just not do it. It's probably not a good idea."

For a moment, she looked amused. "I've got a better idea. Why don't you just tell me what it is, and I'll figure out if I want to say no."

He met her eyes, and she smiled. For a moment, it was okay.

"When I remembered," Jason said, "I picked out things for my parents. Something to represent them. Tokens. And--" He opened the box and took out a white handkerchief. "I wrapped them up, and then I took them out into the garden, and I buried them so my parents would have a grave."

Susan's eyes widened.

He pushed the box toward her. "I don't know anything about your parents, but I picked out a bunch of things I thought might make tokens, and I figured, if you wanted, you could pick out some stuff and I'd take you to the place where I buried my parents' tokens, and then you'd have a gravesite to visit."

Susan looked into the box, and she pushed around the contents with her fingers. She looked up, and as she began to speak, her eyes flooded and she started crying.

Terrific. Always knowing the perfect thing to say, Jason.

But she reached her hand for his as he tried to take back the box, and she said, "Thank you."

Now he had no idea what to do. He hadn't wanted her to cry, but here she was, shoulders shaking, sobbing into the handkerchief he'd figured she'd use for a burial cloth of sorts, and telling him thank you. If there was any way this made sense, he couldn't figure it out.

She opened the box and pulled out a few little things. It was, Jason would have freely told her, stuff he'd call junk, just a random assortment of objects he'd found or kept over time. Things like coins, a marble, an old-style brass key, and a blue and white feather from a blue jay. He'd kept his eyes open over the last day, looking for little things that might trigger some kind of sentimental memory in her and associate with her father, her mother, her brother--with anyone. And here she was, now, picking through them and finding objects to represent everyone and everything she'd ever loved and which Spectra had ripped away from her in less than twelve hours.

He tried not to pay attention to the items, but he saw she chose the feather and the key, and there were a few more items she put into the bundle. She tied it with a slim satin ribbon he'd put into the box as well, and then she said, "Where to, Coach?"

The elevator brought them outside to the back lawn of the ISO/UN Plaza, and Jason guided her to a maple tree easily a hundred years old. He pointed out a half-buried rock between two raised roots as the place where he'd buried his parents' tokens, and he said she could choose anywhere she wanted for her parents. She decided to nestle her bundle between the next V of the roots. With a trowel, he started to dig, but instead she took it from him and dug the miniature grave herself. When she had finished, Jason went to the next tree over and pulled out a flattish stone he'd set there in case she'd want one, and she put it flat to the ground before she finished replacing the dirt.

And then, in the silence, she cried again--a freer, more heartbroken cry, and he held her without any thought of romance, only knowing how deeply the wounds went in her and how much he'd hurt her just now in giving her a way to heal even a little bit.

She said, "Do you think I should say a prayer for the dead?"

Jason admitted he didn't know any.

In her native language, Susan then intoned a low, sweet, even series of words that reminded Jason of the ocean, a rise and a rush to the recitation which left him anticipating the next words even though he'd never heard them before. And she must have prompted him at one point, because he knew when he needed to respond (he did it in English with "God, have mercy") and then she concluded, and she knelt back on her ankles at the base of the tree.

Jason stood and rested his hand on her shoulder. "I'll leave you alone for now."

She didn't look at him, only nodded.

Two hours later, while in the kitchen making some dinner, he felt her ping him.

_Thank you,_ she sent.

He hesitated rather than respond.

_I know you hate it when I cry, but thank you. I needed something like that, and I think it's going to help._

He again didn't respond.

_I'm sorry it's so difficult,_ she sent, and he felt her own frustration at herself, her fear, her unwillingness to reject someone offering what she wanted. _I just--_

At that point, she broke off and went quiet.

_Are you still there?_ he thought to her.

A moment later, he felt an affirmation.

_Take your time,_ he sent. _You're right. If you push this, you're going to hurt yourself more. You need to be ready._

He felt a lot of information from her come into his head all at the same time and blossom out like fireworks: how much work it takes with a boyfriend, the work of grieving, the work of fitting in and figuring out the team--and how she'd do it all at the same time? Plus other information: how intimidated she was, how scared she felt that he'd meet and fall in love with someone else, the worry that she was just being ridiculous and she should see how things worked out.

But really, Jason thought back, not really projecting it but figuring she'd catch the thoughts in his mind, really just seeing how things worked out meant making sure nothing worked out and they had an awful breakup when neither of them gave each other the time or the energy it took to be there for one another.

She hesitated. Then, she wondered if he'd wait for her.

_You're my friend first,_ he sent. _I think that counts for something. For a lot._

From her, relief, but still nervousness.

_Trust me,_ he sent. _We're not going to ignore this. But we can choose not to move forward just yet. Kind of like idling the engine in park rather than being in drive or reverse. Or neutral,_ he added, thinking about the final incident at the hotel. _Just let me know when your two years are up, and we'll work on it then._

Inside his heart, he felt her smile. She thanked him, then said she was going back to her apartment in Queens. He said goodnight, and then returned to making dinner out of a can. But for some reason, tonight it tasted better than usual, and he found himself thinking about picking up Susan tomorrow to bring her into Manhattan with him, and what flavor coffee he'd brew, and what book she'd be reading.
Lebak / Undercover / 29
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