Over a period of several days following the death of Serpentor and the overthrow of Cobra's control, the scattered remnants of the once mighty G.I. JOE team returned to their home base in Staten Island. No one understood what had happened, or how the changes in their lives had come about. No one in the entire nation understood the full truth of what had happened. The American people felt as if they had woken up from a long nightmare. They vaguely recalled the things they had done, the way they had been completely subservient to Cobra, the way they had betrayed and destroyed one another for the sake of Cobra. Although the American people had been coerced by Cobra's mind control, they could not escape a persistent feeling of guilt, a feeling that blood was on their hands and that no amount of washing would erase the stain.

Two weeks passed, and Scarlett found herself reading a new message from the generals at the Pentagon, an order to disband the G.I. JOE team. In the process of recovering from the long national nightmare, the federal government found itself in enormous disarray. The entire organization of the armed forces had been perverted by Cobra, and billions of dollars had been lost. The terrorist threat facing the country had not subsided. In fact, it had grown. However, with the defeat of Cobra, the G.I. JOE team had now become less necessary. Other military units would now assume the primary task of fighting terrorists around the world. In short, G.I. JOE had become expendable...

"As you've all known for the past few days, we're being shut down because of budget cuts," Scarlett later announced to the assembled G.I. JOE team, assembled in the primary staging area.

Scarlett looked around. She recognized many familiar faces... Stalker, Lady Jaye, Falcon, Cover Girl, Shipwreck, Dusty, Cross Country, Alpine, Bazooka, Ace, Dial Tone, and Spirit were among the few remaining veterans. They were joined by Snake Eyes, Mainframe, Lifeline, and Jinx. Lifeline and Jinx still wore bandages around their arms for the wounds they had received during the battle for Cobra's fortress. There were a handful of newer members, too, recent recruits who had never really been active participants with the team. Scarlett did not even know the names of half of the new recruits.

Scarlett had told some of the other Joes the story of the last six months. It was a wild tale, a tale of Cobra ruling over America, a tale of a determined band of fighters who resisted and overcame overwhelming odds to liberate their nation.

In short, it was a story that no one outside of G.I. JOE would believe.

"Hawk once said," Scarlett said, her voice faltering, "that a soldier's duty is to do the unthinkable and be forgotten."

The veterans in the group nodded solemnly in silent agreement with the words of their deceased commander.

"You have tonight to pack your belongings. Your train and airplane tickets home are all ready. If any of you need to stay here for a few days longer, that can be arranged. The official base closing ceremony will be tomorrow at 1700 hours. That is all. You are all dismissed."

* * *

Scarlett heard a soft knock on the door of her living quarters. She looked at her watch. It was nearly 2300 hours.

Opening the door, Scarlett found herself face to face with Lady Jaye.

"Lady Jaye," Scarlett said in surprise.

"Did I wake you? I'm sorry."

"No, I wasn't sleeping."

"I know it's late," Lady Jaye said, "but I couldn't sleep. I was wondering if we could talk for a while. It's our last night as G.I. JOE..."

"Of course," Scarlett smiled, "come in."

Scarlett opened the door fully, allowing Lady Jaye to come into her room.

"Would you like something to drink?" Scarlett offered.

"Got any wine?" Lady Jaye asked hopefully.

"I got a bottle of rose," Scarlett said, walking over to her refrigerator.

"Let's have it," Lady Jaye said.

The two women sat next to each other on Scarlett's couch and shared their last conversation as teammates.

"It's so hard," Lady Jaye said. "There's this six month period of time that feels like it was stolen from me. I vaguely remember being a slave worker for Cobra. But the hardest thing of all is that Flint's death is still fresh on my mind. It feels like it wasn't that long ago that he died in my arms on that chopper."

Scarlett put an arm around Lady Jaye's shoulder.

"It's okay, I understand what you're going through," she said.

"What are you going to do tomorrow when the time comes for us to go our separate ways?" Lady Jaye asked.

"Well, I... honestly, I don't know," Scarlett said. "I guess I was thinking of going back to Atlanta and seeing my family again. Maybe I could become a teacher... for the martial arts, I mean."

"See, that's good, at least you have a plan, a direction," Lady Jaye said. "I don't know what I will do. I always thought that after G.I. JOE, Flint and I would be together. I loved him. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him."

"I know," Scarlett said.

"But he's gone," Lady Jaye said miserably, "and I feel a great void, an emptiness. I don't know how to fill it. I don't even know what I want to do. The army is my life. Maybe that's what I'll end up doing... I'll become an officer and make the army my career."

"I'm sure you'll be fine, whatever you decide to do," Scarlett said.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is this..." Lady Jaye began. "We've been in G.I. JOE for a long time. We were one great family. Do you remember all those missions we went on together, all the adventures? We always made it back. Nothing was impossible for us. We never gave up, we fought for freedom, and for the most part, we succeeded. We were the stuff of legends.

"But there comes a time in your life when you realize that all good things come to an end. Nothing lasts forever. The friends you knew and played with in childhood leave you, and you rarely see them again. The movies, television shows, books, tapes, and toys that you liked as a kid fade away. You outgrow a lot of the things you liked when you were younger. Some of these things exist only in your memory. You start to question if these things were actually for real. When I was young, I never realized that the good times I had were to be the happiest times of my life. There will never be another high school prom. There will never be another `first kiss...' or another college graduation day. People never understand that they are experiencing the happiest times of their lives while they are living through them. It's only years afterward that they see this, and they are filled with longing, nostalgia, and sometimes, even regret."

Scarlett watched her friend in silence as she slowly sipped her glass of wine. Lady Jaye continued.

"I never understood until now that my years as part of G.I. JOE were the best times I ever had. I wish there were a way for me to go back and relive these times. I wish I could cherish each memory and make it last forever. All this time, I felt like I was only doing a job, doing my duty. But I see now that there was more to it than that. I'll miss the camaraderie of our team, the way we would crack jokes and share a few good laughs after each mission. I'll miss the practical jokes we played on each other. I'll miss the times we would go out on the town together. Most of all, I'll miss the way Flint smiled at me with that adorable look in his eye. He always made me feel like... like I was special."

"You still are special," Scarlett said warmly.

Lady Jaye smiled, laughed, and wiped a tear from her eye.

"Nothing will be the same for us again. So many of our dearest friends are gone. The world has changed. People have changed. And now our team is being disbanded. Some of us may never see each other again. Isn't that a sad thought? One day, when we're older, we'll look back with wonder and ask ourselves if there really was a time when we were Joes fighting with Cobra, when we saw things in black and white, when the battle lines were clearly drawn and we knew the difference between good and evil. We'll have nothing left to remind us of our time in G.I. JOE except for our personal ghosts.

"I don't want that time to come," Lady Jaye said, putting down her empty glass and looking at Scarlett.

"I don't want it to end."

Lady Jaye broke down in tears, and Scarlett put her arms around her to comfort her friend. Scarlett felt her own tears welling up as she patted Lady Jaye on the back, and she fought her tears just as she fought the growing conviction that she shared in Lady Jaye's feelings.

* * *

With the setting sun as a backdrop, the entire G.I. JOE team assembled outside the motor pool and watched Scarlett and Stalker take down the American flag that for years had proudly stood guard over their headquarters.

As she and Stalker stood in the center of a circle formed by the congregated team, folding the flag, Lady Jaye's words echoed in her mind and in her heart...

...One day, when we're older, we'll look back with wonder and as ourselves if there really was a time when we were G.I. JOE...

Everyone looked to Scarlett, expecting her to say something to put a note of finality to the ceremony. Scarlett felt a lump in her throat as she searched for the right words to say. She looked into the eyes of each of her teammates gathered around her. Different memories and emotions came back to her, one by one, as she looked into the eyes of each of her friends.

"It was an honor to serve with you all, and I'll always remember you," Scarlett said. "We fought and bled and shed tears together. We were more than a team... we were a family. I gave my all to this family, and I know you did the same. You are my comrades... my friends... my brothers and sisters..."

Scarlett looked at Snake Eyes.

"...my everything..."

* * *

The time for good-bye had come at last. Scarlett watched several Joes gather around the bus that would take them to the airport, where they would be flying home. Falcon, who had an arm around Jinx's shoulders, planned to bring her home to meet some of his relatives. Mainframe would be staying in New York for a while as he waited for Zarana to recover. He had spent nearly all his free time at her bedside in the hospital.

"How will it work?" Scarlett asked Mainframe.

"We'll find a way. I'll find a job in computers."

"What about Zarana? We've still got a huge file on her..."

"She can be whoever she wants to be," Mainframe said with a knowing wink.

Scarlett understood and smiled conspiratorially.

"I wish you both the best," Scarlett said, giving Mainframe a hug.

Lifeline walked up, and Scarlett turned to him.

"Thanks for everything, Lifeline. You took care of me when I was near death. You saved my life. I won't ever forget our time together."

He had sacrificed his own personal beliefs to save her, Scarlett knew.

"I wasn't about to let you die," Lifeline said.

"I just want you to know I don't think less of you. I will always have tremendous respect for you," Scarlett said, referring to the time Lifeline had shot the Viper to save her.

"I know," Lifeline said.

As Scarlett neared the bus, she saw Snake Eyes approaching her. For a long time, they stopped and looked at each other. The two had not spoken since the previous afternoon, and they had not had a chance to discuss their future plans.

"Yes, Snake Eyes?" Scarlett held her breath, praying that Snake Eyes would ask her to stay with him. She wanted to be with him more than anything, especially now that G.I. JOE was no more. She had her ticket to Atlanta but did not really want to use it.

"I'm taking a train to Virginia," Snake Eyes signed to her. "I have a cabin in the mountains..."

"Yes?" Scarlett smiled. "You have something you want to ask me?"

"Will you come with me?" Snake Eyes asked.

Scarlett threw down her duffel bag and threw her arms around Snake Eyes. Snake Eyes was a bit surprised at first by her response, but he soon put his arms around her and held her tightly.

"I thought you'd never ask," Scarlett said, bubbly with happiness. "Of course I'll go with you."

* * *

"You say you want diamonds in a ring of gold,

Your story to remain untold,

Your love not to grow cold,

But all the promises we make,

From the cradle to the grave,

When all I want is you..." --U2

* * *

Without a care in the world, Scarlett and Snake Eyes lived together in Snake Eyes' cabin, high in the mountains. They had no responsibilities, and they felt fantastic. There were no duties, no missions. All they had to do was wake up in the morning and enjoy each day as it came. Scarlett had never known such peace before in her entire life. Every day, she and Snake Eyes went on long walks through the wilderness. Sometimes they trained together in the martial arts. Snake Eyes began teaching her some of the techniques he had learned as a ninja.

But Scarlett's greatest joy was in the quiet time they had together. They would find a calm and isolated place where they could talk about anything and everything. When Scarlett and Snake Eyes conversed with each other, they spoke to each other almost as a husband and wife spoke to each other. They shared their every thought and dream. They lay bare to each other their feelings, right down to the smallest details.

"I have a recurring dream," Snake Eyes signed to her one day as they sat near the shore of an enormous, clear, blue lake.

In this dream, Snake Eyes could speak with his true voice, and it was such a wonderful sound to his own ears to hear himself again. Snake Eyes felt as if he could run through the streets shouting for joy at being able to speak, or at being able to show his face again. His face was whole again. There were no scars. There was no sign that he had ever been in that chopper crash over the desert. And the people in the streets of his town looked at him strangely, not understanding.

"Look at me, hear me," Snake Eyes cried for joy, "I'm whole again. I'm human again."

At the end of the street, a beautiful, shapely young woman with long, red hair stood waiting for him.

"Shana," Snake Eyes said happily. The two of them ran to each other and embraced joyously.

"I love you," Shana said tenderly. "I always have, and I always will."

Between kisses, Snake Eyes held Shana's face in his hands and began speaking to her as he always longed to speak to her.

"I want you to meet my family," he said, turning to see his parents and his sister standing not far behind him.

"You're every bit as beautiful as my brother described," Terry, his twin sister, said with tears in her eyes.

Snake Eyes' parents were speechless. They were both so thrilled that their son had found the love of his life, and that they were here to share his happiness with him.

"We were all together for the first time. My parents and my sister loved you. They saw how beautiful you were on the outside, but they sensed your kindness and sweetness as well. We were a family; my family became yours."

Snake Eyes shook his head as he sidearmed a small pebble into the lake and watched it skip over the surface of the water.

Scarlett leaned against him as she sat next to him and put her arm around his shoulders.

"I know how much it would have meant to you to have me meet your family," Scarlett said. "But some things just weren't meant to be in this world. I don't know why. It doesn't make it right or fair. It must be part of a pattern. What if we could have held onto everything that would have made our lives perfect? Would we be as close as we are today if things in the past had happened differently?"

Snake Eyes and Scarlett looked at each other for a long time, pondering that question.

"I would have loved to meet your family," Scarlett said. "I would love to see you whole again, able to freely go out in public with me, without the latex mask you have to wear when we go out. I would love to hear your voice now more than any sound in creation. I know you wish you could offer more to me. I know you wish you could lay the whole world at my feet. But I want you to know that I'm content, Snake Eyes. You don't have to promise me a perfect life. You don't have to give me diamonds in a ring of gold."

Scarlett reached over to put her hand on Snake Eyes' scarred face. She caressed his face gently.

"I want you to know that I'm happy here with you. I'm content to spend the rest of my life with you, just the way you are. Believe me when I say this."

They leaned toward each other to savor a sweet, languorous kiss.

"All I want is you."

* * *

For two months, Scarlett and Snake Eyes lived together. They felt themselves growing closer in amazing ways. Scarlett felt as if her spirit had joined with Snake Eyes. They knew each other's thoughts and feelings without even vocalizing them. Every night, Scarlett would take Snake Eyes' bed at his insistence, while he slept on the couch in front of the fireplace.

One night, Scarlett invited Snake Eyes to share her bed with her. She let him know that it was an open invitation, and that he didn't have to feel pressured to come to bed with her.

"I want to share with you everything I have to give," Scarlett said that night. "As long as we both live, I will give you my body and soul. All of it. I offer you all of me, and I do it freely. I do it because I love you."

Scarlett said nothing more that night, or on the following nights. Every night, Snake Eyes lay on the couch with his pillow and blanket. He trembled at the thought of physical intimacy with Scarlett. He dreamed of her lying in bed, waiting for him. The joy and pleasure of being one with Scarlett, when he had never before even seen her nude, haunted him day and night. Heavenly pleasure was there for him to reach out and take hold of it, if he only had the courage to do so.

One week later, Snake Eyes finally found the courage to go. He stood in the doorway of the bedroom as Scarlett retired for the night in her pajamas. Scarlett turned to look at him, and she knew that the night had come at last.

"Come here," Scarlett reached out for his hand and drew him into the room. She put both of her arms around his neck and drew him in for a slow, long, and passionate kiss. Breaking off the kiss at long last, Scarlett lay herself down on her bed and welcomed Snake Eyes with open arms.

They drank in each other for the first time.

Scarlett felt as if she were now living the dream she had dreamt of her and Snake Eyes. She knew now that it had been more than a dream. It had been a vision of the future. Together, they joined as one. They were closer and more intimate now than she had ever thought possible. Together, Snake Eyes and Scarlett ran out of the forest of darkness and into the meadow of green fields and brightly colored wildflowers. It was a gorgeous, verdant field of spring that they now ran through, hand in hand. This time, Snake Eyes did not vanish. His grip on her hand strengthened rather than weakened. A powerful wind blew through the meadow with tremendous force, sending the wildflowers flying upward toward the sun in a colorful spiral. The two of them felt themselves too being swept upwards with the wind.

Scarlett now could look down at the ground beneath her feet. She felt no alarm or fear, only supreme rapture. Together, they flew upward like eagles beating powerful wings. The meadow below them gave way to enormous mountains covered with forest, and an enormous lake lay beyond. She could see so much now, and it brought her great joy. Together, Scarlett and Snake Eyes ascended ever higher, always going upward toward the shining sun, until they reached a point at which they could go no further. Every muscle in Scarlett's body contracted. Her back arched as far as it would go. Her arms stretched outward, toward the sun, straining to reach that burning center of warmth...

Naked beneath the bed covers, Scarlett rested her head on Snake Eyes' bare chest and listened to the sound of his heart beating. Scarlett reached one arm across Snake Eyes' chest and took his hand. Snake Eyes' other hand was wrapped around her body.

They lay in bed together for a long time, gazing out the window at the full moon shining in the night sky.

"I want you to meet my family," Scarlett said softly.

Snake Eyes looked at her, as if to ask if she was serious.

"Of course, silly, I'm serious. They know what you've done for me, but they've never met you. I think they'll love you. I want my family to become yours. I wouldn't have it any other way."

Scarlett squeezed Snake Eyes' hand and leaned upward to kiss him.

"One day, when we have a family of our own, we'll both look back at all that we lost. And we'll both be thankful that we have each other... to go through life together, grow old together, and share in all the pains and joys. I think we'll be able to cherish each other all the more because of the pain we went through to find one another."

Scarlett smiled at her friend... her lover... her soul mate.

"Don't you?"

Snake Eyes smiled in agreement and held her close. Everything Scarlett had said would come to pass, he knew it. One day, they would marry and have children of their own. One day they would embark on the life they had dreamed of as children, long before they had ever laid eyes on one another. It would not be a perfect life, but it would be a good life...

...good enough...

Scarlett cried out Snake Eyes' name as they joined together again as one. It was as much a spiritual union as it was a physical one. They held onto each other tightly, each one thinking that they were experiencing one of the happiest moments of their lives, and truly believing with all their hearts that they would hold on to this moment and make it last for all time.

The End