Author's note: Yes, another one-shot. I know folks are waiting on the next chapters of "Corazones" and "Order Up" . . . but as the poor unfortunate souls who listen to me bitching on Twitter know, real life has been ridiculously busy lately and I can't seem to find enough brain cells to finish the chapters for either of the abovementioned fics. Both stories are coming towards important climaxes, and I think I owe all of you guys something well-written, not cudgeled out of an uncooperative brain.

Also—yes, another Dusty fic. I can't help it: he's one of my favorite Joes, and the more I read about him, the more I like him.

This is a collection of short ficlets based around various aspects of Dusty's character. Some are (I hope) funny, and some are dramatic. The title of course comes from the term tao, which literally translates as "path" or "way" but usually means something more like "doctrine." It seemed appropriate.

A few bits of translation:

Fellahin—plural of fellah, the Arabic equivalent of "peasant." Sometimes mildly derogatory.

Wadi—a valley or dry riverbed. Used in the latter instance here.

Cherry—the tip of a lit cigarette. Considered a prime marker by snipers. (Interestingly enough, snipers also use 'apricot' to refer to the sweet, instant-kill spot at the base of the brain. If one of these guys ever offers you a fruit basket, do not accept.)

Rating: T for bad language.

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.

The Tao of Dusty

by Totenkinder Madchen

Rule One: A desert man stays cool.

Ronald W. Tadur, alias Dusty, was a mainly good-natured individual with a talent for making friends and a love of any place hot, sandy, and desolate. He was largely a self-made man, having studied ecology while working full-time as an appliance repairman, and later putting his degree and expertise to work as one of the United States Army's best desert troopers. He joked with his teammates, lied like a champion, and loathed cold weather to the extent that he'd almost gotten into a fistfight with Snow Job over whether the desolate, lifeless stretches of the far north could actually be called "Arctic deserts" or not.

(Suffice it to say that Snow Job's proposal of shipping Dusty to Siberia in order to test his 'desert trooper' credentials did not go through.)

When the chips were down, though, Dusty was all work. He wasn't one of the most notorious Joes, not by a long shot—anyone with ninja status, a double X chromosome, or the name Wayne Sneeden usually occupied those slots—but he was on the team because he did his job and did it well. He knew the desert for what it was, and knew that when it came to surviving it, there could be no half measures. Faced with imminent death, Dusty had a cold-blooded practicality that made even his fellow Joes balk.

Only a few times in his long career did emotion affect his actions on the battlefield. Two of them would stay with him for even longer than that career lasted.

The first, a training run gone wrong with rookie Joes. Dusty, Outback, and the greenies Mangler and Lightfoot were captured by the local armed forces, who had been in a less than friendly frame of mind. Lightfoot had been interrogated . . . no, not quite the right word. Lightfoot had been tortured for information. There had been nothing the others could do but watch.

Dusty hadn't looked away. Lightfoot was trying not to give, and they owed it to him not to give an inch either.

Eventually, though, the greenie cracked. Who wouldn't? Mangler didn't seem to understand that, though, and kept shouting at the bleeding Lightfoot, accusing him of cowardice. Dusty's hands had been tied, but he still booted the son of a bitch in the gut. That had shut him up.

Mangler got the message. In the end, Lightfoot was the only greenie to make it out alive. Requiescat in pace, soldier.

The second . . . that would be his buddy Sneak-Peek. Sneak was from Maine, about as far as you could get from Dusty's preferred stomping grounds and still be in the United States, but that hadn't stopped Sneak from inviting him back to his parents' house in Bangor one Christmas.

That evening, Sneak's mother had spoken to Dusty. Asking him to do right by her son: if something happened to Sneak-Peek, Dusty had to bring him back, no matter what. Talk about an offer you couldn't refuse . . . not faced with the mother of another soldier, the fear written plain on her face. Dusty promised.

Sneak-Peek died at the Battle of Benzheen, saving a kid that Cobra used as bait. The situation was FUBAR, and Stalker had given the order to retreat. Dusty, whose credentials as a survivalist were impeccable and who always did what was necessary to stay alive, disregarded the order and carried Sneak's body out of there himself.

Kept his cool? Most of the time, yes. But when asked about those moments of seeming irrationality, Dusty would tell the questioner that it was just another form of doing what needs doing.

Rule Two: No man is an empty quarter.

Friends could be found in the oddest places.

The Rub' al Khali, or Empty Quarter, was one of the most desolate spots on the planet. What Cobra was doing there, nobody was sure yet, but when G.I. Joe went in after them there was only one possible candidate to front the mission—the best desert man in the United States armed forces. Said man was currently rewinding his keffiyah and sitting on a dead camel, but hey, nobody ever said "the best" was the same as "the most normal."

"We're lucky," Dusty said mildly as he knotted the fabric into place. Judging by Flint's expression, the warrant officer wasn't buying it. "Bedouins in this quarter have a tradition of rescuing stranded strangers."

"That's one thing," Flint said skeptically. "But I'm guessing they don't usually hug the strangers they rescue."

Dusty shrugged. The mission had been a disaster right from the start, and the dozen Joes scattered around the Bedouin campsite were filthy, worn-out and dehydrated, but none of it seemed to faze him. Flint privately reminded himself that he had to stop assuming someone was sane just because they looked it.

"I'm not surprised," Dusty said. "The leader of these men is a cousin of Sheikh Farouk Khaled al Gurneh."

Hmmm. The name was familiar. Flint remembered a stack of mission reports, and a midnight border crossing into Egypt that would never be mentioned outside of deep classified files. "Isn't that the one who wanted you to marry his sister?"

"That's the one."

"But this one you've never met."

"It's a different world out here, Flint." To the warrant officer's complete lack of surprise, Dusty was grinning. "These people have been living the same way for hundreds of years, and they're no fellahin. After that border skirmish last year, our credit is high with accomplished fighting men in this part of the world. A little fahddling andsome formal introductions, and we're all guests of the local sheikh for the next three days at least."

Flint shook his head. He'd picked up some Arabic from Lady Jaye, but his knowledge of it mainly consisted of ordering people to put down their weapons and requesting not to be shot. "Fahddle?"

"Chat. Gossip." Dusty clambered to his feet, absentmindedly brushing off camel hair. "I suspect they'd help us even if we didn't know Farouk, though. Cobra is considered muharibuun around here." Flint kept his face deliberately blank, but Dusty flashed another grin. "That means 'those who make unholy war,' sir."

"Wipe that smile off your face, sergeant. This isn't a vacation."

"'Course not, sir."

Rule Three: Respect earned is respect kept.

In the world of the military, virtually anything can be a reason for sarcasm and less-than-good-natured ribbing. Dusty, for example, was only one of the Joes who had been more than happy to assume a codename: when you've been christened Ronald, Farley or (God help you) Tormod, the nom de Joe of Dusty, Frostbite or Tripwire becomes a welcome alternative. Especially when you're surrounded by people named Lance, Michael, James, Anthony, and . . . uh . . . Snake-Eyes.

Mainframe was another member of the club: the name on his birth certificate was Blaine, the kind of monicker that was beginning to come into fashion by 1985 but had been mocked relentlessly during the 50s and 60s. Worse, Mainframe was almost as much of a geek as Breaker, a combination of unpopular traits that had given him a lot of experience being the butt of jokes. That sort of situation tended to result in either a thick skin or a workplace shooting.

Dusty had never mocked Mainframe. Initially it had been respect for a fellow member of the Embarrassing Real Name Club, but the more time he spent in G.I. Joe the more he came to realize that every member of the team was there for a very good reason. Mainframe's specialty might be esoteric, but it was vital, and the information he could pull out of a tangle of wires and circuit boards could make someone's head spin.

But though that was a good enough reason not to make fun of someone, it wasn't enough to earn respect. What had notched Mainframe up on Dusty's list from "Good guy" to "Good soldier" was the fact that, despite his deceptive behavior, Mains was no weekend warrior. Like all of them, he was a Cold War kid, and he'd seen his share of combat in the clusterfuck that was Vietnam. Despite his love affair with the microprocessor (and to be fair, the way he talked about gigs and bytes and 'liquid storage micromodules' was one of the few things capable of actually pissing Dusty off), he was no fobbit. That had earned respect.

Also, when they all played poker, Mainframe had this habit of blinking rapidly whenever he was bluffing. You don't get rid of a guy like that.

Rule Four: Don't mess with my goddamn desert.

He could smell them. The moon was full that night, and the edges of the dunes gleamed a soft silver, but not even the moon or their small campfire could strip away too much of the darkness that coated the desert at night. Mainframe and their young guide, Rashid, were seated by the campfire: Rashid as nervous as a squirrel on the freeway, and Mainframe so calm he was practically asleep.

Dusty's nose twitched. Definitely: tobacco. Rashid swore that nobody came out this far, but there was no mistaking that smell.

"Stay put and keep your head down," he whispered, grabbing his rifle. Rashid yelped, but as Dusty sprinted off, he could hear Mains telling the kid to pipe down. Good for him: Rashid meant well, but the kid had been getting on Mains' case for not being a 'real warrior,' and he could stand being quiet for a while.

The first one was the easiest to find. Dusty followed the smell of tobacco and, before long, spotted the tell-tale cherry of the lit cigarette. The bandit was hunched over, trying to shield the glow of the cigarette from any onlookers, but he'd done it by putting his back to Rashid and Mainframe. Dusty crept silently up the side of the dune, rifle in hand.

One pounce, and the bandit's face was mashed into the side of the dune, extinguishing his cigarette. Even as he flailed, Dusty drove a fist into his kidneys: the man yelped and sucked in a breath automatically, inhaling a mouthful of sand. Dusty kept his hand clamped firmly over the bandit's face to muffle his coughing, and the smoker quickly passed out from lack of air. One down, and Dusty relieved him of his rifle.

With the first out of commission, it was time to find his friends. Dusty crawled down the leeward slope of the dune, picking out the dimples and scuffs in the sand where the bandit had made his way up towards his hiding spot. He'd been smarter than Dusty originally gave him credit for—the tracks led down into a wadi that was lined with cracked dry clay and rocks, masking all tracks. He would need a distraction in order to sneak up on the rest of the men.

Hmmm . . . rocks. Dusty grinned quietly to himself as he turned over a couple of them.

Never let it be said that bandits are necessarily cowards. They are, after all, men—as subject to variation in character as any other group. However, when a dozen nine-inch-long hissing, enraged camel spiders came swarming into their campsite, the three remaining bandits did not remain as calm as one might expect a man of action to.

A volley of gunshots erupted, accompanied by shrieking and swearing in several dialects of Arabic. Dusty tackled the first of the men before he even realized the Joe was there; the second noticed the flicker of movement but was too concerned with the camel spider that had its jaws sunk into his right foot. The third rounded on Dusty, rifle in hand, only to have it swatted away.

Dusty quickly finished knocking out and trussing up the remaining bandits, removing their weapons in the process. They would be able to squirm their way out of the ropes within twelve hours or so, and given the number of canteens they had, they would easily be able to make it back to wherever they had stashed their transportation. Plenty of time for the Joes to move on.

"Thanks, girls," he said quietly to the camel spiders, who didn't pay any attention. One of them was experimentally poking an unconscious bandit's nose with its chelicerae.

And people said the desert was unfriendly.