Author's Note: So here it is. This story has been bothering me for weeks; honestly, I think it's one of the hardest things I've ever had to write. It's pretty much finished, but I still need to edit some pieces, so I'll be uploading one chapter every day or so from now on. Once this is finished, I'll be back with "Order Up," but this one just had to be written before I could get anywhere with Short Stack and company.

Note that Snake-Eyes' ASL will be a little more clunky and tentative than it normally is in my stories. This is because he's still learning; he doesn't even begin to know all the signs, and will spell words he can't say otherwise.

Also: Happy Fourth of July! Celebrate it the way the Founders would have wanted: with ninja.

Rating: T for now. Will be jumped to M in later chapters. You have been warned.

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.

This story is dedicated to CrystalOfEllinon, TiamatV, and willwrite4fics: the holy trinity of S/SE. Thanks, guys.


Masks

by Totenkinder Madchen


Life was almost back to normal. As normal as it could be for a secret antiterrorism unit, anyway.

It had been more than six months since the helicopter accident. The team had been moved to their new permanent base under Fort Wadsworth—camouflaged by, of all things, the chaplain's assistants' motor pool. It was still partially under construction, and with only seven Joes and a few greenshirts rattling around the place, it didn't feel like home. General Hawk had privately told his team that several of the greenies were about ready to be promoted to Joe status, which should take some of the pressure off the original seven, and that several more outside specialists from the other branches would be recruited within the next year. Clutch was absolutely ecstatic to learn that they'd be getting a tank driver.

In that sort of life, change becomes routine. Snake-Eyes . . . well . . . he'd always been quiet, hadn't he? He'd lurked at the edges, usually with his hat pulled down over his eyes. Now he was just quieter. Right?

At least, that was what they told themselves. It was no secret, though, that his new face disturbed some of them. It wasn't that they were scared of him—far from it. They were all buddies, and had hauled each others' fat out of the fire too many times—but when a brother-in-arms suddenly looks like nothing human any more, it can be hard to adjust to. Snake-Eyes himself said nothing about the matter, but he took to wearing ski masks and would fade back into the shadows if anybody entered a room he was in.

Because of his new difficulty, General Hawk was forced to make a few tactical decisions. There was no possible world where having the ninja around would actually be troublesome; he was far and away the deadliest of the team members, after all. But between the face and the voice, he could no longer be deployed in jobs requiring civilian interaction. Before, Snake-Eyes had been a good background man, since he was quiet and inobtrusive and could bump into somebody in the street and slip a bug into their pocket without breaking stride. Now, he would have to be full stealth or full combat: even if they made him the best prosthetics in the world, people were likely to remember a mute man.

Snake-Eyes took this with apparent equanimity. He had always spent a lot of time deep in his own thoughts, and he knew that Hawk's decision was a practical one. There would be no getting around the fact that it hurt what pride he allowed himself. The thought that someone might not have the undercover backup they needed, just because he couldn't hide in plain sight any more, bothered him deeply. But if he had been the kind of man who bemoaned what he couldn't change, he wouldn't have bandaged up his blistered, mutilated face and gone on with the Strawhacker rescue. If he was going to be a liability on some duties, then it was his responsibility to make sure that he was absolutely unstoppable on others.

With no other options, he had begun learning ASL. It was quicker than writing things down, freed up space in his equipment pouches for more throwing stars rather than a pen and paper . . . and if it, too, gnawed at his pride, then he had the advantage of his bandaged face to keep anybody from realizing.

Maybe it helped, just a little, that Snake-Eyes was alone.

Not literally. The base was barely at one-eighth capacity, but there were six other full Joes, plus General Hawk and the greenshirt brigade—and not to mention the people that kept the personnel fed, the place cleaned, and the hydraulic lifts oiled and well-maintained. Technically speaking, he was never actually alone. But Snake-Eyes had always willingly separated himself from crowds, choosing to stand by a chosen few—Tommy, Lonzo, and more recently Scarlett. Hell, even in the high Sierras he hadn't been completely isolated: Timber was surprisingly good company for a creature whose major motivations were 1) food and 2) more food. Now, though, he had separated himself from even those few.

Lonzo . . . Lonzo had tried to be a buddy. But his idea of cheering someone up was acting like nothing had ever happened, an approach that smacked of trying too hard for a ninja who could detect the tracker's tiny signs of unease. That kind of thing was bound to be irritating, and it frayed Snake-Eyes' nerves to spend too much time with him. As for Tommy—Tommy was long gone. Maybe dead now. His ex-friend didn't bear thinking about.

Right now, the only person in his corner was Scarlett, and that was an issue that left Snake-Eyes with decidedly mixed feelings. Before the accident, there had definitely been something there: a touch, a smile, and later, a few stolen kisses that had left both of them gasping a little. He had had a dream about her once, and had almost pounded his head against the wall afterwards in the realization of what was happening to him. Falling for a teammate, Snake-Eyes? Really?

Then . . . Scarlett's web gear had gotten trapped in the door. The burst of burning fuel. The pain that still lurked under his skin, months later. They hadn't touched since.

During his time in the hospital, he'd hated her. Every Tuesday was debriding day, a horrific and painful process, and each time they peeled another layer of charred skin off his mangled face he wished he'd never met her. Scarlett has visited as often as she could, sitting by his bedside and trying to get him to talk . . . She'd always been like that, seeking him out and trying to make him open up. At the time, it hadn't been welcome. But as the skin began to knit together and the debriding sessions stopped, Snake-Eyes' resentment had begun to fade a little as well. Now they sometimes spoke, her as bright as ever with her soft Georgia accent, him slow and tenuous as he fumbled his way through the basics of sign language.

They could be friends, now—of a sort. They worked well together. But as for where they stood on what they'd had before . . . Snake-Eyes didn't know. He didn't want to think about it, on some level. Making the effort to develop relationships had been difficult before, when he was just the quiet sort; now there was so much more to work through. And if he caught himself turning every time he saw a flash of red hair out of the corner of his eye . . .

God damn it.


There was a small nick in his ninjato. Puffing out a breath of annoyance under his ski mask, Snake-Eyes settled cross-legged on the bed with the weapon and a sharpening kit. The cloth of his BDUs pulled strangely against his scars as he sat: patches of his body had almost no sensation at all, and when a scarred place was numb, the area immediately next to it had heightened sensation. His skin prickled a little as he scratched at his shoulder, annoyed.

At that moment, though, he got the message he'd been waiting for all day. The intercom crackled. "Snake-Eyes to the supply depot, quartermaster's office . . . repeat, Snake-Eyes to the supply depot . . . "

Finally. With a sigh, he put down the damaged ninjato, making a mental note to finish the sharpening later. The supply division had put its best people on finding Snake-Eyes a new set of equipment, and he'd been promised that it would be no later than today. Good. If he was going to be full stealth, then he needed better equipment than BDUs and a worn olive-drab ski mask, especially since the mask didn't cover everything and itched like hell. He retrieved a pair of diving goggles from his footlocker and snapped them into place, making sure that the mangled skin around his eyes was covered before he set foot in the hall.

The few greenshirts currently on base had gotten used to him, and they didn't flinch too badly as he jogged past. Breaker was coming out of the main server room with his hands full of wires, and waved to Snake-Eyes when he spotted him. The ninja responded with a shrug of the shoulders and moved on. Breaker hadn't known Snake-Eyes too well before the accident, which probably made it easier to adjust. Too bad Snake himself couldn't adjust that easily.

The head quartermaster, with supreme authority over all equipment issued to the troops of the Pit, was a newly-transferred veteran with the monicker of Storage Vault. He'd come into the Pit supremely at ease and totally in command, but Snake-Eyes guessed that he was starting to have some trouble: there were dark circles under his eyes, and the formerly confident smile had developed a twitch in one corner. When the ninja arrived in his office, though, he didn't do more than jump a little. Possibly because this time, Snake-Eyes actually used the door.

"Sgt. Snake-Eyes," he said, nodding in a businesslike fashion. "We've assembled your new gear." Two junior quartermasters followed Snake-Eyes into the office, carrying locked black boxes that looked for all the world like stereo equipment. "We've never had to equip a ninja before, so I have to admit it was a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, we managed to get our hands on some experimental equipment being developed by a diving company." Storage Vault's eyes narrowed, just a little. "Now obviously, 'experimental' means 'rare' and therefore 'expensive.' I trust, sergeant, that you'll take good care of this gear?"

Snake-Eyes shrugged a little.

"That doesn't exactly fill me with confidence, sergeant. But General Abernathy says 'jump,' so . . . " He gestured to the first of the junior quartermasters, who set his case down on the desk and unlocked it. Storage Vault flung up the lid with a flourish and produced . . . something. It was a bundle of liquidy black fabric that seemed to absorb the light, showing only the faintest blue highlights where the gleam of the office fluorescents was strongest. Snake-Eyes raised an eyebrow behind his ski mask.

[Is-] ASL failed him, as it still often did these days, so he settled for spelling out the word. [S-K-I-N-S-U-I-T?]

"Experimental model, developed for Navy frogmen in hostile waters. Low-friction, but a good tough polymer weave." Storage Vault tossed him the bundle. "Nice, isn't it? Reacts to ambient light; looks dark in direct light, but blends easily in even just a bit of shadow. It's still cloth, though; it won't stop bullets or more than a decent knife. Think you can manage to dodge?" Snake-Eyes gave him a look, and Storage Vault swallowed and fumbled in the case again. "That's a yes, I take it. All right—there's three of these suits. See the buckles on the arms and legs? Those are for your equipment belts." He fished out a neatly-rolled bundle of straps and short belts. The fasteners were metal, but with surfaces coated in plastic to reduce shine. "Here they are . . . got you a baldric for your swords, too." He held up the largest strap.

[B-A-L-D-R-I-C?]

"Antiquated term—shoulder strap. It's considered a dramatic kind of descriptor, but those of us in the support divisions feel justified using it when we're equipping ninjas." Storage Vault aimed a wry look at him. "This one goes over the right shoulder, but we've got left-shouldered models too if you need it. It's tested up to an eighty-pound weight." He continued on, not missing a beat as the other quartermaster opened up the second case. "Boots . . . Had a hell of a time finding those, incidentally. The Pentagon is going to love the bill for this equipment. Four pairs—try not to break 'em too fast. Gloves—suede with high-friction patches on the fingertips and palm. Ten pairs.

"And the mask."

Snake-Eyes paused in his examination of the baldric. Storage Vault was slipping something out of a plastic sleeve.

It was matte black, the same as the skinsuit. Instead of separate goggles, there were lenses stitched directly to the fabric. Narrow slits, almost invisible, had been cut and underlaid with thinner dark fabric so that he could breathe. It looked . . . intimidating.

Putting down the baldric, he reached out and plucked the mask from Storage Vault's hand. It was sleek and mouthless, almost mechanical. It wouldn't betray his expressions. Even better, though, it looked like—like something more, was the only way he could think of it. The slick inhumanity of the mask trumped whatever wreck of a face might be underneath it. He breathed out, feeling the warmth of his breath against the wool of his plain ski mask, and looked into the dark lenses.

He wasn't sure if he liked it. But it was much better than what he had before.

Storage Vault was watching him nervously, clearly uncertain of what he was thinking. Snake-Eyes knew he had always had that effect on people. Masked, though . . . A balaclava and goggles looked like he had something to hide. A skinsuit, a mask, black gloves, a sword strapped to his back—those made it all look deliberate. Made him something to hide from.

Snake-Eyes could live with that.

[Good,] he signed slowly, taking his time to make sure each word was the correct one. [I will take them now.]

Storage Vault might have breathed out, just a little. Snake-Eyes didn't really care. He was looking at the mask again. He signed for the equipment and left, carrying the two heavy cases with an ease that was almost more frightening than the persona he was about to adopt.

Back in his room, he unlatched them again and considered the new gear. The tight suit seemed ridiculous in concept: a superhero costume, something a little too Hollywood-ninja to be believable. In strong, direct light, it looked liquid-black-too black, possibly creating a dark patch that could indicate his presence. But it slid on like a second skin, and melted into the shadows as effortlessly as Snake-Eyes did. No rustle of fabric would betray him, the way the BDUs did, and without strong light it lost its inky contrast and became simply a dark costume. He silently congratulated those frogmen on the equipment being developed for them.

The boots, unfortunately, still had a bit of a shine on them—the hazard of using leather. He could buff that out with a little work. The gloves fit beautifully, and the belts took the weight of his accustomed knives and grenades with no trouble. He packed the utility belt with a small selection of basics (lockpick kit, blowgun kit, darts, garotte wire, concertina wire, throwing stars, and a bit of poison just because), settled one of his favorite katana on his back, and picked up the mask. It slid on noiselessly.

There were no mirrors in his room. There had been one in the small bathroom attached to it, but Snake-Eyes had "accidentally" broken it during his first week out of the hospital, and somehow Maintenance had never gotten around to fixing it. Imagine that. He glanced down at himself, feeling the smooth slide of the skin-suit, considering his own newly black-clad figure. He looked . . . different, that was for sure.

Oh, well. Time to become reacquainted with the team.