Arriving back at the Pit separately didn't fool anyone. Even with Snake Eyes giving her a good hour's lead, the rumor mill was well and truly kick-started.
That's the military for you, Scarlett thought sourly. One of the things we do better than anyone… come in fast, kick butt hard, and spread say-so at the speed of sound.
"You got something to smirk about?" That was Duke, walking at her elbow, pinning another greenshirt with a glare that sent him and his buddies scuttling. Then, rounding on a perfectly innocent bystander, "Don't you have something to do? NOW?"
Scarlett sighed, closed her eyes for a fraction of a second. She wasn't certain what would happen first… if Duke would take someone out for looking at her wrong, or if she'd clock him for playing bodyguard. She punched the elevator button harder than she needed to, staring fixedly at the doors until they slid open.
The moment they slid closed, they both spoke at once – both voices angry, matching glare for glare.
"Duke, I don't need…"
"Do you have any idea what…"
They both paused, each stepping back, not meeting the other's gaze. Scarlett took a long, deep breath… calm. He was being… Duke. The same Duke he'd always been. The knight-errant, convinced that she needed him to fight her battles and run off the rabble. There was a time she'd loved him for that… so she forced her voice down to a conversational level, even if she wouldn't look him in the eye.
"Duke. I appreciate what you're trying to do. But I don't need a big brother. I'm a big girl… I can take care of myself."
"I know you can, Red." He'd calmed as she had, though his displeasure still sparked behind his eyes. "But your reputation? Doesn't look like you're taking much care of that."
"I was off duty. If I decide to sleep out under the stars – that's my business."
"So that's the story you're sticking to?"
"I don't see why not. It's the truth." And it was… that was the beauty of it. When he didn't reply, she fixed him with a glare every bit as potent as the one he'd turned on the unfortunate greenshirt. "I don't like what you're not saying, Duke."
"And I don't like what people ARE saying – and you know damn well how soldiers talk!" The return glare was unrepentant. "Listen – I know it's long over with us. Fine. And I know I've got no say in your private life – but you know that reputation is everything for a woman in your position. You know you're held to a higher standard than any man. And you know damn well that people are watching both of you, ever since your pet ninja took up with Helix. Do you really want to play lead in his little soap opera?"
She flinched, but the door sliding open prevented her from either slapping him or flaying him with a few choice words. Instead, she left the elevator at a brisk, angry pace, Duke following a millisecond behind. He rounded the corner steps behind her – and shoulder-slammed Snake Eyes, coming from the other direction. Ahead, Scarlett hadn't missed a step – but Duke glared at the black-clad commando before continuing down the hall.
When he glanced back, Snake Eyes had already gone, as though he hadn't even paused to glare back.
Maybe he hadn't.
General Hawk's Office
Later that afternoon
" So Snake Eyes and Scarlett decided to bivouac in the canyonlands last night." Hawk studied the young blonde from across his desk, standing beside the chair despite the invitation to sit. "Together, I assume?"
"Staggering the return to base wouldn't fool a high school freshman, and they both know it." Helix grimaced. "I backtracked them from that arroyo into the sagebrush steppe… found where they lay up. One of them was wounded. There was a little blood. And tracks coming from the direction of town – one pair. Biped."
"Biped?" Hawk's eyebrows rose. "So he's been playing around with that wolfman form after all?"
"That's what it looks like." Helix looked decidedly bored. "I followed it back a ways until it got lost in a cross-trail. From what I can tell, Scarlett hit trouble somewhere outside the reservoir and Snakes came running. He carried her to the sagebrush steppe, and they lay up there until morning, then came back. They split up at the arroyo, came back to base an hour apart. End of story. Pretty much confirms that they're known to each other, anyhoo. And that's what you wanted to know, right?"
"Mm." The general steepled his fingers, contemplating the ceiling for a moment. "I tell you, Agent Helix, this whole 'don't ask, don't tell' thing is more a mess than the politicians who dreamed it up could even start thinking."
"That's why I'm glad I'm not military, general."
A sigh, and Hawk rose. "Sometimes, Helix, I think you've got the right of it. We'll have to call them in, then, once your team gets back from Nepal."
"You think that's wise?" One elegant eyebrow quirked upwards. "Snakes came clean with you when he signed on… Scarlett's another story. You think she'll buy into what you've got in mind?"
"This is the military, Agent Helix." Hawk's eyes glinted like those of a predatory bird. "Buying in isn't something that matters much to us."