Part 2: G.I. Joe Special Missions: Scarlett Declassified

Chapter 23: Arrival

"Getting ready to go?"

Scarlett jumped about half a foot in the air. Snake-Eyes, damn him, had probably already seen General Hawk coming up behind her and hadn't bothered to tell her; she shot him a poisonous glance, which he returned with one of his inscrutable smiles, and they both turned to Hawk. "Just finishing the last of my packing and goodbyes, Sir," she said, wishing her fair skin didn't blush so brilliantly. Hawk's knowing smile, and Snake-Eyes' sly wink, didn't make the blush fade any, either.

"Here. Read this." He handed her a sheet of paper.

It was a short message from Duke, which she read aloud for Snake-Eyes' benefit. "Arriving at HQ by 1400. Three wounded. Will brief on arrival. Team all present and accounted for." She looked up at him. "This isn't like him, General." An understatement; this was very uncharacteristic. Not that Duke was one to write long chatty letters, but this was brief even for him. "He didn't tell us who was wounded." And something else, she realized as she read it through again. "He didn't tell us if the mission was a success. Which means that, as far as he's concerned, it isn't over." She frowned even as a niggling suspicion grew in the back of her mind...a thought that had probably occurred to General Hawk, which was probably why he'd had her read the message. "Um, General…you are going to let him land, right?"

Hawk blew out his breath and took the paper from her. "Yes, I'm going to let him land. Wounded are wounded, whether civilian or one of ours. Doesn't mean I'm not going to assign him cleanup duty for a month." Hawk's grumpy tone belied his smile; Scarlett knew he'd been very worried since the extraction team had left Entebbe, and he was relieved to know that his people, their friends, were coming back. Even if one more was coming in than went out.

"Duke wouldn't have brought this civilian here if he didn't think it wasn't necessary," Scarlett shook her head.

"I know. Which is why I'm going to wait to read their mission reports before I rake them over the coals." He sighed. "Go ahead and finish your goodbyes, then come to my office. I have your tickets to The Hague waiting and Prosecutor Donnelly will have someone meet you at the airport there. If there's anything in the mission teams' reports that have bearing on your assignment to find out what the heck is going on over there at the ICC, I'll let you know." He sighed and walked away.

She turned back to Snake-Eyes. "Stop worrying. I'm just going there to observe and report." He still stood there looking disapproving. So she resorted to the diversion tactic that The Girls had adopted to handle the concern of Their Men.

The kiss was lengthy and heated. Scarlett finally came up for air when her lungs reminded that breathing wasn't optional, and leaned her forehead against Snake-Eyes'. With her high heels on, they were of a height now, even though her dark pencil skirt, appropriate attire for a lawyer, suddenly felt too confining and stifling. "God, I'm going to miss you."

The warm hand on the small of her back caressed her spine lightly. She could tell what he wanted to say even if he didn't have the voice to say it, and sometimes the sign language was superfluous. I'll miss you too.

"It's too bad you can't come. Would be nice to come 'home' to a nice domestic scene at the end of the day." The thought had its attractions.

The hand stilled. Forget the domestic scene. You're going to look for a potential mole in a strange organization. I want to protect you.

"I know, sweetheart. But we both knew when we signed up for this gig that we wouldn't always get to pick our assignments, and we can't always be there for each other. Think of this as the price we have to pay for the last job Clancy sent us on." She smiled wickedly.

Snake-Eyes grinned at the memory. Warm beach in New Zealand, sun and sand and surf, crashing waves and ocean breezes cooling the summer nights we spent in each other's arms. It had been a week of pure bliss. We do have some leave time coming up…

She grinned even wider, a grin of pure pleasure. "Wonderful idea. Go back to that beach, a little R&R…" The wicked smile again. "I could even arrange to lose our luggage again." Easy, now that she'd gotten the hang of it. Just put the bags down on the wrong carousel…after all, the NPL for New Plymouth airport looked so much like the NPE designation for Napier Provincial airport…

If you're naughty and lose the luggage again, it won't be rest and relaxation you'll be getting…

"Oh, I know. That's the fun of it, right?" She giggled as the swat he aimed at her rump connected, swept up her bag, and gave him a last warm hug. "I'll see you when I get back."

Hawk was waiting for her when she got to his office. "Here's your tickets for the flight leaving at 1400. It's only noon, so you still have plenty of time to get there. There's the travel itinerary, and here's access to our emergency field mission account." He handed over a plastic card. Then he looked at her critically. "You know, I get so used to seeing you in fatigues—all of you girls, in fatigues—that I forget you have lives outside of what we do." He sighed. "This whole mission has turned into a nightmare. Wounded, traitors, moles—you will take care of yourself out there, right?" He sounded anxious.

She'd been the first of The Girls that he'd ever recruited, and it had mostly been because he'd realized that he couldn't have an elite force of only guys, that females had a place in the military and it wasn't just as eye candy. She still remembered the fight she'd had to establish her place among The Men, building a reputation for being smart, savvy, and completely capable of being the equal to The Guys. The experiment had been so successful that he'd added Lady Jaye, later, and then Cover Girl. They'd had an initial fight over her relationship with first Duke, then Snake-Eyes, but they were all consummate professionals, and when she'd broken up with Duke to go out with Snake-Eyes and they had stayed friends (and more importantly, it hadn't affected their work), Hawk had relented.

Now he took a big-brotherly type of approach; he left them alone to pursue whatever relationship they wanted but with an eye toward stepping in if it looked like it would interfere with the team dynamics (which so far it hadn't.) Over the years as the team cemented into an excellent working machine there had been gradually less and less worry ; in fact, General Hawk now picked couples for certain missions knowing they would be all the more careful with the other's (and their own) safety. Now, when he worried about them, it was usually as friends, not as subordinate and commander.

"Yes, I'll take care of myself." She smiled. "An office full of lawyers. What's so bad about that?"

"I don't like lawyers. Present company excepted, of course," he corrected quickly; he'd learned very early on to be careful of Scarlett's temper. "I'd feel better about Justice being blind if the guide dogs weren't all lawyers."

"Honestly, General, I'd face more trouble from paper cuts and broken nails than I would the other lawyers. Lawyers I can handle." He inclined his head slightly, and she took that as assent. "All right. Let me know what happened with Flint's team as soon as you know—I'm dying to ask Lady Jaye about this obsessed lawyer they're supposed to be escorting but I'm going to be gone by the time they land—"

The phone on Hawk's desk crackled to life. "General Hawk!" there was a note of—was that panic?—in the voice of the guard at the front gate.

"Hawk here." From friend to General in the blink of an eye. Scarlett admired his professionalism even as she put her bags down, tensing for an emergency.

"Flint's team is coming in early—they have wounded—Lady Jaye and Flint—oh, Jesus fucking Christ, what the hell—" Scarlett was already in motion, long legs churning down the halls toward the lift that would bring the returning team down to the administrative level of The Pit. There was a reason, after all, that she never bought a pair of shoes—even heels—that she couldn't run in. She didn't hear what Hawk said, but moments later he was running with her, both in step with each other.

And the lift door was opening, and Scarlet saw Duke first, his face set and grim; he was holding the front end of a stretcher on which Flint lay. Scarlett could see the heavy wad of bandages across his back, and gasped, but he shook his head. "Not me," and she looked at the next stretcher as it came off the lift. Lady Jaye this time, pale, looking half-asleep, but otherwise normal except for the bandages taped in place over her chest. "No, it's Alex," Lady Jaye waved a hand as Ace and Brawler carried her stretcher off the lift. Scarlett gave a brief nod to Recondo and Wild Bill and Recoil as they stepped off, and then she saw Cover Girl's grim face at the head of another stretcher, saw Gung Ho at the foot of it, and then lost all other details as she almost screamed in shock.

A woman—the ICC lawyer from their briefing paperwork—with blond hair that had once been long and pretty; but now half of it looked to have been hacked off by a knife, and the face was so bruised, swollen, and disfigured by what Scarlett was sure had been a vicious, brutal beating, resulting in a broken cheekbone and so many bruises that the original fair porcelain skin color was all but gone. She was wearing what looked like a set of Cover Girl's fatigues—the name patch on the breast of the jacket said 'Krieger'—but if Courtney had ever looked like that Beach Head would have been out hunting for blood. Not to mention the rest of the Joes—the fatigues were caked with what looked like half the blood in her body.

Just looking at the blond made Scarlett's blood boil, and she felt anger rise from the pit of her stomach, setting into a cold ball just under her heart. "She's been tortured," she whispered, the cold certainty of it making her swallow hard.

Hawk was beside her, staring shaken at Lifeline's retreating back as the entire group headed down the hall toward the medlabs. "Jesus," Hawk breathed, more a prayer than a curse. "No wonder they brought her here." He set off down the hall, and Scarlett followed, forgetting the tickets, flight, everything; she barely even acknowledged Snake-Eyes' presence beside her as she turned the corner into the medlabs.

Flint and Lady Jaye were climbing off the stretchers carefully and getting into beds, helped by Stretcher, albeit carefully so as not to jar their injuries. Flint looked worse than Lady Jaye; dark circles under his eyes, face drawn and haggard with pain, new lines that hadn't been on his face when he'd left just two weeks before. He lay on his side so as not to exacerbate the obvious pain in his back. "Ran out of painkillers," he breathed to General Hawk. "Lady Jaye and I refused the last few doses to leave more for her," and they had no doubt which 'her' he was talking about.

"Get some sleep, Flint," Hawk said gently as Stretcher slipped a needle into his arm; Flint nodded and closed his eyes, and was unconscious seconds later. Lady Jaye was already unconscious as Hawk, Scarlett, and Snake-Eyes passed her bed; they didn't disturb her, but stepped on to the knot of people surrounding the operating table.

Lifeline and Doc, their medical officer, were busily engaged in cutting Courtney's spare fatigues off Alex's body, and Scarlett clamped a hand over her mouth to hold back her gasp of shock. Behind her, she felt Snake-Eyes rest a hand on her shoulder in silent sympathy, but she also felt the tensing of his muscles, the only outward sign of his fury. Scarlett wanted to throw up as she saw the scratched, dirty, swollen bare feet; the cuts from some heavy, thin flexible rod on calves and thighs, the heavier welts, cuts, and infected lacerations on the inner thighs, and between the battered legs—

She turned away, unable to bear the sight, and buried her face in Snake-Eyes' shoulder. "Oh, God," she choked out. "Oh. My. God." Even with her eyes closed she could see the infected flesh; the stitches Lifeline had placed to try and hold the torn skin together, the blood still seeping from the numerous tiny cuts dotting the entire region. The flat stomach, once toned and unblemished, crossed and criss-crossed with more of those tiny cuts, with welts from a vicious belt-beating; bruised torso, breasts darkened to purple-black from a hideous battering. She stepped back, stumbled away from the table; then turned and ran for the bathroom where she threw up her lunch. Snake Eyes patted her back as she heaved, handed her a cup of water to wash her mouth out with when she was done. By the time she was composed enough to turn back around, General Hawk had vanished from the medlab along with the remaining members of the team, and there was only the unconscious woman on the bed, and an army of doctors and nurses around her discussing her condition. Scarlett couldn't bear to watch anymore as they opened stirrups, fitted Alex's feet into them, and laid a paper drape over her battered torso; the redhead fled the medlab.

Hawk sat down heavily behind his desk. He'd never before seen something so grotesque. Well, maybe in pictures, but he'd certainly never seen anything like that on a still-living human. Shock had frozen him as Scarlett ran to the bathroom; he'd heard her getting sick and had wished he could too. He understood now why Duke had chosen to bring the injured woman here; no provincial hospital in Africa would have been able to do more than make sure her last few hours were comfortable. For that matter, he wasn't sure if his people, with all their medical knowledge, would be able to save what was left of the lawyer.

He also understood why Duke had opted to bring her home without telling him first. If Duke had tried to explain the severity of Alex Cabot's injuries, would Hawk have been able to understand? Not having seen her, never having seen anything this grotesque, would the simple words 'she's been tortured' have given Hawk a picture of the full magnitude of her injuries? He rather doubted not. Nothing could have prepared him for what he'd seen.

"I'm not upset," he said tiredly to the seven Joes who stood at attention in front of his desk; Recondo, Brawler, Gung Ho; Wild Bill, Ace, Duke, Cover Girl. Lifeline had elected to stay in the medlabs with the patient, but the seven standing in front of him were clearly expecting disciplinary action of some sort. "I understand why you brought her here. I also understand why you didn't see fit to tell me you were bringing a civilian in before you actually brought her in. Honestly, I don't think I would have understood the severity and extent of her injuries until I actually saw her for myself." He closed his eyes, shook his head, trying to dispel the image. "With Flint and Lady Jaye out of commission, who took command?"

"I did. Sir." Duke.

Hawk nodded; he'd expected that even though Wild Bill would have been the ranking officer. "Okay. You stay. The rest of you, go get settled, changed, cleaned up." His eyes lingered on Gung Ho, whose clothes were liberally stained with blood, and pointed. "Gung Ho, you stay too." He waited until the others filed out of the room, then said, "At ease."

Duke didn't relax. "General Hawk. Sir. I realize no civilians are permitted in HQ but exigent circumstances forced us to make a decision. Sir."

"Duke. I'm not angry." Duke finally relaxed, and Hawk waved him into a chair, then pointed Gung Ho into another one. "I'm not happy, but I understand why. I need you to tell me what happened, why this mission went to hell, before I decide what actions I'm going to take." If any, he added mentally; each one of his soldiers had looked like they'd been through hell and back, and he just didn't have the heart to yell at them.

"It was a setup, Sir." Duke said tiredly.

"De whole t'ing," Gung Ho chimed in from his chair, and there was anger under that thick Cajun accent.

"Start at the beginning," Hawk said to Duke and Gung Ho, then sat back to listen.

By the time their voices stopped, Hawk understood Gung Ho's anger. It was bad enough that the UN and an international organization like the ICC had been played for fools by a rogue African militia leader, but that they then would have taken advantage of the situation to construct an entire military operation around one fragile civilian woman with no military training and no support was reprehensible. Like a pawn on a chess board, each side had conspired to use Alexandra Cabot for their own purposes, without regard to her well-being or for the possible consequences of her capture.

The logical part of Hawk's mind understood why she'd been chosen for this; no family, no close friends, passionate about her work and what she did; a workaholic who no one would miss. They'd used her passion for the victims she helped to get her out there; and truly, if it hadn't been for his team the entire operation would have gone as planned. Alex would still have been at that camp when the UN tracked her down, the militia would have been wiped out, and it would have been chalked down as a 'win' in the UN mission debriefings.

Except for his team. Hawk would never tell them to their faces that he was proud of them for disobeying orders, but right now yelling at them was the last thing on his mind. They were the elite of the American military; consummate professional soldiers with ingrained ideas of duty and responsibility and the ability to take orders. But they were also human, and those less-tangible ideas of justice, fairness and basic human compassion were also just as deeply ingrained, if not more. While Hawk-the-soldier decried the complication of having a refugee lawyer clinging to life in his medical lab, Clayton-the-man was bursting with pride at his soldiers having the guts to throw orders out the window and think independently in order to save a life that shouldn't have been placed in danger in the first place.

And truly, if things had gone as planned, would it still have been a 'win'? Alex would most certainly have been dead—in fact, Hawk was still not sure why she wasn't. The pain alone should have killed her, not to mention the damage done to her physically. No matter who would have 'won' had the scenario played out as it had been designed to—the militia or the UN—Alex would still have lost. She had lost; lost her pride, her dignity, her identity as a woman—in the torture she'd endured, and Hawk wondered if maybe dying would have been kinder. Thinking of her lying on the stretcher in agony through the last leg of the journey here because they'd run out of painkillers—he couldn't imagine what she'd felt, and what his soldiers had felt in having to stand by helplessly and watch. No wonder they looked like they'd been through hell. They couldn't even have stopped to acquire more because of the need for speed and secrecy.

And that reminded him. "Scarlett was scheduled to leave this evening on a flight to The Hague, my own little spy with the ICC to try and ferret out the mole in the organization."

Duke's head snapped up. "Alone?"

"That was the original plan, yes. After having seen that lawyer, I'm starting to think maybe alone isn't such a good idea."

"Starting to? General, if you're going to send her at all a whole team should go with her!" Despite the fact they were no longer officially a couple, Duke remained protective of Scarlett, and vice versa. They were still extremely close friends. "Armed to the teeth!"

"Better yet, just blow de whole place up and be done wit' it," Gung Ho said.

Hawk shook his head. "Scarlett herself would not be noticed. But by herself she's not safe. Not that I don't trust her; I can't trust the people around her." He thought hard. "I'll send Snake-Eyes with her. She'll be safe then." The close bond Scarlett and Snake-Eyes had would ensure that she stayed safe; anyone trying to get to her would have to go through the Joes' resident ninja expert and his butterfly knives, sais, and various other personal armament. Snake Eyes would be all the more fierce protecting Scarlett because he loved her, and she him. And because the man couldn't talk, people tended to ignore him. Any potential assassin's eyes would be on Scarlett, leaving Snake-Eyes free to strike from behind.

Duke didn't disagree.