Now that there's a new GI Joe series, I figure it's probably best to specify: this is set in the old Devil's Due storyline...

"Snakes… what is this?" she eyed the CD that she'd pulled from underneath the car's front seat with a little trepidation. w-inds? Who in the world? "Whose is this?"

He glanced over from emptying out the glove compartment, then shrugged, dropping the manuals and the registration into a paper bag by his feet. The floor mats were already in a pile by the front door, and they'd already emptied out all the little bits and pieces of receipts and paper and paraphernalia that cars seemed to collect. [Oh… Tommy sent that for Ophelia.]

Scarlett carefully suppressed the desire to fling the thing as far away from her as she could throw. CD cases were very aerodynamic… she'd probably be able to get it pretty far… but still, she grinned. "Doesn't say much about his taste that she hid it underneath the front seat."

Well, she hadn't known exactly what to think about Storm Shadow sending over a birthday gift for Snake's apprentice. And she definitely hadn't known what to think about the fact that she'd been the single person who was the least bit perturbed by this turn of events. The very suggestion that they test it for explosive material before opening it had been met with one horrified look—Ophelia's—two blank stares—Nunchuck and T'jbang—and one raised blond eyebrow—her boyfriend. How someone could be so suspicious that he checked the windows before they went to bed every night and yet think nothing about handing a sixteen-year-old girl a gift from a known Cobra assassin…

[No, I think she really likes that band,] Snake-Eyes signed, casually. [Wasn't that's the CD she put into the radio the last time we went into town?]

Scarlett eyed the CD dubiously, flipping it open—sure enough, the case was empty, but… "No, that can't be right. That Japanese band she was singing along to? No, I'm pretty sure those were guys. Didn't Ophi say something about having a crush on one of them?"

He glanced over his shoulder again, and that was definitely a smirk crossing his lips when he turned, touched her cheek and shook his head mockingly at her. [Scarlett, those are guys. Teenagers, but they're male.]

"What?" She stared down at the case in her hands, turning it over and around. No, they still looked a lot like girls from this point of view. Or… well, okay, that one on the left… maybe. But the other two? "Snake, you're pulling my leg. They're beanpoles!"

He laughed his silent laugh and rubbed her arm comfortingly—then handed her the CD from the case. [Fashion's different there.]

"Fashion, maybe, but genetics, no!" She knew enough Japanese men, and yes, they were shorter and slighter than many of the big military guys of her acquaintance, but the very idea of someone like Thomas Arashikage even trying to pass as a girl…

[If you're thinking of Tommy, he was born and raised here,] Snake-Eyes pointed out—this time, he really was full-on smirking at her, and not even trying to hide it. She scowled—she spent most of her time reading his body language, yes, but it was a little disconcerting when he did the same to her. [The one Ophelia has a crush on is the one on the right.]

"Oh, come on, now I know you're trying to pull one over on ol' Scarlett. For one thing, how would you even know that?" Scarlett demanded, shoving the CD back into the case and dropping it into the paper bag at his feet.

But to her surprise, the amusement melted into chagrin. This time, his expression was definitely a grimace. [I was sitting next to her. The whole ride into town.]

Actually… she did kind of remember kind of a conversation as to that effect… and glancing into the rear view mirror only to see a carefully bland, impossibly flat look pasted on Snake-Eyes face as Ophelia expounded on how one of the boys had such beautiful hair. "Your fault for choosing a teenaged girl at just the point when such creatures discover boys, Snake," she pointed out, not even bothering to hide her grin. "It's none of my doing that she wants to share everything with her Silent Master."

This time, he just shot her an adorably disgruntled look and rubbed the back of his head.

True, the girl was impressively disciplined—especially considering her history—and as far as ninja training went, Scarlett was pretty sure that none of the teenager's three masters had anything to complain about. Ophelia was fast, she was both mentally and physically flexible, and she never, ever pulled a strike she didn't have to. In a lot of ways, Scarlett thought that she wouldn't have minded having a sister like that little redhead… which was a good thing, because she was pretty sure she was going to be stuck with Snake's clan for… awhile. At least awhile.

The thought sent a strange little twinge through her, but she shrugged it off.

True, in a lot of ways Ophi was probably pretty ideal ninja-girl, heir-to-the-Arashikage material. But personally, Scarlett thought that the way Ophelia Gabriel just plain idolized Snake was adorable.

Bet he didn't see that one coming…

"You think that's everything in here?" Scarlett gave a quick survey of the back seat. They'd have to vacuum it, but… Snake-Eyes reached past her and plucked a lone magazine out of the seat-back pocket, offering it to her. "Yeah… that's it, I guess."

She'd saved the trunk for last for… well… a lot of reasons, really. The memories, mostly. She'd never been a cluttered person—she'd never had a cluttered existence; she'd lived so much of her life enclosed carefully in rules. But now, living entangled with two ninjas, an apprentice, and the love of her life, well… clutter was inevitable.

But she was… happy, wasn't she? She'd always paid lip service to the idea that she wanted to get out of the military, eventually, but the fact that she actually had, that she was actually content at it… that had surprised Scarlett. She wouldn't have been selling the Ford Focus at all if it weren't for the fact that it was really not big enough to fit her own five-ten self, a slight-but-solid apprentice girl, and two ninjas who definitely were not built like beanpoles. Much less a love-of-her-life who, while he didn't have an ounce of extra body fat on his rather delicious self, had a few inches and more than a few pounds on all of them.

Truthfully, though… Scarlett hated the idea of getting rid of her car.

Yes, it didn't even have power windows, and the engine was so old and the body heavy enough that the gas mileage was terrible. Yes, they really needed an SUV to fit them and all their junk, and she was already looking into some options. But… Scarlett gave the trunk a sad pat before she popped it open and looked at the things scattered around it.

This old taupe Ford Focus was, really, the last thing of her old life—a reminder of the time when her life had been her own, rather than revolving around the Arashikage ninja clan.

Well… she sighed—softly, so that he wouldn't see the heave of her shoulders. Hers and Snakes', anyway. Those few months alone with him… it'd been… well…

It'd been everything she'd hoped it'd be. Dreamed it'd be.

Scarlett glanced over at the tap on her shoulder. [I'll do it,] Snake offered, cocking his head. [Take a break?]

His blue, blue eyes were too clear, and she turned away with a shake of her head. "No, it's okay. Why don't you go inside and join them? It's time for afternoon sparring, right?"

Dreams… well… they didn't last, did they.

She could almost imagine the odd look he was probably giving her back—it was rare enough that they got any time alone together, these days, even if it was doing something so mundane as cleaning out the trunk of the car—but… he wouldn't argue. Scarlett knew that for all his scars, for all his wounds, for all the tragedy in his life, Snake-Eyes still loved the thrill of sparring. They were a lot alike that way. And he genuinely enjoyed teaching.

Wasn't that part of the reason she didn't really have any problems with the whole idea of living with his clan? It made him so happy, too.

She didn't hear Snake leave, even on the gravel, but she never did. It was more the feel of his eyes sliding off her shoulders, his gaze off the back of her head. It was more the knowledge that, really, he was easy to distract when he wanted to be distracted. This car didn't have the same meaning for him as it did for her—and why should it?

It wasn't that she was ambivalent about the Arashikage clan—oh, no, not at all. 'Chuck and 'Bang had styles that were different enough to always be a challenge and a thrill for her, especially since they were all close to the same level. And Ophi was just plain fun, and Scarlett and Jinx had had a blast whenever Kimi made it back from her overseas to visit. And Tommy, well… she might even think twice about trying to kill him on sight. Maybe.

No, she liked being wrapped in the goodness and the warm honor and the insane skill of the Arashikage ninjas, even if it meant that privacy was generally at a premium. The fact that this was Snake's family, just as much as her brothers and her father were hers… Scarlett got that, and she really did rejoice in the fact that he had one. Family meant as much to him as it did to her.

Scarlett wondered if he could even understand, though—the fact that she'd always shared him. He was Storm-Shadow's sword-brother. He was a wounded soldier. He was a ninja clan master. These things would always come first—she knew that. She did. She really, really did.

No, she'd never been cluttered, but it made her a little bit sad just how few things there were in the trunk from the few months they'd spent together. Before the ninjas had moved in, they'd taken long road trips in this little Focus—up to Charlottesville, down to Miami, everywhere in between and some places even further. They'd parked the car and spent days traipsing through forests just barely waking up for spring, curled up together in a shared sleeping bag, Snake's step so quiet even in the underbrush that deer didn't realize he was there until he was standing close enough to touch antlers draped with dangling strips of molting velvet.

Sometimes, Scarlett barely believed they'd had that time at all. Once upon a time, it'd been duffels, sleeping bags, camping gear, black Dutch ovens and the soil of a dozen different forests coating the rubber matting of her trunk. Nowadays the only things that lived in her car now were ordinary, free of everything but the most mundane memories.

The first things out of the trunk were the ubiquitous tote bags she kept stashed there, rather than using supermarket plastic bags. Then a few pairs of rolled-up socks, a well-loved pair of jeans, a t-shirt, in a paper bag… for some reason, she always needed extra clothes when she didn't have them. Then the duffel with several dirty dobok that she'd forgotten to take out, a bokken and shinai—for practice—and her spare wakizashi—not for practice. She drew it out and tested the edge against a callus—she knew better than to test it against the ball of her thumb.

She almost bobbled the old Snakes and Ladders board game that she'd brought to play with her sibs' kids the last time she'd visited—the box was so old it crumpled a little when she picked it up, and she shook her head and smiled, ruefully. She knew she should buy a new one, but this was the very same set she and her brothers had grown up squabbling over… and it was sort of nostalgic, watching her nephews and nieces accuse each other of cheating in the same tones.

There was a Barnes and Nobles bag crammed into the deepest corner—Scarlett opened it and found a smile deep inside herself: so that was where her last batch of chick-lit novels had gone!—and a car repair manual that she leafed through, carefully, before putting it into the bag with the junk food she fed her brain now and again. She wasn't one to turn down the chance to learn a useful skill, and Courtney had recommended this particular book very highly.

And then there was the false back that she carefully pulled down to extract the small black recurve crossbow and a sheaf of quarrels on a suspension board, because, well, maybe Snake wasn't the only one who could be a little paranoid sometimes. Just in case. She could always argue it was for hobby purposes and wasn't military-restricted—even though it was. If she even had to argue.

Scarlett chuckled and ran her fingertips over the smooth, well-used gloss of the crossbow's tang, fingering familiar scratches. No, she wasn't a ninja, but no, she didn't have to be. People could be so consciously blind sometimes. If her car's trunk had ever been inspected, an M-16 would have inspired arrest warrants. A crossbow? Maybe a smirk or two.

The trunk of her car was filled with reminders of the fact that he shared her with another life, too—so to speak, anyway. She was a Southern girl from a big family—a taekwondo instructor—a girl, a woman. But these things were less a life, more a hobby, maybe, where each of the things that pulled him away from her were each an entire existence, all on their own.

But they'd been Joes together. That was the one thing that they'd always shared fifty-fifty, and their job had never been what stood between them—as ironic as that had been.

But when she extracted the false back and fumbled into the very edges of the formerly hidden compartment, just to make sure she hadn't left a quarrel behind or something, her hand touched… leather? What's…

Scarlett pulled it out, and sucked in a soft breath.

She'd wondered, she had to admit, why she hadn't seen him wearing this jacket in… well… awhile, really. Snake-Eyes didn't have a lot of favorite tangibles—his sword, maybe—but this black leather motorcycle jacket had been a gift from her. It'd been a lot more dear than she'd thought to spend on something for him, but… well… for one thing, it'd looked so good on him, like a warm touchable night stretched over those broad shoulders, and for another, he'd really seemed to like it.

She hadn't minded the cost, not really—especially when they were on the back of his 'bike, and she had her arms wrapped around him, tucked against the thick buttery leather.

But when Scarlett picked up the black motorcycle jacket and shook it out, she just had to hold it to her face and inhale its familiar smoky scent with a sigh, remembering just how long it'd been since they'd really spent any significant time together, just the two of them. He'd been so busy with training Ophi and getting 'Chuck and 'Bang settled in. Probably… well… close to months. It didn't explain what the jacket was doing in the secret compartment at the back of her car, but—

Oh. Wait. Yes… it did. The secret compartment was accessible from the back seat—that was why she'd had the divider made that precise way—and… well…

They'd kind of spent a fair amount of time in the back seat together that last night before the ninjas had arrived.

Yes, they'd been necking like teenagers, his mouth wet on her throat, his hands, oh, everywhere. Yes, they probably could have gone home after their little candlelight picnic, but frankly, that'd been her fault, for letting him pull her into the backseat rather than just insisting they return to the then-empty house. Yes, making out in a park overlooking Atlanta was probably beneath their dignity, even with, the scenery spangled with lights and the few brave stars that could shine through the city haze. Yes, it'd been all very uncomfortable in the exact way that two tall people in the back of a subcompact often were, with their knees hitting the front seat-backs even after she'd pushed them forward just as much as they could be pushed, and once, Snake even cracking his head against the window with a startled grunt, and Scarlett laughing until tears ran down her face.

No, she wouldn't have traded a moment of it for her nice, comfortable queen bed.

Even more ironically, that was the same bed they were currently sharing at day's end… rather chastely. He seemed so happy, but so tired at the end of the day… and she was, well… a little conscious of just how well sound could carry through the house anyway.

Sadly, she stroked the leather with one hand, and sighed again. This time, she didn't try to smother it. Why even bother? It was just her, her Focus, and the memories… again. He'd gone back inside the house to the rest of the ninjas… again.

But Scarlett knew just how unfair that idea was.

Carefully, she pulled the sleeves over and folded the jacket, rolling her eyes when she realized that he hadn't even gotten the chance to empty the pockets out… well, probably because she'd shucked the jacket off him quickly enough that it'd gotten caught on his elbows, she remembered that. Scarlett reached in, fumbled out a folded strip of condoms from one pocket—she blushed and crammed them into her own pocket after a startled moment. Considering the car's heat and how long ago that'd been, they were definitely no good anymore, but she'd walk those over to the trash herself! And in the other pocket—

Scarlett blinked as she pulled out a small, silver box with a miniature bow, and her name painstakingly printed on a tiny tag. Oh… he had a gift for me?

Well… they had been kind of, er, busy, and the thought brought the wistful smile to her face again. It was a couple of months late, but the present was still hers, wasn't it? He didn't give gifts often—mostly books, martial arts accessories, sometimes knives he thought were pretty or little souvenir knicknacks—but they were always small and thoughtful when he did. Or, well, when he had given her gifts… it'd kind of been awhile since he'd last done that, too.

But the sight of a small, square, navy-blue velvet case inside the silver box made her pulse pound inexplicably loud in her ears. Shakily, she draped the jacket over the trunk. He didn't give her jewelry, not ever—there wasn't any point. He knew that the simple gold studs she wore in her ears had been her mother's, and that she didn't really like the feel of anything around her neck and her wrists… a knee-jerk reaction, a bit; she'd spent enough time as a POW.

When she popped the box open, carefully, Scarlett was staring at the contents for a long, long, speechless time.

Finally, she touched it. She felt so calm, so utterly calm, that the fact that her fingers trembled when she carefully pulled it from its little holding-slot surprised her. The metal was hot from the car, the black jacket, its cradle of velveteen. The stones sparkling in the late afternoon were almost blinding with fire and rainbows and possibilities.

It was a very simple little ring, really—very elegant. Yellow gold to match her earrings—an inset diamond framed by two smaller ones. The inscription on the inside said, simply, To my heart.

And she wasn't even surprised when a careful hand brushed the small of her back, and she turned to find herself staring into that familiar pair of beautiful sky-blue eyes, set into a face scattered with the small shadow-remains of his old burn scars.

Scarlett studied him in silence for a long, long time, too—her stubborn, secretive lover of so many years. She had the strangest feeling that the white elephant that they had both carefully avoided for the vast majority of those years was standing in her driveway, trumpeting.

Finally… Snake fidgeted. He actually fidgeted.

[Do you like it?] Snake-Eyes signed, and she noticed that his hands were shaking a little; he was staring anxiously into her face.

She looked down at the ring cradled gently in the palm of her hand, then back up at him. "It's beautiful," she said, honestly. "You know me very well."

True, in many ways. In so many, many ways.

His tongue flicked quickly out, moistened his lips, and he cleared his throat, shifted his weight. She had a moment to think, with just the briefest pass of amusement, that some habits didn't go away—even if he was ninja, even if he couldn't and wasn't about to literally say anything. [Will you wear it?] he asked, quickly.

"That depends," she replied, slowly, and her voice sounded so strange, and she didn't even know why—but she reached up to touch his face, caressing his cheek with a finger, and saw his lips part on a small, shaky sigh, "on what you're actually asking, Snake-Eyes."

Snake-Eyes stared at her for a quiet moment—then brought her hand to his lips, pressing a kiss into her palm. He lowered himself to one knee in one of the easy, impossibly fluid motions that she so loved watching him make.

His face was tilted up to hers, and the uncertainty in his gaze… it was almost funny how that, that, was what made the stillness rise up and catch in her throat in a sob. [I've never been very good at… relationships. At making things work. At putting you first. There's so much better for you out there than me, and I've spent the better part of ten years wondering when you were going to realize that and walk away. But… but you've stayed with me through all this time, and I still don't know why. I don't, Scarlett. All I know is that I don't deserve to ask you for anything… much less for 'til death do us part.']

She laughed, and it sounded a little broken, more than a little shaky. That was probably one of the longest speeches she'd ever gotten out of him. And she could see in his eyes—he meant it. "Oh, Snake! Now, of all times, you couldn't lie to me?"

[I've never been able to lie to you, you know that.] His mouth twisted into a sad smile, and his hands tightened on hers. The diamonds on the band pressed into her fingers. [You're not exactly getting much out of the deal, Shana.]

Scarlett stared down at him—at his upturned gaze, the scars that marred a face no longer handsome, the love and the fear and the rejection written across eyes so blue they caught on her heart like a perfect summer day. Carefully, she extracted her hands from his and watched him swallow—watched her ninja's gaze fall down to the gravel before he closed his eyes.

Then she reached out and smacked him upside the head, feeling the laughter and the joy and the delight break free of that safe, cottony insulation of shock, lighting up every bulb in her body like she was made to shine.

"Oh, for godsakes, Snake-Eyes! I still don't know how someone like you could possibly be so bullheaded and insecure!" Scarlett giggled, grabbing his face between her hands and bending to plant a hard, sharp kiss on his lips. "All you had to say was 'Marry me!' and I'd be yours faster than Brer Rabbit hops into that briar patch!"

It took a long moment for the words to register, but she saw the moment that they did.

[What… do you mean?] he signed, hesitantly.

"Oh, for crying out loud! I love you, you big moron. I've always loved you. What, do you think I hang around you for my health? If you even contemplated the idea of me saying 'no,'" she warned, "I'm so going to hit you again!"

The expression on his face sharpened to that edge of readiness she loved so much, his shoulders straightening as he shot her just a hint of a narrow-eyed glare. This time, when he rose to his feet, it wasn't just graceful—it had that smooth, sleek edge of familiar danger to it. [It's not a joke, Shana.]

She felt the edge of half-hysterical half-delighted hilarity leave her shoulders, her body, the way she wanted to cry and fly and wrap herself around him and never let go. And when she reached up to press a hand to his chest, it was steady, and her voice was slow and serious. "And I wasn't kidding. I… I just… oh, Snake, yes. Of course I'll marry you. Just…" she nibbled on her lower lip, and ran a tentative finger along the collar of his black t-shirt. "Why… now? Why today?"

His lips flicked in just a hint of a smile, but his eyes… his eyes were warming again, past the danger, past the surprise, then past even the fire. [What makes you think I didn't just forget the ring in my jacket?]

"Uh-huh," she rolled her eyes. "Pull the other leg, buster, it's got bells on it."

Right. He was surprisingly careless about clothes—the jacket being forgotten in the trunk of her car wouldn't have surprised her too much. But Snake-Eyes could be a control freak the way only a career military man could be. He had a minor coronary every time his dog tags weren't exactly where he'd left them. She was supposed to believe that he'd left an engagement ring floating around in the trunk for the past few months?

But then Snake-Eyes stepped closer, and ran the back of his fingers in a slow glide down her own cheek. She shivered. Involuntarily, she still shivered, despite the warmth of the May outside, despite the strange sparkling elation that seemed to have taken her over. [You just…] he sighed, and cocked his head at her. [You love your car. You're not giving it up because you want to.]

What? Oh. She hadn't known he noticed that.

[I know how much you've been through, what you've sacrificed to… make it work between us.] He raised his hands as if he were going to touch her again… then drew back, shaking his head. [And it's not fair to you, Shana. It's never been fair.]

She definitely hadn't known he noticed that, either.

"It's… it's not like that, Snake," Scarlett started to say… but then she stopped. Yes, he was more than she'd ever even imagined in a person, in a lover, in someone who she could spend her life with. Yes. But… she never lied to him—not even when the truth was uncomfortable.

[It's exactly like that,] his mouth twisted… but then Snake-Eyes smiled, a little, and brought her hand to his lips again. This time, he slid the ring onto her finger, and she felt herself shudder a little with pleasure as its weight settled warmly on her hand, heavy with possibilities and promises and… [What I'm asking for is a lifetime to make it up to you, Scarlett.]

Oh. Whoever said that big, bad quiet ninjas didn't know how to be romantic deserved to be beheaded with the big, bad quiet ninja's favorite katana. And the look on his face was possessive and disbelieving and so pleased that it sent a little skip through her soul when she spread her fingers in front of him, and admired the way the gold and the sparkling stones looked on her tanned skin.

"You know… some people hide their engagement rings in dessert, but I've never heard of someone trying to stash it in the trunk before," she teased, tilting her hand and letting the diamonds flame in the late afternoon sun.

This time, when she looked up at him, his smile was a bit… unusual. Unfamiliar. Scarlett studied him, puzzled, for a long moment—then realized what exactly it was.


[I've got very good memories of this car,] he admitted, patting the trunk with one hand. [Do you really have to get rid of it?]

Hm. Scarlett studied him, her eyes momentarily wider before she broke into a more real smile than she thought she'd worn in months. Then she sobered. She hated having to be practical, but… "Well… I mean… we do need a bigger car, and… what with Nunchuk's, it's just a waste to have two sedans."

He sighed, but nodded, taking her hand and running his thumb lightly across the engagement ring. Scarlett smothered another smile—she suspected that that was going to be his new favorite way of showing his affection. He'd never been much of one to publicly show how he felt—except when it mattered. Except when it really, really mattered.

"But… I guess we could take one last little road trip," she offered, mischievously, cocking her head. "D'you think your clan might, I don't know, not implode without you for a few days? The Blue Ridges are awfully nice this time of year…"

[They'll be fine,] he answered, immediately. Then, a little more slowly, [I can't promise the house will be intact when we get back,] he warned.

But there was an excited smile spreading across his face, and his fingers rose to caress her cheek again. This time, they lingered on the line of her jaw, traced the shell of her ear, teased the curls at her nape, and tickled the vertebrae at the back of her neck… Scarlett had to take a moment to quiet her breathing.

"They break it, they clean it," she growled… but she was grinning just as widely as he was. Well… so maybe she wasn't the only one who'd missed it being just the two of them. "So… um. Snake?"

He cocked his head at her, and leaned against the trunk, lifting his black leather jacket from it and slinging it over his shoulder with one hand. Her eyes followed the long lines of tendon rippling in his forearms, the way the black t-shirt strained over muscles she knew very well indeed, the flow of his body when he so much as breathed.

Oh, yes. It'd been a long time.

"So the, um, party favors in the other pocket of your jacket," Scarlett cocked her head at him and raised a curious, assessing eyebrow. "Did you put them there today, too?"

His slow, warm smile was answer enough.


Start: July 14, 2009
End: July 15, 2009