Author's Note: The seeming inevitability of a Rise of Cobra sequel got me thinking.
It's probably telling that the first draft of this story was marked in my files as "fix RoC." It was based in my desire to build off the issues with the first movie, find a way to explain the plot inconsistencies and fill in the characterization . . . well, I don't know if I'm qualified to do that, and it's probably arrogant of me to think that way. But based on the way Snake and Scarlett interacted in the film, I feel safe saying that this approach would work.
The Devil in the White City is a real book, detailing a real murder case at the 1893 World's Fair. I strongly recommend picking it up; the interweaving of the two stories, one a realization of a dream and the other following a sociopathic murderer, makes it incredibly powerful. The quote at the end is from that same book.
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.
A Little Less Conversation
by Totenkinder Madchen
At the time, giving Ripcord a chance had seemed like a good choice. Despite the fact that he was a bit goofy (and had bought her line about emotions being unquantifiable, probably one of the most obvious "go away"s that Scarlett had ever come up with), he had come through when the chips were down. A few irritating personality quirks couldn't erase the fact that the man was a good soldier. And . . . well . . . things in Scarlett's life were complicated. She had to admit that the prospect of dating a cheerful, emotionally open man had been attractive.
But if some people talked too little, Ripcord talked too much. It seemed as if he couldn't stand silence: even when all Scarlett wanted to do was read a book, he'd be chattering a mile a minute, filling every moment with observations, opinions, jokes, and hell, probably recipes for apple strudel. He was cheerful, but he was incapable of sitting still and just contemplating, and Scarlett missed that sometimes. Ripcord could be fun, but without any time to think, she was having difficulty keeping up with the ways her life had changed. She just needed a few hours to . . . process it all.
Six weeks after the capture of McCullen and Rex Lewis, Scarlett found herself mercifully alone in the workout room late one night. She knew she should have taken the opportunity to catch up on her weight training—she'd been lax in her training regimen recently, spending so much time with Rip—but right then, the couch looked like the most inviting thing in the room. It was a perfect time for one of her favorite forms of therapy.
With a sigh, she settled down against the well-worn cushions and pulled out a copy of The Devil in the White City. In minutes she was engrossed in the book, following the intertwined stories of the architect who designed the 1893 World's Fair and the serial killer who used that fair as his hunting ground. She didn't pay much attention when the door creaked open: if it was Rip, he'd immediately announce his presence with a joke or a "Hey, Scar!" and anybody else wouldn't bother her. They knew that she preferred to be left alone when she read late at night.
Most of the time, anyway. The couch creaked a little as Snake-Eyes settled down at the other end.
"'lo, Snake," she said, dog-earing her page in the book. "Can't sleep?"
The black-clad man shrugged eloquently, conveying the affirmative with just the movement of his shoulders. He looked at the book and cocked his head inquisitively.
"Yes, I know it's not the usual. But I can only read particle physics for so long." Snake-Eyes raised his masked face to the ceiling, as if appealing for help dealing with something shocking, and Scarlett laughed a little. "Sorry for shattering your world."
There was another creak of springs as Snake-Eyes shifted a little, holding out his hand for the book. Scarlett made sure her place was marked and handed it over, watching as he swiftly perused the back cover and flipped through the first few pages. She could see the mask crinkle ever so slightly between his eyes as he noted the book's subject, and when he handed it back, his body language was still quizzical.
"Why am I reading it?" She guessed. When he nodded, she shrugged a little and set the book down. "Trying to get back to the real world, I guess."
The ninja was still for a moment. Then he cocked his head again and spread his hands, as if saying Continue.
Scarlett curled her legs up underneath her, tucking her body into the relative comfort of the couch. She couldn't count the number of times she'd been in just this position since she joined Joe: carrying on the only audible side of a conversation, usually despite the blatant eavesdropping from everyone else. Most of the current Joes had been recruited at the same time as she and Snake-Eyes, and while they'd all gotten used to each other, their curiosity about the silent man was still occasionally piqued. Scarlett, who was a certified genius but had needed more than a little help brushing up on her hand-to-hand when she'd come into the program, had been the first person to get to know the quiet ninja. Maybe that explained why she could always talk to him a little better than everyone else.
"You've seen it, right?" He probably had, but even though he never made a sound, Snake-Eyes didn't interrupt. "I know we've run into some pretty crazy stuff since we were recruited into this unit, but . . . that one was off the charts." Now Snake nodded. Definitely knew what she was talking about. "Remember the embassy in Somalia? Or the organ farm in Prague?" Scarlett shook her head. "A lot of them were . . . well, let's just say I'm not regretting getting involved with this organization. Some things just need shutting down. But the McCullen thing was out of this world."
She hadn't given a lot of thought to this topic, and now the words were spilling out. But then, she'd been distracted by Rip; the thoughts hadn't had time to percolate properly. And as usual, Snake-Eyes always made her talk more than usual. Maybe she just instinctively tried to fill the dead air caused by his voicelessness.
"Sometimes, when it's been bad, I read books like this." She picked up The Devil in the White City. "The man in this book was named H. H. Holmes. His real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, and he killed dozens of women. His final act was murdering a business partner of his in an insurance fire, then going on the run with the man's three children. I wish I could say they were never found."
Snake-Eyes looked at the book, then glanced around the workout room. There were screens on the wall, just like there were in every room—screens displaying statistics, breaking news reports, urgent information from the various governments that they had been on lease from. Captions ran underneath the news channels in half a dozen scripts, including the smooth katakana and hiragana that only Snake-Eyes could read. His gaze fastened on one screen, which was playing a report on the latest tape released by Osama bin Laden, and then flicked back to her. She got the message. We deal with that all the time. Why read about more of it?
"Pretty simple, really." Her fingers traced over the glossy cover of the book, feeling the raised letters that spelled out its title. The letters were superimposed over a black-and-white photograph of a lake shore, and on that lake was a city of dreams. Towering white buildings framed by Grecian columns, a high dome crowned with statues . . . The light of that city had been so bright that the primitive cameras of the time had been unable to capture it clearly. "To remind myself that it can always get worse.
"Holmes killed people at the World's Fair. The Fair was a benchmark. People called it the White City, the place that was supposed to show how good mankind could become." She held up the book again. The fluorescent lights of the workout room shone harshly off the glossy cover, and for a moment, the photograph there was blanked out by a reflected sheen. "You can't get much lower than that."
Snake-Eyes nodded his head. Then he reached out one gloved hand and touched the side of her neck, just above the line of her collar. The marks were faded now, but a few weeks before, a chain had left ugly bruises.
"And—yeah. Then McCullen came along." Scarlett put the book down, smiling a little wryly. "Brainwashed soldiers and nanomites and almost destroying Paris . . . one old-timey serial killer can't compete with that. I may need to change my reading material."
The hand moved from her collar to her shoulder, resting there for a moment. It was just like it had always been: firm, almost immovable, warm and solid. The kevlar friction pads on the tips of his gloved fingers always felt strange whenever the two of them sparred, when the pads might scrape over the bare skin of an arm or a face, but through her fatigues his hand felt just like any other's. That was Snake-Eyes in a nutshell: all wrapped up and incomprehensible, but still human. She smiled again, genuinely this time, and squeezed his hand briefly before he pulled it away.
"Makes you wonder what's going to happen next, doesn't it?" Scarlett said after a moment's silence. "Everything's getting shaken up. And there's no way all this is over."
That got another nod from Snake-Eyes. For a moment his head lowered and his shoulders bowed, as if he were concealing something as he snuck around a corner. One hand rested on the knife at his hip before he straightened up again, resuming his normal position. A quizzical shrug of the shoulders completed the message. Zartan. Where is he?
"Zartan." For a moment, Scarlett's fingers clenched on the cover of the book. They hadn't known Cover Girl very well; she was General Hawk's executive aide, not a field operative, and some of the non-native English speakers had had difficulty working through her thick accent, but she was one of them. "He'll come out of hiding soon enough. And when he does, I'm going to take a personal pleasure in ramming his own sword where the sun doesn't shine."
At that, Snake-Eyes shook his head. Then he pulled out his own knife and, very delicately, balanced it on the tip of his finger, beckoning her up with the other hand. Scarlett stood and moved to where he pointed, standing in the middle of the floor with Snake-Eyes behind her.
He snapped his fingers to get her attention and pointed to the knife. Then he turned it around, bent her head forward, and gently tapped the blunt end of it against a small point at the base of her neck. The tap felt like nothing, but when he did it again with a little more force behind it, Scarlett felt an odd weakness in her knees.
Stepping aside, Snake-Eyes pointed to the same spot on his own neck and handed her the knife. Carefully, trying to adjust for their height differences, Scarlett stepped behind him and imitated the gesture. He shook his head, corrected her aim, and made her try again. Finally, on the sixth try, she managed to hit it just right. Snake-Eyes nodded and took the knife back, moving behind her again and bending her head forward again. She expected to feel the tap of the hilt, but instead, her skin prickled as the very tip of the blade touched that same spot. Goosebumps sprang up and she shivered just a little bit at the touch of the point, smaller than a pinprick.
Snake-Eyes mimed out how the attack would use. Strike an enemy with a blunt object—there-and he would be incapacitated for a second or two. Stick a knife in that same spot, however, and you were putting a blade through an important part of the spinal cord. Before she joined the Joes, Scarlett had never thought a demonstration of how best to maim an enemy could be humorous: most of the Joes still didn't, but then, they'd never seen Snake-Eyes' "Zartan paralyzed from the waist down" impression. She laughed as she took the knife back, practicing the strike until he was satisfied that she knew how to make the hit. The silent ninja master was surprisingly effective at communicating; she was willing to bet that he would destroy anybody in a game of charades.
She was still smiling as she settled back onto the couch, Snake-Eyes making himself comfortable next to her. "Snake-Eyes: the man who makes assassination fun," she said, imitating a movie announcer's voice. There was a very audible snort from the ninja. "That was a compliment, big guy. I never thought martial arts were interesting before I joined up. All the schools in my town were focused on tournaments and belt rankings." Another snort, this one clearly indicating what Snake-Eyes thought of tournaments. "Be kind to them, Snake. They've never had to face a crazed Scotsman planning to rule the world."
Snake-Eyes waved a hand, marking the topic of McCullen as inconsequential. He mimed Zartan again, and then laid a hand on the back of his neck, tapping the spot he had forced Scarlett to memorize only a moment earlier. Scarlett nodded. She never went anywhere without a knife these days, and the prospect of seeing the man who'd murdered their teammate, lying on the ground half-paralyzed and unable to disappear again . . . It was a good thought, even if it was a grim one. She repeated the gesture back to him, silently agreeing.
Then he slouched a bit—just a bit—and the atmosphere lightened a little as he leaned back against the couch, dismissing the darker parts of their conversation. One gloved hand pointed to the book, still lying on the cushions where Scarlett had dropped it. He mimed lifting it, and then pointed to each of them.
Scarlett got the message. She always did. Curling up again, her shoulder touching Snake-Eyes', she opened the book and cleared her throat. "'A train with a more lighthearted cargo—'" she began, smoothly picking up where she had left off. Snake-Eyes didn't object."-also headed for Chicago, this one leased by Buffalo Bill for his Wild West show. It carried a small army: one hundred former U.S. Cavalry soldiers, ninety-seven Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Sioux Indians, another fifty Cossacks and Hussars, 180 horses, eighteen buffalo, ten elk, ten mules, and a dozen other animals.'" The ninja at her shoulder shook his head a little, apparently imagining the nightmare of traveling with that kind of retinue. Scarlett agreed: she had seen her share of troop planes in her day, after all. "'It also carried Phoebe Anne Moses of Tiffin, Ohio, a young woman with a penchant for guns and an excellent sense of distance. Bill called her Annie; the press called her Miss Oakley. At night the Indians and the soldiers played cards . . . '"
When Sgt. Stone entered the room at 0500 for his usual morning workout, Scarlett was still there. She had fallen asleep, curled up there on the couch. Someone had tucked a blanket around her. Lying on the floor next to her was a dog-eared book, and resting on top of it was a shining knife with a dull black hilt, the kind normally only used by a resident commando.
The sergeant didn't bat an eye. Instead, he just shook his head as he peeled out of his t-shirt and settled onto the weight bench. He wondered if Ripcord knew what he was getting into. Or rather . . . getting between.