A Book By Its Cover
Summary: Flint's bluster never impressed Lady Jaye, so how did they end up together? A little bit of everything – action, adventure, angst, humor, romance. Marvel Comics-based, F/LJ and some S/SE.
A/N: Honestly, this originally started as a little scene in the upcoming story, "Duplicity", but it grew too long. Being a truly demented plot bunny, it expanded into something of a back-story for Lady Jaye and how she and Flint became an item. Thanks to TiamatV for the beta - any mistakes are mine alone.
A/N II: This is part of a three-genre "It Came From the 80's Challenge" that I was foolish enough to take. Don't ask. The other stories from the challenge will be up later.
Rating: A nice safe PG-13 for a bit of language, because, really, where would there be room for smut in this story?
Disclaimer: I own nothing except a pair of cats, and they'll argue about who really owns whom.
As a child, Alison Hart-Burnett's lessons in decorum began at an early age, with her parents and grandparents undertaking the task of teaching the boisterous girl the proper behavior befitting the affluent world of East Coast old-money families.
"Never judge a book by its cover," was one of their most common sayings, insisting that she avoid rushing to judgment based on appearances or initial impressions. A truly gracious woman treated everyone with respect and manners, regardless of the other person's status. Considering a social inferior as a true inferior was an unbecoming attitude befitting the nouveau riche and not to be tolerated in a Hart-Burnett.
Young Alison took the lesson to heart, although not quite in the way her family meant. From the point-of-view of the adventurous six-year-old, the "other half" – to use one of her grandmother's euphemisms – had lots more fun, and she preferred to spend her time with them rather than in the fussy activities of her peers.
So whenever her parents needed to find her, they'd start with the garage to see if she was grilling the chauffeur on why a car worked; moved to the kitchen to see if she was singing Portuguese shanties with the housekeeper; and finally started calling the neighbors to see if she'd followed the gardeners again, pestering them to teach her more Spanish.
And when she showed up late to meals or dirty to tea, her family would resort to gently berating her on how she "never had a second chance to make a first impression." After she confronted them on the contradictory idioms, they sighed and declared she'd never learn to act like a lady.
The experience left her confused, but she loved her family, so she learned to do exactly what they wanted – act. In public, she was the model of a well-behaved society daughter: polite, friendly and with a carefully wielded wit. Privately, she mastered escaping the watchful eyes of her family to surreptitiously explore the less-refined aspects of summers on Martha's Vineyard and life outside of Beacon Hill.
Her parents grudgingly accepted the compromise, knowing their daughter was never going to be satisfied with a sedentary lifestyle. To channel her physical energy, they signed her up for lessons in tennis, swimming and sailing. Recognizing her abilities with languages and acting at an early age, they hired private tutors to hone her already sharp intellect. And when the extent of her temper became apparent, her parents took refuge in the fact that Alison was a good child at heart, with a strongly developed sense of morality who cared deeply for the people she allowed close.
Over the years, she came to appreciate the advantages her family's wealth provided, while realizing that it also ostracized her in some circles. Unconsciously, she mimicked the mannerisms of whatever crowd she was in, trying not to stand out. By the time she finished graduate school, she'd perfected the ability to adapt; she fit in with the East Coast yacht club set as easily as she did a rundown bar in Dublin.
For her part, these experiences taught her several lessons, most importantly that people were who they were, no matter the face they presented to the world. As her skills in putting on a performance improved, so did her ability to recognize it in others. What people said wasn't as important as what they did. She wasn't one to fall for whatever delusions people wanted to believe or promote about themselves.
In her mind, you might not be able to judge a book by its cover, but she decided the first few pages were usually enough to give you a pretty accurate clue.
Status wasn't a factor in this, either. The well-heeled were often just heels with money; for many of them, "acting properly" was something they did badly. Despite their superior airs, they were too wrapped up in their hedonistic lifestyles to see the world for what it really was, and they relied on their wealth and connections to avoid the consequences of their own mistakes.
And after she had a close call with the drunkard son of an influential political family – an encounter she knew would never be dealt with – the hypocrisy became too much for her to bear. Angry, and more than a little frightened, she did the last thing anyone expected and enlisted in the army.
Her parents took the news in stunned silence, not knowing the full extent of what had happened to prompt her reaction. Their dinner forgotten, they exchanged confused looks until, after an uncomfortable length of time, her mother finally asked when she left for basic training and promised to arrange for a family outing before then.
"It could have been worse," her father said after she left the dining room, and Alison paused out of sight in the hallway to gauge their reaction.
"How?" her mother countered.
There was a very long pause before he answered, "She's not doing pornography?"
Her mother laughed amusedly at that. "We could have told people she was acting again. This? Why is she doing something so, so dangerous?"
Alison felt a pang of guilt, but she knew telling her parents the truth about their friends' son would scare them more.
"Don't worry," her father said calmly. "With her linguistic degrees, she's going to end up translating documents for military intelligence. She'll be in a nice, safe desk job for the next four years."
"Well, I suppose it's a good background if she wants to work with the State Department or the one of the intelligence agencies later."
"True. Besides, she looks good in green," he added with a chuckle.
"That's so reassuring," her mother laughed back.
Her father's prediction seemed to be accurate, as she was immediately sent to intelligence school after completing her basic training. For a while, she wondered if her parents had called in some favors, but that idea faded as the rest of her training became more battle-oriented, being one of the few women allowed into some of the more advanced schools. By the time General "Hawk" Abernathy approached her to join the elite anti-terrorism team, G.I. Joe, she knew she'd made it on her own talents.
Now known as Lady Jaye – she never learned who bestowed that on her – she shone in her new role as a covert operations specialist, using her talents in acting and languages to go undercover across the world. The job was harsh, though, but she found herself flourishing under the challenges. For the first time, she was in a position where her mental, physical and psychological limits were tested, and it was a thrill.
And if their base was essentially a cramped hole in the ground under a motor pool, at least it was in New York City. Manhattan was a short distance from their Staten Island headquarters, and she wasn't the only one on the team who enjoyed escaping into the city for entertainment, shopping or good food when duties permitted.
Not that everything went well. More than a few of the males on the team rolled their eyes at the idea of her keeping up with them, despite the presence of two women already on the team. The icy and condescending looks she mastered kept the resident misogynists at bay, and she quickly proved her worth to most of the others.
Luckily for her, her first meeting with Scarlett, the team's counter-intelligence expert, didn't end in a real fight. Scarlett had had a bad day, and reacted angrily to Lady Jaye and Ripcord's unexpected presence in the secret Pit. Jaye hadn't backed down, taunting the redhead that she was being replaced.
Both of them were professionals, though, and realizing the need to work together – and share a barracks that was marginally bigger than Jaye's closet back home – they buried their differences. They were also both honest enough to admit the other was skilled, even if they seldom worked together at first.
Their first spark of friendship started over Snake Eyes.
Lady Jaye had heard the story of how he'd been horribly scarred and his vocal cords damaged saving Scarlett's life. It hadn't dawned on her that he communicated in sign language until she saw the pair having a silent conversation as he escorted the redhead to the women's barracks.
"Figures ASL was the one language I could never pick up," she said after the mute commando-cum-ninja left.
"Just one?" There was a definite hint of challenge in Scarlett's tone.
"How many languages do you speak?" Cover Girl asked, not in the mood for one of their verbal sparring matches. Personally, she got along with both of them but recognized why their tempers clashed, and she valued her health too much to point out the obvious to them.
"And not fluently?" Scarlett asked in milder manner.
"Well enough to have a semi-intelligent conversation – another six. Basic phrases, like 'Where's the American Embassy?' or 'I don't eat dog.' – about fifteen others, if you include dialects."
"You'll have to teach me some of those. And if you're stuck overseas with Shipwreck, do not ever let him pick where you go to eat," Cover Girl warned firmly as she headed for the shower.
"I thought you said you can't sign," Scarlett said as Lady Jaye sat on her bunk and began moving her hands hesitantly through the alphabet.
"I can't. I had to learn it for a graduate course in non-verbal communication, but I never got the hang of it. I only know the basics."
"That's more than most people know. You're doing fine. Here, we worked out some signs of our own. This is 'Destro'…"
"You use 'Metal Face' for him?"
"You do know this," Scarlett said encouragingly as she sat near Jaye on the bunk and started coaching her on their frequently used signs. That continued through the rest of the evening, and they were having a refresher course the next morning as they waited outside the gym for PT.
"She doesn't know sign language," Scarlett told Snake Eyes in a sarcastic but friendly voice as he approached them. He cocked his head, and Jaye felt him staring intently at her through his visor. She understood then why he unnerved so many of the team; even without being able to see his face, it seemed like he was looking right into her mind. After a bit, he pulled a pen and pad of paper from a pocket and passed her a note.
"You randomly wiggle your fingers in a very coherent manner."
For a moment, she just stared at him, finally laughing heartily as she realized the team's mystery man, a deadly fighter feared by anyone who crossed him, had a sense of humor. Judging from the reaction of those around them, it wasn't a well-known fact.
The three of them started spending more time together after that, initially to help her learn more sign language. She never picked up enough to satisfy herself, but Snake Eyes didn't hesitate to approach her if he needed someone to translate. Later, they hung out as the martial artists offered hints to help her in hand-to-hand combat, both of them vexed by her natural inclination to throw a roundhouse punch. Eventually, they occasionally spent free time together because they got along.
Jaye knew she'd never really understand Snake Eyes completely – she often suspected Scarlett felt the same way – but even the little knowledge she had far exceeded what most people ever learned. Still, she felt honored to be included in the club of those who he let get remotely close. And a definite benefit was the automatic rise in her status among the team; anyone Snake Eyes called a friend was someone to be reckoned with. It also caused an immediate reduction in the number of unwanted sexual advances directed her way.
Then Flint showed up.
Watching him strut across the training field that first day, she vaguely noted he was a strikingly handsome man, even if not her usual type. But the first words out of his mouth turned her off, as she had no patience with braggarts, always trying to over-inflate their self-importance with tales they couldn't back up.
Roadblock tried to warn her, to let her know the brash and temperamental warrant officer wasn't someone to dismiss offhand, but everything about him rubbed her the wrong way. It hadn't helped his cause when later that same day he made a pass at her, practically presenting himself as God's gift to women. He then had the nerve to look hurt when she swore at him in Afghani; it wasn't even like he had a clue what she had called him.
To her relief, she went to train some new recruits after that meeting, so she didn't have to deal with his arrogance firsthand again for a short time. Once back at the Pit, Flint came up to greet her and again made a pass, using some of the corniest lines she'd ever heard. Unable to help herself, she laughed at him, holding her sides as she tried to contain her reaction.
He walked off, rubbing the back of his head in confusion, and she had felt a tiny bit of sorrow when pain flashed briefly through his eyes. She hadn't meant to insult him, and she wasn't cruel, but the guy was completely clueless. His constant self-promotion irked her in ways she never imagined possible, and she'd grown up surrounded by professional assholes.
To make things worse, everything Flint bragged about was true. At some level, she knew he had to have some talents to make it on the team, but she was surprised by both the degree and variety he possessed. He was good at what he did, and she was too honest to deny it. Not that she'd ever stroke his over-inflated ego by admitting it to him, but she respected his abilities.
Disgustingly, he also seemed to recognize this fact, no matter how hard she tried to hide it, and it only encouraged his advances.
It should have been easy to hate him – except it wasn't. As if following some cosmic karmic law, his obvious flaws seemed necessary to balance his numerous good qualities. He was the model of military professionalism in the field, he had a quick wit, treated his friends well, always placed the safety of others ahead of his own, and he was willing to give a hand to anyone who needed it.
And as much as he flaunted his own abilities, he was also quick to recognize gifts in others, a trait that nearly earned him some respect from Lady Jaye.
It was soon after he'd joined the team, and he was in the gym with the other newer recruits getting ready for a refresher course in hand-to-hand combat. Flint had moved into her line of sight, taken his shirt off and started a "warm-up" that involved him flexing his muscles a lot. He then started talking loudly enough for her to hear, telling Stalker how good he was in a fight.
"You're right. He is a damn prancing peacock on parade," Scarlett murmured quietly to her.
Lady Jaye grinned as she realized Flint's bravado rubbed her friend the wrong way, too. "Have fun with him out there."
The redhead smiled innocently as she walked to the mat. "I always do."
When confronted with Scarlett, the burly new guys inevitably laughed at the idea of being taught hand-to-hand combat by the petite redhead with the sweet Southern voice. It never occurred to any of them that there was a reason why training members of the military's elite fell to her. None of them ever considered that maybe she had been raised in a family of martial arts instructors and had more black belts than a bad Hong Kong movie. No, the guys always treated it like a joke, at least until they were in yelping in pain as she essentially used them to mop the floor.
If nothing else, it provided entertainment for the older team members, and those first lessons were always well-attended. Jaye made sure to get a front row view of Flint's encounter. It wasn't that she wanted to see him hurt, but if there was ever a person who needed lessons in humility, it was their egocentric warrant officer.
The team got their first surprise almost immediately. Unlike prior participants, Flint didn't make a half-hearted swipe at Scarlett; he attacked furiously. His punches were forceful and fast, and when she tossed him, he rolled up and charged her again.
Lady Jaye watched intently. She wasn't worried about Scarlett, although several people turned to watch Snake Eyes' reaction to the attack. Flint was a brawler, lacking the finesse of a martial artist, but it was soon obvious there weren't many people on the team who'd be able to stand up to him in a fight.
The second surprise came when Flint blocked one of Scarlett's kicks, twisting her leg and forcing her down. She tumbled gracefully with the motion, always in control of the situation, but it was rare for her to land on the mat. That caused another round of people snapping their heads to Snake Eyes, as if he'd ever insult her by intervening. Catching his glance, Jaye half-smirked and raised an eyebrow when he slyly signed, "If I step in, she'll come after me."
Once they realized they were getting a full-out sparring match, a lot of the guys started cheering him on, hoping for some sort of payback for their own embarrassing defeats. To his credit, Flint didn't let his audience distract him, concentrating on getting through Scarlett's defenses and trying to block her counterattacks.
Lady Jaye soon realized he was trying different tactics, testing Scarlett's defenses to find her strengths, and then he modified his approach to try to exploit her weaker areas. Not that he was having a lot of luck; for all his determination and power, she had far more skill in hand-to-hand fighting and was definitely fairing better. He didn't let that faze him, refusing to give up.
When one of his punches connected with her shoulder, the guys let out a collective cheer, only to change it into a sympathetic moan. Scarlett had allowed him to land the blow in exchange for getting into a better position, and her kick caught him in the stomach hard enough to force the air out of his lungs. She finished him off with a toss that landed him on his back with a slam that echoed painfully throughout the gym.
The next two surprises came rapidly. First, Scarlett had actually broken a sweat, and she wiped her brow while giving Flint a look that almost reached respect. Surprise number four was that he actually laughed as he propped himself on his elbows.
"Damn, Red. Duke and Roadblock told me you were good, but they didn't do you justice," he got out between pants.
The unexpected compliment momentarily flustered Scarlett, but she recovered quickly and moved to offer him a hand up. "Well, Snake Eyes is the real master."
"He's better than you? I'm glad you guys are on our side," he said, flashing her one of his crooked grins.
Scarlett rolled her eyes as she faced Lady Jaye before pointing to the next recruit. His audible gulp prompted a round of good-natured laughs, and she reassured him that he didn't have to be as physical as Flint had been.
The warrant officer was taking his own share of ribbing, but he grinned as others slapped his back for actually lasting more than a few seconds. Catching Lady Jaye's eye, he gave her a small nod, which she returned graciously.
As much as it pained her, she had to admit she was impressed, but not in the way he probably thought. Sure, he was a good fighter, but he'd taken the assessment of Scarlett's skills seriously. He hadn't assumed he had to pull his punches with her because she was a woman, and he readily acknowledged her superior abilities. It showed a level of maturity that she hadn't believed the testosterone-addled lout possessed, and she was getting ready to concede the point to him.
Then he opened his mouth.
"You have any black belts I should know about?" he asked softly, stepping into her personal space and bending his head close to hers.
"No," she said sharply, trying to step back, but the crowd was too dense.
"I have plenty of moves I'd love to show you. I guarantee that you'll love them, too. Double your refund if you're not."
She sighed loudly before glaring at him. "Do you think up these idiotic lines in advance hoping you'll have a chance of using them?"
"Hey, it's all on the spot. Call it a gift of inspiration."
"Inspiration? God, I hope you aren't waiting for a call from Hallmark. I don't think they have a cheesy and insipid line of cards for the brain dead."
And it happened again – the impression that there was a fleeting look of hurt that almost made her feel sorry for him. Swearing under her breath, she left and headed to the surface to get some fresh air before returning to her reports.
Scarlett and Snake Eyes found her at lunchtime, and both of them commented positively on how Flint had taken the lesson seriously, even if he lacked style. She must have scowled, because they turned to each other for a second before fixing her with matching stares. Deciding that talking to someone might help, she explained her run-ins with Flint and her growing frustration on how to deal with him.
"I don't know what's worse: that he can't take a hint, or that he's always going on about how he's God's gift to the universe," she snarled. "No, it's his arrogance. Definitely his arrogance. What I don't get is why. Most people who go on like that do it because they're insecure."
"And why can't that be true in his case?" Snake Eyes signed.
Lady Jaye just blinked in shock. Was it that simple? Was all his posturing an act? She tried to think what could have happened to him that left him with such an overwhelming need to tout himself.
It was just too hard to accept. Flint's abilities were so obvious even without his own self-promotion. There was no way to doubt his skills – with the exception of modesty, a trait to which he was apparently deathly allergic.
"What has he got to be insecure about?" she asked honestly, narrowing her eyes when Scarlett gave her a wicked grin. "Don't even go there. I can admit that he has talents and still want to push him out of an airplane without a parachute."
"Whatever you say," she said, winking as she and Snake Eyes left to eat in private.
As she got ready for bed that night, she again considered Snakes' question, but she still couldn't understand what would make Flint doubtful. He exuded confidence, but it was grounded in a very accurate understanding of his own abilities. If he said he'd be able to do something, the odds were he could and do it well.
It was a fact she'd been forced to admit through experience. Their respective positions on the team meant they often worked together. As the Joe's primary tactician, he developed the plans to deal with various problems the team tackled, and she supplied the intelligence analysis to guide him.
And for all their personal confrontations, they worked well together, primarily because he stopped trying to get in her pants long enough to get the job done. He respected her abilities, always listening to her suggestions seriously and increasingly asking her opinions. As long as he focused on work, he was tolerable – not quite enjoyable, but pretty close.
Flint was also one of the most intelligent people she'd ever met, and her own education had put her in some rarified company. Watching him work through a tactical problem, trying out possible scenarios to find the one most likely to succeed with the lowest risk to the team, was amazing.
The man's brain was incredible. If it was the organ he thought with when around her, she'd probably actually like him.
Unfortunately, Lady Jaye rapidly reached the conclusion that he saw her as something to conquer, a sexual trophy to brag about. He might respect her professionally, but that was as far as it went. For her part, she saw him as nothing more than an annoying, albeit very intelligent, self-centered lecher.
Her views took a sudden shift the day Cobra invaded the Pit.