Small Favors

Hello again! So... this story started out a hundred-word thought bunny and ended up being... well... as you see it. A bit random, a bit silly, and just a bit odd. This is roughly set in the comic-verse; sorry, Duke/Scarlett fans: Duke hasn't even appeared on the scene yet at this point! Still, I hope you enjoy it!

Nature and the surgeons' blades had spared Snake-Eyes' lips from much of the scarring, after the accident—Doc had explained the process to Scarlett when she'd asked. She'd ended up regretted the asking, of course. He'd started out relatively simple, but, well, Doc was Doc, and he loved his work—by the end of the speech, he'd completely lost her. Something about the vermilion border and blood flow and mucous membranes, punctuated by numerous enthusiastic hand gestures—that was the last bit of the explanation that she could conclusively say had been in English. But she'd gotten enough out of it to understand that for the most part, Nature had done Snake-Eyes a favor, and spared his lips even when it hadn't spared any other part of his face from the cracked-glass webbing of pink burn scars.

Scarlett sighed. Not that that was saying much, but… it was something.

It was winter, still, he'd been out of the hospital less than a month. Nature, it seemed, was done doing Snake-Eyes any more favors—even with his mask on, she could see him blinking furiously to clear his stinging eyes from the frigid, dry wind, the way she was, as they ran. She wasn't sure if it was impressive or scary, the way he'd thrown himself back into PT after a full six months of deconditioning, under bedrest and limited physical therapy in the hospital…

Well… supposedly he'd been under bedrest and limited physical therapy.

Right. Uh-huh. And anyone who really thought that doctors' orders could keep a soldier like Snake Eyes down obviously needed to spend a little more time with the Airborne Rangers. More than once, when she'd come to visit, she'd caught him hastily backing away from the door with his T-shirt damp with sweat… like he'd been doing pull-ups on the door frame.

Not that she was complaining. Scars or not, he really did have just about the nicest body she'd ever seen on a man… and considering the men she hung around with, that was absolutely saying something.

The thing was, he got up earlier than everyone else to start his run—O-dark-hundred, for real. Scarlett suspected it was because the rest of the Joes meant well, but they wanted to treat him like he was fragile, skin to soul. If she'd been in his shoes, it'd have pissed her off, too! And it did piss her off—it was insulting. Damn it, couldn't they see that it took a tough man to survive what he had, but it took a tougher man to want to keep saving the world after it'd taken so much away from him, person by person, piece by piece?

It was typically about this time that she remembered: the people who actually knew about the losses that went beyond his face and voice could be counted on one hand... and not even all of those fingers were friendly.

Well, she knew from hard experience that PT was more enjoyable—or at least less painful—with a friend... even if she was sure others on the Joe team might have said that Snake-Eyes never asked for friendship, never appeared to want it. Besides, she knew that wasn't true—had known it from his first shy smile at her.

And so, after the first few days of waking up, watching him running in the snow, overhead lights reflecting off the sparse new growth of his blond hair… she'd stepped out dressed in her own workout gear. He'd given her a startled look the first time she'd joined him, shivering in her windbreaker… but he'd never complained, and she thought that he might even be glad for her company.

So what if she had to get up more than an hour earlier to join him? For one, she liked spending downtime with him—she always had—and, ironically… he wasn't all that much quieter now than he had been before. For another, it was nice, not having to fight with the crowd for a spot on the weight bench or at the punching bag. And lastly, it came with the definite perk of being able to spar privately with Snake Eyes, martial arts master.

Cheesy? God, yes, but she really didn't know how else to describe him—the man had infinite patience and some moves that practically made her weak at the knees. There were days when not even she could tell if her bones going to jelly around him was with professional envy or admiration—oh, admit it, Shana, it's lust, just, you know, not the normal kind.

Scarlett grimaced. Okay, maybe a bit of the normal kind.

He'd already taught her, through a mix of hand gestures, physical demonstrations, and scribbled instructions, a couple of really neat tricks; she was pretty sure the next Cobra she came in contact with would not be happy with him.

Though she'd also discovered, ever since she'd started mirroring him on his morning training, that 'painful' was relative. As in, what he considered painful, she considered… inhumane torture the likes of which shredded the Geneva convention. And that might have been a mild exaggeration, but… only a mild one. Scarlett wondered if he was using PT as an outlet for his annoyance at still not being allowed out on active duty.

At least, she hoped so—no-one could keep up training at this pace. Could they? There were days when she even thought that his version of a workout would make a certain Wayne "Beach Head" Sneeder retire a happy staff sergeant, certain his life's work was done.

But there were more upsides than downsides… though it was hard to remember it on days when she was doubled over with her hands on her knees, trying to remind her body that it wasn't going to collapse, it didn't want to vomit, and that it'd been through worse. At some point. Maybe. At any rate, after three weeks of morning PT with Snake Eyes, she was quite possibly in the best shape of her life… and he'd finally given up on trying to keep that rubber mask on the whole time she was around him.

It was… something. A start.

He pulled off his mask and took the towel she was holding out to him with the barest nod of his chin before he turned away from her to towel down his face and neck.

Scarlett tried not to sigh. Or not.

She didn't stare—he'd never said anything, of course, but she suspected that he hated his face at least partially for the fact that it brought so much attention to him. He'd been such a gentle, self-effacing man, otherwise. But wasn't avoiding looking at him, in its own way, just as cruel as staring—especially since she knew exactly why he was scarred the way he was?

Scarlett studied his profile. It wasn't so bad. Or… okay, that was a lie. It was, but truthfully, she'd gotten used to the sight of him.

It was just… his mouth was still so perfect against the rest of his face… it stood out, pink and whole. She wouldn't have called it kissable—there wasn't anything welcoming about it, not really. His lips were still hard, firm, resolute. Unsmiling. They were also just a little dry, chapped and flaking around the edges.

And that… that bothered her. Which was dumb. Beyond dumb, actually. But it did.

Maybe dry lips were a small thing compared to what else was going on with him. Well, no, actually, they were definitely a small thing. But Winter didn't look like it was going to release its grip on the atmosphere anytime soon, and even with Snake-Eyes' face turned mostly away from her, she could see the tiny twitch of his chin, the sweep of his tongue.

"You know, you don't have to do that," she murmured, finally. "It doesn't help. Actually, it makes it worse"

And she'd know: when she moved from Atlanta, Georgia, to New Haven, Connecticut, for college, she'd thought it was the coldest, driest place on Earth—hah!—and spent much of her first winter there with the corners of her mouth so tight and desiccated they'd cracked and bled, and the skin at the bow of her upper lip so thick that she hadn't been able to purse her lips.

Snake-Eyes actually turned just enough that he could meet her eyes, and cocked his head at her, inquisitively.

"Licking your lips. It just makes them drier. We do have lip balm in the commissary," she poked his shoulder, gently. "Heck, I'll give you some."

He shrugged and turned away from her again—maybe a dismissal, maybe something else—a quiet reprimand? She was pretty sure she'd never again meet anyone else who could say "What would be the point?" with just an almost-invisible twitch of one shoulder. But she'd thought maybe—just maybe, there might have been the beginning of amusement in his eyes.

Or not. Or maybe he was just brooding again.

He turned his chin the rest of the way away from her, and pulled his mask back on, staring out over the horizon. He didn't twitch when the overhead lights finally blinked off, in preparation for the sun finally coming up. The thin snow whipped his face, but he didn't blink.

Yup. Brooding.

Scarlett took several deep, cleansing breaths, carefully suppressing the desire to knock him down with one good kick behind his stubborn knees. "Look, you. I'm not being silly or superficial. Everyone deserves to be comfortable," she retorted—and almost regretted it when he turned to look at her over his shoulder, his gaze so steady, too steady, dim and blue in the shadows. Almost. It was strange how he could be eloquent right through the mask, when he wanted to be.

He was never… comfortable, in so many ways.

Frankly, neither was she, and she missed being comfortable with him. The tension between them… sometimes it was electric, and sometimes it was awkward, and sometimes, like now, it was just irritating. Perhaps that was why she tossed out, raising her chin defiantly, "And, let me tell you, pal, I don't like kissing rough lips."

Oh, Lord. Her brothers always had told her she had to have a redheaded temper underneath all her years of discipline, but—OhGoddidIjustsaythat?

Snake-Eyes' face whipped around, and even through the delicate latex mask she could tell that his eyes were wide. Then his head fell back, a big hand coming upwards to sweep through his own fine, short blond hair, and after a long, long moment, she saw his shoulders shake. Just once, maybe twice, before he dipped his chin to rest his forehead on his palm.

It was such a bizarre thing that it took her a moment to realise what was happening.

Scarlett blinked at him, and raised an eyebrow. "Are you laughing at me, Snake-Eyes?"

He shrugged again, and her eyes narrowed—if that was his one of his noncommittal twitches again, she really was going to kick him in the kneecaps—but this time, he was actually looking at her, studying her expression. The mask moved, a little, like he was biting down on his lip, and he reached into his pocket for his small notepad and pen. This is your strategy for getting me to buy Chapstick? he asked in his neat cursive, holding a bit of paper out to her.

Okay, maybe it was sort of funny, that she was harassing the best martial artist she knew, a man who had given his face and almost his life to save her, about lip balm. She nibbled her lip sheepishly. "Maybe?"

This time, she was sure that his mask moving was a smile. Either that, or a grimace. And you're our field intelligence officer? He double-underlined the "you're."

But then again, she wouldn't have let him get away with snickering at her before, either.

"Hey!" she protested, planting her hands on her hips. "I was serious!"

[I know. That's why I was laughing,] he passed her another piece of paper, his eyes crinkling as he smiled—she was starting to recognize these things, a little more—and this time, she did kick him. And was more than a little offended when he let it land.

But she thought that his gaze was twinkling a little more when he reached out and apologetically offered her a water bottle, and gestured that she should precede him back into the Pit.

He'd do whatever he wanted—she had no say over his life, obviously. Of course, he was right, in the end: there really wasn't a point to her pestering him about his dry skin.

At least it didn't seem like he was going to make too much of an issue about her total inappropriateness, and it hadn't made things any more awkward between them than they already were. She'd known that her comment about kissing could have probably been taken badly, considering that they weren't… that way; they hadn't been since he'd turned his face from her in the hospital.

Scarlett had to admit, she'd thought about it more than a little: their friendship had only gotten closer since his accident, but relationships were more delicate than friendships, eggshells just waiting for that tap in just the right spot before… splat, emotion reduced to onomatopoeia. She wondered if their being together had been just too fledgling to survive, still warm and fragile. And the loss of his face, his voice… they were substantially more than just 'a tap.'

It had taken him six months to ask her out. One date—a wonderful date. He'd kissed her at her door—the barest little brush of his lips against hers, so tentative she'd wanted to smile… but so, so sweet it had left her trembling. One date with the promise of more.

One week later. One week later, everything had changed.

But she'd wanted that promise all the same.

Scarlett understood, of course, then as much as now, and hoped that he just needed time to adjust, but… she'd seen too much loss to be able to pretend that given time, things would go back to the way they'd been. If his feelings for her had changed, if he'd decided she wasn't worth the trouble… well. Scarlett was sure that she wasn't the first girl to have silly, romantic dreams about a quiet man with a martial artist's confidence and a gentle, lonely soul, and she wouldn't be the last. If he didn't feel the same way… well, as her Da put it, it was his own bleedin' loss.

Scarlett sighed again, and poked at her runny breakfast eggs. Her Da had also always told her all those lovesick boys she'd beat up on as a teenager would give her bad karma, but… this was ridiculous.

But… it was the first time she'd seen Snake-Eyes laugh since… before. And the sweet, warm streak that had coursed down her throat and settled in her chest at the sight of his amusement, the smile that had tickled at her lips in response, the thrill down her back… those were familiar, from long before the crash. It might have been his own bleedin' loss, but it was her own bleedin' pain to deal with.

Maybe they couldn't have what they'd been heading towards. Maybe she could have his friendship, and be satisfied with that, grateful for the fact that he didn't blame her for what he'd been through. Maybe the way she felt about him—the way she still felt about him, damn her silly Southern heart—would fade into longing, and then into memory, in the end.

Maybe what she'd thought was a promise would end as just a dream, after all.

But, to Scarlett's puzzlement, the next time Snake-Eyes pulled off his mask, before he turned away from her, she noticed that his lips were soft and moist, glistening with lip balm.


Start: April 29, 2009
End: April 30, 2009

And once again, we're done. ^^ I hope you enjoyed it! I suspect that lips tend to be just as vulnerable to scarring as any other part of the body, truthfully (the reason they're pink is that the skin is so thin, after all) but what the heck, this is fanfic, right? It gave Scarlett something to fixate on. And yes, I know that when we actually see what Snake-Eyes' face looks like in the comic, his lips are scarred. ^^;