Author's Note: It lives! Again! And behold, I come bearing plot and drama! The latter of which I'm deeply sorry for, incidentally, since Annie was originally intended to be a mainly humorous character. But relax, nobody's wangsting or cutting themselves, I promise.
Thanks again (and again and again) to all my wonderful reviewers, who've been prodding me to make this happen. Twitter gang, you know who you are, and I love you. Thanks also to my big brothers for giving me info on sniper training, military procedures, and general business. The mistakes are all mine, I promise.
This chapter also contains a veiled shout-out to "Action Figure Therapy," a hilarious and highly underrated YouTube series based around classic Joe action figures and their various day-to-day problems. I'm sure you guys will be able to spot it.
Rating: T for language.
Disclaimer: G.I. Joe and all associated characters and concepts are property of Hasbro Inc, and I derive no profit from this. Please accept this in the spirit with which it is offered—as a work of respect and love, not an attempt to claim ownership or earn money from this intellectual property.
Chapter Sixteen: Shot and a Chaser
In the United States Army, sniper training was exact and unyielding. It was a privilege, not a right, and everyone who entered the sniper school—whether at Fort Benning, or Camp Pendleton, or even Fort Ticonderoga—was expected to buckle down and do their best without whining. Orders required you to bring extra clothes, because everything would be wrecked in the course of the training. It was rigorous, it was painful, and it was designed to make already-excellent marksmen into silent and deadly long-range killers. If you didn't have natural talent, then the only way to make it was to be unwaveringly determined and able to take the punishment needed to mold you.
In G.I. Joe, things worked a little differently.
If you'd been picked as a Joe, it was a fact that you were one of the best. That had been hammered home more than once in the kitchen, where Annie had tried not to gawk at the speed and efficiency of her fellow quartermaster-cooks. How the hell she'd made it past the selection process, she wasn't sure, but there was no denying she was surrounded by talent. The Joes weren't just born soldiers, they were made soldiers.
And they had to be ready for anything. The more time she spent in the Pit, the more she saw it: people traded duties, dabbled in other MOS's business, honed their skill sets and acquired new ones. Dusty might be a desert trooper, but he could damn well survive in the Arctic if he had to. Oh, he wouldn't like it, but he'd do it, because every Joe had to be multifunctional.
She wondered vaguely if her sniper qualifications had been the real reason Joe picked her, but dismissed it almost immediately. Sure, she'd met most of the criteria: she was a good shot, she had discipline when it was absolutely necessary, and she'd somehow almost gotten into the Ticonderoga sniper school. But good wasn't good enough . . . plus that humming, and some—uh—little temper-control incidents. She wasn't sure if she was relieved when Ticonderoga rejected her.
Now G.I. Joe wanted to hand their newest cook a rifle.
Maybe Annie shouldn't have been surprised. In this unit, temper-control incidents were expected, or perhaps anticipated. (Storm Shadow. 'Nuff said.)
She expected her first day of additional training to be painful, or possibly hilariously humiliating. She certainly hadn't expected . . . success?
Well, of a sort.
Annie reported to Low-Light at oh-nine-hundred, as soon as she could be excused from the kitchen. The sniper looked her over once, his expression unreadable behind his ever-present goggles, and nodded. "Done the preliminaries?" he said. She had. "Good. Go shoot."
She went to the course—a standard rifle range, only with targets placed much farther out and a variety of perches to shoot from. With no other options, she picked a low sandbag berm and hunkered down, falling into the position that had been pounded into her in boot camp. The rifle issued to her had been, to her surprise, a 1904 Springfield bolt-action piece with a modern scope riveted into the wood. In a way, it surprised her more that it didn't surprise her more. For better or for worse, she was becoming used to the Joe way of doing things.
Over the course of two hours of target shooting, Low-Light said exactly four things to her. "Left shoulder down." "Breathe out on the shot." "Done spotter training? Yes? Good."
And, when she started humming, he crept up on her as silent as death and planted the barrel of his rifle at the base of her skull. "Boom," he said softly. "Dead." Annie yelped like a cat with a yanked tail and jerked forward, her right eye slamming hard into her scope. "Hit Me with your Best Shot" died in mid-hum.
Still, her scores for the day were pretty good. And even if she had to switch to her left eye, because the right one was beginning to swell shut, she'd still survived her first day of additional training without permanent injury or embarrassment. That was a win in Annie's book.
The armory was bustling with activity when she returned the Springfield. Half a dozen quartermasters were gathering up what looked like two of every weapon—Annie, the slightly lapsed Anglican, immediately populated a mental Noah's Ark with rifles and hand grenades—and Storage Vault himself was inspecting a set of low-profile body armor with a frown. Judging by the general shape of the armor, it had been designed for Scarlett, but those were Sgt. Snake-Eyes' favorite uzis that Bad Dog was checking over.
Annie knew better than to distract support personnel when they were doing their jobs. She handed over the rifle for check-in and made a mental note: Sgt. Snake-Eyes and Sgt. Scarlett were going off-base. Probably for something heavy-duty secretive, if she knew anything about the kind of gear that was being readied. And unless Sgt. Snake-Eyes was planning on losing twenty pounds—and about three inches in height—before he shipped out, armor was definitely being prepped for Sgt. Storm Shadow as well.
Which meant that all three of the demon hand-to-hand instructors were, sing hallelujah, going to be gone at the same time! Her mood lifted a little more as she left the armory. Sure, someone else would probably take it over and pound her into the floor, but they probably wouldn't do it quite as efficiently as Burnt Bacon and His Spooky Friends. Freedom!
She did a little dance, booty-shuffling her way back down the hallway and getting surprised looks from a couple of Joes. Not that she cared: protocol didn't require her to salute people she saw in the hall, and it definitely didn't forbid dancing. Or, when she got back to the kitchen, putting on a tape of "We're Not Gonna Take It" and improvising a little awkward headbanging while she made the prisoners' lunch.
Maybe that scope had given her a concussion.
"You're in a good mood," Hall said darkly when Annie walked in with the lunch tray. "Is someone going to torture me again?"
"Oh, hush." She set the tray down and put her hands on her hips. "You weren't even tortured the first time."
"I was shot!"
"You invaded a secret government installation. That should be considered attempted suicide. Steak sandwich today, yay for you!"
He eyed her suspiciously, then transferred his gaze to the food. The steak sandwich sat there and didn't make any sudden moves. "What's got you so happy all of a sudden?"
"As if I'd tell you. Eat it while it's hot, big guy—few things are more miserable than a soggy steak-on-hoagie."
"You've got a massive shiner. And apparently, brain damage."
"Then I'm in like-minded company, because which of us was it tried to invade that secret government installation again? Come on, eat up. I didn't even put ketchup on it."
The mention of ketchup had apparently come at exactly the wrong time, because Hall's fingers jerked away from the steak sandwich as he'd been bitten by it. "All right, now I know you're planning something," he growled, shoving the plate away. "Very fucking funny, right? Feed me crap for days and then you just think I'm gonna roll over and eat this? Right. What's it got in it? Tabasco? Sodium pentathol?"
Annie's jaw dropped, just a little. "You think I'd drug my food?" she said, almost insulted. It was honestly not something she'd contemplated much in her life . . . aside from the occasional threats of bromide in the breakfast, but really, that never came to pass and it was more like self-defense to even contemplate it. Annie might have been a rank newbie as a sniper, and only good for breaking in floor mats in hand-to-hand, but food was her native language and her weapon of choice. The idea that she might need to drug a dish in order to manipulate someone was practically a challenge to her skills.
Hall just gave her a look that said "duh."
"Well, that settles it," she said, and neatly snatched the plate away from him. "You're too much of a philistine to enjoy this. I'd go give this to Zartan, but he's even more of a jackass than you are. Maybe I'll feed it to Junkyard."
The prisoner reached for the escaping plate, but Annie quickly stepped back out of range, and Hall hissed between his teeth as his own sudden movement wrenched his broken collarbone.
"Bitch," he said. There was heat in it, but not volume: even when pissed off, this was clearly a man who'd learned the hard way not to make his unhappiness known. Unsurprising, Annie thought, when the files on the Baroness had made it especially clear that she was not one to suffer fools lightly but did enjoy seeing fools suffer. If she could get him to yell, she might be close to some kind of breakthrough with him.
"You're going to have to come up with some new insults at some point," she said as she loaded up the tray again. This was technically psychological torture, but she prayed to Beach Head that the higher-ups would give her some slack. Holding a guy's plate out of reach wasn't quite on the same level as starving him, even if both did count as food deprivation. "And I took the time to learn your name, so you should start giving me the same courtesy, Mister Hall. It's Short Stack."
He snorted at that. "Seriously? Whose cornflakes did you piss in to get stuck with that?"
"You know, I really should do something to you for that remark. Oversalt your food every day for a year or something," Annie said airily. "But really, today, I just don't care." She set the sandwich plate back down, and Hall snatched at it, too distracted by the squabbling (and the prospect of lost food) to remember that he'd been suspicious of it in the first place. He took a big bite, made a face, and grudgingly nodded to her
"Hallelujah, we've found something he'll eat," Annie said, letting a hint of dryness creep into her tone. "Remember, you're still on a ton of painkillers, so don't eat too fast or you'll find out why we call it bucket chow."
Hall obediently chewed and swallowed, slowly. He was giving her an odd look, like he was seeing her for the first time—or maybe just not liking what he was seeing.
"You're serious, aren't you," he said. "Absolutely fucking serious."
"I'm serious about a lot of things," Annie said as she finished unpacking the rest of the tray. "Like people not making more work for the janitorial staff. Look out for the salad, it's got mushrooms in it—you aren't allergic to mushrooms, are you? Some guys would rather court anaphylactic shock than admit they have a weakness."
"No, I mean you're serious about being . . . you." He waved a piece of sandwich vaguely in her direction. His expression was strange, perhaps vague constipated. "You're not really that Jaye chick, or anything. Someone like you is working for G.I. fucking Joe."
Annie wasn't sure if she should be offended or not. But something strange seemed to be happening in Carter Hall's head, and getting offended now would definitely derail it, so she just pulled a vague "what the heck are you talking about?" face and picked up the now-empty tray. "Well, if you think ninjas are going to make their own breakfast, you've got another thing coming," she said mildly. "There doesn't seem to be an Honorable Nine Dragons Path of Unburnt Toast or anything."
"Fucking oblivious," he muttered. Still, as he chewed, there was a new look dawning in his eyes that she had never seen before. He was . . . realizing something? Realizing, or perhaps contemplating. Wheels were turning in his head, conclusions clicking into place, and his expression as he stared at her was complex and hard to figure.
Annie had seen enough brooding and bitching over coffee to know that a person shouldn't be disturbed when they were trying to reorganize their view of the world. She just gave him her best waitress smile and turned away, tray in hand.
As she put her hand on the door, she heard a rustle of sheets.
"Hey, Pancake," he called out. She half-turned to look at him.
He was sitting up a little straighter, sandwich still half-eaten in his hand. His brows were furrowed. "Do you like the people you work with? The kitchen staff?"
"Yeah, I guess I do. It's nice to have someone to share the crazy with."
His lips twitched for a moment, but whatever was occupying his mind seemed to overwhelm the moment of amusement. "I feel sorry for them."
"And we all feel sorry for you, you poor deluded bastard. Why do you think you got good chow today?" She opened the door and slipped through, tray in hand. "Bon appetit!"
Hall half-opened his mouth, apparently about to say something, but she closed the door before he could get it out and he subsided back onto his pillows. Annie smiled a little to herself, nodded to the boys on guard duty, and headed back on up to the kitchen.
Lunch proceeded without incident . . . mostly. Three greenshirts, two Marines, and a SEAL took Chopper's signature bite-sized meatballs as their cue to start a food fight, resulting in Annie and Eighty-Six nearly getting hit with ballistic pastrami. As both women ducked behind one of the steam trays, they heard a very familiar bellow, two crashes, and a moment of silence. Sergeant Major evidently objected to having his lunch interrupted.
"Six for KP," Eighty-Six whispered. Annie grinned a little.
"Can you blame 'em? The ninjas are leaving!"
Eighty-Six elbowed her. "Not evrabody has th' same hate-on f'ninjas as you do, 'Stack." She frowned a little as the rest of Annie's words caught up with her. "An' what d'you mean?"
In a few brief whispers, Annie related what she'd seen in the armory. Eighty-Six crossed herself as she carefully poked her head out from behind the steam table, but made no further comment. Annie knew her fellow QM well enough by now to make a guess at what she was thinking. 1) Quit picking on the defenseless scary walking weapons (none of the other quartermasters seemed to grasp that when as hopelessly outclassed as Annie was, her only weapon was passive-aggressive sniping), and 2) Oh God, this is only going to get worse, isn't it?
On that second point, Annie knew she would agree. When the ninja's away, the trainees will play. She'd put good money on seeing more food fights soon.
Annie was washing up some personal dishes when, at about two o'clock in the afternoon, the first sign of trouble appeared in her day.
One of the benefits of being a quartermaster-cook was that, if you could tune out kitchen noise, you would have plenty of time to think. In the wake of the lunchtime fiasco, there were indeed several new sheepish soldiers on KP, one with a black eye rapidly turning into the equal of her own. (Evidently, trying to flee from the wrath of a superior officer was a bad idea when the floor was covered with slippery foodstuffs.) Beach Head had issued specific orders about them being given the dirtiest cleaning jobs available, and that left the quartermasters with a sudden surplus of labor. Annie only had a few dishes—all from her own lunch—to clean up, and was standing at one of the smallest sinks, sponge in hand while she wandered vaguely in her own thoughts.
Dammit, she was almost out of soap. Frowning, she put down the sponge and opened the nearest cupboard. Chopper typically stored his personal supplies in there (like his special, touch-and-die supply of Indian saffron) but officially, it was where the little sundries for the sink were kept. Dish soap, dishwasher liquid and cleaner, disposable rubber gloves, fresh sponges, skin moisturizer and all the rest. Which didn't explain why there should be, hidden behind two bottles of Amaretto and a pencil cup in the shape of a dog, a box of bullets.
Her frown deepened as she pulled it out. It was a standard box of ten, each one copper-tipped, and there was a receipt taped to the lid. No name on the receipt: whoever bought them had paid cash. Suddenly paranoid, Annie shot a quick glance over her shoulder, but the KPs seemed to be occupied with their jobs and half of the quartermasters wouldn't be back until the dinner rush started. Nobody was watching as she tipped a handful of the bullets into her palm.
Yes, there they were, the exact same kind as she had found in the steam tray so many times. These were newer and had no marks on them . . . at least not from ever being loaded into a chamber. Each one was scored around the middle, just below the point where the copper met the brass jacket, and someone had carefully numbered them in smeared marker. Four digits, too, so unless their owner had already gone through bullets zero to seven hundred and four, the numbers were actually dates.
Her breath caught a little in her throat, but her expression remained placid. Good waitresses, and good soldiers, never let their feelings show. She slipped bullet 0719 into the pocket of her BDUs, pushed the box back into its hiding spot behind the other miscellany, and topped up the dish soap as if nothing had happened. Work now, paranoia later.
"Where're you headed next?" Chopper called out as Annie dried the last of her dishes. She jumped just a little, but the big cook was looking at her as mildly as ever. Worry prickled at her for a moment—for what she didn't know—but she shoved that aside, too, and pulled a face at him.
"I got my wish," she said, "and of course, it's gone horribly wrong. Sniper training apparently equals tons of extra shooting time. Who'd've thought?"
Chopper grinned, the effect only slightly spoiled by the tenderizing mallet in one hand. "That's what you get for trying to abandon us," he said faux-mockingly. "Have fun, and don't tease Low-Light too much. Even ninjas can't kill you from the next county."
"Yet," Annie pointed out wryly. She ducked out before Chopper could ask any more questions.
Back in the bunkroom, she carefully made sure she was alone before pulling the single bullet out of her pocket. The more she looked at it, the more she didn't like it. Who would number a single stray piece of ammo like this, and why? Was it actually a date, or could it be a time? The bullets she'd found in the steam trays hadn't been numbered . . . but as her fingertip slipped on the sleek casing, a little of the marker smeared away, and she had her answer. Floating in the inevitable half-inch of water that collected in the trays, any marker would have been washed away.
That line on the casing was worrying her. A moment's fumbling in the disaster kit under her bed produced a diver's flick knife: not strictly standard issue, but Joe was so far past "standard issue" that it was actually coming back around on the other side of it. Tongue between her teeth, she carefully worked the thinnest edge of the serrated blade into the line on the casing. One cautious wiggle, then another, and the tip of the bullet began to slide off.
Paper, impossibly thin and yellow-white, spilled into her lap. There were rolls of it, each one no bigger around than a small pencil, wound tightly and stuffed into the hollow jacket of the bullet. Annie let out a silent gasp as the little pieces unrolled: there had to be several feet of it, in strips half a thumbnail wide.
Cautiously, she touched it. It was onionskin, the stuff they printed Bibles on, and felt strange under her fingertips. When she lifted one curling strip up to the light, a pattern of punched holes could just barely be seen. Like Morse code, almost, but Annie could read Morse and this wasn't it.
Bullets in the steam tray . . . bullets in the kitchen . . . bullets in the kitchen containing, what, messages? For who?
A chill ran down her spine. Hey, Pancake, do you like the people you work with?
Flint had wanted her to investigate a lot of things. Prod the prisoner, find out what she could about faction dissonance in Cobra or what the Star-Vipers were up to. The possibility of an informant within G.I. Joe was the one she'd liked the least, and fortunately, there had been nothing really to focus on until now. But she'd been finding bullets since her first days at the old Pit, and now she was looking at a bullet with something in it that seemed an awful lot like a message of some kind. Who would be passing messages inside the Pit, and via steam trays, of all ways?
Unless . . . well, everyone went to the steam trays sooner or later. Officer and enlisted, man and woman, human and Ranger, they all moved through the chow hall three times a day to get their food. Even General Hawk turned up occasionally, and he probably could have retained a private chef if he really wanted. If you wanted to pass a message to someone, in a way that nobody would pay attention to, a stray bullet in the trays was perfect. For a group that dropped betting tickets, shuriken, and the occasional lucky dried snake's head, bullets were nothing noteworthy. Unless you were on the lookout for them.
Annie groaned and dropped her head into her lap. Speculation, that's all this was. She found one bullet with something hinky in it, and suddenly she was weaving webs of conspiracy, like those people who'd once picketed the diner because the Freemasons were controlling their thoughts via a certain brand of egg. Somebody was probably playing a joke on her—happily winding her up with the full knowledge that her own suspicious nature would drive her up the wall.
Her mouth tightened at the thought. Flint had still told her to be on the lookout, and dammit, this was weird enough to bear investigating. She hastily stuffed the bisected bullet into her foot locker, rolling the papers up as best she could and hiding it in the feminine-hygiene box. Belatedly, it occurred to her that she had another bullet still left in the bottom of that same box, but she could examine it later. For now, she had some questions to ask.
Guard shifts on the prisoners would be changing any minute now, so she figured it was the best time to make her presence known. Stopping quickly into the kitchen to grab a half-pint of ice cream (if anyone asked, she could claim she was trying to bribe her target back to the side of the law), she hurried down the long corridors straight towards the detention cells.
"Detention cells," she muttered, sticking a disposable spoon into the ice cream and taking an experimental mouthful. Mmm, cherry vanilla. "Why didn't I ever notice that before? I'm living in a Star Wars movie."
You're trying to distract yourself, her mental Annie told her.
Shut up, she explained back.
There were no guards on Hall's cell door: probably the replacement had ducked around the corner to go to the can, or something. It wasn't unheard of for less-than-priority prisoners to occasionally get less-than-priority guarding, even in G.I. Joe. Someone was going to have a hot date with Sergeant Major, explaining that one . . . She laughed, and took another spoonful of ice cream, trying to quiet her nerves.
The lunch plates were sitting quietly next to the bed, clean and empty. At least he'd liked his lunch, she thought vaguely. Though maybe it hadn't sat well with him: he was lying as flat on his back as he could get, eyes closed, sheets pulled up, and looking vaguely constipated.
"Hey there, Hawkman," she said, because Annie might be sneaky but she never claimed to be subtle. "How're you feeling? Did you eat too fast?"
Hall just pulled the sheets up a little more and grumbled something. Only the top of his head was poking out of the blankets now.
"I brought ice cream," she offered, holding up the carton. "Okay, I might've sampled it a little, but sue me, this is new territory for me and an enemy of the United States government can't expect pristine virgin Breyer's. It's cherry vanilla, though."
"Fuck off," Hall mumbled. Annie took a few steps forward. The little skin she could see was pallid and sweaty, and he seemed to be breathing too heavily. Either he was engaging in a little personal time—not a thought she wanted to contemplate—or something was really wrong with her prisoner.
"Hey," she said softly. "What's wrong? Do you need me to get the medics down here?"
One hand emerged limply from the next of blankets, landing on the edge of the bed. The crescents of the nails were beginning to turn blue.
"Oh Jesus." Annie dropped the ice cream. "Grandmother, what . . . what blue nails you have. Jesus! Hold on, Hawkman, I'll get the docs-"
Then something like an iron band closed around her wrist, and the world went wrong.
Something flew past her face, but Annie couldn't focus on it, because something else slammed into her gut with the force of a speeding eighteen-wheeler. She crumpled to the ground, knees simply giving out underneath her, as her breath was crushed out of her by the force of the blow. A hand grabbed the back of her collar, and she was jerked violently forward, her forehead crashing into the steel-bolted frame of the bed. Stars exploded in front of her eyes. The hand released her and Annie fell sideways, her face and chest one mass of throbbing pain.
She couldn't focus. She couldn't see. She couldn't stand. Oh, God, fuck fuck fuck, what was-? She tried to take a breath, but her ribs screamed in protest, and the floor seemed to be slipping out from under her.
Hands trembling, eyes watering, she forced herself to raise her head. The fractured shape that was Carter Hall was getting out of bed, ripping away the IVs and monitor cables he had been hooked up to.
Something cool and wet was puddling against her cheek, and she thought she smelled vanilla.
Then Hall straightened, and his form rippled. Strange shapes ran up and down his body as the hospital gown melted away, replaced with a prisoner's uniform and desert combat boots a size too small. A hand reached down to grab her collar again, and Annie's world reeled around her as she was pulled up to stare into dark, black-diamonded eyes.
"The better to sucker you with, my dear," Zartan said bemusedly. "Ice cream? Really?"