Disclaimer: G.I. Joe and all associated characters and concepts are property of Hasbro Inc. and IDW comics. I'm just one of a large family of fans who likes telling family stories – no profit needed, no profit earned.
Author's Note: I apologize in advance; I'm having some difficulty getting the formatting of my story to stick. I've tried a number of different things, and none seem to be working on this site. Grrr. To try to differentiate between Snake Eyes' unspoken thoughts and his words in sign, I'm setting his dialogue off like -this-. If it's simply in italics, it's a thought.
Also… this is rated T+ for language and content, and may be very difficult for some female readers to read. What I decided to write into this story has been with me for a long while now, since I first heard a story on NPR about female Iraq war veterans and PTSD – and about the startling, horrifying amount of sexual abuse suffered by female members of the military. As recently as 2009, statistics stated that one in every three active duty female personnel would be sexually assaulted while serving. That's double the rate for civilian women… in 2009, the statistics for the general population were one in six... and the men who are responsible are, all too often, men with whom these female soldiers are serving. The incidents Scarlett described to Duke were taken directly from articles and features on Iraq war veterans, and did happen to real women still alive to remember. And, like Scarlett, many choose not to speak out about what happened to them, however horrific.
Structures are in place in all branches of the military to facilitate anonymous reporting of sexual assault. Please do not interpret anything you read in this story to imply that I hold military personnel as a whole, particularly our brave men and women currently serving, in anything other than the highest regard.
Promises to Keep by Catwings 1026
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Robert Frost, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening"
"So Red sent… her pet ninja… to make things all better, huh?" The figure in the bed bore little resemblance to the man Snake Eyes had known, fought beside, respected – but even in his debilatated condition, breath coming in ragged gasps, it seemed that Duke was still trying to maintain a fragmentary sense of humor.
"It's bad," Scarlett had told him over the video link. She'd glanced away from the computer screen, and in that unguarded moment, Snake Eyes could see the pain in her eyes, the sag of her shoulders, that vulnerability she tried so hard to hide. Looking down at Duke, Snake Eyes made a mental note that "bad" was quite possibly the worst of understatements.
The younger man's face and hands were swollen, dark and visibly painful - a direct result of kidneys growing increasingly weak, failing rapidly. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and every few moments he was wracked with uncontrolled shuddering. Even with an oxygen mask assisting his respiration, his breathing was ragged and wheezed on the intake, making his speech come in staggered, stacatto gasps. The look Doc had given Snake Eyes on his way into the secured hospital room had been one of mixed resignation and pity – both were suited up in sealed haz-mat suits, and the windowless room was airlocked to prevent any contagion from escaping. It was more like a burial chamber, Snake Eyes thought, than a place of healing.
"Don't tire him out," Doc had warned. Snake Eyes would have been more than happy to oblige – it had been Duke's insistance that brought him into the room at all. Any leads to the source of the virus, to any possible cure, were elsewhere, beyond the walls, and time was crucial… and Duke needed his strength to stay alive until Snake Eyes could track down those leads, one way or another. The look on Scarlett's face came back to him… she knew he might not find the cure. She knew he might already be too late. But she trusted him to find out who'd done this, who had let loose a biological weapon of terror, and he wouldn't let that trust be misplaced.
"Don't like you… so much… right now…" Duke's voice jarred him out of his thoughts. His eyes, fever-bright, were fixed on the ninja at his bedside. "You don't… deserve her… you know."
Snake Eyes blinked behind his mask and visor.
Where did THAT come from? It was clear that "her" was Scarlett – he knew that she and Duke had a past, knew she still cared deeply for him. But that was personal… outside of their roles as soldiers and members of the team. He started to sign, but Duke fixed him with a bleary glare.
"No. Just listen. Got to… say some things. Before…" He tailed off, shaking his head, eyes closing briefly. "Doesn't matter… what I think. Red made… her choice. But you…" And now the sick man's face was deadly fierce, his eyes locked on his companion's ravaged face, hidden as it was behind black visor and hazmat suit, as though he could see right through it. "You need… to make a choice… too. Owe her… that much." A spasm of chill took him, and Duke's eyes unfocused in pain, glazing over as his body was wracked with coughs and gasps.
"Don't know… what she sees… in you…" Duke continued. "She… deserves better. Someone… who won't take off… any chance… he gets. Leave her… against a wall…"
This time, Snake Eyes bristled. He knew exactly what Duke was alluding to… and the other man knew it, too.
-I didn't leave her against the wall, he signed, making each gesture tight, controlled. I never would. I came back, even after she told me to run like hell…-
"Shouldn't have… got her into… that place… to begin with." Snake Eyes turned his face away. "And then… later… didn't even… thank her… for having your back… coward."
Coward? One hand balled, unwilled, into a fist, and he had to consciously restrain the arm. Snake Eyes took a deep, calming breath. He doesn't know what he's saying. He's sick. Just let him get it out. Besides, Scarlett would likely find it less than honorable if he pummeled a man so sick he could barely lift his head… he'd never be able to explain it properly.
-Maybe,- he told Duke. -I should have stayed… long enough to explain. My head wasn't in a good place. She understood.-
"The hell she did." The voice was weaker now… weaker, but still angry. "You didn't… see her. While you were gone… when you came back… that whole shit… with Helix…"
-Leave Helix out of it,- he signed, wishing for the hundredth time that sign could more accurately capture his tone of voice. -She's not part of this.-
"Right." Duke's blue eyes challenged him, though he said nothing more, chest rising and falling, trying to regain his breath. "Best be sure… Red knows that." And something in his tone made the ninja pause. Clearly, Duke knew – or thought he knew – something Snake Eyes didn't.
Damn it all to hell. This is NOT what I need to be thinking about going into a mission… He felt very much like standing up and leaving the room – better for both of them, that way. Sick or not, Duke was starting to get under his skin – a major accomplishment. The younger man didn't need to be getting so agitated, and he sure as hell didn't need Scarlett's ex prying into his business, not when it came to Scarlett.
"I know… you don't get it." Duke continued. "Guy like you… been alone… a long time, huh? But Red… she's a hell of a woman… deserves…" Another fit of coughing, the pain tangling his facial features. Snake Eyes held up his hand – stop. Time out.
-Deserves what? Deserves someone with a voice, maybe?- he signed, hands moving fast, fingers angry. -Someone with a face that doesn't make her feel guilty every time she looks at him?- He tapped the hazmat helmet, indicating his face. -YOU THINK I DON'T KNOW THAT?- Now HE was breathing more heavily, muscles tense. He SO did not want to be having this conversation! -I don't need anyone's pity!-
"If you think… it's pity…" Duke wheezed, looking away. "Then you don't… know Shana… at all." Still looking at the wall, his voice softened. "She's got… more heart… than any woman… I ever knew. Sees deep… into people… makes her good… at what she does. And she… doesn't do… pity, Snakes." He turned back now, and his blue eyes, sunken in that swollen face, were filled with a pain that had nothing to do with his raging fever, his failing kidneys.
-You still love her.- It wasn't a question. Duke closed his eyes.
"Don't think… I'm ever gonna… stop." He whispered. "She's got… that effect… on people."
Snake Eyes nodded. He'd noticed from the start that there was something about the redhead that affected her team, affected the support staff, made an impact on everyone who came in contact with her. It wasn't guys going all moony over one of the few women in their daily circle… though he suspected that Mainframe carried a torch for Scarlett, and probably one or two of the others did as well. If he was out of the picture, someone else would step up to take his place pretty quickly…
But it was more than that.
She could soften even a chisel-edged personality like the general's. Make a fobbit or kitchen grunt feel like he was as valuable as any member of a forward assault team. Scarlett had an instinct for finding a soldier's talent, bringing it into the light, and showing that it was valued. She was a good leader to the Joes under her, was someone they would fight for even off the battlefield. They respected her – and, what was more, they LIKED her. To a man, there wasn't a Joe on base who wouldn't go the extra mile for Scarlett, gift her with little favors like a dish cooked to order, ask "How high?" if she told them to jump.
"Not gonna… make it back… this time." Duke's voice was a raspy monotone. Snake Eyes stiffened. "Not your… fault… big guy. Just… the way… it looks. And… y'know… it's okay. Really." He held out a hand to his companion, though it cost him much to do so – the pain coursed through his eyes. Snake Eyes took the weight of the hand, squeezed. "You're a good man… Snakes. Good… soldier. Just… don't like… the idea… of ANYONE… with Red… but me. Nothing… personal…" He glanced to the bedside, to a nightstand with a drawer. "In there… note… for you. Wrote it… when things got… bad…"
Snake Eyes opened the drawer, removed the white envelope. It was unsealed, and inside, folded sheets of looseleaf.
"Read it… now… okay?"
Snake Eyes -
I don't know when you'll get this, or under what circumstances. But I need to write it down now, so I know that if I don't make it back from this one, you'll know what you need to know.
I don't know how much… or if… Scarlett's told you about the two of us. About our past. I'm not going to fuck around with teenaged crap about relationships, though. No guy likes being ditched by the woman he loves. But that happened before you were even in the picture… and there are things I need you to know. About Red. About her past. I need to know that if I'm gone… someone else has her back. It looks like that someone is going to be you.
Red and I met at Fort Riley, not too long after we joined up. Different units. We were friends for a long time before we got to be more. It was when we were friends that some things happened… things you need to know about, if you're going to be with Shana. Things I wish I'd done something about. Maybe you will.
There was this officer… she'll tell you who, if she wants you to know… who had it in for her. Busted her butt for any little mistake. When she didn't make mistakes… he busted on her for being a woman. Comments. Jokes. Just didn't think women belonged in the military. And he'd get some of the guys going, sometimes. Look the other way if they ganged up on her. You know Red… she's tough, and she gives as good as she takes. But the one time she laid one of the goonies out for grabbing her butt… she was the one who got busted for it. This guy, her CO, he seemed to like being able to catch her like that. Made it out to seem like she'd been leading the guys on – like she deserved it.
She'd tell me about it, and I'd tell her she didn't need to take it… I mean, the military isn't a place for women who can't take a little crude humor, some pushing by the guys in her unit. But it got to be more. But she said that reporting anything would just make it worse. She'd say that someday, she'd get the chance to transfer into another unit. That maybe we'd transfer together. But if she made too much fuss, it would never happen. I didn't like it… but I respected her choice.
I wish I hadn't.
Our units shipped out for Afghanistan at about the same time, and even though we kept in touch – calls, e-mail – I wasn't right there, like I used to be. And I guess things went from bad to worse. She told me some of it… the guys teasing her, daring her to prove that she was one of them. Wanting her to flash them some breast. Let them touch it – "C'mon, just a little feel between friends" – shit like that. But she didn't tell me all of it… not by a long shot.
When we got back Stateside, I could tell that things had changed… but I wondered if maybe it was just me. We started seeing each other, and that skews things, at first… you wonder if you're reading things wrong, seeing too much, seeing too little. I'd be waiting for her at the end of her shift – didn't want her walking back to quarters alone, and wanted the goons she was serving with to know she was spoken for. I could tell she wasn't sleeping well, could tell it was stress… wanted her to go talk to someone, but she shut me down, wanted to know if I thought she couldn't take it. If she wasn't "Army strong." She'd get really mad at me, not speak to me for days… so I stopped pushing.
I found out about the nightmares the way you'd probably expect… and they were bad. Night terrors, I guess they're called – it's part and parcel with PTSD. She'd sit bolt upright, screaming at someone who wasn't there… look straight at me, not knowing me. I couldn't get her to snap out of it. We'd just have to wait it out. And bit by bit… I started to put things together. Things she said when she was in that place in her head. The threats. The crying. The way she'd be trying to hold something, someone off with both hands, backing up, getting into a corner, against the wall. Then curling up afterward, and just shaking and shaking.
When I came out and asked her what had happened while she was deployed… who'd done it, though I had a pretty good feeling… she told me. I hope you've figured it by now, because I don't want to have to spell it out for you.
I kinda went a little ballistic – who wouldn't, knowing that? And I wanted to do something about it – and I didn't care whether it was the right way or the wrong way. But Red wouldn't even consider it – told me we were through if I did anything, said anything. Said there wasn't anything that could be done about it, that it was part of war, that by being stronger and toughing it out, she'd get the upper hand…
His hands were shaking too much to keep reading. Snake Eyes took a deep breath, then another, but there was a ringing in his ears and his vision was red around the edges… a raw, primal fury seethed in his throat, and he realized he was gritting his teeth. He didn't, couldn't, look at Duke…
I look at him, I'm going to do something we both regret… sick or not… oh, God…
She hadn't said anything to him about her past. They were too new to one another, too tentative still… hell, he hadn't even kissed her yet. Not that he hadn't wanted to… but…
He balled the paper, flung it at the wall, stood and paced like a caged tiger. This was wrong… all of it wrong, from what had happened to Scarlett to what she hadn't done, what DUKE hadn't done, to Duke telling him at all. It wasn't his secret to share… wasn't his burden. And why, why, WHY hadn't he DONE something when something could have, should have been done? No matter what she said…
But honestly… would I have acted any differently? The thought stopped his pacing, stopped the whirling of his mind. He loved her. He still loves her. And he did what he could… the best he could. When he returned to the bedside, fingers gripping the back of the chair so hard they hurt, he saw that Duke had been following his every movement with silent eyes.
"It was… a long time ago…" he said, his voice trembling with the effort to keep it steady. "But… she still cries… in her sleep… sometimes. Still has… bad dreams. If you're gonna… be with her… I need you… to know. Other guys… might freak. Might… leave her. Promise…" This fit of coughing was worse than before, and Snake Eyes could see Duke's strength fading. "Promise me… if you decide… to be with her… you'll stay. She… deserves better…" And now the man's face twisted, almost crumpling. "Better… than me… I couldn't… help her."
Duke sank back into his pillows, utterly spent, skin clammy with sweat. His eyes, though… his eyes burned with a fierce devotion, a protectiveness that Snake Eyes understood perfectly. He signed only two words.
-I promise.- He extended a hand to Duke, clasped the responding hand above the wrist, holding tight for a long moment. They were brothers in arms, members of an elite fighting force… but now, more than before, they were simply brothers. In the younger man's eyes, Snake Eyes could see a relief… an easing of the burden he'd carried alone for too long. A relief from a worry he could not speak. Snake Eyes felt Duke's grip lessen, then fall away… the heart monitor did not shrill, only continued its rhythmic chirp, but he realized that the effort of conversation had been, in the end, too much. Duke's eyes had sagged closed, and he was suddenly, deeply asleep.
Snake Eyes turned on his heel and left the room. He had a mission to complete. And now… he had a promise to keep, as well.