Author's note: Talk about a plot bunny that wouldn't go away . . .

This is my take on another corner of the Joe universe that we don't get a look at much: the innocent bystanders. All those fights cause a lot of collateral damage, and there must be a Joe protocol for dealing with witnesses to national-security incidents.

Furthermore, I just like the idea of a couple of our favorite characters having a place to go where nobody gives a damn if you're a ninja or not.

Further notes at the end to avoid spoilers.

Disclaimer: G.I. Joe and all associated characters and concepts are property of Hasbro, 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.

Ordinary Joes

by Totenkinder Madchen

The guys down at O'Lanagan's on 47th were a tight-knit bunch. There was Irv, the undisputed king of the group, a Navajo man who was thin as a whip and just as smart: he'd made a fortune in drywall back in the '50s, given most of it to his kids, and was happily living out his retirement years sharking pool and buying drinks for everyone. There was Harry the Hamster, a powerful man in his sixties with an impressive beer gut and fists the size of canned hams. Nobody messed with Harry, not when there were rumors that he'd been the one to fit Jimmy Hoffa with cement shoes back in the day. There were Benny and Joe, brothers from Carlisleton, Kansas, who'd come to the Big Apple to run an appliance store and wound up settling down in Staten Island with their entirely-too-hot-for-them wives. And the group's Casanova, Jack Armstrong—known locally, for his large number of romantic conquests, as Jack the Zipper.

Most of them had white-collar jobs, but their roots were deep in the blue-collar life. Benny and Jack had both been in the Army, and rumor had it that Irv had been too, although he just pulled down his sleeve whenever anyone asked about the faded old tattoo on his arm. The five of them met at O'Lanagan's a few evenings every week—to play pool or darts or cards, to drink a little more than they really ought to, and to share in the kind of genial camaraderie that the rush of modern life often lacked.

On one bleak gray Saturday afternoon in February, the group had gathered at the bar in its usual booth. The excuse for the meeting was just that, an excuse (it didn't take a lot to make them get a drink and shoot the shit with their buddies) but it was allegedly to plan Harry the Hamster's sixty-fifth birthday. They wanted to get him a cake shaped like a severed horsehead. It was during the tongue-hanging-out-versus-no-tongue-hanging-out argument ("Personally, I believe it adds that little touch of authenticity," Joe was saying) when the door swung open and admitted a blast of cold air and a bundled-up couple.

Women were rare in O'Lanagan's. They weren't forbidden—far from it—but the bar had a well-established role as the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall for the tipsy older gentleman, and women tended to walk right past without even seeing it. Especially not tall, luscious, flustered-looking redheads in heavy overcoats.

But then, she probably didn't have to worry about going anywhere she liked. The man at her side was lean and broad-shouldered, perfectly anonymous in a ski mask and sunglasses, with another heavy coat covering what was either a serious deformity or one hell of a lot of oddly-shaped luggage on his back. The woman slid the door closed and, arm-in-arm with her intimidating beau, hurried across to the bar.

"If anybody asks," she said to the bartender, "you didn't see us."

"And who's gonna be asking?" said the bartender. His name was Sid, and he was the only man big enough to make Harry the Hamster sit down and shut up. Like many gigantic men not working for supervillains, he was actually a fairly nice guy—but he didn't appreciate the idea that somebody might be bringing trouble into O'Lanagan's, gorgeous redhead or not.

"Look, this is for your own safety." The redhead held up a piece of ID. The five men in the booth couldn't see it, but they definitely saw Sid's eyes widen. The woman spoke in a low voice, calm but rapid-fire. "I'm sorry to bring you into this, but the road is blocked on either end and we have to cut through your kitchen. This is a matter of national security." The black-clad man grabbed her arm and started hauling her towards the back door of the bar, completely ignoring Sid's flabbergasted look. "You didn't see us!"

Maybe Sid hadn't, but someone else definitely had. There was a loud crash from the direction of the kitchen, followed by the unmistakable stutter of gunfire. The redhead and her friend skidded to a halt, glancing around quickly. Her eyes fixed on the five men in the corner—the only patrons in the bar at that hour.

"You guys. Get down and stay down, and whatever you do, don't draw attention to yourselves!" The words were uttered in a tone of absolute command, and four of the five found themselves obeying without even realizing it. Jack took a bit longer than the others, but that was just because he stopped for an ogle on the way down. The redhead turned to Sid. "Stay behind the bar. It should shield you from any stray rounds." Even as she spoke, she unzipped her coat and dropped it, revealing a set of close-cut body armor and more weaponry than any of the men had ever seen a woman like her carry. "I'm sorry about this. The government will pay for the damages."

"Damages-" Sid began. He was abruptly cut off when the black-clad man grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him down behind the bar. The message was clear.

Not a second later, the kitchen door burst open. Eight men burst in—bikers, with torn leather jackets and semiautomatics in their hands. A blond man with a ponytail grinned widely as he revved a chainsaw. "'At's up, eh, Joes?" he said, displaying teeth stained faintly purple. Another of the bikers dropped a bottle and belched.

At which point, things happened. Neither Benny, Joe, Jack, Harry, or even Irv could ever really puzzle out exactly the sequence of events. They all agreed that it started with the black-wearing man cocking his head. And then, like the world's most terrifying flasher, he opened his coat and violence emerged from underneath.

Somebody got thrown over the bar at some point. Jack would swear that he saw the redhead run up the wall, do a somersault, and land on one of the bikers' backs, but the sight of a woman in skintight body armor may have done something to his brain and nobody ever quite believed that one. Bottles were smashed, chairs broken in two. And the blond man's chainsaw cut through almost anything, but it's hard to use power tools when you've got a silent shadow of a man turning your arm into a pretzel. The chainsaw dropped from his suddenly limp hand and chewed into the countertop, Sid's pride and joy.

That sight seemed to trigger a change in Harry the Hamster. With a barely-audible growl, he rose from the ground and hurled himself into the fight. A biker whirled to face him, grinning and brandishing a switchblade: within two seconds, he was laid out flat on the ground with glass shards where part of his scalp used to be. Harry dropped the rest of the shattered Dewar's bottle and dove at the next.

But the old bruiser was feeling his age, and the new target could see him coming. A headbutt right to the forehead knocked Harry right back down again. The biker was reaching for his switchblade when the redhead whirled in place, hooking a foot around his neck and slamming him into the wall. The switchblade dropped to the floor.

Within seconds, the fight was over. Six of the eight bikers were unconscious and bleeding; the other two, including the chainsaw man, were making incoherent whimpering noises and occasionally promising to be good. The redhead sighed.

"What do you think, Snake?" she said to the silent man, who just shook his head. She made a "mm" of agreement and bent down in front of Chainsaw Guy, who cowered away as he cradled his busted arm.

"Don't even think about getting cute with me," she said flatly. "Those were Crimson Guardsmen relaying the message. And suddenly you come busting in from the opposite direction? Talk to me, Buzzer."

"I don't know a fing!" Buzzer burbled. "I ain't got nothin' to say to you!"

"Zartan and the Commander are on the outs again, aren't they."

Buzzer looked up. "Who toldja that?"

"You just did." Buzzer groaned and sagged, and the redhead turned to 'Snake.' "That explains a lot about this whole case. The mixed signals, that dropped package in Bristol-" Snake made a few gestures, and she nodded. "I thought those siegies chasing us were a little too sloppy. They weren't real Guardsmen. Zartan was trying to poach us under the Commander's nose."

"Hey, wait a second." That was the voice of Irv, cautiously unfolding himself from his crouch behind the jukebox. "Miss, would you mind telling us what the hell is going on here?"

"National security, Irv," Sid called from underneath the bar.

"National security could mean anything from a nuke in Iran to a busted water pipe in the Pentagon, the way they throw it around these days." Irv crossed his arms. His polo shirt was rumpled, the sleeve sliding up just a little bit. The faded tattoo appeared. "How about some answers?"

The redhead smiled, just a little. "Unfortunately, this is the I-could-get-shot-for-telling-you kind of national security. These men are EPWs."

Benny cautiously raised his head. "Don't you mean POWs?"

"We're not allowed to say POWs any more. EPWs is supposed to sound less threatening."

"Yeah, that's national security all right," Irv said cheerfully. "Can't wipe their ass without running it through a focus group first. Hey, Sid! Got any more scotch, or did Harry bust it all up?"

"There should be some down at the-"

Before Sid or Irv could reach for it, though, Snake jumped over the bar and retrieved the bottle. He handed it to Irv, nodding his head a little as he did so. The older man took it with a curious expression.

"You've got pretty good manners for a commando, kid."

Snake just pointed to the tattoo. Irv raised his eyebrows, surprised, and then glanced down at it himself as if he'd forgotten he even had it. A small smile quirked his thin lips. "You recognize it?"

The silent man made several odd, short signs. Now his companion was the one who looked surprised. "Sheep, uncle, ram, ice, bear, ant, cat, horse, itch," she translated. "Snake, are you okay?"

At that, Irv broke out laughing. "It looks like you know a bit about communication difficulties yourself," he said, slapping Snake on the shoulder—thankfully, with the hand not holding the bottle of scotch. "And lady, put 'em all together, and they spell . . . ?"

"Suribachi." Her eyebrows raised as she put the pieces together. Then, never breaking stride, she stepped back and snapped out a parade-quality salute.

"Nicest government secret agents I ever met." Irv uncorked the bottle. "You know, back in my day, most of them had their heads crammed so far up their own asses that they never had to worry about colon cancer."

Snake and his lady friend Scarlett came back a few more times. Once, to bring the government agents that inspected the damage caused by the fight and then handed Mr. O'Lanagan a check that evidently bought an awful lot of "I didn't see anything, officer." Two days after that, they returned once more for an after-closing-time meeting with the five regulars and Sid.

Whatever those two were in, it was so deep that they really couldn't say anything much. According to Scarlett, it was usually the bureaucrats' job to make sure that nobody reported an Australian fugitive biker gang busting up a bar in Staten Island—not when the secrecy of said biker gang's whereabouts was some kind of important something-or-other—but Snake, she said, had wanted to talk to Irv. It wasn't every day that a ninja met a Navajo Code Talker.

And after that, it became a regular thing. Once every few weeks, a redhead or a strangely silent blond man would turn up at O'Lanagan's. Sometimes both, though their schedules didn't seem to permit it. They would turn up sporting fresh injuries, but after the first couple of times, nobody would bat an eye. Joe or Jack or Benny would shift over in the booth to make room for them, and the group would share stories and bullshit for a couple of hours. Once they even managed to get Scarlett into the bar's monthly darts tournament; they tried to get Snake too, but Scarlett said that he would attract too much attention. She played just badly enough to take third place, although Irv later informed her in strictest confidence that she wasn't as good at pretending incompetence as she thought she was.

Before too much longer, though, the two of them vanished.

One day, they just stopped coming around. No more Southern redheads at the bar or carefully edited versions of where they'd gone or what had caused that nasty black eye. No more darts that had sunk so deep in the corkboard that they needed to be pried out with a pocketknife. It was back to just the five again, and the atmosphere felt just a little bit emptier.

Joe swore that it had something to do with the strange explosion at the chaplains' assistants' motor pool in Fort Wadsworth, but nobody really listened to him. They couldn't think of less likely chaplains' assistants than Snake and Scarlett, and the general consensus was that whatever-the-hell those two were involved in, it probably had the funding to park them somewhere more high-tech than Fort Wadsworth. Harry, of all people, said he hoped that they had just gotten out of the area: there had been a lot of crazy things happening in the past few years, and spooky commandos or not, nobody was immortal. None of the regulars said they had died, though each knew the other four were thinking it.

Which made the surprise all the better when, two years later, they got the wedding invitation.

Additional notes: the Navajo Code Talkers were a group formed during World War II in an effort to develop an unbreakable code for the Pacific theatre of the war. The Navajo language had no written alphabet and was confined to a relatively small group in the United States, which made it the perfect basis for a code that would baffle the Japanese. It used a substitution code, with a twist—some words, like "tank," were replaced with Navajo terms (a tank was called a tortoise), while in other cases the word would be spelled out using Navajo words for things beginning with each letter. So if a code talker wanted to spell out something beginning with A, he might begin with "be-la-sana"-the word for apple.

The example Snake-Eyes cites is the actual translated code that the Code Talkers used to convey that the US military had taken Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, a pivotal battle during the war.