Author's Introduction:

Since September 2010, I've been clinically diagnosed with a sleep disorder, and slimming down to 117 pounds did not cure it (although it did wonders for my self-esteem and I can now wear some pretty bangin' outfits, which was a nice consolation prize since my doctor basically scratched his head and said "Darn, I thought that would work"). This means my sleeping patterns are totally unreliable—I can sleep for fifteen hours one night, then be up for two days straight, or only be able to sleep in catnaps for two or three hours at a clip before being up for twenty hours. This is not at all fun—losing large blocks of time makes me want to cry but being unable to sleep for hours on end is equally upsetting, and if you have a day job, like I do, having to be productive from 9-5 can be torture depending on how much sleep I have or have not gotten.

Moreover, the hours between 3 and 5 AM are a forsaken time of night. No one is awake. It can feel like the whole world has disappeared and not left a forwarding address. Sometimes I'll go wander to the 7-11 or cross the highway and wait for the sun to rise. Watching the cars go by or buying plasticy sandwiches at the all-night convenience store reminds me that other people are still around, because you can walk for those two hours and not see a single living soul otherwise.

This story was born from those hours, from the Joes keeping me company in my own underground bunker and making me smile when it felt like no one else in the entire world was awake. It did not begin as an ensemble piece, but I sure am glad it ended up that way.

Usual disclaimers apply here—constructive criticism is absolutely welcome, but the operative word there is constructive. There's no arguing that certain things differ between comic canon and animated canon (personally, I'm a fan of the 1980s Sunbow series, with some 1980s comic kitsch thrown in for flavor), which, in a moment of lovely rarity, makes all of it canon depending on what incarnation of the series you're going by. So play nice, guys—there's plenty of room for us all on the field for once. If you don't like what I've written, don't waste all our time arguing with me over accents or pairings—tell me something useful I can improve on.

Disclaimer: We're able to read about our beloved Joes due to the intellectual awesomeness of Mr. Larry Hama, and the franchising superpowers of Hasbro (thanks guys!), and I wouldn't dream of infringing on their copyrights for my own financial gain; this is done purely for entertainment purposes.


Breathless

A G.I. Joe fic by Firestar9mm


Chapter One: New Boots and Numbers On a Chain

All good soldiers crack like boulders
The sun climbs up to a razor
Violins, new boots, and numbers on a chain
All good soldiers
All good soldiers
All good soldiers fall in line as they march and shout
All good soldiers are a spectacle, marching and singing
Will go anywhere the President says
Because our President believes in God
Like all good soldiers should

(Bad Religion, All Good Soldiers)


The untrained observer would have assumed by her facial expression that Scarlett was angry when she jumped out of the Humvee, but the trained observer knew relief when he saw it. She reached back to give her teammate a hand—Snake Eyes had bandages wrapped around his midsection and was certainly moving like his ribs were bruised—but as soon as his feet were on solid ground Scarlett wound up and tried to sock her companion in the arm, causing the Joes assembled in the garage to murmur and Clutch to whistle in appreciative, amused horror. Only Scarlett stood any chance of doing anything like that to the commando without being vaporized on the spot; still, being Snake Eyes' closest friend seemed akin to being friends with a semi-tame panther. It was gorgeous and deadly and could still absolutely eat you if you provoked it.

"Jerk," the redhead growled, blazing tail of hair lashing with her abrupt movements. She wasn't really trying with the punch, so the commando blocked it easily, palming her curled fist in his large gloved hand and shoving her gently away. When he released her, his hands flashed up between them and began moving rapidly, explaining himself.

Scarlett was too keyed up to even bother with sign language. She went for him again, darting past his signing hands to shove him like a child throwing a temper tantrum. "Charlie Mike my ass. You know better than—don't look at me like that! If I had said Charlie Mike would you have?"

How Scarlett knew what look Snake Eyes was giving her was a mystery; the commando's mask was in place, making his face as unreadable as usual. Still, the redhead never wavered, as though she could see behind the mask and what she found there annoyed her.

The commando fell silent, hands motionless, and Scarlett celebrated her victory with a sneer. "Right, so it's OK for you to play hero but not me." When Snake Eyes began signing again she cut him off. "Save it. I hope Doc uses stinging iodine and I hope everything hurts like hell."

When she turned her back on him, indicating the discussion was closed, the commando gave himself away, but just barely—his shoulders shook almost imperceptibly. Without turning, Scarlett stopped her walk and raised her eyes to heaven in the classic expression of praying for patience. "Snake, I swear to God if you don't stop laughing at me I will make sparring with me a living nightmare until your ribs heal."

Snake Eyes loped off towards the infirmary without another sign, but the trained observer—Duke—got the feeling he was still smiling. The master sergeant also began praying for patience, since he was the one who was going to have to debrief everyone once all the wounds were stitched up, and it was already looking like the mission had been a shitshow. Eyes hooding in fatigue and exasperation, Scarlett turned to him and jerked a thumb in the direction Snake Eyes had taken off in. "Charlie Mike," she repeated, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

Duke couldn't stop the corner of his mouth from tucking up into something that was almost a smile. Scarlett's eyes blazed at the sight. "Don't you start. If there's one thing I hate, it's being found amusing when I'm angry."

He was tempted to tell her that if that were the case, she should stop being so amusing when she was angry, but he knew that would be like dousing a fire with gasoline. Forcing his facial expression back into sobriety, he asked, "Were you injured?"

Scarlett had no obvious injuries, but she was looking a bit banged-up—her thermals were torn over one pale shoulder and there were some frightening dings on her breastplate that spoke to its sturdiness. She touched a shallow cut over her eyebrow. Blood was drying in strings on her pale skin, but the cut was already beginning to scab. "Nothing to speak of. I'm all right."

"Glad to hear it," Duke said, motioning for her to follow him. "Someone has to tell me what happened out there, so if you're not hurt, you're on deck."

"No, I'll do it," Scarlett sighed, rubbing at a smudge of dirt beneath her eye and following her C.O. out of the garage. "Although I'm sure you'd get a funnier story from the ones who think today was a big joke," she called back over her shoulder, as if Snake Eyes could still hear her.

Clutch elbowed the nearest Joe—Breaker—as they wandered out and said, "How does she know he's laughing? How does she do that?" The communications expert's response was to shrug and pop his gum.

Duke ignored the murmurs around them as he escorted Scarlett to his office for debriefing. He could sense several pairs of eyes looking askance at him; he took a perverse pleasure in confounding the hell out of the busybodies who treated the Pit like a living soap opera. The constant question in their curious gazes was obvious, and if he had cared to acknowledge it, the answer was no, it didn't overly bother him that the redhead and the ninja spoke in a language only they could understand.

It wasn't like he and Scarlett didn't have their own secret code.


For a military installation, the Pit wasn't the most professional in the world, but General Hawk didn't have a problem with his soldiers wearing Stetson cowboy hats, full face masks, or having an insensible length of brightly colored hair as long as they got the job done.

Still, sometimes they treated the duty roster like it was the cut list for the high school cheerleading squad.

"Oh please, oh please, oh please…damn it." Lady Jaye tapped a key and watched the cursor scroll across the screen to reveal her name. She let her head hit the console with a thunk, then thumped it a few more times for good measure.

Scarlett, who'd been on her way to check the roster herself, chuckled as she approached the terminal Lady Jaye was using. "Awww. Didn't get the part?"

"No, I did. They're sending me on the street crime detail." Jaye's pertly pretty nose scrunched up, as though she were expecting a blow to the face.

Scarlett laughed harder. "And how much do they pay babysitters an hour these days?"

Jaye turned a vengeful gaze to Scarlett, pointing at the screen. "Laugh it up, O'Hara. You're coming with me."

This announcement knocked the smile right off Scarlett's face. "No way. Let me see that." Leaning over Lady Jaye to brace both hands on the console, she read her own name on the roster. "Oh, you've got to be kidding."

Lady Jaye tapped a few more keys, pulling up a video feed. "Behold, our future."

The footage was from a local news program that had been covering the city's recent political debates. Rather than focusing on the candidates' platforms, however, they'd scented blood the minute that some local gang members had started protesting at mayoral candidate Robert Harper's events, jeering at his campaign to "restore law and order" and committing petty crimes in full view of the authorities. The station Lady Jaye had tuned to had some great shots of a riot that had broken out at the last debate—at least until a street hood in torn jeans and a zebra-striped bandana had swung his smiley chain into the camera. Not all of the protestors were gang members—they'd managed to swing some of the lower- and middle-class citizens' opinions to their side—but many of them seemed barely more than kids acting tough, too old for their ages.

Folding her arms sulkily, Scarlett frowned. "As much as I think what those punks are doing is just a rather annoying cry for attention, I can't protect that guy with a clear conscience. I think he's a gutless wuss."

Lady Jaye smirked. "So you voted for Greenway last term?"

Scarlett snorted. "I was dangling by my wrists in a Cobra trap that day. I didn't vote at all."


Years of meditation, Snake Eyes decided, were still no match for a sensory deprivation tank.

Out here, just outside the mouth of the Pit, there was weather, temperature, noise. No other humans were currently present, but to a man who sometimes felt so centered that he imagined he could hear grains of sand shifting and small reptiles scuttling to their dens over the scrub, even a quiet night seemed deafening.

Opening his eyes, Snake thought back to his last experience in such a tank, the controlled temperature and the heavy silence blurring the lines of his body until he was nothing but pure thought. Relying so heavily on his heightened senses for so many years was a constant low-level worry for the commando; every injury reminded him of his own limitations, even something as innocuous as being unable to stretch an arm over his head without aggravating a bruised rib. That particular injury was now weeks old and had long since healed, but he didn't like that the world was nothing but his perception of it, his sight, his hearing, the pressure of things against his skin. In the tank, there was no sight, no sound, no pressure, no world, and like meditation, he always felt that he emerged stronger than before.

He would have liked an opportunity to do so before deploying on tomorrow's detail, but there was no time. Still, he didn't have to like it. There was something bothering him about this assignment, which had already become a joke around the Pit for seeming far too easy for the unlucky Joes who'd managed to pull it.

When things seemed far too easy, Snake Eyes reflected, that was usually when ribs got bruised, when fire started and skin blistered. When people got hurt.

He wasn't afraid of pain; he'd seen a lot of it and recognized it as vital, just another facet of the sensory map that was still his strongest weapon, but it wasn't just his pain that was possible here. Isolated as he was sometimes, the commando couldn't help being fond of his comrades-in-arms, and the pain that had tattooed his body in scars and still flickered behind his eyelids on the worst nights was something he wouldn't have wished on even his fiercest foe, let alone his friends.

Pain was a possibility, and one that would not be ignored.

The commando rotated his neck, feeling the bones pop, and uncurled from his lotus position, relishing the fact that the movements caused no pain anymore, now that he was healed and ready again.

It brought a smile to his face. Pain was a possibility, but not a certainty. He mightn't be able to erase it, but to preempt it and force it into retreat—that, he could do.

He would not be ignored either.

Duke never even tried to sneak up on the commando. Other Joes sometimes gave it a shot, but it was mostly in fun—Snake always heard them coming and never humored them by pretending to let them get the drop on him; he had a reputation to uphold, after all, and he couldn't lie and say it didn't amuse him to prove that all the stories about the legendary ninja badass were absolutely true. The master sergeant wasn't made of stone; even he indulged in some of the games played around the Pit to keep the super soldiers stationed there from losing their minds, but when it came to his dealings with Snake Eyes, Duke was respectfully businesslike.

"All in for tomorrow?" he asked as soon as he knew he had Snake Eyes' attention.

The commando nodded once.

Duke's eyes held a hint of amusement even if he didn't smile. "Go ahead and say it, everyone else already has."

After a moment's hesitation, Snake Eyes decided it was safe to indulge in the general opinion and put two fingers out in a v, tapping it back against his brow lightly. {Stupid.}

"I know, but it doesn't matter. I want full marks out there. Understood?"

Another nod. Like the rest of the Joes assigned to the detail, Snake Eyes thought the whole thing was kid's stuff, but he wasn't going to question the order. In the grand scheme of things, it was inconsequential, something to be briefly irritated by, then forget. They would complete their mission and return to the Pit. It was what they did, after all.

"Good." Turning to continue his rounds, Duke turned back as an afterthought. "Cheer up, Snake. At least you won't come back with half a dozen injuries this time."

The commando snorted, shaking his head. Putting a flat hand to his mouth, he extended it down toward the master sergeant, making sure the movement conveyed the necessary sarcasm. {Thanks.} Extending his thumb and pinky and both hands, he brought them down from his shoulders. He pointed to himself, then clawed his hand and brushed his middle finger up his chest to tap it against his chin. {Now I feel lucky.}

"Good," the master sergeant repeated as he turned again to head back into the shelter of the Pit. "Take that with you tomorrow."


Most of the Joes shared Scarlett's opinion on Harper, but G.I. Joe didn't get to be choosy about who they protected. Still, the handful of Joes assigned to the detail were unhappy about their lot and weren't afraid to wax poetic about it.

" 'Do the impossible and make it look easy'," Zap grumbled, pressing a button on the remote control in the lounge and switching the channel to the news. "I'm guessing the impossible is to make it look like we actually care what a bunch of local yahoos are doing! Isn't there a guerilla war or a political assassination we can cover somewhere instead—something we're more suited to?"

Beach Head, who was calculating a trick shot at the pool table, looked up with a smirk. Cover Girl, who was playing stripes, looked on as the drill sergeant teased, "Don't feel bad, Zap. Maybe next week there'll be somethin' you're more suited to, like gettin' a cat out of a tree."

Zap rolled his eyes. "At least going on this damn detail means I don't have to run PT tomorrow."

"I wouldn't speak too soon," Spirit remarked amusedly, leaning over the back of the sofa Zap was currently occupying. The two Joes watched more news footage of the gang destroying the bandshell at one of Harper's recent appearances. "Something makes me feel like a political assassination may not be too far off!" the tall man chuckled.

Zap snorted. "Please. In order for it to be a political assassination, that guy'd have to stand a chance of getting elected."

Spirit gestured to the television screen. "Thanks to the efforts of the local misguided youth, Robert Harper has become a far more attractive candidate to those who wish only for peace and quiet. It would be foolish to count him out, especially now."

Zap frowned, tossing the remote aside. "Yeah. You'd think those punks would have figured that out, but there's no accounting for brains, is there? For all we know, Harper's hired those creeps to make himself look better."

"In the darkness the stone becomes the buffalo," Spirit intoned sagely. "In daylight all is as it should be."

There was a minute of silence before Zap hurled a sofa pillow at the other Joe, prompting laughter from his comrade. "Aw, admit it, you get that stuff out of fortune cookies!" he accused, which only made Spirit laugh harder. Cover Girl joined in and even Beach Head hid a smile as he lined up his next shot.

This exchange was interrupted by Duke, who was doing his version of a bed check. Part of the reason Duke had such a good rapport with his men was that he checked up on them often enough that no one felt pressure when there was nothing new to report, establishing a constant, steady presence without micromanaging them. Keeping some of these checkups unofficial kept the soldiers at ease; right now, he took a seat beside Zap and propped his boots up on the lounge table. "Talk to me," he requested. Zap motioned to the television set, which was still tuned to the news.

"This ain't gonna be nothin', Duke," Zap said. "It's just a bunch of punks making trouble. What's the worst that could happen, he loses his election?"

"Don't ask what's the worst that could happen," Duke warned idly. "Chances are if you ask you'll find out."

Zap snorted. "You worry too much, Top. This guy couldn't die if he tried."

"It's not just him I'm worried about," the master sergeant said pointedly. "I don't care how stupid it makes you feel, you treat this detail as seriously as you would invading a Cobra base." Glancing at Spirit, he added, "Am I clear?"

"Crystal." Zap didn't look happy, but he wasn't about to question his orders. Spirit nodded, looking unperturbed—they might have been discussing the weather—but that wasn't unusual for the tracker.

"Good." Getting up, Duke glanced around the lounge. "Anyone seen Scarlett?"

"She was here earlier," Zap said, finally giving up and changing the station to a much friendlier wrestling match, "but she said something about getting a workout in since we're not running PT tomorrow."

"You all ought to be doin' that," Beach Head rumbled from the billiard table, sinking the 8-ball. "It's a mission, not a vacation."

Cover Girl snorted, circling the sofa to take the seat Duke had vacated. "Yeah. If I exercise tonight, can I get out of PT?"

Beach Head glared. "Nice try, Barbiedoll. Just f'r that, yer getting extra reps."

Cover Girl's lipsticked mouth twisted around a near-silent obscenity as she settled on the cushion.

"I heard that," Beach Head called after her, and she turned towards him all set to snarl the second one right to his face.

"Knock it off," Duke warned idly. This argument was an old one. Half the time he was pretty sure they were just doing it out of habit. "What about Lady Jaye?"

Zap and Spirit exchanged glances. The former couldn't stop a smirk.

Duke arched a brow. "Something funny?"

"Lady Jaye's getting a workout too, Top." Zap gave up and grinned.

The meaning was clear. Duke sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "All right, I didn't hear that."

"Lighten up, Duke." Cover Girl shrugged. "It's not like they're not getting the job done."

"Did I stutter?" Duke said, frowning at the tank jockey. "Not the time or the place for this discussion."

It was Beach Head who snorted, laying his cue stick on the billiard table. "Something sticking in your craw, Top?" he asked pointedly.

"No." Duke narrowed his eyes at the drill sergeant. "You know, Beach, there's room on the street crime detail for one more."

Beach Head spent far too much time terrorizing Joes and frightening greenshirts to death to be intimidated by this threat. Placidly, he said, "It'd be like droppin' a nuclear warhead on an anthill, Duke. Better save me for the heavy liftin'."

Pointing at Zap and Spirit, he repeated, "Be ready at 0600, and remember what I said." The two Joes nodded their assent, although their immediate turn of attention back to the televised wrestling match wasn't a comfort to their C.O.

As Duke stalked out of the lounge, Beach Head had the last word. "Scarlett's probably in the gym." When Duke stopped to take this information in, the drill sergeant added pointedly, "If you're lookin' for her."

This time it was Duke who bit down on the obscenity. He was better at that than Cover Girl, but not better than Beach Head's hearing.


Rebuttoning her shirt shouldn't have been taking as long as it was, but every time she got to the top button, Flint had started undoing the bottom ones again. He'd been preoccupied with the necessary adjustments to his own clothes for the most part, but as soon as he'd been free to wind his arms around her again he'd been impeding her progress. She batted his hands away idly, but he undid another button and slid a hand in to knead her breast, as if they hadn't just been passionately entwined a few moments before. Smirking, Lady Jaye attempted to button the blouse over his questing hand. Arching his wrist, he popped that button too, brushing his lips against her neck.

"Stop or I'll just tear them off." The playful threat vibrated against her skin, his voice a hungry, bass growl.

"You wouldn't dare," she purred, threading her fingers through the hair at his nape. "Not after the last time."

He mouthed her collarbone but didn't respond, which was as good as admitting she was right. The last time, the buttons had skittered all over the place. She'd only managed to find three, and there had been no way to repair them in the gym anyway. She'd had to safety-pin her shirt closed and get back to her quarters as fast as possible to switch it for a new one, hoping to hell she didn't run into Duke or Hawk on the way. She'd chewed Flint out for that one and had avoided him for three days, both as punishment for him and to keep a low profile in case her wardrobe malfunction had been spotted. She'd thought he'd learned his lesson, but his fingers twitched at her lapels and she knew he was considering it. "Down, boy," she warned teasingly.

"There's probably a needle and thread in here," Flint offered. "Somewhere."

"In here" was the base laundry, and while it wasn't as comfortable or spacious as the gym, Lady Jaye had seen Scarlett heading that way in workout clothes and they'd had to come up with a Plan B. Plan B had involved a folded stack of towels beneath her head, a cold floor, some quick adjustments to clothing and a lot of improvisation, but it had worked out pretty well until she hadn't been able to redress. Flint's fingers tensed at her lapels again, telegraphing his intent as clearly as the insistent press of his body against hers.

"If you rip them, you're crawling around and finding them all, then you're sewing them back on," she said flatly.

That did it; Flint let go of her lapels and nuzzled her breasts with a groan. "Ever consider working for Cobra, honey? You're evil."

She stroked his hair again, sighing with pleasure at his caress. "I've got to get back. I'm on tomorrow."

Flint snorted, nose brushing against her collarbone as he angled for a kiss. "Please. The street crime detail? We could send Shipwreck on that one by himself, it's so ridiculous. I keep waiting for someone to yell 'April Fools' on that one."

Jaye tilted her head to give his questing lips better access to her neck. "That makes two of us, but it's not a joke to the brass. Street crime has skyrocketed in the city thanks to this election, and the local police have got their hands full. Colonel Sharpe's been asked to send in a unit for damage control."

"Right, because it'll be such a P.R. boost for G.I. Joe when we step on the police force's toes. They'll love that." He said the last with an eyeroll. "They're not even getting a full unit. They're getting a ninja, a redhead, a tracker, an artillery expert, a wolf, an eagle, and the most beautiful woman in our country's armed forces."

Jaye smacked the back of his head playfully. "You make us sound like a bunch of action figures."

Flint chuckled, drawing back to smile at her. "I'd buy an action figure of you in a heartbeat, Lady Jaye. Put it right on my desk so I could look at it every day."

Shrugging him gently off her, Jaye chuckled. "You've got the real thing, and you can look at me tomorrow, as soon as I get back from this damned detail. Now I've got to get some sleep. I'm feeling rather tired out all of a sudden anyway." She winked.

"You're welcome." Getting to his feet, Flint offered her a hand up, pulling her to him for a fierce kiss before glancing around. "Have you got my hat? Did we get all the clothes we came in with?"

Lady Jaye wrinkled her nose, cuddling a little closer to the warrant officer and pulling his cover out of his back pocket to show him. "Promise me we can do this in a hotel again soon. It doesn't have to be five-star, but I'm tired of five…sock."


Something was sticking in his craw, Duke thought irritably, but he was going to do his best to swallow it. Flint and Lady Jaye were only a secret in the loosest sense of the word, and despite his position he had no interest in jamming them up. If Flint and Jaye were happy and it wasn't affecting their performance in the field, he'd be damned if he was going to take that away from them. There were some things you couldn't control, regulations or no regulations—he knew that far too well himself, and it was that which made him grind his teeth in defiance of years of learned protocol. But he'd had practice biting it back.

He'd be damned if anyone took what he had, either, and if this was the only way to protect it, then he'd do what he had to do.

Scarlett was indeed in the gym. Not wanting to disturb her in the middle of her workout, Duke lingered in the doorway, watching her balance gracefully on her hands, doing vertical push-ups without the aid of the wall. He had to smile at her; Scarlett worried constantly about her upper-body strength, something that seemed unnecessary when she could punch a hole in a wooden plank from a handspan away, but she worked tirelessly to ensure that her upper body was as dependable in battle as her visibly strong legs.

Completing her set, Scarlett rolled fluidly down to the floor, long legs sweeping to either side of her in a split. Walking her hands forward, she stretched her torso out, flattening herself against the floor, arms reaching forward. Her eyes, which had been closed in concentration, flickered open and narrowed on the floor in front of her, then shot wide.

The redhead always moved like chain lightning, but it took less than a second for her to go from the floor to the ceiling. What had seconds ago been poetry in progress was now frantic scrambling for purchase as she clung to the overhead fluorescent light fixture, which was difficult when she had one fist jammed against her mouth to stifle a scream. The offending monster, oblivious to the havoc it was wreaking, crawled across the gym floor, each of its eight legs seemingly furrier than the one before and none of its compound eyes looking up at the woman it had inadvertently terrified into defying gravity.

Duke felt mean for wanting to chuckle. If any greenshirts were around to see this, Scarlett's reputation for badassery would suffer a considerable hit.

He was about to enter the room and rescue her from the eight-legged critter, willing to suffer the wrath of her insisting she wasn't a damsel in distress if it meant he could indulge in a laugh at the ridiculous situation. However, his services weren't needed—the click of claws on the floor announced the arrival of a beast with half as many legs. Duke's mouth bent in a smile as the animal ambled past him; the Pit could be a damn zoo at times.

Scarlett turned her head slowly, red ponytail dangling perpendicular to the floor, neck at a painful angle while the rest of her faced the ceiling, giving her a limited view of the floor below. "Whichever canine that is, there's an agent requesting assistance up here!" she quipped, and Duke had to bite down on a laugh.

Timber was happy to oblige; the wolf advanced on the spider, which tried to scuttle away, but a few long strides of the wolf's legs and a crunch of his jaws made short work of it. Tilting his head up towards the redhead, he gave a friendly yip.

"All clear?" Scarlett turned her head back to center, then inhaled as if steeling herself. Both the wolf and the master sergeant observing were treated to the sight of her pushing off the ceiling, body twisting like a cat in midair so that she landed on all fours, distributing the shock of the impact evenly across her body to avoid injury. Glancing around quickly, she saw that the spider was history, and allowed herself to grin as she straightened to a kneeling position. Timber's claws were silent on the padded floor as he circled the redhead, yipping again as he sat before her. Duke got the amused feeling that if he could have saluted, he would have.

Cheerfully, Scarlett ruffled Timber's coarse headfur, stroked one of his pointed ears. "Sure and aren't you my hero," she drawled, hugging him around the neck. Timber thrust his head further into the embrace, rough tongue flickering out to brush the redhead's ear. She laughed. "Well, thank you. I love you, too."

"Bold move, kissing the lady in front of me." The words came out before he could stop them, and he instantly regretted not keeping silent. When she looked up at him in amused surprise, he walked to the where she knelt, hoping to salvage the situation by meeting it head-on. "Ms. Riding Hood," he said, nodding professionally at her, then at Timber. "Big Bad."

Scarlett grinned. "Evening, Top Kick." Stroking through Timber's fur, she smiled at the animal. "Looks like we're busted, Timber. Guess I love you so much I just can't keep it a secret anymore!"

The wolf thrust his head against her once more, cheek rubbing hers, tongue flicking out.

"You're risking a court martial for fraternization, Timber," Duke said to the wolf in an exaggerated tone of mock disapproval. Intellectually, he knew he was acting childish, but he wasn't sure if it were Scarlett's words that had rankled him, or just the fact that she could say whatever she wanted to the animal if she felt so inclined.

"I'm just overemotional," Scarlett teased, putting a bit of Southern honey in the end of her sentence as she stood up. "He just saved my life and I was ever so grateful."

"What was it?" Duke asked, pretending he hadn't been watching the entire time. "Spider?"

"Affirmative. But Timber took care of it," she said, and like an audio cue, the wolf coughed, a furry, spindly leg dropping from his jaws.

Duke wrinkled his nose. "Way to earn your pay, Timber."

The wolf's jaws snapped, a sound between a yip and a bark issuing from his throat.

Scarlett laughed. "He says 'Yo, Joe'."

Timber pushed his nose against Scarlett's hand, then loped out of the room.

"How do you know just what he said?" Duke teased, keeping his tone light.

She shrugged. "He's easy to read. He's…honest. Honest in the way people aren't."

Her tone wasn't accusatory, but the acidic feeling that had gripped him upon finding her there compelled him to defend himself anyway. "Some people can't be honest," he said evenly. "Even if they want to."

Scarlett's smile was almost impossibly sweet. "I know."

"Then again, you do seem to have a talent for charming lone wolves." He arched a brow.

The smile never wavered. "No such thing in our Pit. Wolves are very social animals, Duke. Every movement is a signal. Dominance, defense, greeting. See what he did just now?" Scarlett turned her head and indicated her cheek. "Nose-pushing and licking is friendly. It's a language. Communication. Just like this." She held a hand between them to indicate how they were currently conversing.

"Just like this…" She showed him a closed fist with her knuckles facing him, thumb pointed upward, then crossed her thumb before her fingers, finally making a right angle with her thumb and forefinger, spelling A-S-L.

"…Just like this." She brought her hand up in a smart salute, then lowered it, her eyes on him.

He nodded. "I hear you."

"You hear me," she repeated gently. "Are you listening to me?"

Despite himself, a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. Shaking his head at himself rather than her, he said, "You always seem to know what to say. Is that a talent for communication, or charm?"

Her own lips quirked upward slightly. "I don't know, Duke. Do you feel charmed?"

Jaw tightening, Duke forced brusqueness into his voice as he turned to walk away from her. "Get some sleep, Scarlett. You're on the street crime detail tomorrow, and I know everyone thinks this is a big joke, but I expect you all in top form out there regardless."

She laughed, his harsh tone rolling off her back. "You're refreshingly honest too, Top."

It had been meant to cheer him, and it worked; he half turned to look at her, his voice softening without his conscious control. "You going to be all right for tomorrow?"

"Affirmative," she answered, sketching a mock salute over her smile. "All systems go."

Duke turned his back on her for good as he tossed his answer over his shoulder. "Roger that," was all he said.


It was a sleepy, unhappy handful of Joes that gathered for deployment the next morning, but Duke was pleased to see that they were all in attendance and properly armed, as though they were embarking on a far more serious mission.

"Good morning," he greeted them, and was further pleased by their firm answer of "Sir," as they snapped to attention. Realizing he might have ridden them a little hard the night before, he smiled. "All right, quit yanking my chain, you five. At ease."

There were a few poorly hidden smiles at his response to their mock severity, except for Snake Eyes'—his was, as always, hidden perfectly.

Duke watched his Joes as they boarded the five sturdy motorcycles they'd be traveling on. Freedom perched on the handlebar of the cycle Spirit was astride, waiting to take wing when they began to move; Snake Eyes nodded benevolently as Timber climbed into the sidecar on the commando's bike. "All set to deal with the angry protesters?" Duke asked, allowing himself a grin of his own.

Lady Jaye seemed as unhappy about the detail as Zap and Snake Eyes had been; she shoved a javelin into her quiver with unnecessary force and rolled her eyes. "Yeah, we've got hippie-strength pepper spray."

Snake Eyes' shoulders shook almost imperceptibly, and Scarlett's smile was rueful. "Punk-ass kids," the redhead muttered, hefting her crossbow idly. "How many points do I get for spitting one of them through the calf?"

Zap grinned. "How about five if they're stationary, ten if they're on the run?"

Scarlett smiled silkily, and it was the smile of a predator. "Too easy," she purred, closing one eye as she sighted down the crossbow idly.

Duke's smile faded into near-invisibility; it tugged at the corner of his mouth while he forced severity back into the gaze he leveled on her. "You're going in there to defend, not to do the OK Corral," he reminded her. "Understood?"

She treated him to an exaggerated pout. "Aw, Top, you never let me have any fun."

Feeling bad for the unlucky handful of Joes assigned to a detail even he considered laughable, he disguised his pity with a look of disapproval. "Complain all you want after the mission's complete."

Scarlett's lips quirked upward in the barest smirk. "All systems go."

He held the disapproving gaze on her for one more second, eyes narrowing, then answered, "Roger that. Now move out."

Lady Jaye arched a brow at Scarlett as the redhead adjusted the headset she'd be using to communicate with headquarters while in transit. "All systems go?" she laughed. "Maybe you're taking this a little too seriously, Scarlett."

"Not at all," the redhead answered coolly, cracking the throttle on her bike.

Duke had to raise his voice to issue his farewell over the roar of engines coming awake. "Ten points if they're stationary, fifteen if they're on the run," he decreed as the motorcade moved smoothly away. "Bring me back a hippie pelt or two."

They responded with a sincerely enthusiastic "Yo, Joe!"


Author's Notes:

This isn't the first story in which I've opened a chapter with a lyric from All Good Soldiers,my favorite Bad Religion song, but it's oddly apropos, don't you think?

Charlie Mike: NATO alphabet for "C.M.", Charlie Mike stands for "continue mission". I feel like this is a hugely common theme with Snake Eyes—it seems like every five minutes he's getting thrashed and trying to get the rest of the Joes to continue on. IDW G.I. Joe #1 he's almost taken out immediately; Sicilian Defense he's unconscious in the back of a transport for the majority of the issue before coming back around just in time to save the day; even as early as Sunbow's The M.A.S.S. Device he's sending his team on without him so they don't get nailed by Cobra's radioactive trap. I find it oddly endearing; Snake Eyes would never leave a man behind, so why is he always telling everyone to go on without him?

Speaking of our beloved ultimate ninja badass, Snake Eyes can indeed be seen in the Columbia University lab's sensory deprivation tank in G.I. Joe #2, the classic issue entitled Panic At the North Pole.

As I said earlier, I'm a huge fan of the 1980s Sunbow animated series and it's with that in mind that I try to write these characters I love so much, with some 1980s comic kitsch thrown in for flavor. In case it wasn't immediately obvious, this fic is based around the events of the episode Cobra's Candidate. The smiley chain, while not pre-eminent among the tools of war, is a chain with a lock on the end that's used as a street weapon since it isn't illegal to carry one, especially if you own a bike or a motorcycle. They are extremely dangerous and can do a lot of damage, which makes me think Snake Eyes is right to have a bad feeling about this silly-sounding detail.

For those who don't know, Top Kick is military slang for a First Sergeant. "Do the impossible and make it look easy" is a quote from the classic G.I. Joe #1, originally said by Hawk when he gives the Joes their mission to rescue the captive Dr. Burkhart from Cobra.

I'm not sure what Lady Jaye and Flint should be more ashamed of in this chapter—their completely inappropriate choice of hiding places, or breaking the fourth wall. It probably won't be the first time they'll do either in this story.

In the gym, there's a reference to Scarlett having a phobia of spiders, which is a nod to the episode Cobra's Creatures. There's also an appearance by my predictably favorite four-footed Joe, Timber the timber wolf (you have to respect a wolf who'll jump out of a plane into the arms of his jet-pack-wearing ninja pal). When Duke arrives on the scene, he refers to Scarlett and Timber as Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, although unlike their fairy tale counterparts, Scarlett and Timber would happily team up to wreak havoc on Cobra. Also, Scarlett fingerspells "A-S-L" to Duke, which stands for "American Sign Language". My mother knew it along with a good buddy of mine who still does; I'm trying my best to learn.

Next chapter: Everyone who thought the street crime detail would be a piece of cake is going to be kicking themselves—before they start kicking ass.