G. I. Joe is owned by Hasbro.
TO SERVE, AND PROTECT
Chicago had been rough. Shana stared ahead through the windshield, her mind wandering. What was next? Where was this escapade going to land them? Duke was driving, and she'd taken copilot, with Tunnel Rat and Roadblock sleeping off the last aftereffects of their ordeals at the hand of COBRA. Snake was in the very back, polishing an already-gleaming sword.
"Don't take it so hard."
Shana glanced over at Duke. "What?"
"What happened back there. We got out okay."
She supposed they had, but it had been close. It was always going to be close, as long as they were on the run. It couldn't be any other way.
"Where are we going now?" she asked.
Duke shrugged. "I'm just driving."
Of course. Was she the only one who had any sort of plan? "So you don't have any ideas?" Exasperation filled her voice.
"Hey, you always act like the boss, so you figure it out," he told her, pulling into a gas station.
Shana severely wanted to tell him off, but was too tired to do it. She sighed and got out of the truck to stretch. Money was short, but they still had to gas their ride, and eat. Roadblock and Tunnel Rat climbed out and headed inside, and she followed them. Coffee was in order, for all of them. Snake didn't particularly like it, but would drink it.
Duke and Roadblock took theirs black, and Tunnel Rat liked one cream. She usually got some sort of flavored coffee, and Snake took his black when he drank it. She finished putting the tops on and picked them up, only to have someone bump into her. Shana managed to hang onto the five cups, and glared at the offender.
A man with a black baseball cap and piercing blue eyes smiled at her. "Sorry. Didn't see you there. You oughta be more careful."
"Uh huh." Shana stepped around him. She didn't need or want a confrontation now. But he sidestepped to block her, and looked down at her.
"Kind of a spitfire, aren't ya?" He looked her over, rubbing his chin. "My kind of woman."
Shana rolled her eyes. "Not interested."
"Oh, really. Maybe you should get to know me before judging me."
"Not in this lifetime." She tried to walk around him, but he moved with her. His eyes were glacial.
"You shouldn't be so mean, princess." He grabbed her right arm. "That makes me mad."
She really hated to lose the coffee, but this guy was asking for it. Before she could drop the drinks, and the guy, though, a black-gloved hand spun him around, and he came face-to-face with a very angry ninja.
"Hey – hey man, back off," the guy said, trying to act tough.
"I'd go now, if I were you," Shana said.
"Yeah, yeah. You're missing out, though, princess." The man straightened his jacket and stalked off.
Snake reached out and took three of the cups, earning him a sweet smile. "Thanks. And thanks for the help with that creep," she said. He nodded and followed her to the counter. She paid, grimacing at the dwindling amount of funds, and they hurried out to the truck. She sat in back, wanting to be closer to Snake. It was silly and girly, but sometimes she liked it when he got protective, even if she could've handled the situation.
Did he hurt you? Snake asked.
No, I'm okay. She put her head back against the seat, suddenly bone-weary of everything. How had it come to this? Running from their own country like fugitives? And there was no definite plan. They needed hardcore, bombproof evidence of the evil COBRA was spreading, but she wasn't sure how they would get it.
"So we're headin' west?" Tunnel Rat asked. "Why?"
"Because it's far away from Springfield." Duke rubbed a hand over his face. "Got a better plan?"
"No." Tunnel Rat looked at Shana. "So you're okay with this?"
She shrugged. "As long as we don't get caught, I don't care." Truth was, she'd been so tired, and a bit shaken after Chicago, that she hadn't given their direction much thought. West was as good as anything else.
"I don't care, either. Just don't let me get caught up in something like that COBRA scheme again," Roadblock said, pensive. "Don't ever want to do that over."
"Yeah, uh, thanks for helping me," Tunnel Rat said. "All of you."
"It wasn't a problem. You're one of us," Duke told him.
"That's right, T Rat," Roadblock said, nodding.
Shana smiled a little. It was nice to be a part of a tight-knit group, but it wasn't something she was used to. And she wasn't sure she ever would be.
"You're quiet, Red. What's up?" Duke called, drawing her attention.
"Bet she'd tell the ninja," Tunnel Rat said, rolling his eyes.
Shana's eyes narrowed. "You're right. I would." She wanted to say more, but knew it wouldn't do any good. Snake touched her arm, sending spikes of heat along it. He just wanted to be reassuring, but his simple gesture only gave Tunnel Rat more fodder for his sarcasm cannon.
"See? They don't even have to talk!" he pointed out.
"Maybe they've known each other a long time," Roadblock said.
"Maybe they're mind-linked or something. You know, the government does some weird mind control stuff," Tunnel Rat speculated.
"Uh, guys, I think I'd lay off it," Duke suggested. "The ninja's getting angry."
Snake had inched forward until he could reach both of the men mocking him. He did nothing, except let his weapons show and stare at them. But it was enough, and Shana had to smile. The other three men didn't truly trust Snake yet, but they didn't know him like she did. She trusted him with her life. And in turn, he entrusted his to her.
It worked well for both of them, but she sometimes wondered if there would ever be a time when they had to part ways. She knew he wanted to go after Jinx. The girl wasn't a favorite of hers, by any means, but she was important to Snake. She still couldn't believe they'd gotten into it over Snake, with Jinx confessing how he didn't fuss over other students like he did Shana. That wasn't why they were together. She wasn't even sure his code allowed him to be in love, anyway. And she sure couldn't afford it right now, not with everything going on. Still, it had definitely crossed her mind. She was attracted to him. It was as easy as that.
They drove for a few more hours, until Tunnel Rat complained of needing food. Shana wasn't sure she wanted drive-through again, but there wasn't much choice. It wasn't like they could really take time to go in and sit down.
Duke ordered their food, which always took forever, since Tunnel Rat and Roadblock changed their minds halfway through their orders. Shana sipped her Coke and hoped they would find a place to stay that night. It'd been decided they all needed at least one decent night of sleep, and it was worth risking the chance of getting caught. She glanced at Snake; the ninja was meditating, but she secretly believed he might've been sleeping. A brief smile touched her mouth. He worked so hard to help them, and received nothing in return.
"Hey, there's a motel up ahead. That might work," Tunnel Rat said.
"Anything with a bed sounds alright to me," Roadblock told him. "Right, Duke?"
"Sure. Scarlett, you in?" Duke called, looking at her in the rearview.
She nodded, but wasn't sure it was a good idea, not so close to the main highway. But the boys had outvoted her, with the exception of Snake. He'd sided with her. He really was loyal, even to a fault.
Duke parked the truck and they climbed out. Snake stuck close to Shana, his body tense. "You guys stay here. I'll get the rooms," she said, adding, "Snake, it's okay. I'll be right back." He nodded and relaxed, and she headed inside. The motel office smelled of tobacco smoke and musty carpet, and she tried not to inhale too much. No one was at the front desk, so she gingerly rang the bell while imagining all sorts of germs crawling over it.
"Hey." A stocky man came out of a small back room that she wasn't sure wasn't a bathroom. He leaned on the desk. "What'll it be, hot stuff?"
Wrinkling her nose in disgust, she said, "I need three rooms with twin beds."
He raised an eyebrow. "You need three rooms? Ain't no one with ya, sweetheart."
Shana sighed. "My friends are outside. Just give me the room keys." How hard could this be?
"Friends. They as hot as you?" He wagged his bushy eyebrows at her while handing her a clipboard. "Ain't got no computers. Just fill that out. Oh, and it's cash only, doll."
"Of course it is." Shana filled in fake information and handed him a few bills, wondering how they would keep going with dwindling money supplies.
"Here's the keys, gorgeous. Drive on around back. Be out by noon," he told her, his eyes sliding from her face to her chest.
"Right." Shana took the keys and left, shuddering as if to throw off the smells that seemed to cling to her.
"About time," Duke said. Shana went to the truck and climbed in, not wanting to take his head off. "So?"
"Go around back. I got three rooms."
Duke nodded and drove around the motel. They got out and he made sure the vehicle was locked. It wouldn't do to lose their ride.
Shana gave Duke a key and handed the other to Roadblock. "Yo, T, you and me," the big man said.
"Alright, then Snake Eyes is with me. Scarlett, you okay by yourself?" Duke asked, the key clenched in his hand.
"Yes. Good night, guys," she said and went to number twenty-five. She flipped on the lamp by the door and was surprised to see that the room was actually clean. Well, cleaner than she'd anticipated, anyway. She turned to lock the door and found Snake in the doorway, the lamp light gleaming on his visor. "Snake, I'll be fine. You need to sleep," she told him. He nodded and stepped past her. He checked the bathroom and under the beds, then sat on one of them.
"So the room is clear. Now go get some rest," she admonished. He shook his head.
I'm not leaving you alone.
She sighed and rubbed a hand over her face. She was tired and crabby, and it was no use arguing. He was probably the most persistent person she'd ever met. "Okay, fine. But promise me you'll at least sleep."
"I'm serious, Snake. I doubt anyone will try to hurt me here." Her tone was firm.
He pointed at the other bed. Sleep, Shana.
"Fine." She was tired of trying to watch out for him. She stalked over to the other bed, and flung herself down on it, ignoring the lamp light and the stale smoke that clung to the faded paisley comforter. Why was he so stubborn? No one knew they were here. She'd used fake names for the paper work. She heard the other bed creak and snuck a glance over at it. Snake was lying on his back, his hands folded behind his head. There were no illusions, though – she knew he wasn't sleeping.
And she couldn't either. Snake had locked the door and turned the lamp off, and here in a dark motel room, she was horrified to feel tears in her eyes. True, perhaps now was the first time she'd been able to really let down since Springfield, but it wasn't comforting. Tears weren't her way of coping. But instead of them drying out and disappearing, they flooded her eyes and fell down her cheeks, and she could do nothing about it.
Trying to hide her disgrace, she sniffed as quietly as she could and wiped at the offensive wetness. The other bed creaked and then a gentle hand was rubbing her back with soothing circles. "Sorry," she whispered.
The room suddenly exploded with light, and she found herself being rolled over. Snake crouched on the bed in front of her. Don't be sorry, he signed, the rapidity of his hands suggesting anger.
"But—" She was cut off by one of his hands across her mouth.
No. Listen to me. There is no shame in crying. You are stressed and tired, he signed.
"I am," she whispered, "but this isn't me. You know that." Her cheeks were warm beneath the tears, and Snake reached out to touch one, wiping the wetness away. His gentleness was a balm to her frayed nerves, and before she realized what she was doing, she fell against him, somehow knowing that right now, they both needed this.
He put his arms around her and held her close to his chest. Shana listened to his strong heartbeats beneath her ear, and began to truly relax. She wasn't sure where they were headed next, or what would happen, but this much was an absolute: she and Snake had each other.