Author's Note: I've been working on this, on and off, for a while. General Hawk is one of my favorite characters (honestly, how can you not love the man?) but even moreso than Beach Head, the man lives and breathes Army. I honestly can't see him retiring and settling down with a family . . . especially not since Marvel killed off his girl. (Grumble grumble.)
Contemplating that lady, as a matter of fact, was one of the reasons I wrote this. I think all the action in the final parts of "Corazones y Cazadores" made me want to overcompensate with some emotional stuff, and thinking about her was what gave me the idea for this.
This may sound depressing on the surface, and in a way, it is. But even at the end of his life, Hawk would . . . well . . . let's just say he wouldn't be wallowing in misery or helpless. He's made of solid steel, and if he lives this long, you'd damn well better be sure it's for a purpose.
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.
by Totenkinder Madchen
The house was full of memories, but he liked it that way. There were worse things to live with than ghosts.
Some of them were more bitter than others. There on his living room wall, displayed above the carefully-folded flag that had once flown over the their base, was a brass memorial plaque: fifty-six names in eight neat columns. Seven soldiers per column. Seven men or women who had died in the line of duty, their names noted only in the deep classified files of the Pentagon. Some had been commandos, some trainees, some personnel trusted to keep the base running. All had served with honor, but none of them deserved to go that soon.
Sometimes their ghosts whispered to him, asking him if he could have done more to save them. And sometimes he couldn't answer. There had been so many variables, after all . . .
But most days, he could quiet them easily. He knew, and knew in his heart that they had known too, what had to be done. And they would fall into line: ghosts could tell when a man was lying.
Most of them, though, didn't wrench at him like that. They lurked in the oddest places, and were apt to crop up at the most unlikely times, bringing with them a slew of recollections that were a more effective curative than anything the doctors tried to prescribe him.
Those doctors always said the same thing, too, whenever they came to see him. It's a miracle you've lived this long. Why won't you consider end-of-life counseling? For a retired soldier who lives alone, you have a lot of photographs around the place . . .
He did, at that. The small house, bought and fully paid for by the generous pension from the Pentagon, was filled with homes for the ghosts. In a way, it was tribute: everywhere his soldiers had gone since the day that flag was taken down, they had kept in contact and sent him the information he asked for. They'd all fought side-by-side for too long to just vanish into the confusion of the world. He remained their commander even when that flag was folded, and was their commander still.
There are options, you know, the doctors said said to him. He had scoffed at them, and never given more than a fleeting thought to the 'choices' they dangled in front of him. Crazy, creepy old man, the doctors said to each other. (They thought he couldn't hear them, but he had known someone—for a long time now—who had taught him a few things about listening hard.)
Place of pride, beneath the plaque and next to the folded flag, was given to the photographs from a certain set of people. The originals, the elite, the first ones picked when the government had decided that they needed something extraordinary to counter an extraordinary threat. He didn't have to look at the pictures any more to know what they showed, but he did anyway, because he had always looked his men in the eye.
Red, was the first impression that he always got. A bright, brassy red. There had been days, true, where the world teemed with red and the walls were spattered with it, but this red—though no less benign—was much more welcome. The beautiful Georgian intel agent and her silent ninja had been quite prolific when all was said and done, with twins only the beginning of a dynasty that would doubtless terrorize the martial arts world for generations to come. They were often juxtaposed with black hair—black hair and odd, sharp eyes, the children of the only other master of the ninja clan.
He shook his head, remembering that. More than a few names on the brass plaque had been checked off by that same master. Some things the soldier could almost forgive, but none of them would he forget.
Coming strong on the heels of the red was the blond, many of them bearing the sardonic smile of a heavy gunner with a taste for surfing and a flagrant disdain for authority that the soldier had never quite been able to get out of him. A dark-haired motor jockey or two, usually shown spilling out of a grievously overloaded truck or frowning at smoking wreckage while clearly wondering Now how can I make it go faster and not blow up? People tinkering with computers, people on rifle ranges, and the obligatory Christmas card that some joker always managed to sign with a request not to be put on punishment duty.
He was in a few of them, too. Postings had taken him around the world, and his old soldiers had joined in the operations he ran whenever they had the opportunity.
Let them hate me so long as they fear me, an emperor had once said. The soldier had no doubt that some of his men had feared him, but he was prouder of little more than that he had never made himself hated.
And because he was their general, he did everything he could for them. He had been given command over them; they were his responsibility, and no power on Earth would make him betray them. So he fought for them, on the battlefield and in the Pentagon, argued for them and strove for them and damned any rear echelon son of a bitch who tried to get in the way of his team. And he'd been rewarded with lifelong friendships and a lifetime of memories that even now crowded the mantel.
The mantel wasn't the only place for them, either. He had his own little trophy cabinet: a collection of medals earned in the line of duty, many of them under lock and key with the understanding that nobody would ever know about them. (He had sometimes considered changing his legal name to [CLASSIFIED], just to make things easier on the paper-pushers.) And more photographs and artifacts, carefully kept, were scattered throughout the entire house: mementos of a life well-lived, and a responsibility not yet relinquished.
With a gentle nudge, he rolled his wheelchair down the hallway towards the living room. Here were pictures from the desert, a half-a-dozen more grinning faces (and usually someone crossing his eyes or sticking his tongue out. It was a rule of nature: there was always one) with timestamps and location shots from Israel, the Sudan, Afghanistan, the middle of the Sahara, and places that he couldn't even begin to pronounce. And others . . . Paris, Cairo, Luxembourg, Manila, Istanbul, the South Pole, and an unnamed rubber-producing town on the Amazon where some of his former soldiers had apparently gotten head-slappingly drunk on the local coca wine and accidentally overthrown a local drug baron before they sobered up. A lot of photographs, and a lot of lives.
One, though, wasn't on display. It was kept in an album that rested on the low table in the front room, and never a day went past that he didn't open it up and look her in the face.
There she was—a newspaper photograph, the clipping carefully preserved, from the day she was sworn into the United States Senate. She smiled up at him, a pretty woman with curly dark-blonde hair and warm brown eyes that the cheap newsprint coloring hadn't been able to capture. His memory supplied the details, though, and he shook his head just a little as he remembered.
They hadn't had much time together, to be honest. She had been assassinated over an energy scheme she had proposed-assassinated by the same people his unit had been formed to fight. He would have said he hated irony, but the ghost of at least one of his former soldiers would have respectfully corrected his usage of the word. (Highest concentration of degrees in the military, his unit had. Mess conversation had been bizarre.)
He shook his head a little, blinking as the early morning light seeped in through the closed blinds. The memories had been especially strong all night . . . A consequence, he thought, of what he was waiting for.
And there was one of those memories now: reincarnated after a fashion in the form of the tall red-haired woman who let herself into the house without knocking.
"Good afternoon, General," she said, cupping her hands and bowing. He blinked, pulling himself away from the voices of the ghosts. Her hair was red, yes, but it was a brighter and more golden than he remembered, and the shape of the icy blue eyes was wrong.
"What's the word?" he said. His voice was hoarse with disuse, but there was still a faint echo of the parade ground in it.
The woman put a hand to her heard. "The Phoenix Master has passed into the realms of his ancestors." Her voice was steady: no quaver of emotion for a member of that family. The general nodded once, slowly.
"Then you flew straight here."
"My loyalty is to the clan, but the clan was loyal to you, Taisho Taka." She bowed again. "We could only do as was done before, in the names of the Silent Master and the Red Mistress. I was honored to be entrusted with the mission to inform you."
The general rested his hands on the arms of his wheelchair. Tomisaburo "Tommy" Arashikage, also known as Storm Shadow, also known as the Young Master, also known as the Phoenix Master. The last of the grandmasters who had reformed the Arashikage clan more than sixty years before. The last of the men and women who had served in that desert base, so long ago.
He'd done it. He had stood his watch. And like a commander should, he had been the first to step up to his duty—and now, he was the last to step down.
"That ends now," he said. The young woman blinked, surprised.
The general took a deep breath, and to the woman's surprise, he smiled. It was the small ghost of a smile that had seen the light of day many times over the years: in campsites, motor pools, and war rooms, and much more rarely in the halls of power. "The Arashikage clan doesn't owe a debt to me," he said. "I'm fortunate to have lived long enough to see it return to its glory, and I don't doubt that it will do the Phoenix Master proud throughout the ages. But I've done my tour." The smile grew, just a little. "It may be time for me to think about retirement."
"You're dismissing me, sir?" the woman said. "Did I not do right?"
"Your clan master has died. You should be with your family now." Preparing for the future. Leave the past to him. Raising his head, he summoned up the spirit of the long-reaching—now-ended—command. "You've served with distinction and honor, soldier. Dismissed."
For a moment, she stood silent. Then, with a spark in her eyes that was all too familiar, a smile of her own appeared. "Sir, yes sir!"
She opened the door and was gone, vanishing into the glow of the sunrise.
He rolled his wheelchair out onto the porch, searching almost idly for any sign of her. There were no footprints on the wet lawn—no, of course there weren't. No sign of a car or a motorcycle on the street. The entire scene was still, only the wind stirring the branches of the trees. The sun was just beginning to peer over the edge of the horizon, the sky tinted pale orange and yellow with the promise of a new day.
General Clayton Abernathy put his hands on the arms of the wheelchair. Slowly, deliberately, he pushed, forcing long-unused muscles to bend and flex. His legs trembled, but didn't give way, and for the first time in years he stood.
And he saluted.
"Godspeed, gentlemen," the general said. "And women," he added, perhaps somewhat spoiling the drama of the moment. But wherever she was, Cover Girl would've thrown a wrench at his head (or thought about it, anyway) for forgetting that all-important qualifier.
All of his Joes were gone.
Heaven was in for a shock.