Author's Note: This chapter is probably my least favorite out of all the ones I have planned and scripted. Unfortunately, some transitional moments are just awkward, and there wasn't a better place to make the chapter cut than here. I hope it still amuses, anyway-and thanks to all my readers for sticking with this weird little experiment in social humiliation.

One of the artworks described here is real. One is not. I should note that I have nothing against modern art, but . . . well . . . it doesn't look like stuff. Beach Head strikes me as very much a "pictures should look like things" kind of guy.

The trick Beach Head uses here is actually a well-known and excellent move when faced with the terrifying beasts known as Wine Experts.

Rating: T

Pairings: None, really. Some mentions and innuendo.

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.

Chapter Three: BYOB

Stay out of trouble. Stay out of trouble.

Five minutes after being let loose, Beach Head was starting to wonder if it was going to be such an easy task after all.

Sunglasses-wearing security guards or no, Mrs. Edith Adele Mason's house was a bodyguard's nightmare. It had begun its existence as some kind of fancy chalet, probably built for one of the many 19th-century Washington moneybags who wanted to be the aristocracy of a land without titles, but at some point the interior had been gutted and redone on a distinctly modern line. '40s International School influence, Beach Head guessed, and he didn't like the idea. With its emphasis on straight lines, big windows, metallic surfaces, and few colors, guests stood out in a International School building like they were all wearing orange safety vests. Mies van der Rohe had probably helped in more assassinations than Smith & Wesson.

The thought brought a small, wry smile to his lips. Brazil, '89: Wilhelm Koenig von Sutterheim—aging Bauhaus architect, acclaimed world artistic treasure, and pain in GI Joe's ass—had ranted about architecture and worker consciousness for all of the five days it had taken Beach Head's team to rescue him from Cobra's clutches and the country. (Why Cobra would even want him, Beach didn't know, but he suspected that that one could be chalked up to Cobra Commander and his 'special tendencies.') Evidently some of von Sutterheim's rantings had stuck with him. Whoop-de-doo.

With that cheerful thought in mind, Beach Head went to work. Hawk was in the library, and Duke was off meeting that attaché; that left him to walk the perimeter and check out the lay of the land, which he was frankly glad to do. All these people were still talking and drinking and nibbling, conversing in foreign languages (most of which he spoke, but he didn't aim to let that on) and, as far as Beach could tell, doing absolutely nothing that justified their fancy gear or painful-looking shoes.

Initial observation: he stood out. That was clear enough from the expressions on the faces of the people near him, which weren't hostile but occasionally nervous and definitely questioning. He didn't look like he belonged. Duke did—something about being blond made you more acceptable in a crowd like this, Beach Head guessed. Either that, or it was that strange Dukeness that the First Sergeant seemed to radiate. At any rate, two uniforms were acceptable, but one was noticeable. Can't be uniform in an army of one, after all. Time to, goddammit, blend.

He glanced around, looking for a way to commence with the blending operation. This part of the house seemed to be mainly games and recreation, like the bridge group General Hawk had joined; half a dozen senators were gathered around an expensive-looking table and playing at being poker champions with almost comical ineptitude, while some poindexter-looking type was giving an impromptu lecture on Dale Chihuly (wherever the hell that was) to a trio of bored socialites. Through it all drifted the ever-present waiters, serene and unfazed. They creeped Beach Head out, and he automatically looked each one over before they left the room. None of them seemed to be packing, but that didn't mean he wouldn't keep an eye on them anyway.

After committing the map of the area to memory and making sure that nobody had entered the library, Beach Head moved on to the next room. It was a long gallery, broad and brightly-lit, and filled with objects that appeared to be—after several careful moments' of study on Beach's part—works of art. That is, they involved paint and plaster and other arty materials. One was an extremely bad painting of a cross-eyed woman holding a banana. It was labeled "Exaltation," and its little brass plaque talked enthusiastically about the artist and his Disumbrationist school of painting. The picture next to it had cigarette butts and a used cocktail napkin stapled to the canvas. Its plaque informed him that the work's title was "Emotional Literacy."

Sergeant Major Wayne R. Sneeden had never been subjected to a five-day lecture on modern art. He certainly had never studied it: while the impoverished young Wayne had soaked up information like a sponge, his goals and driving need to escape poverty had led him towards history, math, science and physical education. Useful topics, as he liked to think of them. He had nothing against art (though the next person to assume that his life would be enriched by a black velvet Elvis would be doing pushups until their arms fell off). It just wasn't his area of expertise.

Nevertheless, as he gazed at "Exaltation," he had the distinct feeling that someone was pulling his leg. Nobody could be that bad of a painter, right?

He wasn't even going to touch "Emotional Literacy." Especially since some of the cocktail napkins appeared to have mold growing on them, and mold was a fucking disgrace, no matter how artistic it was. Beach Head was willing to bet his greenshirts—even the slow ones—could knock out better pictures than this load of crap, and for a hell of a lot less than whatever Mrs. Mason had paid, too. Though maybe he shouldn't mention that to his greenies; some of 'em didn't have the sense their mothers gave 'em, and he didn't want to have to explain to Hawk when it inevitably blew up in their faces.

At least the art gallery was marginally safer than the library. There were no windows, probably to keep sunlight from fading the paintings, and lines of sight were partially obscured by several massive glass sculptures that distorted the gallery lights and threw reflections every which way. Maybe once the bridge game was over, Beach could get the general to appreciate art for the rest of the evening?

That might work. Beach made a mental note to bring up the subject as soon as he could get hold of Hawk again and started walking the perimeter of the gallery, making sure that there really was nothing there to present a threat to his commanding officer. No apparent hostile presence . . . although those sculptures were pretty damned pointy. He knelt down and checked each piece carefully, making sure that there weren't any shaped charges or frag grenades taped anywhere out of the normal line of sight. Passing guests started giving him odd looks, but Beach Head mumbled something about "fascinating piece, amazing use of color," and they left him alone.

Hah! Stay out of trouble, eh, Duke? Who was blending the fuck in now?

Unfortunately, someone else seemed to be using the gallery for something besides art appreciating. As he moved around one of the sculptures, he spotted a long table set by the far wall, draped in flawless white cloths and set with a number of bottles and glasses. More of the spooky waiters were there, handing out glasses to people as they approached and taking them back when they were emptied. The waiters were being directed by a skinny, mustachioed type in a black tuxedo jacket and white bow tie. Beach narrowed his eyes: Mr. Mustache seemed to be the man in the know, and the waiters scurried to obey him when he snapped at them. A whole bunch of influential-looking people, more men and women in expensive clothes, were lining up to take the glasses his people were handing out. What the hell was going on? Who was this guy, who had control over the serving staff and could be dishing out poisoned cocktails to visiting heads of state?

Not just heads of state, either. As he drew closer, Beach Head recognized one of the men: Ronald Tarrant, the current US ambassador to Monaco. His spine stiffened a little as he remembered that FUBAR mission—where it had come down to him, Flint and Courtney, holed up in a second-floor Senate office while two Senators and the ambassador panicked and Cobra bullets dug holes in the oh-so-expensive antique desk. He doubted Tarrant would recognize him (and people wondered why he always wore the mask), but that didn't make him any happier to see the little weasel here. Beach had met plenty of ambassadors, and many of them were fine men, but there was always a Lt. Falcon in every bunch.

As he watched, the ambassador took a sip of wine from the glass he'd been handed, swished it around in his mouth, and then spat it out into an empty cup a waiter was holding. Beach mentally recoiled, disgusted by the man's manners, but seconds later another man did the same thing—hocking a loogie that had, seconds before, had probably been some supreme grand vintage worth a year of Beach Head's pay. Take a glass, sip, spit, rinse and repeat.

What the hell was wrong with these people? Wayne's mother had slapped him when she caught him spitting in public. Did they even know how many poor kids' lives they could change with the cost of one bottle of the fancy hooch they weren't even drinking?

Sudden anger and wasp-stung pride shoved Beach Head forward. He opened his mouth, ready to bellow something—and shut it in surprise as a glass was pushed into his hand. The man in charge, Mr. Mustache, raised an eyebrow at Beach's rate-constipated expression and then looked down at the glass the waiter had handed him.

"Is there a problem, sir?" he said.

Don't make a scene. Blend. Blend. Beach firmly grabbed Wayne Sneeden by the scruff of the neck and shoved him into the back of his brain. "Uh, no," he said. "Just . . . thinking. What's this stuff?"

"If we disclose our vintages, the palate will be jaded by expectation," Mr. Mustache said calmly. "Mrs. Mason has arranged this experience so that her guests will be able to experience the true flavors of these unique potables."

"I'm surprised you don't know that, sergeant," a familiar voice added, and Beach Head twitched just a little bit. The squirrely ambassador was at his elbow, a fresh glass in hand. "Or is this your first function? Don't get the chance to get off the leash much?"

Forget Wayne-the-kid and his issues; Beach would be perfectly happy to introduce this pantywaist pogue to the floor tiles, preferably with his own boot right in the middle of those narrow shoulders. But his mental Sergeant Major, who outranked both Wayne and Beach and was much louder, gave him a smack and repeated the order to blend, goddammit. "Er, not really," he just said. "An' it's sergeant major, Ambassador Tarrant."

The smaller man raised an eyebrow. "Oh, have we met?"

Once. You were groveling in fear at the time. "Nah. 'S my job to know all the higher-ups at fancy dos like this. So, uh, how's yer wine?"

The ambassador swirled the wine in his glass, peering at it, and then took a sip. "Good legs," he said. "Formidable nose. Strong personality and acidic attitude, with undertones of tannin and rosewater. Strong, leathery palate with a Grand Cru finish. What about yours, sergeant major?"

Beach Head frowned. Along with art, wine tasting hadn't exactly been an accelerated course offered at the Auburn secondary schools. His first instinct was to say "What the hell? It's just wine!" He didn't, though: that wasn't a very blending thing to say. He was already walking the walk, so he had to . . . talk the talk?

Still frowning, he took a sip. It tasted like . . . wine. Alcoholic grape juice. How the hell was he supposed to know about legs and nose and stuff like that? Unless Dr. Mindbender had gotten into the bottling business since he'd last checked, wine wasn't supposed to have legs. Irritated and confused, he improvised.

"Short legs," he said, casting a glance at the ambassador out of the corner of his eye. "Small, aggressively unpleasant and inquisitive. Bad nose." The ambassador's nose was bad; Beach Head recognized the signs of a coke habit when he saw them. "Smells like cheap aftershave."

"I had no idea you were an oenophile, sergeant major," the ambassador said with obvious surprise—and a little disdain. Beach's temper flared again, just a bit, but he stamped down on it. Back in the Pit, where he was undisputed lord and master of the greenshirts and the Dr. Moreau of the PT course, he could be free to be snarky as he liked. Here, he was just some big lug in a uniform, and this useless twerp of an ambassador was one of the people he was sworn to safeguard in his position as a sergeant major of the United States Army. He couldn't make this stuck-up little expletive-deleted-this-is-a-nice-party-goddammit drop and give him fifty.

No matter how much good it would have done him. Clearly, the ambassador had been tasting a little more than just wine for the past . . . oh . . . thirty years. So he improvised.

Fortunately, he spoke French. And knew Lady Jaye.

"Yeah, well," he drawled, letting the Alabama creep back into his voice, "it does a man good to have a few hobbies while he's servin' his country. It ain't no Chobraux Rouge—ain't got no backbone, and the tannin levels are totally incompatible with what one expects in this type'a potable. Ah once found a real impudent Cerveau Courber on the coast a' Frusenhagen; can't imagine how it wound up there, since the local conditions are totally wrong for maintainin' the head on that kind'a thing. No wonder it had gone all foxed on us, huh?" He laughed and slapped the ambassador on the back, as if sharing a joke between two accomplished intellectuals. "Tasted a bit like that. Ah'm thinkin' this here's a specialty—takes a refined taster, y'know, t'preciate that kind'a heirloom quality."

And with another hearty slap, he strolled off, feeling the baffled ambassador's gaze on his back and trying very hard not to grin. Jaye had been right: the more jargon you used, the more confused people would get, but if you threw in French they wouldn't get mad. It was a trick he'd have to remember.

Duke caught up with him again just outside one of the indoor ornamental fancy-type greenhouse things. "You're smiling," he said guardedly. "Is Hawk going to have to buy some poor senator's silence?"

"What, you think I can't be subtle?" Beach snorted. "Everything's fine. We oughtta see about gettin' Hawk into the art gallery, though; lousy place for an ambush, lots of witnesses. There's a picture of a lady holding a banana he might like."

The sergeant gave him a sideways look. "Sergeant major?"


"Have you been drinking?"

"Have you?" Duke looked confused at that, and Beach elaborated. "'Cause if you keep going much longer, you're gonna be on the ground covered in your own puke and sobbin'."

"Question withdrawn." The sergeant shook his head. "I've talked to the attaché," he added in a slightly lower voice, "and to Hawk. The bridge game's almost over, but he doesn't want us to wait for him. The orders are to mingle."

Something about the way Duke said the last word sent a chill down Beach's spine. "Not with the . . . the Mrs. Mason types, right?"

"He said, and I quote, 'we need to make ourselves approachable to the Washington elite.'"

" . . . well, fuck."

There was a look in Duke's eyes, and Beach didn't like that look. It was something almost like pity. "He told me to go talk to the cabinet ministers. Will you be all right with the social side of things?"

"Do I look like a goddamn kid? I don't need a damn chaperone! Move your ass!" Beach said, because the strange feeling of panic gripping his gut had completely negated his moment of triumph in the art gallery and that was making him more than a little cranky. The women here were just as rich—and weird—as the men, but both Wayne and Sergeant Major agreed with Beach that he couldn't yell at them. Not polite. Not to women. And oh boy, he was going to say that at some point, and then Courtney would find out and kill him.

Heh. Now there was a woman who didn't know the meaning of 'polite.'

Duke, not privy to Beach Head's thoughts, moved his ass and the sergeant major was left alone. Once more into the breach, right? Time to go find some society ladies and compliment them on their useless little handbags or something.

He could do this.