Author's Introduction:

I may not be at JoeCon this weekend, but my Joes are keeping me company nonetheless *smiles* And so are you, Constant Reader, as King would say—I thank anyone who's kind enough to still be reading and reviewing.

Usual disclaimers apply, as in, Hasbro and Mr. Hama should be thanked for letting us play with their toys, this story follows Sunbow canon, I'm making no money, and I own nothing—nothing, that is, except the likenesses of a few greenshirts who showed up and asked if they could be in this story.

I said they certainly could.

Chapter Nine: It's Of Her I Dream

Well I could sleep forever
But it's of her I dream
If I could sleep forever
I could forget everything
If I could sleep forever…

(The Dandy Warhols, Sleep)

In the dream, the world was burning down.

Duke ran towards a warehouse haloed in hazy firelight. Every step closer made the heat more oppressive and the air was already thick with smoke, but the woman he loved stood in the doorway of the burning building, the wind whipping her hair so that it was difficult to distinguish between the red tresses and the flames that licked at the structure that was collapsing around her. Embers fell around her like dying fireworks, and no matter how he fought to get to her, he found moving more and more difficult with every passing second, until he was on his knees, reaching desperately for her. Her smile was brighter than the fire, and she seemed oblivious to the danger she was in, beckoning to him like a fantasy even as a piece of the doorframe weakened and fell behind her.

"Scarlett, come back," he tried to call, but his voice wouldn't rise above a whisper. "Come here, honey, come away from there…"

She opened her arms to him, something shining and fine in the middle of the twisted, burning wreck of the warehouse, her face no less lovely for being smeared with soot, and Duke knew if he could only reach her everything would be all right—nothing was impossible as long as they were together…

"Come on, Duke," Scarlett purred sweetly. "Where's your spirit of adventure?"

"Come back," Duke murmured, rolling over in his bunk. "Scarlett, come back to me…"

The dream fizzled into ambiguity as he woke, leaving him with nothing more than a feeling of uneasiness and the disquieting thought that he'd been startled awake by a nightmare he just missed remembering.

Luckily, he knew the cure for nightmares; he turned on his side, the sheets wrapping around him, knowing that solace was as simple as pulling her close to feel how her curves fit against him and bury his face in her soft hair. Sometimes this was too much for her keen senses and she would stir beneath his touch, and while he hated waking her, it was almost worth it to hear her whisper comfort to him as she reached back to caress his face, to feel the gentle stroke of her fingertips on the arm he'd thrown around her, the press of her lips to his knuckles as she squeezed his hand to let him know that he was safe with her, that she was there...

But she wasn't there.

His reaching arm met with cold, empty space. No quiet murmur as he curled around her warm body, no sweet scent of cheap conditioner and jasmine teasing his nose, no silken hair tickling his shoulder.

"Scarlett?" he whispered, voice rusty from sleep as he slid his hand along the cool sheets in search of her. Due to their need for discretion, she couldn't always share his bed, but he'd been finding it harder and harder to sleep without her and was confident she felt the same; any night they could manage it, she slept in his arms. Where was she now? Maybe she'd gotten up early to work out, or maybe she'd—

He jolted fully awake, so hard it hurt, catapulted abruptly back into a reality where he couldn't wake Scarlett, where his arms ached for her and the last words she'd heard from him were spoken in anger. The nightmare was out here, he realized as memories of the past few days came flooding poisonously back.

She fell into my arms—she couldn't breathe—Shana, my—

"Shana," he called out before he could stop himself, jackknifing upright, glancing around the dark room nervously as though someone was there to hear his cry of her given name, his voice thick with pain.

And just like that, the mask was back in place, down to the fact that he couldn't even allow himself a precious few seconds to cradle his head in his hands without reflexively trying to disguise it as a sleepy scrubbing of his face, as if he were in front of a roomful of Joes looking to him rather than alone in his own quarters. As he became aware of the pointless pantomime, he slowly let his hands drop, gazing blearily at the empty space beside him.

Gritting his teeth in preparation of facing another day without Scarlett, he turned towards the bedside table, briefly confused by its empty surface. What the hell time was it...?

Across the room, the broken clock still lay on the floor with its batteries seated crookedly against the connectors, surrounded by shards of plastic as it blinked its numerical seizure.

Duke shook his head. It didn't matter. There would be no more sleep, not now, and there was work to be done and a unit that needed him…a game to play…a mask to wear.

One of the things that set Beach Head apart as a drill sergeant was that he never put his Joes through anything he hadn't already put himself through twice as hard. He knew exactly where they'd have trouble on his o-course, because he ran it every morning before muster, and he didn't want to hear them complain that they were tired or that they'd already worked out that day, because he woke up long before reveille and put in five hard miles with a full pack every morning as a warm-up before the course, rain or shine. There had been quite a few soldiers who'd assumed he was bluffing, and he'd quickly worked out a suitable punishment for that—any doubting Joe was invited to join him for his morning routine, and if they outpaced him, he was more than willing to release them from the day's P.T.

Not a single one had ever outrun him. Those who still had enough stamina to attempt the course afterwards had never finished it ahead of him, if they finished at all. Only one greenshirt had ever gotten released from the day's P.T.—and that was because the kid had collapsed trying and had ended up in sick bay. Eventually, the stories had circulated widely enough that no one ever accused Beach Head of bluffing about his strict personal workout regimen anymore—something that disappointed him; he'd certainly enjoyed watching them struggle to keep up.

Duke was the only Joe who ever voluntarily ran with Beach Head.

Honestly, the drill sergeant didn't mind; Duke was amiable company, and Beach Head never worried that his C.O. would collapse under the strain of the workout. He had simply come across the master sergeant one morning at zero-dark-thirty as he was beginning his run. Duke had been ready with a full pack, and with little more than an exchanged nod, Beach Head had acquiesced to letting him come along. The next morning the scenario had been repeated, but then three full weeks had gone by before Duke had run with him again. He'd kept up for six days, then disappeared for two entire months.

It was hardly for Beach Head to care whether anyone ran with him or not, and so he never asked Duke why his appearances were so sporadic. But even the drill sergeant wasn't made of stone, despite his well-cultivated reputation for badassery. Curiosity had eventually gotten the better of him and he'd begun trying to figure out if there were certain factors that contributed to whether or not Duke would show up to run but had not been able to discern a clear pattern.

When Beach Head had risen this particular morning, he had initially been sure he would not see Duke before muster; the last time they'd spoken had nearly ended with the master sergeant taking a swing at him. But as he'd remembered the incident, something had occurred to him to change his mind—a puzzle piece had clicked into place, and he took his time preparing his pack before slipping out into the damp morning to see if his hunch was correct. Sure enough, Duke was waiting outside, face gray with fatigue but pack settled securely on his back, ready to run.

"Mornin', Top," Beach Head said amiably, as though there had been no harsh words between them the day before, and Duke nodded; the two men set off without another word.

It was a mile and a half in before either of them spoke. "Scarlett's still in sick bay," Beach Head said.

Duke tilted his head, a brow arched in mild surprise as he glanced at the drill sergeant. His nod was barely discernable as his boots thudded heavily on the ground, but it was a nod nonetheless.

Beach Head nodded too, and said no more; his question had been asked and answered. Duke had his own morning P.T. routine, and the days he had shown up to run with Beach Head had not been random at all—the master sergeant would have run with anyone to distract himself from the empty place at his side.

Her place.

Regardless of his strict orders that Scarlett should not be disturbed while she was in critical condition, when General Hawk himself showed up at the sick bay doors, Doc moved immediately aside to let him through.

Despite his businesslike air of command during his meeting with Duke, the general was in sympathy with his second-in-command—he found it similarly upsetting to imagine any of his Joes injured, and it was not easy to see one of the strongest members of his team at the mercy of the respirator, purplish bruising on her fair skin making the IV look cruel at the bend of her elbow. Scarlett's bright hair was tangled around her face, and her lips were chapped around the tube that was breathing for her. She gave no sign that she heard his entrance, even when he purposely scraped the legs of one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs kept in the sick bay for visitors against the floor.

Still, Hawk greeted the unconscious woman with a smile—he firmly believed that acting as though Scarlett was beaten would be detrimental to her recovery. Resolving instead to speak to her as though he were simply visiting a friend, he sat down and tried to get comfortable. After taking a few minutes to attempt to find a correct station of karma in the molded plastic seat, the general gave up and allowed himself to slouch a little. Resting an elbow on the metal guardrails meant to keep Scarlett safely in the medical cot, he sighed, tilting his head to appraise his charge affectionately. "You always did meet everything head-on."

No answer from the sleeping redhead. It was not encouraging, but Hawk refused to allow his concern to show on his face, regardless of how heavy Scarlett's lashes lay on her cheek. He could see that their tips were still singed, along with her eyebrows—proof of her heroic dash into the burning warehouse. Hawk was certain that it had never occurred to Scarlett not to attempt to rescue the children, despite her lack of gear or the fact that she didn't have a plan; one of her greatest strengths was her ability to improvise, and her own safety was never her concern when she was trying to ensure someone else's.

This time Hawk's smile was more of a genuine reaction and less of a show for the comatose soldier; when he patted Scarlett's hand, he was careful of the oxygen monitor clamped over her fingertip. "No one will ever argue you're not one brave girl, Shana O'Hara."

The general had thought that seeing Scarlett with his own eyes might be encouraging; he had even hoped to have a good report to bring back to his curious Joes—anyone who hadn't been on the street crime detail had spent the last few days pestering the ones who had for the story—but this was proving to be a tactical error. Scarlett lay still, the bellows of the respirator expanding and contracting for her malfunctioning lungs while the heart monitor continued to beat its steady rhythm, blissfully unaware of the havoc she was wreaking on her fellow Joes. Hawk shook his head, imagining a similar machine monitoring the team's heart, its beeping erratic as its graphs dipped low and struggled to pull out of valleys. Scarlett was their heart, and without her they all fell like dominoes.

Lady Jaye was a wreck. She had spent the last few days going through her daily duties mechanically, her movements twitchy. Coffee leapt from the cups in her unsteady hands to tattoo the floor with a telltale trail wherever she went. When Hawk had passed her by just this morning on his way down to sick bay, he'd watched her lose her grip on an entire file folder, spilling its contents across the corridor just in time for Torpedo to step on a page protector and slide heavily into a wall. Any attempt to ask her what was wrong was stalled by a swift assurance that she was just fine, her normally husky voice taking on a higher-pitched, almost childlike timbre, her eyes scanning the room like nervous radar. While it made Hawk uncomfortable to have to pretend he didn't notice Flint hovering over her, he didn't blame the warrant officer for being concerned that Jaye was jumping at shadows.

Snake Eyes, who was never a steady presence at the Pit even on the best of days, had become a ghost. No one had seen hide nor hair of him since Scarlett had been installed in sick bay, although the reports of him defying gravity on his way to fetch Doc for her were spreading like wildfire. Hawk himself had heard that story three times already since last night, and every time it got more and more outrageous—the last time, Short Fuze was swearing up and down that Snake had been running on the ceiling.

And Duke…

During his meeting with Duke, Hawk had gotten the sense that the master sergeant was troubled by Scarlett's condition. That in itself was hardly cause for concern, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that Duke was taking this rather hard. Over the last few days, the master sergeant's presence on the base had gone from friendly, frequent check-ins to almost nonexistent. When he did make an appearance, he was wound up and short with his soldiers, and according to reports, he'd been an absolute fiend with anyone who tried to inquire about the street crime detail or its aftermath. There was no explanation for the erratic behavior; nothing had changed at the Pit besides Scarlett's admission to the sick bay.

Even the mightiest of men would be little more than a shell without his heart, and Hawk had a sneaking suspicion that Scarlett was holding one hostage as she lay at the mercy of the machines.

The general sighed. He supposed it was inevitable; even he was fighting feelings of depression at seeing the normally vivacious redhead lying so quiet and still. It wasn't an ideal situation, but General Clayton Abernathy wasn't naive; he was well aware there were things that even the strongest soldier couldn't fight.

"You can't give up," Hawk said, his voice quiet but firm as he took Scarlett's hand carefully in his own. "Get up. I know you can do it. You've got to get up, Scarlett."

For a moment, he felt the faintest pressure against his fingers. Was he imagining that she was trying to hold his hand? The flicker of hope that had been nearly extinguished flamed to life once more, and he made sure his voice was firm and commanding as he squeezed her hand. "That's it. That's it. Come on, soldier."

Scarlett didn't move, and gave no further indication of alertness, but Hawk had seen enough. He was positive that she was still in there and that she'd heard him. He had no doubt that she'd come back from this, would rise from the ashes stronger than ever, justifying his recruitment of her just as she always had.

Just as she always would.

Relaxing his grip on her hand, Hawk got up, the plastic chair creaking at the loss of his weight as he issued a gentler farewell to the sleeping soldier. "Everyone's waiting for you, Scarlett," he said, placing her hand carefully on the cot beside her. "It wouldn't be very nice of you to break their hearts."

In light of his recent discovery as to Duke's motives for running with him as well as their near-fistfight the day before, Beach Head had asked if Duke had wanted to go a few rounds in the sand pit with the pugil sticks, but the master sergeant had declined, almost nervously, his eyes drifting warily over to the instruments in question as though he didn't trust himself not to take the other man's head off with them. Beach Head could admit Duke's refusal had come as a disappointment; he'd been hoping the man would blow off some steam and settle down a bit. Instead, they started on the o-course without another word, the need to regulate their breathing on the parallel bars eliminating conversation. Right away, he received more evidence that the master sergeant should have agreed to spar—Duke whacked his shin a good one on the first hurdle and responded by putting a boot through the second one before simply vaulting the remaining hurdles to catch up to Beach Head, a blank stare on his face the entire time.

Beach had been most pleased with the latest addition to the course, especially given the fact that Hawk was likely to shut it down as soon as he found out about it. On a recent high-speed chase in which Zarana's motorcycle had proved more maneuverable in a tight spot than Clutch's VAMP, the latter had totaled that vehicle (along with the drive-thru window of a Roy Rogers; it was a perk of being a member of a super-secret covert ops team that Clutch hadn't had to deal with the legal blowback from that episode), smashing the right rear side, breaking an axle and dislodging the machine gun mount. Before the motor pool had been able to cannibalize the remains of the VAMP for parts, Beach Head had rescued it and installed it on the course as an obstacle, half-burying it at an angle in a mound of earth to secure it. He'd had help, but he wasn't worried about his accomplice ratting him out—when he'd ordered Snake Eyes not to "say anything", the commando had given him the most sarcastic tilt of the head he'd ever seen. As they came to the new installation, Beach hung back a little in anticipation of his C.O.'s reaction.

But Duke didn't even blink at the sight of the half-buried VAMP—not a grin in sympathy with the drill sergeant's mischief, nor a frown at the dangerous nature of the obstacle or the skirting of protocol in installing it. He simply charged ahead, his eyes focused single-mindedly on the path before him; for a moment, Beach Head got the idea that the master sergeant would have been similarly unperturbed no matter what lay in his path, whether it was a million dollars or an irate rhinoceros. Finally, the drill sergeant stopped dead in his tracks and simply watched his C.O. attack the obstacle.

With Snake Eyes' help, Beach Head had purposely positioned the wreckage of the VAMP so that one side of the open roll cage was buried beneath the dirt mound it rested in, thus forcing his Joes to climb rather than just run through the cab. The fastest way to scale the wreck would have been to circle the dirt mound and climb the stoved-in rear of the vehicle, where it would be easiest to leap onto the torn seats and jump back out to the hood. There was no way anyone (other than possibly Snake) could safely jump from the cab to the ground without using the hood as a springboard, and Beach Head didn't figure anyone would try to overcomplicate the already insane obstacle—till Duke seized what was left of the machine gun mount, hauled himself up the undamaged left rear fender and thrust both fists through the cracked back windshield as though throwing a double-punch to an opponent's face, a favorite trick of his in hand-to-hand fights. It took a lot to startle the drill sergeant, but as Beach Head heard the already weak windshield break beneath the onslaught, he stopped for a moment watching as Duke crawled through the cab of the VAMP. The front windshield was already broken, and Duke appeared a moment later, climbing through it onto the hood. His hands were bleeding, the knuckles torn, a fresh cut across the back of one hand. Blood was seeping from a gash in his muscular forearm as well, likely from his being too impatient to clear the broken glass from the back windshield before he'd climbed through it, but he jumped down to the ground from the hood of the VAMP, dusting his fatigue pants off and waiting for Beach Head to catch up, arms crossed rather impatiently over his chest.

Slowly, the drill sergeant deliberately climbed the wreck as he expected his Joes to, stomping purposefully on the fender and the hood as he jumped down. When he got to the other side, he glanced pointedly at the blood running down Duke's arm and dripping from his elbow, waiting for the other man to react. But the master sergeant's eyes never dropped, and after a moment Beach Head resumed running, Duke threatening to outpace him almost immediately, as though he couldn't wait to get to the next obstacle. With the same clarity that had revealed the real reason for Duke's presence this morning and so many mornings past, Beach Head realized that the master sergeant probably hadn't even considered climbing the VAMP the easy way and likely didn't even feel the resulting injuries he'd incurred, so desperate was he to create a defeatable opponent. To test the theory, he put on a bit more speed, and sure enough, Duke accelerated as well. Beach Head redoubled his efforts, and soon the two men were practically racing to the next installation, a twelve-foot wall with two ropes dangling down to assist in the climb. While they reached the ropes at relatively the same time, it didn't take Beach Head long to put some distance between them—it had been foolish of Duke to smoke his arms bulling his way through the corpse of the VAMP, and it was showing as the master sergeant fell behind.

Truth be told, Beach Head didn't harbor any resentment over their disagreement the day before. He was a man who met his problems head-on—the shortest distance between two points was always a straight line, and the Ranger's strength and skill had never failed him in a direct assault. Now that context had been established for yesterday morning's episode, Beach Head almost wished he'd let Duke take the shot at him—it wouldn't have been the first time the drill sergeant had taken a punch, nor the last. He thought Duke might do well to lock it up a little more, but a man was only a man, and it wasn't his business how Duke handled his problems. Still, fires couldn't be fought with fists; illness and injury cared nothing for how much weaponry you had. The master sergeant was wound so tightly he was ready to take a swing at anyone in his frustration at being able to combat an entire team of Cobra soldiers, but not one senseless accident.


An idea occurred to the drill sergeant—a way that he could be useful without having to take a punch, and maybe it'd save his stubborn C.O. from putting his foot in it again. With one hand on the rope and one on the wall, he glanced back and saw that Duke was still doggedly attempting to catch up, grunting as he stomped his way up the wall, knuckles white as he hung onto his own line.

Unable to stop a rueful smile from quirking his lips, Beach Head prepared to take one for the team. Because if this worked, it would be ages before he would live it down, if he managed to live it down at all.

He let go of the rope.

As he plummeted, Beach Head heard Duke utter a surprised oath, and then his senses rattled as he hit the ground at an awkward angle. His right foot turned with a sharp warning stab of pain before he turned the impact into a clumsy roll, his shoulder slamming into the ground as he hit. Despite his efforts, there was no way to soften a fall from that height, and although it wasn't anything he couldn't have shaken off, the discomfort was irritating and immediate—he didn't have to fake that it hurt, and genuinely intended the string of expletives he gave voice to.

"Holy GOD damn son of a syphilitic bitch. For the love of..." Rolling onto his side, he drew a knee into his chest, clutching at his right foot. "Joseph H. Colton Christ in a H.I.S.S. tank."

He stopped there, not wanting to ham it up too badly, and by that time Duke had slid down the rope to drop off the wall more safely and circled around to where he lay, offering a hand. "Beach? You all right?"

"Do I look like I'm all right, Top?" Beach Head snapped, and when he took the offered hand and hauled himself to his feet, he made sure to favor his right foot, putting all his weight on his left. As soon as he let go of Duke's hand, he clutched the shoulder he'd landed on as well, rubbing at it. "Landed bad. Damn it."

Duke blinked, a puzzled frown creasing his features as he watched the drill sergeant take a few hobbling steps. "Take a breather," he suggested, then paused, waiting for Beach Head to insist that he didn't need no god damned breather, that he'd see Duke at the finish line, et cetera.

Despite the misplaced aggression many of the Joes had for Beach Head and the increasingly creative nicknames they came up with for him, the drill sergeant was straight as a die. His motives were never in question and if one wanted his opinion on anything, all they had to do was ask—if the expression on his face hadn't already answered their question for him. Which was why the performance he gave now, as wooden and silly as even he was sure it looked, was nothing short of heroic.

"Yeah," he panted, limping a short distance off the track. "Yeah, maybe for a minute."

"How'd you hit?" Duke asked, his severe expression softening minutely.

"How'dya think I hit? Hard." He feigned trying to put weight on his right foot again, then hissed and muttered a curse, staggering. "Ahhhh, dammit."

Duke's expression gave way to full-on confusion, as though he weren't sure what to do while the normally Spartan drill sergeant hobbled around and groused over what had obviously been a minor injury. "Well, just—just let me know when you're ready," he said, and just like that, the Incredible Hulk turned back into the All-American Boy Scout again, the frosty blue eyes warming over with concern.

"Nah, I think I'm done for the day," Beach Head declared with a heavy sign of resignation. "Go on without me, Top."

If Beach Head had told Duke that he was considering leaving the service in order to dress as a clown and visit sick children in a hospital ward, the master sergeant would have been less surprised. "What?"

"Sorry, Duke, but I landed so hard my fillings rattled," Beach Head said, and turned his foot out slightly as if to display it. "And this foot ain't up to the rest o' that course."

Duke simply stared at the drill sergeant, as though he were waiting for the punch line. "You've got to be kidding."

Beach Head had known it wouldn't be easy to sell this, and he had no faith in his own acting skills, so the only option left was to stand his ground. "Do I look like I'm kiddin', Top Kick?" he snarled, his accent growing thicker and his voice growing louder with the only weapon he had left—getting indignant. "Ya think I want ev'ryone t'hear that I couldn't finish my own course 'cause of a little slip? Ya think I'll ever live this down if it gits out?"

Luckily, Duke blanched, shifting his weight back to his heels and putting his hands out in an I-mean-no-harm gesture. It wasn't exactly taking a step back, but he was clearly giving the drill sergeant ground. "Let's just call it even. When are the greenshirts reporting for P.T. this morning?"

Snap. The sound of the closing trap. Beach Head fought a smirk as he threw up his hands in showy exasperation. "Duke, didya hit yer head climbin' through that VAMP? If I can't run the rest of my own damn course, what in hell makes you think I can run an entire P.T. session?" For emphasis, he hobbled a few more steps off the course, forcing Duke to jog after him. "Believe you me, I ain't happy about this. You know those milksop greenshirts need all th' help I c'n give 'em."

The look of momentary panic that flashed across Duke's exhausted face, there and gone like heat lightning, was so priceless that it was a considerable effort for Beach Head to keep a straight face. "Beach, I haven't got time for this. What the hell am I supposed to do with a P.T. session full of greenshirts?"

Abruptly, Beach Head turned around and hobbled away from his C.O. as fast as he was able—not because he was irritated with the question, but because he couldn't keep the smile off his face anymore. "Use yer imagination, Top—you'll thinka somethin'!"

Lifeline often mused that if he could find a cure for crankiness, it'd be the best medicine he could ever give the Joes who had to stay in his sick bay. Those who found themselves laid up there complained, threatened, mounted escape attempts. But today, his patient was uncharacteristically silent.

Of all the Joes, Scarlett wasn't exactly his most troublesome patient, but she was certainly in his top five. While the redhead was all grace and professionalism in the field, when it came to the sick bay, she behaved like a cranky child—her tantrums were second only to Beach Head's, her escape attempts rivaled only by (and sometimes assisted by) Snake Eyes. Unlike Joes such as Cover Girl or Tunnel Rat, who'd happily accept a sedative to sleep off their pain and get back on their feet, Scarlett insisted on playing chicken with her injuries, as though she were trying to prove she was too tough to need treatment. Lifeline had decided that it was simply a side-effect of working a dangerous job alongside a unit full of extremely tough men and had once attempted to reason with her, telling her that she didn't need to prove anything to a Pit full of Joes who all knew how strong she was. Scarlett's true-blue eyes had softened and she'd thanked him prettily, admitting the possibility that she put too much pressure on herself. Lifeline had smiled and promised her that no one would think any less of her for having to take time to recover as all soldiers did, and Scarlett had accepted his gentle pat of her hand, settling down in her cot with a promise to rest. Naturally, twenty minutes later he'd caught her trying to sneak herself out in the laundry cart with the unwashed bedsheets.

After that all bets had been off. Every time she had occasion to check into his sick bay, Lifeline treated Scarlett with all the perfunctory wariness one would use on an inmate of a sick bay in a maximum-security prison. If he knew she was coming in, he asked one or two available Joes to act as sentries to prevent her from bolting for the door. If he had license to sedate her, he didn't hesitate, and on a few occasions, he had been forced to use physical restraints. All her attempts at bribery, flattery or insults fell on deaf ears. If Scarlett actually managed an escape attempt, Lifeline wasted no time—Snake Eyes could at least be counted on to take the medic's side if he thought Scarlett was liable to make whatever injury or sickness worse in her attempts to avoid treatment, and for his part, Duke agreed with that sentiment, monitoring these activities with a sort of reluctant amusement—all but once. The time Scarlett had been hobbled with a dislocated knee, Lifeline had relaxed a little, figuring she wouldn't get too far on crutches. Scarlett had decided it was high time she got back at the medic for his patronizing treatment of her and had enlisted Snake Eyes and Tunnel Rat to try and smuggle her out of the sick bay in, of all things, a body bag. When they'd been caught, Duke had hit the ceiling and made all their lives as miserable as possible for the next week. He'd ordered that Scarlett be confined to the sick bay long past her original twenty-four hour hold, stuck Tunnel Rat on K.P. duty, and ensured that Snake Eyes' hand-to-hand sessions had contained all of the greenshirts that annoyed him the most. Since it was hardly the most elaborate stunt anyone had ever pulled in sick bay or otherwise, Lifeline had never really been sure what had set the master sergeant off that day.

Now, memories of that ridiculous day returning to him, Lifeline realized for the first time that it had been the sight of the body bag, and all it represented, that had been the trigger for their C.O.'s sudden, inexplicable rage at what should have been a rather harmless prank. Duke had been furious at even the idea that one of his Joes—that Scarlett—should ever have that fat zipper drawn up and over her face, her eternally closed eyes; the petty "punishments" his revenge on them for forcing him to even consider the possibility.

Today, Lifeline had his own way of dealing with the unwelcome thought.

"It's good to see you resting comfortably, Scarlett," he said amiably. "Wouldn't want those delicate bones of yours to be strained. I hear Southern ladies have weak constitutions."

No answer from the redhead, not that it surprised him. Had she been awake, she'd have immediately challenged him to an arm-wrestling match at the very least, possibly while insulting his parentage, but today, she was silent. Still keeping a conversational tone, Lifeline added, "Cover Girl said something about coming in here later and doing your nails. With a nice pink polish."

Still no answer, not even the flicker of an eyelash, and for the first time, Lifeline was lonely for the instances in which Scarlett had tried to escape his little house of healing. He almost missed her tantrums and her threats, would have been happy to see her open her eyes and reveal she'd been playing possum, waiting for him to let his guard down so she could bolt for the door. But she lay still and quiet, the monitors chirping, the respirator's bellows expanding and contracting because her own lungs would not.

With a sigh, Lifeline adjusted her hands on the scratchy bed linens, checked the clamp on her finger. "I'm going to go for some coffee. You'd better not try anything while I'm gone," he told her, trying not to sound defeated but eventually finishing with a quiet admonishment of "Scarlett,"

And for the first time ever, the sleeping redhead obeyed him. And he hated it.

So distracted was the medic by his own thoughts that when he walked through the doors into the outer room that he managed to nearly injure himself by slamming right into the sick bay's latest potential occupant.

"What the hellerya doin' there?" the drill sergeant bawled, reaching down as though he would rub his shin.

After a second of stunned blinking, Lifeline regained his presence of mind and answered that question the only way possible: "What am I doing here? What are you doing here?"

If it had been any other Joe, Lifeline would have immediately gotten to his feet, apologized, dusted himself down and asked how he could be of service. But Beach Head had simply never walked into the sick bay. Not voluntarily, anyway.

In fact, he hadn't walked in at all; it had been an exaggerated hobble, and even now he treated Lifeline to a good Hollywood limp as he came further into the room. "Ya gotta free cot I c'n check into, Lifeline?"

Instead of giving in to his instinctive urge to grab a thermometer and gauge the obviously delirious drill sergeant's temperature, Lifeline forced himself to assess the situation and think critically for a moment. Reaching a much more sensible conclusion, he folded his arms and glared. "All right, which one of them was it?"

It was Beach Head's turn to blink in surprise. "Beg yer pardon?"

"Which one of them sent you? Lady Jaye? It was Lady Jaye, wasn't it?" Lifeline pressed. "I don't know what part of 'I'll let you know when there's news' that woman doesn't understand."

Beach Head's teeth grit. "If you've seen Lady Jaye, tell 'er she owes me a new pop-up target. I ain't seen that woman since she busted up the finishin' line o' my course. I swear she better run for her life th' next time she's on—"

Lifeline was not about to be distracted from his interrogation. "Then it was Snake Eyes. Did he threaten you to get you to cooperate? If he did, you should just—"

The annoyed expression on Beach Head's face shifted its focus from the absent Lady Jaye to the medic in front of him. "Lifeline, what the hell are you talkin' about? I ain't seen Snake or Jaye all mornin' and if I'm not mistaken, this is where you go when yer hurt. Well, I'm hurt and I'm here, so would you stop askin' me dumbass questions and patch me up, or do I need to do it myself?"

This time, Lifeline did give in to a reflexive reaction, flattening himself against the nearest cabinet as though he would stop Beach Head from rifling through it. "No. The last time you did that you used up all the gauze and broke my blood pressure cuff. I'll do it. What's wrong?"

"I fell on the damn course," Beach Head reported brusquely, pointing at his leg, which looked, for all intents and purposes, normal. "Jarred my foot."

Much as Duke had, Lifeline stared blankly at the drill sergeant, waiting for the punchline.

The two men blinked at each other before Lifeline prompted, "...and then what happened?"

Beach Head frowned at Lifeline the way an impatient teacher might frown at a slow learner in the classroom, speaking slowly and deliberately. "An' then I came here, to get it looked at."

Again, if it had been any other Joe, Lifeline might have believed this line, or at least given his patient the benefit of the doubt. But since Beach Head treated the sick bay like his own personal hell, the medic wasn't fooled. There was no way the hard-boiled drill sergeant would come in for a twisted ankle when he had in the past refused to come in for a gunshot wound. "Aren't you supposed to be running P.T. this morning? What will the greenshirts think?"

Unable to help himself, the corner of Beach Head's mouth quirked up in a shadow of the sadistic smirk he brought out on the o-course. "Dunno, Lifeline, I gotta feeling the greenshirts won't even know how good they had it till Top Kick puts 'em through the shredder. What do you think?"

Lifeline's expression relaxed into mild surprise at the fact that Beach Head had allowed anyone, Duke or otherwise, to take over his precious P.T. session with the greenshirts, who he delighted in fire-hardening to his lofty standards till he could send them out into the field with a barely-perceptible gleam of pride in his battle-jaundiced eye...till the medic remembered the stone cold look of fury on Duke's face when Lifeline had barred him access to the sick bay, his barely leashed frustration as he'd watched the machines breathe for Scarlett. A storm was building in the master sergeant, and whether it was intentional or not, Beach Head had just given it a perfect place to break.

Mouth set in a grim line, Lifeline turned towards the cabinets he had been previously protecting and began setting out supplies—Ace bandages, ice packs, antiseptic. "I think I probably won't have enough of this stuff," was his answer.

When Katherine Jessop had been in college, she'd joined a sorority—Tri Beta. The pledges had been appropriately hazed during Hell Week and while no one had been injured except a poor goose that had been shoved into a pillowcase to beat the unfortunates with (they'd tried to float the body on the lake the next day, but no one believed that a goose could have broken its neck from natural causes. Kate had been glad she hadn't been responsible for the death of a helpless animal), they'd accumulated plenty of emotional and mental bruises. The part Kate had hated the most had been the goldfish—each pledge had been instructed to get a goldfish, name it and care for it over the course of rush. During Hell Week, the blindfolds had come out pretty early on, and while it was scary enough not knowing if they were to be whipped, slapped, led somewhere dangerous or driven to a field and expected to find their way back blind—all of which had happened to older battle-scarred sisters—the worst part for Kate was when a sister had asked her, "What's your goldfish's name, pledge?"

Knees knocking, Kate had stammered wretchedly, "C-Cosmo, ma'am," and the sister had called over her shoulder, "Can somebody bring me Cosmo's bowl over here?" before remarking in a darkly amused voice, "Open wide, pledge."

Even though she was a grown-up now and intellectually knew that she had only been forced to blindly eat an orange wedge—Cosmo had swum safe and sound in his bowl for another six months before going to the great bubbling treasure chest in the sky—Kate still shivered at the memory of the mean trick.

And, she reflected darkly, she still thought Hell Week had been less traumatizing than one day of P.T. with Sergeant Major Beach Head.

"I don't want to go," she blurted out as she walked towards the o-course, where most of the other greenshirts were already mustering. "Quick, Hollywood. Punch me in the ribs."

"No way," the greenshirt she was addressing laughed, treating her to a megawatt smile that had probably made him king of whatever fraternity he'd been in on Greek Row. "He'll just make you run it anyway. You're only handicapping yourself."

"Said the guy who's combing his hair right before we crawl in the mud," Kate sniped playfully. It was true—her fellow recruit was already proving to be protective of his dark good looks, and Beach Head hadn't yet been able to break him of the habit of keeping a small comb stashed in the pocket of his fatigues. Now he smiled cheekily at her and made a big show out of running the comb through his hair.

Hollywood's grin always looked a little rakish because of the thin scar that cut diagonally across the bridge of his nose, beginning under one eye and stopping just short of the opposite brow. He'd earned that scar not in combat but in training, the very first day they'd been taken out on the o-course. Sean Hillman had had—past tense—a pair of Persols that he'd just about slept in, and before the newly-minted greenshirts even had their code names, he had made the mistake of not realizing that the leniency given to things like Scarlett's insensibly bright hair, Breaker's gum habit, Timber's freedom to roam the Pit and Flint and Lady Jaye's not-so-secret flirting did not extend to the newest recruits. Hillman had stood in formation at the beginning of the o-course along with the rest of the greenshirts with the aviators perched securely on his nose.

Beach Head had certainly viewed all of the greenshirts with the special contempt a senior officer had for a rookie, but he'd given a particularly withering glare to Hillman before ordering, "Take those stupid things off, Corporal. You look like a goddamned moron."

All of the greenshirts had heard harrowing campfire tales of the maniac drill sergeant and his habit of trying his best to terrify the newbies and whip them into shape, like trying to herd a group of wiggly, playful puppies by sending in a kodiak bear. Hillman had set out to distinguish himself in the eyes of his peers by grinning at Beach Head, nonplussed. "Just trying to keep the sun out of my eyes, sir."

Nonchalantly and completely without ceremony, Beach Head had answered this question with a jab to the face. Unprepared, Hillman had taken the full force of the hit, although Beach Head had obviously pulled his punch—there was less damage to Hillman's face than to his beloved Persols; they shattered under the impact of the drill sergeant's huge fist, a shard of broken lens slicing through the thinner skin of his nose.

"Try keepin' that outta yer eyes," Beach Head had advised somberly, then had turned to address all of the greenshirts. "There will be no additional accoutrements worn during P.T., maggots!" The smile that had threatened to quirk his lips—a smile that the greenshirts would become all too familiar with, and would learn to dread in the coming days—had bordered on sadistic. "After all, as Hollywood over here just demonstrated to us, they could become a hazard."

Hillman had spent the rest of the day blushing furiously at the laughter of his fellow greenshirts (and some of the Joes; redhaired, prettily imposing Scarlett had been overheard remarking to Snake Eyes that she hadn't known Beach Head even knew the word "accoutrement", and while the fearsome commando naturally said nothing, his shoulders had visibly shaken with unmistakable laughter). The Persols hadn't survived the day, but the scar on Hillman's face—along with the codename "Hollywood"—was something he was going to be stuck with forever.

Broad, sandy-haired Jake O'Halloran, a quiet, rather serious Kansas native who seemed the type to plant his feet on the floor every morning with the full intent of doing his level best at whatever his workload was for the day, had overheard their exchange. "You look a little wiped out from hand-to-hand yesterday," he said kindly, dark blond brows lowering over his concerned eyes. "If you think you need to lay low today, I'll cover for you."

Kate appreciated the offer, but she knew there was no way even a big ox like O'Halloran could stand in the way of Beach Head, and the flattery of his offer was tempered strongly by the fact that it was obviously insane. "No," she sighed in defeat, "no, I've got to take my lumps just like the rest of you guys. Thanks anyway, Whip."

Jake smiled, changing his normally severe expression wonderfully for the better, and it cheered Kate up to think that she was helping him deal with the stigma of his own code name by shortening it. He'd had the best time behind the wheel of the VAMP on the driving course, but he hadn't managed to stick the landing, turning a donut and prompting his passenger to seize the roll bars with both hands as though worried she'd be thrown from the vehicle. It wasn't like the other greenshirts had ribbed him too hard—most of them would have given their eyeteeth to earn their code name from sexy, sailor-mouthed Cover Girl—but Kate had known her new friend had been mortified when that curvaceous Joe had used her grip on the roll cage to haul herself up, tossing her mane of strawberry blonde hair and whooping, "Whoa, there, O'Halloran, you're gonna give me whiplash!"

"You'll get to show your teeth when we're in the pool, Kelpie," O'Halloran assured her, and his tone was warm, with none of the teasing edge that Hillman always spoke with. It was true that Kate, who'd joined the Navy right after college once she'd seen the life of drudgery and misery the poor economy was affording her, swam like a fish—she'd earned her own name when their lifeboat had deployed upside down, a nuisance when your craft was sinking and you got dumped into freezing water; it was hard to get enough leverage to right the lifeboat, no matter how strong you were. With a combined effort, the group of greenshirts in the pool (and Beach Head had made sure it was frigid—one part sadism, two parts in the interest of simulating real combat conditions) had righted the craft, only to have Kate immediately use Whiplash's burly shoulder and another unlucky recruit's head to springboard herself into it, the better to haul her mates in. Taylor hadn't been amused, incorrectly accusing Kate of panicking and trying to drown him in her haste to get clear. "Kelpie" had stuck.

However, she hadn't had to deal with any blowback from that incident, mostly due to the gentle giant currently at her side. Nothing seemed to affect Whiplash too much; he viewed both their grueling training and the threat of Cobra that always loomed on the horizon with placid single-mindedness, as if these things were all an accepted part of his reality, like shoelaces or the carburetor. Not for the first time, Kate wondered why he'd been recruited, although the man was strong as a bull and a whiz with anything with an engine. Should he make it through training, he would likely end up in the motor pool—and from what Kate had heard about the motor pool, they were far more likely to drive Whip insane than he was to temper their mania.

But he never seemed to have anything but friendly smiles for her, despite—or maybe because of—the incident in the pool. Kate was grateful for his steady presence, along with Hollywood's razor wit, as she wrestled with the intensity of their training. Despite their struggles, there was a feeling of camaraderie, of rightness when they joked and groused and hauled each other through obstacles and fell asleep at night from sheer exhaustion.

Team, she thought as she treated them to a sarcastic smile, a we're-all-in-this-together expression of rueful readiness, and they flanked her wordlessly, the automatic staging reinforcing her security in their little unit.

Before she could think on it further, the usual bellow of "ten-hut" snapped them all to attention, although, to Kate's ears, it seemed a little sharper, crisper than Beach Head's usual sadistic drawl of anticipation. As the greenshirts scrambled into formation, awaiting the start of their torture, Kate allowed herself a few seconds to wish herself away. Why doesn't the big beast ever sleep in once in a while? Does he ever take sick days? Can't we catch a break even one t—

And then it seemed her prayers were answered. The call for attention had indeed come in a cadence they weren't used to, and it was not Beach Head who approached them now, but their field commander himself, blond, rock-steady Master Sergeant Conrad "Duke" Hauser. The greenshirts exchanged looks, fighting the urge to murmur in confusion—where was Beach Head?

"All right, you lot, naptime's over," Duke said brusquely as he paced in front of the group of greenshirts. Kate had always appreciated that the master sergeant didn't use Beach Head's tactic of referring to the mixed group as "ladies" as though it were a derogatory term. She knew it had been ingrained in the drill sergeant and was simply a habit that held no subtext whatsoever, but it was still refreshing to have a change. "Sergeant Major Beach Head is laid up with an injury, so I'll be your executioner today."

A few of the greenshirts smiled at the joke, but Hollywood's impulse control hadn't been fire-hardened yet and he was unable to stop himself from blurting out, "Something injured Beach Head? What the hell was it, Rodan?"

Some of the greenshirts were unable to hold back chuckles this time, and Duke turned on his heel to zero in on Hollywood. "We got ourselves a joker here. Are you a funny guy, Hollywood?"

Hollywood already looked like he was regretting speaking. "Sir, this corporal has been known to joke, sir."

Duke smiled—which would have been reassuring had the expression not looked so obviously…off. "Well, Hollywood, whatever it was that's put Sergeant Major Beach Head temporarily out of commission, do you think you're ready to deal with it when it finds its way here?"

Hollywood, who would never have presumed to declare that he was tougher than something that could have taken down Beach Head, said nothing.

"No?" Duke's blue eyes twinkled, like frost patterns on glass. "Well, then, let's get on that, shall we?" Turning smartly, he roared, "Start running, hot shots, and the slower you get back here, the sorrier you'll be. When the sorriest one of you gets back here he can drop and give me fifty, and if the rest of you aren't done giving me twenty-five before that, you can join him."

Kate and Whip exchanged surprised, pleased eyebrow raises—this didn't seem like anything they couldn't handle. The morning appeared to be looking up—not only were they getting a brief respite from Beach Head, it was sort of cool for them to see their commanding officer stride across the parade ground like Captain America, his strong jaw set determinedly as he appraised them with blue steel eyes.

Fifteen minutes later, every single greenshirt there was wishing Beach Head was back in charge.

Long after other teenagers had outgrown hide-and-seek, sixteen-year-old Shana O'Hara still loved to play.

Now she moved like a shadow through the big, empty room, her bare feet silent on the padded floor, the seeker. She was careful to regulate her breathing, refusing to let her adrenaline escalate her respiration to a hoarse pant that might alert a hidden opponent to her presence. She made sure to tread with caution so that the swish of her cotton workout pants wouldn't give her position away.

And when her opponent leaped out from behind one of the padded support poles in the dojo with a battle yell, she was ready for him.

She laughed as she swung one arm around to block Sean's lunge punch, following up with a punch of her own to his ribs. While he was put off-balance, Shana stepped gracefully behind him and dropped him with a chop to the back of his neck. "Pro tip, Sean—if you're trying to sneak up on someone it helps not to yell!"

If Brian thought she didn't see him about to grab her from behind, he was in for a rude awakening—curling the fingers of one hand around her opposite fist, she slammed an elbow into her brother's solar plexus, knocking his wind out. Grabbing the arm Brian had stretched out to seize her with, Shana stepped beneath it and kicked her heel against his ankle, sweeping his leg at the same time she threw her weight against his shoulder, throwing him to the floor.

Frank knew better than to try and grab her; he went in high, trying for a roundhouse kick to her head. Momentarily appreciating her brother's wise decision not to treat her like a girl, Shana still wasn't willing to let him get in the hit—she spun to counter, chambering her knee high, then locking her leg out in a turnaround side kick that had Frank stumbling back, clutching his gut.

Shana smiled, but it wasn't time to celebrate just yet—her father hadn't even bothered to try and hide; he was waiting for her. The two O'Haras circled each other, teacher and student. Shana's eyes swept her opponent, trying to find a weak point, trying to divorce the idea of the man that had raised her from the idea of a man who would try and defeat her in battle. Finally she dropped her hands and chambered her foot, intending to simply drive a front kick to the center of mass.

That hesitation—along with dropping her guard—would prove to be her downfall; she saw her father's eyes darken with disapproval, and then he spun like lightning, his leg snapping out in a hook kick. Even as his heel struck the side of her head, scrambling the signals to her brain and plunging her into a painful darkness, Shana knew her father had been holding back.

She woke up on the floor, with a ring of faces looking down at her. Her brothers all looked similarly concerned, but her father was smiling, his expression gently affectionate. "You always did meet everything head-on."

Shana squeezed her eyes shut, partly in pain, but mostly in embarrassment. "I was overconfident. Thought I could go for the point."

Patrick O'Hara laughed, almost…sadly…and patted her hand affectionately. "No one will ever argue you're not one brave girl, Shana O'Hara."

"But it doesn't matter," Shana sighed, her strength ebbing away as she lay on the floor. "I didn't win."

Patrick O'Hara regarded his daughter evenly, the spark that had flashed just before he'd defeated her lighting his eyes once again. "You can't give up."

Shana frowned slightly. "What can I do?"

"Get up," he entreated, taking her hand in a comforting grip. This she knew well and welcomed; the familiar warm roughness of a hand that knew hard work. "I know you can do it. You've got to get up, Scarlett."

The use of the…nickname?...baffled her briefly; something in her recognized it, wanted to answer to it even as she realized it was out of place in this dojo. Still, the message was clear—get up—she had to. She gripped his hand, tried to pull herself to a sitting position, but it felt like something was holding her down.

"That's it. That's it…come on, soldier," her father repeated firmly, squeezing her hand. "Everyone's waiting for you, Scarlett..."

Again, the endearments struck a chord in her—like there was something she ought to be remembering—but she was distracted by her father letting go of her hand, his voice drifting further and further away from her as the room went dark around her once again.

"It wouldn't be very nice of you to break their hearts."

"Get out from under your opponent," Duke roared, demonstrating his point by pinning a struggling greenshirt with a scissor lock. "You think the Cobras are going to let you stop and take a breather? This is a real-life situation, so act like it and break his goddamned hold."

The greenshirts wheezed and groaned, redoubling their efforts. They'd been mistaken to think that they'd gotten off easy with only three miles—they'd apparently run it too slowly for Duke and the number of punishment push-ups had increased with every muffled groan he'd overheard. They had made decent time on the o-course—decent for greenshirts, anyway—but it was only because he'd been nipping at their heels the entire time, snarling his intense disappointment in them and letting them know that blind terror wouldn't spur them out of danger every time; they needed strength and skill and he'd be good god damned if he was going to be responsible for them dying in combat because they were too slow to do what they'd been trained to do.

By the time they'd gotten into the sand pit they were well and truly smoked, and Kate had flicked an apprehensive glance at the pugil sticks. But Duke had skipped the weapons entirely; he'd instructed half the group to lay prone and the other half to pin their partner, his unbalanced smirk incongruous with the friendly early morning light.

"You've been disarmed," he'd said by way of instruction to the group that was laying on the ground. "Your enemy is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep you down and keep you from getting to your weapon. You break his hold, he drops and gives me fifty sit-ups. He keeps you down for more than twenty seconds, you're giving me fifty. Are we clear?"

"Sir, yes, sir!" the greenshirts had responded, their voices weakened by their prone positions.

But as they'd come to expect over the course of the morning, Duke wasn't quite finished. "Oh, and the last one to break the hold gets to go up against me. And he'll be giving me fifty, trust me. That is," he added, "if he can still move. Clear?"

The greenshirts, who had apparently decided they were dealing with a madman, responded once more in the affirmative. "Sir, yes, sir!"

Naturally, they had not performed the exercise to his satisfaction, and he had made them repeat it four times, each time with a different opponent. By the time Kate had been pinned twice and pinned her opponent twice, she was dripping sweat and filthy, her black hair so caked with sand and grit that it looked dirty blonde. And even then, she was just grateful her slighter build made it easier to twist out of her opponents' grasp. The four greenshirts—three men and a woman—who'd been slow enough to have to grapple with Duke had inevitably ended up on the side of the sand pit, tiredly struggling through their fifty sit-ups.

Now they stood waiting as he folded his elbow around his latest opponent's throat, pressing his hand against his forearm to put pressure on the carotid artery. "How're you doing, Klimkowski?" he asked amiably. "Feel like giving me fifty?"

The greenshirt's face was red and he was struggling for air; he reaching a shaking arm forward, hand a claw, before banging it down on the sand twice to tap out.

Duke snorted, releasing him. "Get to it, then."

As Klimkowski staggered off to do his sit-ups, relearning how to breathe, Duke sighed, brushing dirt and grit off his fatigue pants as he stood up. "That. Was. Pathetic," he informed them, and many of the greenshirts blanched; even though he'd spent the morning tormenting them, they were more embarrassed by his tone—the exhausted disappointment of an older brother, rather than Beach Head's hard-boiled cynicism. "You guys are killing me. How in hell am I supposed to send you out into the field like this? Cobra will be painting the walls with your brains and my arm'll fall off writing sympathy letters to your mommas. Push-ups. Push-ups till you stop humiliating yourselves."

The exhausted recruits bit back their groans as they reformed their lines and got into position. While having their C.O.'s favor meant a lot to a greenshirt, these were not normal circumstances, and they'd decided an hour ago that he'd lost his mind. When he smiled now, they knew they were in for it.

But the news appeared to be good. "Tell you what, hot shots," Duke drawled, swinging a foot around to wander languidly back to the other side of their formation while they remained in ready position, muscles twitching and aching. "I'll only make you do five. How does that sound?"

"Sir, yes, sir!" they roared in relief, still in ready position.

Duke continued pacing, holding up one finger. "All right. Five push-ups, my count. One!"

Every greenshirt there pushed up and down like a piston with a crisp, en masse response of "One, sir!"

Duke smiled at them, and the first tiny inkling of apprehension began to creep among them.

Reaching the end of his circuit, Duke turned back in the other direction, as though he had all the time in the world. "You know, it just occurred to me that I haven't gone over the uniform regs with you guys. I think now's as good a time as any. All right, listen up..."

And for the next several minutes, the merciless master sergeant recited mind-numbing, unnecessarily formally-worded uniform regulations that every single greenshirt there already knew, while they remained in push-up position, up on hands and feet, arms already beginning to shake.

When he reached the end of a particularly long-winded recitation on the proper wear of rucksacks, Duke stroked his chin in thought and then said, "All right, two."

The shout of "Two, sir!" was far weaker than the first count had been, but to their credit, the greenshirts stayed up. Even Duke seemed impressed. He cocked a blond brow and conceded, "Three."

"Three, sir!"

In the third row, Kate Jessop began to wobble.

Duke stopped his pacing to meander through the rows; breath could be heard being sucked in as he passed, and it was obvious that several of the beleaguered greenshirts tried to steady themselves when he got closer to them, but this was hardly a question of strength—lactic acid builds up in everyone's muscles, and he was putting them through a test they were doomed to fail. Kate squeezed her eyes shut, and when she opened them, her C.O. was standing beside her, his head tilted in appraisal of her. She began shaking harder, partially due to the stress of the position, partially due to being under scrutiny.

Duke took a knee to put himself on her level, and when he spoke, his voice was maddeningly friendly. "Not going down, are you, Kelpie?"

Kate gritted her teeth; she hadn't known the first shirt even knew her code name. "Sir, no, sir."

Duke smiled, and while the expression might have been intended to look comforting, it ended up being somewhere between sadism and insanity. "Good. Because if you go down, it's fifty, up front with me. You're staying up, right, Kelpie?"

Kate's muscles were screaming for her to just drop, and a bead of sweat rolled down her nose. Her eyes were burning. "Sir, yes, sir."

"Good." Duke stood up and strode briskly back to the front of the formation, calling out, "Four."

"Four, sir!"

When he turned back to face them he was still smiling. "Did I ever tell you guys about the time that I had to fight Snake Eyes in the Arena of Sport?"

A few of the unlucky greenshirts were finally unable to hold back groans; Duke's smile became a grin.

Beach Head had amended his opinion on the merits of playing hooky. Originally, he'd expected to be the laughingstock of the Pit, but by the time the third wave of filthy, exhausted greenshirts had come trickling into the sick bay, he knew he was going to come out of this smelling like a rose.

Lifeline sucked his teeth playfully as he administered first aid, doling out ointment and bandages, muscle relaxers and analgesic rubs. His assurances that the greenshirts would be fine stopped just short of condescending, but he managed to resist the urge to refer to their injuries as "boo-boos". The most serious complaint was that Hollywood Hillman needed a few stitches—he'd been wrestled down to the ground during a grappling exercise and been dragged, snagging a loose rock and tearing his forearm open. The handsome corporal was already widely known as a cut-up, but he'd been completely cowed by the morning's maneuvers; he sat quietly while Lifeline disinfected the wound and administered a local before suturing.

Hillman was rarely seen without his partners-in-crime, and this morning was no exception. Whiplash O'Halloran, who, unlike Beach Head, could be trusted to administer his own first aid, was carefully cleaning and wrapping his own scrapes while he waited for his friend. All Kelpie Jessop had wanted was aspirin and a menthol rub; the water shook in the cup now as the muscles in her smoked arms twitched and jumped.

The sound of a deep belly-laugh drew everyone's attention to the nearby curtain; now Beach Head drew it back, his eyes twinkling as he assessed the greenshirts. They snapped to attention, and even Hollywood seemed to brighten. Lifeline steadied the corporal with a gentle hand. "Don't move, Hollywood. I'm not quite through yet."

"Sergeant Major!" Kelpie said, starting forward a step before halting herself. "How are you feeling?"

Beach Head narrowed his eyes at her, but he was visibly fighting a smirk. "Ah, I reckon I'll be back to whip you losers into shape soon enough. So don't get too comfy now, vacation's over, ya got that?"

The look on all three greenshirts' face was something Lifeline had expected, but still couldn't quite believe—relief. "Sir, yes, sir!" they responded crisply, and Whiplash O'Halloran went so far as to salute. Lifeline turned briefly to Beach Head in curiosity, who raised his eyebrows and shrugged, that smirk still threatening his face.

Lifeline affixed a butterfly bandage and clapped Hollywood on the shoulder. "You're all set. Try to stay out of trouble till tomorrow, would you three?"

They didn't need to be told twice—after a few muttered thank-yous the three greenshirts bolted as fast as their tired legs could carry them. Their muffled voices could be heard in the corridor, along with a cheerful inquiry of "Ewwww. What happened to you three?"

The last Lifeline and Beach Head heard of the greenshirts were three exhausted groans, and then hurried footsteps as they made their escape. A minute later, Cover Girl stuck a strawberry blonde head into the room, peeking around the double doors she'd pushed open. "Room for one more? Looks like there's a party in here!"

Lifeline wasn't exactly frowning, but the expression on his face was trapped somewhere between exhaustion and irritation. "Welcome to the Hurricane Hauser Relief Center."

"What?" Cover Girl laughed in confusion. "I don't even know what that means, Lifeline. I was actually wondering if you've seen B—"

Before she could even finish the question, Lifeline pointed at the nearest cot with an annoyed jab of his finger.

Cover Girl's mouth bent again, this time in a slight o of surprise as she took in the sight of the drill sergeant, who would normally do anything to stay out of the sick bay, looking as relaxed and content as her family's old mastiff had while napping on the porch. One of Beach's ankles was bandaged and propped up, and he had a newspaper in his lap and a bottle of water in his hand as though the whole morning were his idea of a vacation.

"Mornin', Miss Cee Gee," he drawled pleasantly, leaving Cover Girl to wonder if Lifeline had medicated him. She'd had only one question five minutes ago, but the sight of him had raised at least half a dozen more. She decided to keep it simple and stick to the one she'd come in with. "Beach Head, what did you do to the greenshirts?" she asked. "They usually come out of P.T. ranting and raving about you, but today they don't even have enough energy for that. I just asked a few of them what happened and they just groaned. Can't you go a little easier on them?"

Beach Head put his water to one side, holding his hands up to show he was unarmed. "Don't look at me, princess. Top Kick had 'em today."

Cover Girl's eyes went wide with disbelief; she glanced back at Lifeline, remembering something he'd said earlier. "Hurricane Hauser…Duke did this? For Colton's sake, why?"

Beach Head leaned back on the hospital cot, pointing to his foot. "He did me a favor. I'm injured, ya see?"

Cover Girl frowned, hands on her hips. "Oh, bullshit, Beach. I've seen you crawl out of a foxhole with a slug in you and tell everyone else they were running too slowly. And you don't think anyone can run P.T. better than you can. What reason could you possibly have to let Duke drill the greenshirts? It doesn't seem like it helped them any—more like it was worse!"

"I didn't do it for them," Beach Head said simply. "Did it for Duke; he needed it."

The exchange was interrupted by another groan, and the door swung inward slightly to reveal a hollow-eyed brunette with a close-cropped haircut—Wendy "Wendigo" Hagan, who'd earned her code name by being one of the few greenshirts to solve a complicated simulation scenario with a strategy based on potentially using the corpses of dead opponents as emergency rations. Despite this—or maybe because of it—she was always among the first picked for team exercises. Although no one currently standing in the room was aware of it, she'd also been one of the unlucky greenshirts who had been forced to grapple with Duke, and he'd ensured her eventual presence in sick bay with a punishing submission hold. "Did everyone else take all the aspirin?" Wendigo groaned, leaning heavily on the door.

Lifeline sighed, turning to open a cabinet while Beach Head chuckled audibly in his cot. "Come on in, Wendigo. You're in luck; I've still got a few left."

"Well, if we run out before Buckeye and Scud come in, tell them I was here first," the harried greenshirt demanded. "I need it more than they do."

Cover Girl repeated to no one in particular, "What the hemorrhaging hell happened this morning?" and was ignored.

Lifeline rarely used vulgar language, but a familiar obscenity almost escaped him as he rummaged through his dwindling supplies, finally settling on a mutter of "Goddamn Duke," before finding a bottle of aspirin whose chicka-chicka was the too-loud sound of a mostly empty bottle when he shook it. Giving Wendigo a concerned look, he asked, "How many more do you think are coming down?"

"All of 'em, I think," Wendigo replied miserably, tramping further into the room and favoring her right leg. Lifeline frowned at the dirt and muck all the greenshirts had been tracking into his sick bay in the last hour; he was going to need to mop once everyone was squared away.

"Well, I can definitely take care of you, although I think I might need...Cover Girl!" Struck by happy inspiration, he turned to that blonde and gestured. "Give me that pad over there."

Cover Girl obliged, angling a concerned glance of her own at Wendigo as the greenshirt allowed herself to collapse into a plastic chair. Lifeline scribbled a note, then searched among the rubble of first-aid paraphernalia on the nearest counter for his stamp. Slamming it down onto the pad, he tore the top page off and handed that to Cover Girl, saying, "Take this down to the quartermaster and bring back the things I wrote down, would you please, Cover Girl? I didn't write amounts, but just bring...more," he finished vaguely. "Bring...enough."

"Happy to," Cover Girl said, arching an elegant brow and taking the page of supplies even though she had absolutely no idea what constituted "more" or "enough", especially when the words had been spoken in such an ominous tone. She even added an emphasized vague term of her own as she turned to exit in a swirl of strawberry blonde hair. "Looks like you guys are going to need plenty, since Duke has apparently gone insane."

"He ain't insane," Beach Head called after her matter-of-factly, speaking for the first time since Wendigo had come in, but Cover Girl was already gone; Lifeline doled out what little aspirin he had left to the exhausted greenshirt and sent her on her way as well.

Beach Head settled back down onto the cot, ready to continue the morning's charade, hoping that what little help he'd been able to offer would come in handy. The drill sergeant almost smiled at the idea of the greenshirts wobbling on their pins while Duke strode up and down the ranks, bellowing at them. He wished he'd been there to see it—judging by the whipped expressions on the greenshirts' faces and the soreness that was evident in their stuttering steps and weary stances, the master sergeant had put on a hell of a show.

Lacing his hands behind his head, the drill sergeant sighed, looking at the ceiling. He'd meant what he'd said to Cover Girl, but he could hardly blame her for being mistaken. Duke wasn't insane—he was in love, although Beach Head swore up and down there wasn't a difference between the two.

Duke would have been the first to admit that he wasn't the greatest with sign language. He knew enough to understand Snake Eyes most of the time, and there was nothing wrong with the commando's hearing, so they had little to no trouble communicating when necessary. Still, the master sergeant saw enough of the same signs repeated that he'd picked up some new ones along the way just out of habit.

Such was the way he learned the latest sign Snake Eyes had been giving, over and over, every time he and his C.O. crossed paths. Duke felt he'd seen this sign enough already to last the rest of his life, and every time it was more unwelcome than it had been before.

Aside from the morning's P.T. and a well-deserved shower, Duke had spent the majority of the day in his office. Officially, the reason was that he was catching up on paperwork regarding the street crime detail; unofficially, he was hiding out from the rest of the team. The unanimous topic of conversation for the last two days had been Scarlett's condition, and everyone who had heard about what had happened was leaping over themselves to give him updates or express their optimism that she'd pull out of it just fine. That he could deal with, but not the expressions on their faces. He knew every Joe who regularly heard him and Scarlett bantering (or, in some cases, arguing) was looking for a reason to read into it, and he was used to their curious gazes following him around, waiting for him to crack, to betray something, anything to give credence to whatever theory they had. He could handle all that; he knew how to keep his business to himself. But since Scarlett had collapsed into his arms in the corridor, there was a new light in their eyes, a softening of voices when they assured him she'd be fine, just fine, they knew she would.

He could have withstood anything except sympathy.

Straining under their pitying gazes, he'd retreated to his office and tried to focus on the street crime paperwork, but having to see it there in black and white—Upon returning to base, Scarlett experienced complications from smoke inhalation and was admitted to medical. Condition listed as critical—was the opposite of helpful.

Lady Jaye's eyes especially had been tracking his every move, and if it hadn't been for the shadows beneath them, Duke would have instructed her to stop watching him like he was a ledge jumper. He knew she was worried, too, and as Flint had already surmised, she was likely blaming herself for not insisting Scarlett be examined by the paramedics. Duke himself knew better—no one made Scarlett do anything she didn't want to do.

More than anything else, it was that thought that actually comforted him—she'd chosen, every step of the way. She'd chosen to enter that building, chosen to let the children receive care before her. Being a Joe, taking these missions, living this life—these were all her choices.

And when she assured him all systems were go, that was her choice, too.

Despite himself, he smiled slightly as he looked over his reports once more, reading the Joes' accounts of Scarlett's brave dash into the burning building. If this has to be it, Red, it's a hell of a swan song, he thought as he traced her code name with an index finger, the ink smudging beneath his touch. Insubordinate, reckless…and free to the goddamned last.

Turning his chair away from the desk, he rubbed the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes wearily. When he opened them, there was the familiar shadow in his doorway.

There was no need for a greeting. Once Snake Eyes knew he had the master sergeant's attention, he held up his thumb, index and middle fingers and pinched the air towards his ear, then curled his hands into loose fists, one atop the other, knuckles touching. Finally he turned his hands so his left fist went from being beneath his right to being above it. The message completed, he vanished from the doorway. That was all, but it was enough.

Duke leaned back in his desk chair, lacing his fingers over his abdomen idly. His report lay on his desk, his eyes getting stuck on the same phrase over and over again.

Condition listed as critical.

He closed his eyes to make it disappear, but behind his lids he saw that same pinch of air that Snake had repeated every time he'd stopped by, the same turn of fists. A sign he hadn't known a few days ago and knew all too well now.

{No change.}

During the night, while Joe and greenshirt alike tossed and turned in their bunks—each for different reasons—Scarlett dreamed. Not of fire, but of water.

In the dream, she was swimming in an aquarium. Her BDUs seemed rather drab and out of place in the jewel-blue, tropically warm water. Cheerfully colored plants waved up at her from the gravel that lined the bottom of the tank; the only brightness that came from her was the water reflecting merrily off her breastplate and her hair swishing in slow-motion along with the current. She turned a somersault, feeling suddenly playful, enjoying the way the water made her weightless.

But there was motion and color and noise outside her little watery world, faces she recognized looking in at her through the glass. Their voices were far away and muffled and she could see their mouths shaping her name, Scarlett, Scarlett, Scarlett…

Her heartbeat quickened when she saw their faces—yes, these were her friends. Now they were all together and could go back to the Pit. She reached out for them, but her fingers met cool glass beyond which her comrades were waiting. Scarlett frowned, pushing at the barrier, running her fingertips across the chilled surface looking for an opening, but there was none.

"Scarlett?" Lady Jaye was calling her, the water and glass warping her face like a funhouse mirror. "Scarlett? Can you hear me?" The bright lights outside the aquarium blazed a halo around Snake Eyes' unreadable mask. His hands were against the glass, pushing furiously, but the commando's considerable strength was failing him now; there was no way through.

Scarlett placed her palm against Snake's, spreading her fingers against his on her side of the glass. Don't worry about me, she thought idly, saddened by his obvious frustration. It's not your fault. I'm going to be all right. She made a circle with her fingers, then held her middle finger straight out and her index finger straight up, the rest of her fingers curled into her hand.

"She's trying to sign," Lady Jaye said. "What is it, Scarlett? What?"

Scarlett repeated the sign—{OK}—but they didn't seem comforted by it. Their frightened faces ran like watercolors in her vision and she began to feel dizzy, glancing from Lady Jaye to Snake Eyes and back again before a flash of blond over blue came into focus at the glass before her, and Duke's hands slammed against the glass hard enough that the water shivered around her.

"She can't breathe," he said. "Give me some room."

He laced his fingers together, pressed hard against the glass, but it didn't budge, and as Scarlett watched in confusion, he pressed a kiss to the glass on his side.

Scarlett felt a sharp pang in her chest at the gesture, trying to force her way through the barrier harder than ever as she attempted to return his kiss, brushing her lips against her side of the tank and feeling nothing but the chill of glass and water on her side. Oh, it would be better if they could reach each other…

Duke pushed at the glass again, tried another one-sided kiss. Scarlett reached out and met the cold barrier again, saddened and infuriated by the uncaring span of the glass between them. The expression on Duke's face was heartbreaking, and his voice was a growl of pain.

"Goddamnit, come on, Shana," he called as he laced his fingers once more. Ordered as he tried to push through to her. Pleaded when he couldn't reach her. "Come on, honey, open your eyes."

The need to respond—to tell him—was stronger than she'd ever felt it before, but opening her mouth to speak would let the water rush in, and dimly she knew that that would end badly.

But they all looked so sad…he looked so scared. She didn't want to be underwater anymore; she wanted to be with her team, who were calling her, who needed her. She needed them, needed him, like...


She knew there was a way to tell him so, something that would make no sense to anyone—anyone but him—but it wasn't enough somehow. There was still that icy, unyielding wall between them, and words weren't good enough this time. She had to tell him—show him.

Glancing down, she saw the way—her crossbow, camouflaged artfully by the smooth stones on the bottom of the fishbowl that had become her prison. Rolling gracefully in the water, she seized it and kicked back from the glass, sighting down on the hateful barrier that was keeping her away from her team—from her partner.

"Duke!" she called as she pulled the trigger, uncaring of the water that filled her mouth, her lungs, stole her breath. "I l—"

The glass shattered.

And just like that she surfaced, breaking through to light so dazzling tears were already coursing down her cheeks. Her ears were ringing with the echoes of breaking glass, the air burned and there was something alien and awful in her throat that rendered her speechless. But she tried anyway, eyes wide open for the first time in days, lips moving soundlessly around the words that the dream had stolen away.

Author's Notes:

On sparring: Scarlett's first dream sequence contains elements from the Sunbow episode Captives of Cobra and my own experience with sparring (it's not my favorite thing; I'm well-known for being strong and tenacious—one of my instructors threw me in the ring with the black belts tonight saying, "She always likes a challenge", and that is true—but I am smaller than all of my sparring partners except one, and I always come out of it with injuries). This same instructor, impatient with my hesitation to attack him, once knocked me out with exactly the same move that Patrick O'Hara uses to take his daughter down in her dream.

Greek Row: I was a GDI in college (although I did go to plenty of Greek Row parties), so I can't speak to actually having been through sorority hazing. However, the stories about the goose-beatings and the goldfish are absolutely true—the fraternity who broke the goose's neck were of course discovered (it was an accident, but still, that's a sick, stupid thing to do to a defenseless goose) and had their charter revoked, if I remember correctly. The goldfish thing was from a different school, and my friend is the one who blindfolded the pledges and tricked them into thinking they were eating their pet goldfishes. Yes, she is a terrible person. (I had a goldfish named Cosmo back in the police academy; he was named after the silly, empty-headed fairy of that same name from Butch Hartman's adorable cartoon, The Fairly Oddparents, who would disguise himself as a goldfish to hide in the room of his fairy godchild, Timmy Turner.)

Rodan: Hollywood makes a reference to Rodan, the fictional mutated pterosaur that fights Godzilla, implying that only a monster could take down Beach Head.

On wrecked cars on an o-course: Every summer, my sister and I and some friends of ours run an o-course at Floyd Bennett Field. Every year I wait impatiently for the wrecked cars they're constantly threatening as obstacles, but so far they haven't shown up yet. I figured Beach Head might like the idea too. Talking of which…

On P.T.: Beach Head trying to push Duke on the morning run as well as Duke's running the greenshirts ragged during P.T. contains elements of Classic G.I. Joe #82. The grappling exercise he subjects them to is also something my own senseis have made us do. Also, the "I'll only make you do five push-ups" bit is absolutely a true story—one of my very own sergeants pulled that nightmare on us in the police academy during P.T. Till the day I close my weary eyes forever, I'll never forget his smile that day *chuckles*

Which leads me to what was easily the most fun part of this chapter, something I like to call The Greenshirt Appendix *smiles*. All greenshirts contained in this chapter are entirely my own creation, so if you don't like them, don't blame them—it's my memories they're frankensteined together from. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. By order of appearance, here they are:

Katherine (Kate) "Kelpie" Jessop is an amalgam of a girl I knew who, literally, ran away and joined the Navy because the job we were working was so incredibly terrible (this was at the very beginning of the recession). I never knew what became of her, but I hope she ended up like the sailors I knew and had worked with years before, doing their refresher training at our Academy, who were the rest of the inspiration for Kate, along with my own experience there doing the lifeboating and rescue classes—in the event your lifeboat deploys upside down, it takes quite a bit of strength and leverage for a small person to try and flip it over to climb inside, and I pictured Kate doing what I did, which was climbing on the shoulders of her mates to help them up once she was inside. A kelpie, or water horse, is a Scottish water spirit who drowns unlucky seafarers.

Sean "Hollywood" Hillman's last name is a reference to the Stephen King novel The Tommyknockers, specifically the character of Hillman Brown, who is so desperate to get his little brother Davey home safe that he first promises Davey he can have "all the G.I. Joes, except for maybe Snake-Eyes and Crystal Ball", then escalates in fear to "all the G.I. Joes, forever, even the MOBAT and the Terrordrome". (Snake Eyes—too cool to loan to anybody since 1984.) He's based on a guy I study taijitsu with, whose eyes I have never seen because he always wears his shades, which in turn reminds me of a guy from the neighborhood I knew when I was younger who was always just called "Hollywood" for that same reason. To this day, I don't think anyone actually knew Hollywood's real name.

Jake "Whiplash" O'Halloran is based loosely on a guy I knew who had a heart of gold and a ball bearing in his ankle. He could drive anything on wheels and had an artificial leg, which was what made his driving skill so awesome—he could have smoked the devil himself in a drag race, with or without his prosthetic leg (he sometimes took it off to drive because it was uncomfortable). But Whip's based on a lot of the cool guys I know, good, hardworking guys who simply want to do their best and be their best. I'm a sucker for a Steve Rogers type, and let me tell you, I'm lucky to have so many of them in my life. Whiplash has the sort of personality that made me shy in high school and the kind that I eventually fell in love with.

Wendy "Wendigo" Hagan was originally not supposed to show up for muster in this story, but Colton willing and the creek don't rise, she may yet show up at a later time, along with her buddies Scud and Buckeye, who even I don't know all that much about. A wendigo is a demon in Algonquin legends that used to scare the hell out of me when I was a kitt. They are sometimes described as wind demons, but all the stories agree that they are cannibals. No wonder everyone wants Wendy on their team and not against them!

Coming around the clubhouse turn now *smiles* The next chapter may even be enough to wrap all this up. It's so much fun to be writing down stories for the Joes again!