Author's Note: In which Annie has another bad day, a slight rage blackout, a minor revelation, and an immunity to irony.

A few points regarding this chapter. First, the idea of Dusty's pet is my own invention; yes, I know he had a coyote named Sandstorm at one point, but that was just with one figure release and Sandstorm never made any appearance in the comics or cartoon, so I didn't feel it was really part of his makeup. REMF stands for "Rear echelon mother fucker," i.e., the guys who stay behind at base when everyone else is out risking their skins.

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 Eighteen: Take Out

Rock'n'Roll was a sergeant, and Annie merely a lowly private, so she obeyed his orders and tried not to think about what had happened. By the next morning, thirty-six hours after the attack, her cast had accumulated more Joe signatures and several greenshirts', including two who had to write their civilian first names. Apparently, wearing a cast sporting their current appellations would've been violating several dress code and conduct rules. Her favorite (after the camel sketch) was actually a muddy paw print from Junkyard, which had been something of an accident. Getting his booster shots apparently left the Rottie quite frantic and slightly stoned.

Then Psyche-Out turned up, and things took a turn for the enraging. He asked her several dozen questions, poked through her chart, then informed her that her brand-new sniper training was now being suspended while the Zartan incident was investigated. Apparently, she was now part of a potential security issue.

That, she could almost deal with. She'd only had a couple of days to get used to the idea of extra training, after all, and it wasn't as if she was a resource that Joe absolutely couldn't do without. Under normal circumstances Annie would have waited until the officer had left, spent half an hour pouting and drowning her sorrows in bucket-chow-grade chocolate-pudding-like foodstuff, and then remembered that she was still off PT for a few days and cheered up.

But it turned out that in addition to being a security issue, Anne Gorshin was being banned from the kitchen for three days. That was three days, Psyche-Out made clear, not including her infirmary stay—which meant she could be looking at almost a week before she got back behind the stove. He said some very understandable, official-sounding things about procedures and psych profiles. Things like "regrettable circumstances" and "clinical necessities," with so many disclaimers and notations that Annie had the vague sensation of being reprimanded by a drug commercial. She waited calmly and responded in a reasonable manner while her vision slowly turned red around the edges.

When the door closed behind the officious shrink, though, Annie . . . well, she wasn't sure what was happening. Panic was rising in her chest, for some reason she couldn't quite explain, and clashing head-on with the roaring tide of rage coming the other way. Something seemed to be squeezing her throat: she couldn't breathe. She couldn't breathe. She curled into herself and shook, digging her good hand into her bad one until her white-knuckled fingers drew blood. She wanted to scream, she wanted to bite something, she wanted to trash the entire world because if she didn't nothing was ever going to work again, god motherfucking dammit.

A long while later, when the whole mess was over with and Annie was capable (as she ever was, anyway) of rational analysis, she'd look up her symptoms and realize she'd been having a panic attack. Not something she was prone to, but everyone has their off days. Apparently it fell under the heading of that 'trauma' thing. At the time, though, all she knew was that the world was drawing in on her, everything was going wrong, and she was banned from the kitchen.

That had been the tipping point. Seriously? She'd ask herself later, in that aforementioned period of rational thinking. That's all? And she'd be incredulous, and a little bit chagrined.

But it was absolutely no exaggeration at all to say that for a long, long time, the kitchen had been the centerpoint of her existence. It was a dumb little thing, maybe, but it was a constant: people always needed to eat. Right from the beginning, she'd been a kitchen rat, destined for a life of subduing people with pancakes and—if she was in the mood—kindness. Now she didn't have a purpose any more. She might as well change her MOS to REMF.

Zartan and that fucking Cobra mole had ruined everything. Suddenly, one elbow to the groin wasn't nearly enough for them.

Annie latched onto that thought and held it. The rage surged, pushing back everything else, and slowly she rose out of the haze of fear. Cobra. Cobra was bad, right? Terrorists. She knew it intellectually, but now she knew it viscerally, and they'd made it personal.

Short Stack was, at the bottom of things, inconsequential. Joe wouldn't collapse if she wasn't there. But in the great kitchen of life, Zartan and his Cobra friends had just tracked raw sewage all over the tiles, and she was going to go after them with the pushbroom of pure rage and make them regret everything they'd ever done to that kitchen, including making her construct a metaphor that made no sense and could probably be chalked up to the drugs.

Gradually, the rage began to draw back as well. It didn't vanish, but just seemed to contract, drawing all its power into a single white-hot coal that smoldered in her gut and flared up a little every time she thought of what had happened. With an effort, she forced her stiff muscles to loosen, and pried one hand off the other. Her blunted nails had left bloody claw marks on her skin, like she'd been attacked by a cat that finally heralded the feline apocalypse by growing itself a thumb. And there were those drugs again.

She glanced around. The infirmary was silent; Lifeline's office door hadn't even opened. It took her aback to realize that the whole thing—panic, anger, determination, metaphors—hadn't lasted more than a couple of minutes, and had happened in complete silence as well.

Perfect. Moving as stealthily as she possibly could, Annie pulled back the blanket and planted her feet on the floor. The world reeled a little, but she gripped the mattress until it passed.

Maybe the ninjas weren't always crazy. Maybe they just had shit to do all the time, and couldn't afford to sit on their butts in the infirmary while someone was wrecking their kitchen . . . er, secret ninja hideout. What did they call it again? A dada?

Emboldened by the thought of the ninjas' multiple escapes, she stood up. And promptly fell over.

Between drugs and a concussion, gravity was apparently not her friend.

The office door open and Lifeline emerged, looking worried. When he spotted her sprawled on the floor, he hurried over. "What's wrong?" he said, kneeling down to help her. "You shouldn't be out of bed yet."

Annie gave him a watery grin. "I was looking for the bathroom."

"Really." He'd spotted the bloody marks on her arm. "What happened there?"

"I was scratching an itch," she explained. Lifeline gave her a raised eyebrow dripping with skepticism, but got antiseptic and band-aids anyway.

"You're not supposed to be out of bed," he added as he wiped off the claw marks. Annie tried to look abashed. "I know it's embarrassing, but really, it's best for everyone if you stay put for a couple of days. If you're absolutely allergic to the idea of a bedpan, ask one of the interns to help you to the toilet, all right?"

Annie saluted as best she could, but Lifeline seemed to be reading her mind, because he just gave her another raised eyebrow and a warning stare that made it very hard to remember that he was supposed to be a pacifist. Clearly, pacifism didn't prevent someone from being scary . . . unless that was just a Joe thing. She burrowed down into the sheets and tried to formulate an escape plan.

All right, maybe escape wasn't the right word. But if she was going to get this thing done, she couldn't be spending her time lying around. She knew from long experience that her white-hot rage would only last so long, and once it was gone it would be hard to get back; she had to find out what the hell was going on now. Kitchen gossip was the hottest, freshest, most comprehensive gossip to be found anywhere in the armed forces, and now that she was starting to put pieces together, she might know what questions to ask.

Fact: someone had let Zartan out and messed with the cameras.

Fact: the bullets in the steam tray were (possibly) being used to transmit messages.

Fact: the cupboard where she'd found the bullets was usually the province of Chopper, who was himself a former biker with a few questionable incidents in his jacket . . . like Zartan.

However! Fact: no undercover operative would be dumb enough to store sensitive information like that in front of her. Annie was forced to rule out Chopper.

Fact: Hall had been hinting to her that there was something rotten in the state of the kitchen. BUT, fact: the Zartan incident had happened just before dinnertime, when the kitchen was busy beyond belief. She'd only been able to leave because she was bringing Hall his food.

If she was willing to go on what Hall said, she would need to find out which—if any—of the other 92Gs had been AWOL during the dinner rush. If that turned up nothing, she'd look back through the duty logs and try picking out who could've left the bullets in the cabinet. But that meant she had to work fast, while everything was still fresh in peoples' minds.

For a moment, Annie wondered if she should catch Flint up to speed on this. Give some kind of official report to . . . someone, or file a form that said 'Intent to Be Sneaky,' or something. But they'd downgraded her security clearance, taken her off sniper training, sent the shrink after her, and kicked her out of the kitchen. With Hall dead, it was clear that the upper echelons didn't give a shit what she was doing any more. Her lip curled, and her thoughts towards Warrant Officer Flint and his ilk were turning distinctly uncharitable.

Well, fuck 'em. Annie basked in the warmth of the little ball of incandescent rage and set about plotting her escape.

Phase one of Escape Plan Beta commenced around lunch. Rock had worked off some of his bad karma and was no longer on bucket duty, but his place was promptly filled by Ace, who'd apparently been caught hiding rotten meat under Slipstream's jump seat. (He had, needless to say, lost a bet.) Ace wasn't an ideal subject for this kind of thing, but Annie made herself look as pathetic as possible, which didn't hurt.

"Lifeline's pretty tense," she said as Ace set down the tray. "I thought he was a pacifist. Is it always like this with his patients?"

"Pacifist, my ass," Ace responded cheerfully. "I'm surprised he hasn't exploded and killed us all yet. You want to watch the little ones, y'know."

"I guess it's all the people escaping," Annie hazarded. "Is it a Joe tradition or something?"

"You could say that." Ace shrugged one shoulder. "Personally, I like taking my R&R whenever I can, and without having to be strapped to the bed. Not really my kind of party. The commandos don't like sitting still, though. Anyone sitting still is automatically a target, or something."

"Everyone's a target," Annie muttered, surprising herself. It hadn't been part of the script. "But maybe it keeps things interesting for them. Once you've reached the point where you're unstoppable, I guess you have to get your laughs where you can."

Ace eyed her speculatively. For a moment, Annie's heart began to race: was he on to her? But the moment passed, and Ace gave her a lopsided grin.

"Nobody's unstoppable. If they were, they wouldn't get stuck here in the first place, and Lifeline wouldn't be chasing 'em through the air vents."

Hah! She knew it. Resisting the urge to glance up at the ceiling, she grimaced and settled further back into bed. "Is everyone in this unit certifiable? I mean, I'm pretty sure I am too at this point, but it's still kind of strange to get used to."

"Pretty much, yeah. Everyone has their quirks. Ninjas do the vent thing, the tech guys like to crack the Pentagon for fun, and the motor pool has a nice thriving trade in offbrand Jack."

Annie made a mental note of that. There had been no call for liquor in the kitchen yet (aside from Murphy's bottle, of course), but if called on, she wasn't sure if she could produce a decent coq au vin or vodka cream sauce using off-the-shelf alcohol. It might be worth talking to the motor pool guys to sound out the general Joe attitude towards bootlegging . . . Once she was sure she wasn't going to die or be kicked out, that is.

Although if she ever wanted to get kicked out, building an illicit still would be the way to go. Annie put a pin in that idea and filed it away for future desperate moments.

"Gross," she said instead, wrinkling her nose. "Doesn't that shrink say anything about it?"

Ace shrugged. "I think he's just happy that nobody's blowing anything up. Most of the time, anyway."

She didn't have to fake that grimace. "Right."

It seemed to take Ace entirely too long to leave. That was another problem with the ball-of-rage method of doing things: it made her impatient, and delays only added to her nervousness and irritation. Worse, something about Ace was setting her nerves on edge. He chatted with an easy geniality that reminded her of Dusty, but unlike Dusty, there seemed to be something going on in his head that he wasn't telling her.

Or maybe it was just that Dusty was openly weird. At this point, Annie was expecting everyone in Joe to be unhinged in one way or another, and Dusty definitely fit the bill; her friends in Laundry had confirmed that, yes, he did keep a pet tarantula, and consequently nobody would room with him any more. Ace, though? Ace had a nice smile, a friendly demeanor, and a light, dry humor that would fit in perfectly in almost any situation. He came across as . . . as . . . functional. Too functional. It was freaking her out.

"Thank Christ," she muttered as the door finally closed behind him. Her world was still reeling a little, but she'd neglected to take her most recent dose of pills, and things were less wavery when she pulled herself into a standing position on the cot. "Am I the only normal person here?"

It took a bitch of a stretch, but she managed to reach the ceiling and lever one of the tiles out of place. A shower of dust and paint chips came scattering down, and Annie sneezed, brushing dust bunnies out of her hair. After a few seconds' thought, she ripped a piece out of her cheap hospital gown and tied it over her nose and mouth. Her mission might be important, but she wasn't risking Black Lung Disease for the sake of G.I. Joe.

Next came the tough part. She couldn't get a good grip just standing flat on the mattress, so she braced her feet against the top of the headboard, curled her fingers around the edge of the vent, and awkwardly pulled with her one good arm as she flailed her feet against the wall. The sides of the vent bit into her fingers, leaving drops of blood on the edge, and she cursed G.I. Joe, ninjas, shrinks, Ace, Zartan, ninjas, Zartan, her own shitty upper-body strength, Zartan, her stupid fucking arm, Zartan . . .

But the great god Beach Head must have glared upon her, yea, because she barely made it. One final flail, and her head and shoulders were into the vent. She slapped her arms flat against the inside of the vent, tried to ignore the horrible persistent throbbing in her arm, and pushed with all the might left in her good one.

With one final effort, Annie heaved herself completely into the vent and slid the tile back into place. It might buy her a few seconds, but she knew it wouldn't fool Lifeline for long. She'd left too much dust and dirt on the bed. She felt kind of bad about lying to the nice medic, but . . .

Sneezing despite her makeshift keffiyah, Annie peered into the dimness of the vent and tried to determine which direction would take her to the kitchens. Lifeline probably wouldn't understand, either. This wasn't like your usual ninja shenanigans; this had purpose behind it.

"It's no fun, being the sane one," she muttered to herself as she scooted off through the vents.

Ace stopped his trolley on B Level and poked his head into the nearest bunkroom. Shipwreck, Muskrat, Hit'n'Run, Tunnel Rat and Outback were playing blackjack, while Polly and Max the bobcat glowered at each other from opposite bunks. Tunnel Rat was apparently up, to judge by the large pile of Fig Newtons next to him, while Muskrat made a sour face as he pushed the last of his own stash into the center of the table.

"Greenie, vent escape," Ace called out. Heads turned to him. "Blind bag. Any takers?"

"Five on ten, max," Shipwreck said instantly. "Steen's in a shitty mood, and someone's gonna get tranqued."

"Twenty on twenty," Muskrat said. "He's not going to go crazy over a greenie, right?"

"Depends on how crazy the greenie makes him," Tunnel Rat pointed out, absentmindedly eating some of his winnings. "I'm out. No cash until payday."

"What the fuck're you spending it all on, man?" Outback said genially. "Five on twenty, Ace."

Hit'n'Run just shook his head, so Ace collected the cash and did some quick mental math. Blind-bag vent escapes were extreme short-term bets; the minute a Joe got word that someone was trying to get out of the infirmary, usually via air vent, he would take bets from the others without telling them who the greenshirt was or how they were injured. It made things more interesting, especially since the escape attempt was usually over in minutes.

Speak of the devil . . . He poked his head out at the sound of footsteps. Lifeline went stalking past, Stretcher and Kitbag behind him. He didn't look angry per se, but there was a distinct little line between his eyebrows that usually meant trouble for people who spotted it. Ace hastily pulled his head back into the bunkroom.

"Book's closed, guys," he called over his shoulder. "'Wreck, I think you're gonna be lucky."