Author's Note: This is a companion piece to "G.I. Joe is Not Part of the Conspiracy," which is a Justice League Unlimited fic that I'm still working on. I found G.I. Joe and Justice League Unlimited around the same time, and was immediately struck by the similarities between two of my new favorite pairings—Snake-Eyes/Scarlett and Question/Huntress. Both are couples involving an injured, terse, yet often surprising masked man and an enthusiastic, active, unsubtle woman. Unfortunately, crossing the two pairings over would require a lot more time and skill than I possess. For the purposes of this story, the JLU and all DC comic characters are fiction to the Joes.

This story is set circa 1990. Cell phones existed, but they were rare and clunky. Nevertheless, they were less obvious than radio headsets and walkie-talkies.

A few notes: Firstly, I can't take credit for a certain description of Cobra Commander; that was coined by the good people on the Why, God, Why? forums. A PDA is, of course, a public display of affection. And hot-bunking means sleeping in shifts, so that as soon as one man vacates the bed, the next one climbs into it.

Dedicated to TiamatV, who inadvertently introduced me to Snake-Eyes/Scarlett and to the wonderful world of Joe fic in general.

Disclaimer: The G.I. Joe universe and all associated characters and concepts are the property of Hasbro Inc. I make no claim on any ideas associated therewith, and derive no profit (monetary or otherwise) from them. Please accept this work in the spirit with which it is offered—as an indication of admiration and affection, not as an attempt to defraud these characters' owners.

Edit: Thanks to MagD for setting me straight on the issue of Scarlett's family. Much appreciated!

Poor Choice of Field Equipment

By Totenkinder Madchen

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. It was the worst for Shana O'Hara, a.k.a. Scarlett of the G.I. Joes, because Alpha team was quietly scoping out a possible Cobra stronghold in Chicago, Illinois—in the middle of December, with a negative-thirty windchill cutting right through their coats and gloves. Yet it was the best of times, because despite the weather Christmas was coming, and the streets were filled with people wrapped up well against the cold. People in scarves, parkas, ski masks . . .

Opportunities for leave had been scarce that year; some unknown internal conflict had kicked Cobra into high gear, and as various factions of the organization fought to see who could out-terrorize the others, the Joes' workload had increased exponentially. An undercover stakeout was about as good as it had gotten in months. An undercover stakeout where Scarlett had been ordered to spend six-hour shifts wandering through the downtown shopping district, casing stores, listening in on conversations and keeping a sharp eye out for the clandestine symbols that Cobra operatives wore to identify themselves . . . well, that was almost better than leave. It was, hallelujah, noncombative undercover. And when the wind whipped up and nobody in their right mind would set foot out of doors without a mask, that was as good as it got.

Scarlett had known women who couldn't resist showing off their handsome or talented boyfriends, and she'd rolled her eyes at them plenty of times. Then she met Snake-Eyes, and she began to understand the urge. He was kind-hearted, intelligent, strong ("One hell of an ass, too," as Cover Girl had said on a particularly boozy occasion. "Nice, firm, and just enough to hang onto when the goin' gets rough"), and as skilled a man as she'd ever known. But in the eyes of the world, he was far from handsome. Worse: to people who didn't know him, he was hideous.

Though Snake-Eyes could be surprisingly sentimental, the fact remained that they couldn't do plenty of things that other couples could. Thanks to his face, Snake-Eyes lived under some of the strictest civilian-contact rules in the whole team; they couldn't exactly do dinner and a movie, not when they were sure to be noticed and remembered anywhere they went. The prosthetics had solved the problem . . . sort of . . . but though it was nice to get outside occasionally, Scarlett knew that the fake face killed his pride. And she wouldn't dream of asking him to go out bare-faced, when it would lead people to stare at him. So the backgrounds of their courtship were almost always the same: PT, dojo, cafeteria, his room, her room, jungle, desert, Cobra base, death trap, helicopter bay, transport plane. The usual.

But now, a killing Midwestern winter had come rolling in on the Joes, and with it came the ski masks. Scarlett couldn't have been more on top of the world. Patrolling in the open, with Snake-Eyes, on Michigan Avenue. The street's other name was the Magnificent Mile, and in Scarlett's eyes, it lived up to it.

The sky had begun to darken early, but night didn't come quickly in the city. Red and yellow light spilled out from the doorways of a hundred stores, turning the damp pavement into squares of gold. Anatomically impossible mannequins beckoned stiffly from behind plate-glass windows. Salvation Army volunteers manned red kettles on every corner, ringing bells hard despite the trembling of their gloved hands. Citizens layered Wal-Mart parkas over Gucci and Armani in their quest to stay warm, even as the freezing wind skimmed the steam off their lattes. It was hardly a place of culture the way Paris or Morocco was, but it was a place of comfort, wealth, freedom, and safety: a nice change for Scarlett.

They took shifts. Storm Shadow and Stalker were currently holed up in the field command center—one of their two rooms at the Amber Inn. Duke and Shipwreck were scouting eastwards towards the lake, while Roadblock and Flint were catching catnaps before their night shift started. The mission, codenamed "Operation: Grandma's Present," was well under way.

(There had been a lot of protesting when the assignments were handed out, she remembered. The Joes were experienced at long surveillance missions, and if Cobra really did have a base in Chicago, then it was their job to find it and root it out. Yet being assigned to covert surveillance in a shopping district had brought most of the men in for merciless ribbing from their teammates, and Shipwreck had asked why they couldn't all be assigned someone like Cover Girl—as camouflage, he said.)

But by the end of the fourth day, even the unusually lenient op had begun to wear on some of the team. Cobra was being unusually subtle and elusive, and it was downright unnerving. Scarlett had to admit that she had gotten used to the usual trappings of Cobra's presence—snake tattoos, armed guards, "Hail Cobra!" and all. Seeing nothing, hour after hour, was becoming a little eerie.

* * *

The sun was just sinking behind the tall glass buildings when Scarlett's fourth-day shift officially ended. The wind was picking up, gray clouds massing high above the city in what looked like the beginning of one hell of a snowstorm, and the temperature dropped another couple of degrees.

Standing casually in front of a Louis Vuitton window display, Scarlett tried to hide her treacherous shivers. Georgia would never have gotten cold enough to let Snakes go out masked, she reminded herself. But then, Georgia also never had gutters filled with icy smoke-colored slush, or a wind chill that made her teeth chatter. True, she'd been in colder places than this—but she'd been wearing snow gear then, not civvies.

Thank God the shivering distracted her somewhat. Her heart thudded dully as she stared at a particularly ugly handbag, wondering if Snake-Eyes was going to come back out.

There was a buzzing noise from her bag as the mobile phone began to ring. They were bigger and bulkier than the headset she was accustomed to, and Snake-Eyes could only use one by tapping out Morse, but they were much less obtrusive in public places. Never let it be said that the Joes were behind the times on technology.

(And Snakes could get ninety words a minute if he was really motivated . . . where was he?)

"Status report?" Storm Shadow's voice snapped down the line. Scarlett frowned a little.

"I haven't found a thing," she replied, doing her best to keep the tension out of her tone. Storm Shadow hadn't said a thing about it, but leaving the notoriously active ninja holed up in a hotel room was making him the most badly-tempered of the team. "Mike had an idea, so he went off. He should be back in about ten minutes. Have you tried calling him?"

"Mike" was Snake-Eyes, and the "idea" had been a glimpse of what appeared to be two disguised Cobra operatives disappearing into an alley. Scarlett had been hot on his heels, but he'd signed for her to watch the mouth of the alley and disappeared. And if he wasn't back in ten minutes, then she was going in after him. But then, she couldn't say as such in public.

"No message yet. Tell me you found something, I'm losing my mind in here-"

Her heart leapt as a shape moved in the glass, and Scarlett cut the ninja off in mid-complaint. "Wait! Wait! He's coming back. He's okay, Tommy." Storm Shadow muttered something, too low for her to hear. "I guess he didn't find anything."

"Damn. Storm Shadow out."

The call ended before Scarlett could say anything more.

"Okay," she said into the silence. "Bye." What's his problem?

She took a deep breath as she put the phone away and turned. Snake-Eyes was moving slowly, but not painfully, and his stance was loose if not calm. Even through the civvies—parka, jeans, sneakers, and all—he was unmistakably a ninja, but not a ninja on alert. False alarm, she guessed, and took a deep breath to steady herself.

"Find anything?" she asked casually. Snake-Eyes shook his head and shrugged, then raised his hands to sign.

[Two shoplifters. Nervous and suspicious, but no trouble.]

Trouble. Code-name for Cobra, for the benefit of anybody else around who could speak sign language.

"Are you all right?" Translation: are they all right?

[I'll tell you later,] he signed. For a moment, she thought there was a flash of chagrin in those blue eyes. [It's . . . strange.]

That was unusual, to say the least. She hoped he hadn't tripped, or something; everybody had their occasional mishaps, but as a master ninja, Snakes tended to interpret those mishaps as personal failings. If he didn't want to talk about it in public, though, there was probably something more to it. Despite her general tiredness, Scarlett couldn't help being a little intrigued.

She nodded in acknowledgment, and as he lowered her hands, she reached out one of her own. Their fingers twined around each other, and even through the thick gloves, she could feel the warmth of his skin. "All right, then," she said softly, smiling a little. "We can talk about it when we get back to the hotel . . ."

He shook his head again, this time a little bemusedly, and his hand squeezed hers. The grip lingered, and Scarlett had the feeling that there was more on his mind than simple hand-holding. But mask or no, Snake-Eyes was still Snake-Eyes, and Ninjas Didn't Do PDA. Damn the budget office, putting multiple pairs in the same rooms . . .

* * *

Roadblock and Flint were already on their way out of the hotel when they arrived, but the two teams avoided eye contact. Snake-Eyes and Scarlett were officially rooming with Storm Shadow and Stalker, and though every Joe on the street was heavily disguised, they still had to make sure nobody could connect them to each other. As they passed, Flint dropped a cigarette butt and ground it out on the sidewalk with his heel. Scarlett raised an eyebrow at that: he was really getting into character.

The Amber Inn was the perfect place for eight Joes on a mission to hole up: not too expensive, central to the Chicago downtown, and so busy with conferences and seminars that nobody paid attention to a few more out-of-towners hanging around. Granted, they would have been even less noticeable if the upstairs brass had gotten them all separate rooms—three unrelated adult males and one unrelated adult female, all sharing one room with two beds and a twenty-four-hour privacy sign on the door, seemed to be raising some eyebrows among the cleaning staff—but Scarlett guessed that governmental generosity only went so far.

She and Snakes had no problem sharing, and the other two were hot-bunking it. But the discontent was severe, and the external appearance was kinky. At least Duke, Shipwreck, Roadblock, and Flint were all officially registered for the Insurance Adjusters' Convention downstairs, so they could be excused sharing a room; out-of-town businessmen on a limited budget would endure all kinds of indignities.

The place was a good spot to hide out, but the room situation really was getting on peoples' nerves. As she knew, ninjas didn't do public displays of affection. And since they had to be on constant alert, ninjas didn't do private displays of affection either.

In fact, this particular undercover mission had put a complete kibosh on all displays of affection, period. It reminded her of the time that a Cobra raid had cut into Flint and Lady Jaye's planned leave time; the frustrated Flint had taken to calling their adversary 'the Cockblock Commander,' which had earned him some extra PT time but plenty of respect from the greenshirts . . .

She'd briefly considered kicking Stalker and Storm Shadow out of the room, hanging a necktie on the doorknob, and having her way with Snake-Eyes for as long as they were both conscious. Unfortunately, mission regs stated that at least two people had to be in the room, alert and on watch, for the entirety of the op—and Scarlett was more than professional enough to know that in such a situation, she'd be alert but definitely not on watch.

As they passed through the lobby, Snake-Eyes slid an arm around her waist and pulled her closer. Scarlett found herself briefly considering the necktie again, but was distracted by an odd crumpling sound—coming from Snakes' parka, no less. It sounded thick and crisp, and it reminded her of the martial arts journals that she used to hide in her backpack in grade school.

"Mike, do you have a magazine in there?" she asked, poking one finger at his side. The noise came again—yep, definitely. Why was Snake-Eyes carrying a magazine?

She looked up at him, but he was staring straight ahead. His grip on her was tighter than ever—too tight, she thought. He was strung as tight as a bowstring, and seemed unable to meet her eyes. The hand on her hip was stiff and tense.

What the heck?

Their room was on the fourth floor. As soon as the elevator doors closed behind them, Scarlett turned to Snake-Eyes and put a hand on his shoulder. "Snakes, what's wrong?"

He shook his head.

Snake-Eyes had his own vocabulary. He'd always been quiet, even before the helicopter crash; it was just the way he was. For him, actions spoke louder than words. And for Scarlett, a simple motion from him could be better than an eloquent speech from someone else.

Something was preying on his mind, and it was making him angry—angry with himself. Nobody was better at picking over his own mistakes than Snake-Eyes.

The elevator jolted to a halt, and the doors slid open. She relaxed a little, expecting him to remove his arm and step away from her (professional, that was definitely the word for him, even on undercover field work) but to her surprise, he didn't. Instead, he loosened it slightly and turned to face her, raising his free hand hesitantly.

[Shana, I think I-]

"There you are. Finally!"

Rats. Whatever Snake-Eyes had been planning to say, he clammed up in the face of his irritated sword-brother, who had stuck his head out of their room and was beckoning to them.

Thomas "Tommy" Arashikage, a.k.a. Storm Shadow, had been placed on the team for the same reason Snake-Eyes and Roadblock had been—because Command had no idea how dangerous the Chicago Cobra force was, and the Joes needed to ensure the maximum amount of force available within the minimum amount of time. Unfortunately, Storm Shadow's experience with undercover and stealth work was geared more towards midnight infiltrations and clinging to the undersides of cars; spending hours holed up in a hotel room, monitoring the radios and poring over surveillance footage, was slowly driving him up the wall. The exasperation showed on his face, and Scarlett resisted the urge to say something cutting. Starting a fight with Storm Shadow would accomplish nothing.

Besides, she knew he'd already wracked up half a dozen citations for his bad conduct during the mission. Threatening someone who already had Beach Head's punishment PT hanging over him would be like trying to rust Destro's head by spitting at it: while entertaining, ultimately fruitless.

"Traffic was murder," Scarlett said by way of explanation as they stepped out of the elevator: a neutral comment, totally unremarkable to anyone listening. Storm Shadow just shook his head and stepped back into the room, looking as if he wanted to bite something. At that, Snake-Eyes sighed—just a little, making Scarlett smile.

After four days of Joe habitation, the hotel room didn't look like a hotel any more. Military discipline might rule back in the Pit, but field missions could get awfully messy awfully quickly. Suitcases full of monitoring equipment had been unpacked and set up on every available surface, displacing the TV and completely overwhelming the nightstands and dressers. Stalker had taped a small picture of his wife next to the radio array, and somebody had left a half-finished carton of Panda Express chicken on top of the television.

But all that was secondary to the Joes themselves. For one thing, there was Storm Shadow sitting cross-legged on the right-hand bed, running a cleaning cloth over one razor-edged throwing star. Six more were already fanned out on the bedspread. And there was Stalker in the olive-drab military t-shirt, his gang tattoos faded but still clearly visible on his arms and neck. Scarlett was certain that he had at least two holstered weapons hidden under his clothes—hell, they all did. She couldn't help being a little amused at that: the scene was just as odd as anything the cleaning staff could imagine, but more terrifying than titillating.

"How'd it go?" Stalker said, rising stiffly to his feet and stretching. Scarlett could hear the joints crack as he flexed his shoulders. "Anything interesting?"

"We din't see nothin' an' nobody," Scarlett drawled in a guttural imitation of Beach Head. "Shoot, I spent better time pickin' off wild turkeys than hangin' around this dump."

Stalker laughed a little, but his expression remained worried. "Don't let Beach hear you, O'Hara, or you'll be doing pushups until the end of time. Snake, what was that business with the alley?"

The others couldn't see it, but Scarlett sensed the tension in the ninja's body. His arm stiffened where it rested against hers, and his shoulders bowed inward just the tiniest fraction. Any other man would've been yelling "Get off my case! Leave me alone!"

Instead, he just raised one hand and signed briefly. [Petty criminals acting suspicious. No leads.]

Stalker raised an eyebrow. "Well, all right then," he said. His eyes met Scarlett's, and she knew that he was just as aware as she was; unlike her, however, he wasn't the kind to press the issue. "You did the sweep from Randolph to Grand?" She nodded, and he turned to Storm Shadow, who was packing his throwing stars into a neat little pouch. "Hey, Storm. Grand to Lake Shore Drive. Bring your camera."

"The tourist routine again?" Storm Shadow said dryly as he jumped to his feet, moving with far less grace than usual. "I hate to sound petty, but one of these days, Stalker, it'll be your turn to play civilian and my turn to run cover."

"Intel says ninety percent of the obvious tourists on Michigan Avenue are Japanese, Storm. When we're running an op on Cabrini Green, you can be the cover." Stalker moved past Scarlett and Snake-Eyes, grabbing a neutral-colored parka and a thick pair of gloves off the coatrack. "And besides, aren't ninjas supposed to be good at sneaky? Nobody's gonna suspect you if you're buying postcards and taking pictures of street signs."

Storm Shadow was getting kitted out as well, but with considerably less willingness. Despite her worry about Snake-Eyes, Scarlett couldn't fight down a laugh as she saw the ninja pulling an I LOVE THE WINDY CITY sweatshirt over his head. By her side, the other ninja remained as impassive as ever, but she thought she felt some of the tension in his shoulders ease momentarily as Storm Shadow topped off his ensemble with a Cubs cap and a murderous expression.

"The Young Master of the Arashikage clan," he said, giving his reflection in the mirror a glare. "Perhaps it's time I followed my brother's example and found myself a place far, far away from the rest of you people."

At that, Snake-Eyes raised a hand again. [It doesn't work,] he signed. [Trust me.]

"All right, fun time's over," Stalker grunted as he finished lacing up his snow boots. "Grand through Lake Shore. Transmission gets a little sketchy around the Hancock, so make sure to stay on the radio, all right?"

"Got it," Scarlett said. She and Snake-Eyes moved aside, and Stalker and Storm Shadow took their place in the doorway. "What's tonight's panic code?"

"'I dropped my coffee.' What's yours?"

She mentally consulted her Morse alphabet. It had to be something Snake-Eyes could sign, so . . . "'T. E. A.' If it's me, I'll be saying 'tea.'"

"Wasn't that one of those pickup lines from a while back? 'Coffee, tea, or me'?" At the blank expressions from the other three members of the team, Stalker shook his head. "Never mind. Something my wife said once. See you in eight hours."

* * *

Scarlett did the calculations. Twelve to fourteen seconds for Stalker and Storm Shadow to reach the elevator. Four minutes maximum for the elevator to come—but no, she could hear it outside already, the chime of the downward bell just slightly shriller than the upward bell. Two minutes in the elevator. Forty-seven to fifty-nine seconds to make it outside the doors. Then, and only then, did she turn to Snake-Eyes.

"Snakes? What's wrong?"

The ninja had peeled off his ski mask and parka and was seated on the bed that Storm Shadow had just vacated, legs crossed, back straight—trying to meditate, doubtless. She could tell that it wasn't working. His face was drawn and tense.

"Snakes?" she repeated carefully, taking one step closer to the bed. Just one; there would be no need to force a confrontation. If it was that important, he would tell her. If it wasn't . . . well, then, he would bottle it up with the rest of the day's minor disappointments , and she would have to draw it out as best she could during his next moment of weakness.

She hated doing that, sometimes. Snake-Eyes was a good man, but he spent his whole life maintaining an inhuman level of control. It sounded trite to call it a defense mechanism; that made him sound like a neurotic in his shrink's office, trying to work out why he couldn't relate to people. But in the end, that was what she supposed it should be called.

She hadn't been in Vietnam 'til late. Snake-Eyes had just two years on her, but those two years had put him on LRRP in the jungle and left her a subaltern working her way through the bureaucratic clusterfucks that had been the last days of the war. But he'd been quiet even then, Stalker said. She wondered how far back that quietness went.

One more try, and then she'd know how bad it was—whatever it happened to be.

"Snakes?" she said in a low voice, kneeling down beside the bed. "What's wrong?"

His eyes opened, focusing on her, and she felt a surge of relief. Tonight, at least, he wasn't going to be the reticent ninja master.

[Shana,] he signed, slowly and carefully.

"Yes?" she said.

[I think I've endangered the mission.]

For a moment, Scarlett thought her heart stopped.

"I-" she began, then closed her mouth, unable to believe what he'd just said. She found herself watching his hands, daring them to repeat the impossible thing that she thought she'd seen them tell her. Snake-Eyes remained as still as a statue, shoulders hunched, scarred face contorted in some combination of guilt and anger. "You-" Scarlett began again. Words failed her again. The floor was hard beneath her knees, the hotel carpet cheap and coarse, but she no longer paid attention to any minor discomfort—not while her world was shuddering around her.


His lip curled a little, the scars twitching as he grimaced. [I screwed up, Shana,] he signed with heartbreaking frankness. He wasn't meeting her eyes any more. [I violated the secrecy protocols.]

Secrecy protocols. Scarlett seized that phrase and held on. Noncombative undercover meant that the existence of the team was not to be revealed even to civilians; they were strictly on an observational basis only. Even alerting a member of the public to the team's presence might get back to the opposing forces, and if so, the jig was up. "Ass-deep in alligators," as Beach Head would charmingly put it.

"How did you . . . ?" Her voice trailed off as the answer presented itself. "The alley. You said you encountered two shoplifters?"

[Not just shoplifters. They had some things—a woman's bag, and a few of her clothes.] The scars writhed as Snake-Eyes' face conveyed the disgust sign language couldn't.

" . . . was she there?"

[No. They probably did it hours ago.]

"What did you do?" she said quietly.

Scarlett already knew the answer to that, of course. There were two possibilities: what should have been done, and what Snakes actually did. What he should have done was feign fear or contriteness—standard procedure when encountering the criminal element during a field op—and withdraw as quickly as possible. Lady Jaye had even conducted acting seminars for the team, teaching them how to appear cowardly and nonthreatening. Unless confrontation was absolutely unavoidable, the criminals should never know that they were facing anybody other than a normal civilian.

Snakes was a lot of things, but normal wasn't one of them. Still, he could pretend as well as the others. So what had he done?

The lines in the ninja's face grew deeper. [I knocked them unconscious and left them tied up in a Dumpster.]

"What—what in the—why?" Scarlett said. She rose from her crouch and sank down on the bed next to Snake-Eyes, running a hand distractedly through her hair. "Oh, God. Snakes, if Hawk finds out, he'll kill you."

Not literally, but only just. A senior commando compromising the mission on a whim? It was practically unheard of. Snake-Eyes had a flawless record and was considered one of the toughest Joes in the unit, but that wouldn't protect him if those two decided to talk to the police about the ninja who'd beaten the tar out of them. The higher you got, the more was expected, and the harder you fell: he could be put on a disciplinary action, confined to his room, or even court-martialed. Scarlett's heart thudded painfully.

He hunched his shoulders a little, not meeting her eyes. [Are you going to tell them?]

"I don't know," she said softly. Personal sentiment fought hard against military loyalty, and for the time, neither of them won. The mission was the mission. But Snake-Eyes . . .

She shook her head. "What were you thinking?"

[It's hard to explain.]

Her lover's posture was changing. Some of the tension had drained out of his form, but his shoulders were hunching further inward and he had lowered his head like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. The guilt and anger was still there, but there was something new. Embarrassment. She studied his form, and the details clicked.

"Does it have something to do with that paper in your parka?"

[You could say that.]

She sighed. "Please, Snakes. I don't want to act like some kind of scolding teacher. And I'm not going to jump on you." She put a hand on his arm. "I know you. You don't do stuff on a whim—especially not something like this. What happened?"

Wordlessly, he pointed to where his parka hung over the back of the chair. Scarlett rose to her feet and stepped around the bed to retrieve it, doing her best to keep her hands steady as she did so.

Courage under fire . . . well, it was commonplace in the Joes. But Snake-Eyes, compromising a mission? What could there be in some magazine that had made him violate mission protocol?

Her fingers stopped an inch from the jacket as a horrible thought struck her. Was it something to do with his family? They were supposed to be long dead, but then, so was Wade Collins. For a moment, the horrible vision of Snakes' sister, Cobra operative, swam in front of her eyes. It was with an effort that she opened the parka and dipped her fingers into the secret pocket in the lining. Part of her marveled at the way she almost flinched when her fingers touched glossy paper.

Instead of the sober headlines and news photographs she expected, Scarlett found herself faced with a splash of bright primary colors. It wasn't a magazine at all. It was a—comic book?

Scarlett's mouth dropped open as she pulled it free from the pocket. Yes, a comic book, all sixteen colors and crisp glossy lines. Superman. "Back to full power!" the front proclaimed, under a picture of the Man of Steel breaking through a brick wall."Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite!" said the banner under Superman's feet. "Historic Engagement Issue!" shouted the border at the top.

For a moment, Scarlett couldn't believe what she was seeing. She remembered comics like these; some of the boys she'd known had had stacks of them, printed on cheap newsprint, with easily-torn covers featuring gaudy musclebound characters in goofy costumes. Despite being an avowed tomboy, Scarlett had never had much time for them. They'd always seemed like rather pointless entertainment—harmless enough, but not really worth her time. Comic books seemed like silly fantasies for the kind of people who sat in the corner and never actually did anything.

She remembered what kind of boys had those comics. The quiet ones, the awkward ones, the ones who seemed to live in their own little worlds . . .

Scarlett turned, comic in hand. "Snakes?" she asked softly.

He looked stricken, but began to sign nevertheless. [One of them had it,] he said, his hands moving so jerkily that she almost couldn't make out what he was saying. [I was going to pull back, pretend I hadn't seen them. But one had that woman's things. And the other was reading that.]

In a way, it was almost funny. The big boy beats the smaller boys up and takes away their comic books.

But the bigger boy was also a military commando. He was the kind of person who'd signed up at eighteen—she knew that much, anyway, from personnel files. He did long-range patrols in Vietnam at twenty and joined a ninja clan by twenty-two. She'd seen him drop three snipers, one-two-three in a row, as silent and unseen as death while their comrades looked frantically for whatever had done it. Captured Cobra operatives had wet themselves in terror over the prospect of being questioned by this man. Scarlett couldn't think of any two things less likely to coexist than Snake-Eyes and the muscle-bound, Spandex-clad characters of Superman's world. They lived in a morally black and white world, and didn't even seem to realize that their flowing capes were a drastically poor choice of field equipment . . .

[I read those,] he said simply. [When I was young.]

She sat down on the bed again and laid the comic book between them. "'He was always quiet,'" she quoted, remembering Stalker's words that day in the Pit. "'Even back then.'"

Snake-Eyes nodded, slowly. [It's always the quiet ones,] he signed, with a hint of self-deprecating humor.

"But Snake-Eyes," Scarlett began a little helplessly. "Nostalgia aside, what—how could you-" She shook her head. "Snakes, maybe you grew up on that . . . but this isn't a comic. This is a critical mission. If Cobra has a base in the middle of Chicago, it could be-"

Something gave way, and Snake-Eyes slammed a closed fist into the mattress. It was as good as a shout from any other man, and with some effort, Scarlett forced herself to fall silent. Her disbelief was giving way to anger, and some part of her wanted to scream at him: what were you thinking? How could you endanger your whole career over something as stupid as this? But her time in the Joes had done something to restrain her normally harsh temper, and she knew that if Snake-Eyes had done anything, he'd done it for a good reason. She took a deep breath, biting her lip, and focused on his eyes.

There was a hard light there, but as she watched, she could see him also restraining himself. He closed his eyes for a moment, raising his head and straightening his spine, and she watched as tension began to flow out of him. When the blue gaze refocused on her, it was much calmer.

[Shana,] he signed, slowly and carefully. [How many brothers did you have?]


[All older?]

"I'm the youngest, yes."

[And one sister.]

"Just Siobhan. We don't get along."

[But you got along with your brothers?]

"You know me, Snakes. I was one of the guys."

[I was—small.]

Scarlett stared at him for a moment. He looked as if he'd just admitted something horrible, on a par with childhood abuse or some other life-changing trauma. Small?

Then she understood. "Small," she repeated. "Short. Not very strong."

His lip curled again, and she realized that he was smiling just a little. [I was pathetic.]

"And the other kids made fun of you." He nodded, and she put a hand on his. "You read comics. To pretend."

[You don't know what it's like to be the odd one out, Shana. Fifteen cents bought me an escape.] He wasn't looking at her anymore, but at something distant. A child, she thought. The child he'd been. [Truth, justice, and the American way. It inspired me. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to help people, make a difference—like Superman.]

Scarlett felt her heart drop. He said nothing more, but she knew what was coming next. Gently, she tightened her hand on his. "So you joined the army," she said softly.

[If I hadn't . . . I wouldn't be here, Shana.] He turned to her, his expression stricken. [I wouldn't have you. But my family would be alive.]

Snake-Eyes had been in Vietnam. If he hadn't been there, his parents and sister wouldn't have been coming to the airport to meet him on his return. And if they hadn't, then they wouldn't have encountered the accident that took their lives. Scarlett had had her differences with her family, but she knew that if an act of hers had killed them—however indirectly—it would tear her apart. What could she say, in the face of that kind of agony? Nothing.

So she didn't try. She sat there quietly, her hand on his, as Snake-Eyes grieved.

It seemed strange. Even these days, when she could say with certainty that she was closer to Snake-Eyes than any human alive, he seemed like something apart. Sometimes unapproachable, always unstoppable. The perfect soldier. She knew that what had happened to his family was scarred deeply in him—perhaps even deeper than his lost voice and face—and so she hadn't pried too deeply into where he had come from. All in good time, she'd thought.

Scarlett knew a little about Superman. She knew that he was moral, that he always did his best to turn his enemies over to the authorities. He never killed. He was supposed to represent some kind of higher ideal: the best that a person could be.

Take that dream, and add fifteen years' worth of real life. Vietnam. Cobra. Hundreds of ops in dozens of countries around the world, where things might go bad at the drop of a hat. Where, she wondered, did Superman stand on the issue of killing a man with a fragmentation grenade?

Poor Snakes. Face-to-face with a kid's dream of standing up for justice, he'd done what he would have done fifteen years ago. He was a ninja now, but he'd wanted to be a hero.

Time makes fools of us all.

* * *

They sat there for a long time, silent and unmoving.

Days later, when the team was questioned about Operation: Grandma's Present at their final briefing, Scarlett didn't say a word about the way the mission was almost botched. A covert review of police reports from the Michigan Avenue revealed no mention of two men who had been beaten up by a ninja; she guessed that they were the sort that dreaded attracting the attention of the authorities, masked assailant or no. No other Joes even guessed that anything had happened, and the incriminating comic remained hidden in the bottom of Scarlett's trunk.

Christmas in the Pit was always a unique occasion. Terrorism didn't make a habit of taking time off for the holidays, and the Joes who weren't on mission were home with their families. Snake-Eyes . . . didn't fit into the latter category. On December 23rd, when Scarlett stopped in front of the door to his room, she knew he was in a troop transport on his way to Azerbaijan.

The package she left on his bed was small, no larger than a grade school science textbook. But she was willing to bet that no textbook had ever been chosen with the same kind of care as she'd put into finding that gift.

It was a comic collection. The Best of the Question, the cover proclaimed. Underneath it stood a masked man, mysterious and anonymous, with a long coat and a strange blank-faced mask. Unlike the exuberant Superman, this character was quiet and poised, one hand in his pocket and the other raised as if to fend off an attack. By his side crouched a woman—as outrageous as the man was inobtrusive, in a gaudy purple costume and yes, a cape. Co-starring the Huntress, said the cover.

Snake-Eyes was no Superman, that was for certain. But in his own way, he was a hero. She hoped he would understand that that was what mattered.