Faith and Silence
by Catwings 1026
Do not tell secrets to those whose faith and silence you have not already tested.
– Queen Elizabeth I
Disclaimer: G.I. Joe and all associated characters and concepts are property of Hasbro Inc. and IDW comics. I'm just one of a large family of fans who likes telling family stories – no profit needed, no profit earned.
Author's Note: The timeline is based on the IDW reboot's launch; I did my best guesstimate for what would be logical based on the details I could scrape together. Please feel free to nitpick dates and give me better years, if you're skilled in that are. Also, some details are not 100% vetted by the IDW storylines so far, such as the existence of a Soft Master. Mainframe's love of 80's pop, however, can be inferred by looking at the CDs Snakes picked through on their drive from the west coast to Springfield, pre Cobra Civil War.
July 17, 1995
from the personal journal of Shana O'Hara...
I didn't think I'd ever be writing in this journal again. Maybe it's nerves... maybe just needing to remind myself that I still exist. Here, at least. On paper. Maybe it's to confirm that, in the eyes of the world, everything that came before this page is history. Dusty, locked away in a trunk. Something I can face again, if I choose to.
I have a new life now. A new team. We jump tomorrow, one last test for the general - something suited to my intelligence training, he said. But he's being awfully close-lipped about it. We're strictly need-to-know. Fine with me.
Leafing back through the pages is like looking through a window into a world that doesn't exist anymore... two, five, eight years back, more than that. On the page just before this, I said that didn't ever want to write like this again. Not here... not anywhere. Didn't want to touch that part of me ever again. But still, here I am, and it's like seeing another person... the woman I was, before It happened.
Before I was raped.
I didn't want to think about It tonight. I've gotten good, very good, at not thinking about It. It never goes away... It's always there... but you can bury it, if you work hard enough.
But then it comes crawling out of the ground after you when you least expect it. Zombie memories. And when that happens, you just need to hunker down, throw up your walls, and wait it out. Talking about it doesn't help. At least, it never helped me.
The thing about rape is this: you can never, ever truly know what it's like unless it's happened to you.
And even after it's happened and you've accepted that it's happened to you, or accepted it as well as you ever will, you still don't know what it's like – because by that time, by the time you've managed to stop crying or come out of that numb-cold stupor or sobered up, your head is messing with you and twisting the facts and the memories all around, and that ugly little voice we all have deep inside of us is whispering away in your ears day and night, pulling up everything your mama or aunts or sisters ever told you about "those kinds of girls."
"Those kinds of girls" - the girls they warned you about, the girls they told you never to be like. It always happens to "those kinds of girls" - and it's always their fault, isn't it?
Don't wear that skirt, do you want to look like you're asking for it? That shirt, so tight, are you begging men to stare at your chest? What's a nice girl like you doing dressing that way, like some street-walker or lady of the evening? Don't flirt like that, you'll give the boys The Wrong Message. Don't look at him like that, don't smile just so, don't sit that way or lean like that... And when It happens to some other unlucky soul, the voices tell you that you know She Had It Coming, acting like that; her lips said "no" but her eyes said "yes, yes, yes"...
And you can't help wondering – was that it? Did I...? Was I...? Because these aren't some stranger on the street, some predator in the shadows, the serial rapist, the criminal - no, these are guys you see every day. The guy that grins at your jokes, who holds the door when your hands are full. The guy you went through basic training with, the guy you fall in beside during PT, all of them, just regular joes, ordinary guys, the guys you know.
The guys you're supposed to trust with your life.
And when It happens... when they violate that trust, that boundary, crush everything that you'd ever thought was good and decent and right... you don't know what to do. It's a blank in your life, because you don't plan for it, consider the possibilities. It could never happen to you.
Until it does.
I don't want to start thinking about It again. It was part of the reason I joined the Joes... to kill that girl, the one It happened to, to wall off that part of my life and start again, start fresh, dead to the world... even though it meant giving up the only life I'd known.
It's not that I didn't try other ways first. I worked with the counselors. I read the books. I learned to meditate. I took It into myself, folded it into protective layers within me, like the sharp grain of sand that an oyster makes into a pearl.
Only this is no pearl, no precious thing... it's more like a cyst, something your body builds tissue around, walling it off from the living flesh to protect itself. Yes, that would be more like it - a cyst, that hard, foreign lump that's a part of you, that you know is there... but you can be strong, you can live, because it's a cyst, not a tumor, not a cancer. It can't hurt you anymore, won't grow and metastasize, and you can, eventually, take your life back.
Joining the Joes was part of that. Learning to trust being part of a unit, a team, again. Knowing that I was in control, that my past was just that - MY past, mine alone, and nobody had any business there except for me.
We jump tomorrow - Duke and me.
Present Day - Scarlett
Scarlett made her way to her room in the shabby Fort Baxter barracks trying, as she always did, not to compare their current base of operations to the Pit, the base that had been home for long enough to feel like one. Trying not to miss the Pit's sleek, clean walls and doorframes, its soundproof quarters, her own suitelike room. Here she still had her own quarters - her privilege as a ranking officer - but she was uncomfortably reminded of an earlier place, an earlier time, every time she walked down the hallway that felt too narrow, closed a door on a room that felt spartan even to someone with no real desire for luxury.
She shook the thought aside. The past was dead now. No sense thinking of it.
And if I wanted a room like the Ritz Carlton, I wouldn't have joined the Army. Wouldn't have signed on with the Joes.
If she wanted to put a positive spin on things, the worn barracks had its charms. It was dormlike, with thin walls and thinner doors, and because her teammates could not easily sequester themselves away from one another with their own media pleasures of an evening, she saw a new camaraderie emerging. Men congregated in the shared lounge during prime viewing hours, bickering good-naturedly over the night's programming. CDs and DVDs were passed back and forth, books left leaning against doors with Post-It notes affixed - Thought you'd like this one or Thx for the loan.
Even the sounds filtering through drywall and plywood, which could be intrusive and irritating, could also be comforting, if she chose to see them as such: voices and music of any and all genre, video game laser fire and the odd twang of someone's off-key voice singing in the shower, laughter and footsteps - less of the former and more of the latter, these days. She could recognize most of her nearest neighbors by the sound and pace of their footfalls - and knew they could recognize her, based on the cracked doorways and friendly grins, or the calls of greeting through closed doors.
Now, pausing before opening her own door, she recognized the throbbing beat of some 80's rock anthem from some distance down the hall...
Someday love will find you
Break those chains that bind you
One night will remind you
How we touched
And went our sep'rate ways
If he ever hurts you
True love won't desert you
You know I still love you
Though we touched
And went our sep'rate ways...
it took her a moment to place it, but knew that it was Mainframe indulging himself again. Musically, the most technologically advanced Joe was trapped in the '80s. His roommate Tunnelrat must be out - he couldn't abide Journey or REO Speedwagon.
At least Mains isn't singing along this time... Though he didn't have a BAD voice, unless he was trying to out-woo Michael Jackson... And that is why Karaoke Night in the mess hall is no more.
She closed the door behind her, muffling Steve Perry's vocals, and barely shucked off her shoes and uniform before collapsing into her narrow military-issue bed. She was worn to the sparsest threads, and wanted nothing more than to burrow into her blankets and refuse to come out for at least a week... but even now her subconscious pricked her, reminding her that she couldn't. And it wasn't duty this time, doing the pricking - it was the fact that had lifted her, drawn her along through the past few hellish days. Tomorrow. Team Foxtrot would be on an inbound flight tomorrow... Foxtrot and Duke both, and none the worse for wear, from the terse report she'd been given. They were coming home after far, far too long.
Trying to think of the team as a whole, girl? her inner voice teased. Who are you kidding, now? Sure, it's great that Foxtrot is back... that Duke's back... but you know who you're waiting for.
Her heart fluttered even at the thought of him, an electricity equal parts anticipation and anxiety. She hadn't seen him for what felt like months... hadn't spoken to him, even texted him, since sending him off on what could have been a suicide mission. It could have been, but he hadn't flinched, had done it with only one question:
And that was when she'd realized that he knew, knew exactly what she was asking of him, knew the potential consequences, and knowing that, this man who had held an almost tangible distance between them for so long wanted to know only one thing: Who am I dying for, if I'm going to die?He would do it for Duke, if she asked it of him. He would do it for the team - for the mission, for the Greater Good. She could have told him any of those things... but what had come out was the truth.
"For me," she'd said, her voice soft. For me. Because I can't stand to watch someone I care for die, watch countless innocents die, and do nothing about it. Because if anyone can do the impossible, find the monster who would create a weaponized virus and force a cure out of him, it's you. Because you always come back, and I know that you'll come back this time, too.
That had satisfied him, though he had not responded to her words... only signed off the same way he always did, when he bothered to sign off at all. See you.
But she still remembered how he'd touched the screen as he'd signed off - a caress she'd felt across every fiber-optic filament of distance between them. How he'd seemed so close that night, despite being half a world away. And now, finally, he was coming back to her.
Snake Eyes was coming home.
He'd waited for the gurney bearing Duke to roll down the platform, waited for Lighthorse to shoulder his pack with a sigh, waited to nod to the pilots before taking up his own gear and making his way to the tarmac.
Last man out - an old habit. Snake Eyes was used to taking the hindmost position, being the one to have the backs of his team, even when he was the designated leader. Enemies take the hindmost in an ambush, nine times out of ten. Few would hit the head of a column when hitting the rear would provide the slimmest advantage. Even here, on home turf, he found himself keeping an ear on the activities behind and to each side as the flight crew changed over, as the darkness of the plane interior brightened to daylight.
You're never safe enough NOT to watch your back, he thought grimly. Not these days.
But even through that instinctive vigilance, he found his eyes scanning ahead for something else. For someONE else. And he saw her, already moving toward him from the hangar - walking, not running, her smile soft, her eyes fixed on him. She paced forward steadily, her dignity intact, knowing that other eyes were on them, but coming to meet him nonetheless.
His heart quickened at the sight of her, his skin remembering that so-long-ago embrace they'd shared at the door of his quarters, the last night before everything had blown apart. The warmth of her, the softness of her hair against his rough, scarred cheek, the tightness of her embrace as though she'd wanted to press herself through his scars and toughened skin, wanted him to carry part of her away when he left.
And he had, if only she'd known it.
Why she cared no longer mattered. He couldn't understand it. He didn't want to. She cared for him in a way that was deeper and more intimate than any lover he'd ever had back when he'd had a face, though they'd never shared more than the touch of a hand, the occasional embrace. He'd held her back, forced her to keep her distance, maintaining his invisible walls of self-defense until he'd thought that any sane woman would have flung up her hands in disgust. But instead, she'd laid siege to his fortress, patient beyond all comprehension, waiting him out.
He'd promised himself, watching her walk away from him that night, that if he made if back from this mission alive, things would be different. He'd make all her patience up to her, show her that it was, in the end, not all for nothing. She'd driven the face and memory of any other woman he'd ever been with from his mind with nothing more than a touch of her hand and that open, trusting gaze, those eyes that never flinched back from the ruin of his face... he could, he would, do the same for her. Gladly.
And then... Duke.
He still had the letter in his pocket. The letter he hadn't wanted to read, the letter that wouldn't leave him be. He wished Duke had never written it... that all those things had been left unsaid. It wasn't that he didn't want to know... but if he had to know, he wanted it to be Scarlett who told him. It was her secret, her pain.
And what does he expect me to do, anyway? Hunt down the bastards who did that to her? Oh, he wanted to... it would be ever so satisfying to feel the sudden snap of their cervical vertebrae as he broke their necks in one swift, clean twist. But...
But Duke could have done that himself... or put a bullet through their brains. Hell, if she'd been disposed to, Scarlett could have taken them down herself once she'd mustered out of that unit. She's no ninja, but she's got plenty of experience being covert, and she could easily make the hit look like an accident. He'd seen plenty of evidence of THAT, back when they'd first signed on with the Joes. Shana O'Hara was many things, but a damsel in distress - most emphatically not. She did not need a strong man to do her fighting - or take her vengeance - for her.
Dammit, Duke... what do you want from me? To take care of her? To protect her? You know better than anyone that she doesn't need it... doesn't WANT it.
The thought came to him, fleetingly, that maybe Duke had been playing a scorched earth card... if Duke couldn't be with Scarlett, if he was dying anyway... but no. That was an unworthy thought. Duke was the poster boy for the Good Soldier. Honest and true, faithful to the end... he'd thought he was doing the right thing.
Only this time, the "right thing" may blow up in our faces.
"Hey." He jerked to a stop, train of thought severing abruptly, finding that she was an arm's length from him, no longer moving. Her voice was soft - almost lost in the background chatter. She was keeping distance between them, visibly not invading his space, and something in her eyes, scanning his face, was uncertain... "Welcome home, big guy."
He let the sack of gear drop, and they stood for a moment, a tableau of indecision. Then he reached for her, and she nestled into his arms, her own twining around his back and shoulder, squeezing tight. Her face was nestled into the crook of his neck, and he felt her shoulders tremble a bit, as though holding back a sob. He leaned his cheek against the top of her head, steered her about so that he stood between her and the hangar, shielding her from too many curious and amused eyes.
"I missed you, Snakes." Her voice was muffled against him, and he reached up to stroke her hair, her neck. He could feel her heart thudding against him, feel the warmth of her.
Missed you, too, he wished he could say. She pulled back then, just a fraction, and smiled up at him, eyes taking in the shift in their positions.
"Guarding my honor from the military rumor mill?" He nodded once, and she lay her hand flat to his cheek. "My hero." But she laughed softly as she said it, extricating herself from his arms. "You're probably wiped... let me show you where quarters are, and then you can shower, meditate, unwind..." Her voice trailed off, and she glanced down, then back up to him. "But maybe we can catch up over dinner?"
Her eyes asked the question, and he could see the doubt, the uncertainty. Well, he'd given her enough reason for it. He took both her hands in his, raised them to masked lips, pressed a kiss into her knuckles. The flush of relief on her face, of pleasure, was reward enough for him. He released her hands reluctantly, then stooped and shouldered his gear once more. She was already a pace away... and already, that was too far for his liking.
Lucky to be alive, they'd told him. And it was true; he'd been ready to die, to go out fighting, to make his last day one he could be proud of. Even when Lighthorse had called him back to the lab, the cure had been anything but certain. He'd been ready to die. He could have died. He was alive only thanks to a cocktail of meds and... pure, dumb luck.
Lucky to be alive. Duke knew it was true, but now, looking at Scarlett's smiling eyes, her animated hands as she related a particularly hair-raising incident during the set-up of Fort Baxter, he wondered.
Wondered if it wouldn't have been better if no cure had been found. Or if the antivirus wasn't strong enough. If his body had just been pushed too far, too hard, and finally folded, shut down, flatlined.
Better? Easier, at any rate.
Don't think like a coward, Conrad. It was his grandfather's voice in his mind, when he reproached himself - that stern old soldier, never accepting a hint of weakness in his grandson. Death is the coward's way out. You're a soldier. You fight. The easy way out isn't the RIGHT way out, nine times out of ten.
Still, he couldn't help the thoughts that came. Yeah. Lucky to be alive.
He'd wondered first when he'd craned his neck, peering from the gurney, seen Scarlett waiting on the tarmac. When he realized, with a sinking feeling, that she wasn't waiting for him. When she'd stepped out, not running, not flinging herself towards them, but pacing forward with eyes for only one of the men disembarking from the aircraft. Snake Eyes.
And Duke couldn't drag his eyes away from her. Away from them. Not when she stopped, a pace or two away from the ninja, waiting for him to bridge the space between them. Not when Snake Eyes set his pack down, reached out to her, gathered her into his arms slowly, gently, as though embracing a beautiful woman was as alien to him as using a sword in combat would be to any other man.
He'd watched as the tension melted from both figures, shoulders and stances relaxing ever so slightly, her face nestling into the crook of his shoulder and neck, smiling as his arms tightened around her, his cheek leaned on the top of her head. She didn't kiss him... and Duke was grateful for that. He didn't think he could stand it, if she had. Bad enough that he knew that smile would never again be for him. That he'd never again be able to hold her that way, feeling her warm and close. See that light in her eyes, the one that burned like a low ember. It wasn't his anymore. And still... he watched.
They'd stood that way for a long moment as he was wheeled further down the tarmac, until - reluctantly, he thought - they'd pulled apart. Even then, he could see her rest a hand on his chest, see him brush his gloved hand through her hair, perhaps pushing an errant strand back - saw her laugh, then move away, glancing over her shoulder while Snake Eyes stood, looking after her.
Idiot. Why do you DO this to yourself? Let it go. Let HER go.But he couldn't not look, not watch, feeling like a masochistic voyeur for straining to keep her in sight... the relief, when they turned a corner and the outside world vanished, was palpable.
But... it was short-lived.
Things had happened since he'd last seen Scarlett. At the moment, contracting a life-threatening illness seemed to pale in the face of what he knew he would have to do - to bring her up to date on his role in those "things." He hadn't anticipated this... facing her, knowing what he knew and she didn't. He'd figured on being long gone... the deed done, the torch passed. He'd thought he was doing the right thing, at the time.
It sure didn't seem that way now.
He became aware that Scarlett had stopped talking, was regarding him with patient amusement, elbows on her knees as she sat by his hospital bed, and he blinked, trying to order his thoughts.
"You haven't been listening to a word I said," she accused, but her voice was light, playful. He tried to match her cheer, managing a wan, faded smile.
"I always listen to you," he said. "You were telling me about Mainframe... and the tech lab... and... something about a server overheating..." He groped for words. "Does Michael Jackson have anything to do with this?" She snorted. "Right. Not his hair... his beard. Caught fire. An electrical fire, right? See, I was listening."
A silence fell between them. Scarlett looked down, bit her lip.
"I thought you weren't going to make it back this time." Her voice had a softness to it he'd thought he'd never hear again, and when she met his gaze, there were tears rimming her eyes. She smiled, wiping at them. "I'm glad... I'm glad I was wrong."
"Well... you sent me one hell of a get well card, Red." He reached out, his fingers just barely brushing hers. "Some people do Hallmark. You deploy a ninja." She laughed softly at that.
"What can I say? I care enough to send the very best." And her hand did find his now, squeezing softly. "Welcome home, soldier. And don't go scaring me like that again, okay?"
"Can't promise anything, in our line of work." That, at least, was true. True, and easy to say. But there was more he had to tell her... now, not later. And, God help him, he did NOT want to say it. He released her hand, but not her gaze. "Listen... there's some things I need to say. To tell you. Can you just... listen? This is... " Hard? Awkward? Excruciating? All of the above."This isn't going to be easy... but I've got to say it. Got to tell you, okay?"
She pulled back then, and he saw the suspicion cross her face, the reluctance. She'd heard him say that sort of thing before... and usually, it didn't end up being a conversation either of them really wanted to have.
"I told Snake." There. It was out. A moment of confusion, her lips parting to ask the question - but sooner than her voice could form the words, her mind processed the exact meaning of those three words. Duke braced himself for her anger - he'd had enough fights with Shana O'Hara when they were together for him to know what was coming, and this time, it would be without the making-up part afterwards. Of course, she wouldn't hit a guy in a hospital bed... would she?
"You told him." Her voice was... flat. "About... It."
It. The rape. He could hear the capitalization in her voice, but that was the only inflection - nothing else. None of the anger that he'd expected. None of the rage. He'd brought up the one subject she'd made him promise to never broach again... and he had done more than that. He'd woken something that had lain dormant for close to a decade now.
Her face had gone curiously still, devoid of all emotion, and for a moment he was reminded of the ninja's masked face. After the last mission, he'd felt he could read Snake's mask as well as any expression... but this was something entirely different.
And different, with Scarlett, could be dangerous.
"I thought..." He groped for the words. He'd expected to need to shout back at her, to fire off defense of his action. Now... hell. She wasn't giving him anything to play against. Her hands folded in her lap, her eyes dropping from his face to her own fingers... it was like a glass shield had fallen between them. A quarantine barrier. "I thought I wasn't going to make it back, Red. I... I just wanted..."
Still, she did not look at him, did not speak, did not move. She could have been a uniform draped across a chair, an item of furniture. Her silence filled the space between them, seemed to stretch backward into all that had come before, all that had come after, all that had come between them.
And it occurred to him in that moment that she didn't need him to say why he'd broken his promise to her, made so many years before. She would hear him out, if he chose to speak, just as he'd asked - but when it all came down to truth, the "why" didn't matter. The breach of faith... for whatever reason... that was all that mattered in this moment, when all other sounds seemed to fall away, when the world had gone unnervingly still.
"Shana. I'm sorry."
She did not reply, and he reached out to her, fingers pleading. She did not look at him, or at his hand, and he let it go limp, dropping against the bedside. After a moment that lingered far too long, she rose, moved with slow, deliberate steps to the door, all without looking once at him. When she reached it, she hesitated, but did not turn back. Her voice, when she spoke, was soft and even... and, to his listening ears, more full of grief at his betrayal than any storm of tears, any firestorm of anger could be.
"I know you are, Duke."
He'd have preferred her to be angry at him. He knew how to cope with her anger. This... this was, somehow, more than he could bear. And then she was gone. Duke closed his eyes and wished, not for the first time, that so many things could be unraveled, undone, unsaid.
...from the personal journal of Shana O'Hara...
I'm in The Bunker - that place in my mind where I can run to when the outside world gets too much. Personal lockdown. I haven't used it for years. I haven't had to.
Door closed, door locked, back in my own quarters. I texted Snakes that I've got a migrane... that we'll have to do dinner some other time. He didn't answer... which is fine by me, right now. There's only room in The Bunker for one, and I'm it.
Duke. I can't hate him for what he did, telling Snakes. I can be mad as hell, and I am, but I can't hate him - any more than I could hate him back then for wanting to go charging off after the bastards who raped me himself, military protocols be damned. He'd have thrown his career away, right then and there, and he'd never have looked back. I couldn't let him do that. He's a good man. One of the best.
I know he still loves me. I wish he didn't. It would be easier to hate him right now, if he didn't. If I could pretend that he'd done it out of spite - knowing that it would change everything between Snake Eyes and me. But he didn't, and I can't. He was stupid, he was thoughtless, he was a four-star-fucking-idiot... but he's not malicious.
He deserves better than this... better than walking around, loving someone who can't love him back. Waiting for a chance that won't ever come again. I tried to show him that God knows how many times. Tried to make him change his mind... tried breaking it off, walking away, giving him the silent treatment. I thought joining the Joes would put an end to it once and for all... except that he's good, damned good, and the general wanted him on board, too. And now, dead to the world, we're stuck in it together.
After It happened, Duke said he'd never leave me. Now... he just won't leave me alone. He stopped asking me why I left him years ago... but I see the question in his eyes every now and again, when he thinks I'm not looking. How can I tell him that every time I look at him, I see memories of a time and place I wish I could forget forever? How can I tell him that I joined the Joes so I could leave him behind, with the rest of my past?
I can't - and so here we are, and I thought I'd finally shaken it. Thought I'd finally put it to rest. I thought that, even with Duke around, that It was gone for good, because he never said a word about it.
Dammit, Duke... why did you have to open all this up again? Why did you have to give away something that wasn't yours to give?
He knew something was wrong, coming out of the shower... knew it before he saw the message light flashing on his phone, knew before he read the text.
migrane hit hard - ow,ow - need to curl up in the drk. dnner 2morro, mybe?
His eyes scanned the message once, twice, trying to lift from toneless characters more than what they said. Firstly, for a text message, this was positively chatty for Scarlett. Secondly... it didn't feel right. Didn't sound like her text voice.
Something was off... off, if not outright wrong.
Snake Eyes glanced at the door, as though he could peer through drywall and plywood to the source itself. But... he flipped the keyboard out and sent a reply as though he didn't suspect a thing.
He waited for the response, though instinct told him there wouldn't be one. And that, too, confirmed his suspicions.
Placing the phone gently to the side, he contemplated knocking on her door... he was no stranger to sitting in the dark, after all. But... no. Whatever it was... it could wait for tomorrow.
..from the personal journal of Shana O'Hara...
I broke up with Duke while we were out running. We did that, first thing in the morning, a start to the day. It was just the two of us and the sun coming up. Peaceful. I didn't want to ruin it, but something about breaking up over a meal, or just after a movie, or at pretty much any other time seemed all wrong. I had a friend once who used to break up with her guys at stop lights. Said she figured if things got ugly, she could bail before the light turned green. Sometimes, she'd bail just for the heck of it.
Of course, she had a new guy every week, so there wasn't much to it - she'd have it out and be on the sidewalk with time to spare.
With Duke, it wasn't a stoplight sort of thing.
It wasn't fair, turning our run into a breakup. It was our time, our time together, even before we were "together," but in the end, it felt like the only time I could get it out - because it really was our time, when there wasn't anything between us except the sound of our feet in tandem and the morning sounds all around. Maybe because I was already running, I wouldn't get the notion I could just run away - outpace him, keep going, never stop.
I wish I was still running now. That I could run away from It. From all of this. The question won't let me be... How do you break up with someone, if you aren't even sure there's anything to break up? My heart says that there is... but it's Snake Eyes, after all. And that means assuming anything is... unwise.
And that's an understatement.
The "dinner tomorrow" had been strained, Scarlett's voice filling the space between them with workaday details he'd missed when he'd been gone; Snake Eyes wondered, at first, if he was reading into it too much, allowing his mind to paint in details that weren't there. But she'd skittered off as soon as she could, not inviting him in, though he'd walked her to her door - not that it meant anything, but Snake Eyes couldn't shake the feeling that something was very much not right.
It could be his own mind playing tricks with him... or not.
In the next few days, she'd managed to get the extra duty assignments she'd snared to look like they'd always been the regular duty roster, or that it was something she couldn't beg off. He knew otherwise... if for no other reason than the fact that he was good at being inconspicuous, and had heard conversation in the mess about how so-and-so would owe Scarlett big time for covering his watch.
He suspected that she'd even manipulated her schedule to put her at the opposite end of Baxter when he'd be free, managed to see him only briefly, in passing - and always in company. Never alone, and never meeting his eyes for more than a glance. That was wrong all over.
And she didn't once come tapping on his door of an evening... something he found he missed with an ache that was almost physical.
In the end, he'd gone directly to the source.
Duke had been propped up in his bed, was staring blankly out the window. He startled... no, he JUMPED... when Snake Eyes appeared beside him, then dropped his head, eyes closed.
"I really, REALLY hate it when you do that."
Snake Eyes didn't shrug, though he felt like doing so. He was not happy with Duke at the moment, and didn't particularly care if he noticed.
He noticed. He noticed, and seemed to instantly make the connection - and he sagged a bit, turning away from the ninja, returning his gaze to the window.
"This is about Scarlett, isn't it." A statement, not a question. "You want to sit?" Hell, no. He didn't want to sit. He needed to stand - to let Duke see his shoulders stiffen at the confirmation of what he'd suspected from the start. Only Duke wouldn't look at him. His fist clenched, and he had to consciously unfold it.
The silence lasted too long before Duke looked up at him, his face stilled to poker-blankness. He was trying to send the message that he wasn't, that he wouldn't be, intimidated by an angry black-clad ninja. If Snake Eyes had cared, he'd have been impressed.
"She's not speaking to me, either," Duke said. "If that makes you feel any better. I had to tell her, Snakes. I screwed up... I needed her to know." He stared at the expressionless mask, brow creasing. "I needed to apologize. I never should have told you. It wasn't mine to tell."
Snake Eyes allowed himself to look at the ceiling, as an eye-roll would have been less than communicative, and snapped his palms open, also facing upward. Duke nodded.
"Yeah, yeah, I get the message. 'NOW he figures it out.' What can I say. I'm just a dumb army grunt, not some telepathic ninja." The anger, the scorn in his tone was curtailed abruptly by the palm slamming flat to the wall, inches from his head. The visor reflected cold blue eyes. Duke hadn't jumped an inch this time; his voice was low, almost a growl. "Can't take me by surprise twice, Snakes. And you can't make me feel any worse than I already do. You want me to say that I wish I'd died out there? Fine. I do. But that doesn't change a thing."
Slowly, Snake Eyes straightened. It wasn't what he'd wanted to hear. He'd put his all into getting Duke back alive... but how dense could the man be? He took his phone, tapped out a message, handed it over.
You should have left it to me. You gave it to me. You should have left it there.
When Duke looked up, handing the phone back, there was no question that he agreed. It was written plain across his face. He was angry, yes... angry, and knotted up with his own feelings for Scarlett. But he was angry not only at coming off second... he was angry at himself.
"My whole life is one bunch of coulda, shoulda, woulda, Snakes. At least, that's how it feels right now." He turned back to the window, dropped his head back into the pillows. "I was just trying to make it right again."
But when he turned back, he was speaking to empty air.
Some women smoke when they're stressed, Scarlett mused. Some drink. Some eat, or shop, or binge on chocolate. She plunked the duffel on her bunk, upended it, spilling socks, underwear, and tee shirts across the covers. Me? I do laundry.
She lifted a double-handful of clean clothing, buried her nose in it, inhaled. The cotton was still warm from the dryer, the scent of dryer sheet and lint comforting, somehow. It kept her from wanting to scream, anyway. How many times, back in the world, had she and her mother hashed things out over a pile of leggings and sports bras? How often had the feel of nubbly, worn fabric settled her, calling to mind the faded UGA sweatshirt her father would drape across her hunched six-year-old shoulders, its edges frayed and worn but still warm, smelling of freshly tumbled cotton?
Everyone's got to have a security blanket.
The phone thrummed in her pocket, and she reached for it, hoping it would be a simple call, a work call... not a text message. Another text message she'd have to ignore.
The pale text box regarded her balefully as she glanced down. So much for hope.
u avoidng me?
Snake Eyes. She grimaced. Yes, she'd been avoiding him. They both knew it... and she couldn't keep it up forever.
Luckily, she wouldn't have to. After all, given Snake's preference for being on duty to off, it would simply be a matter of time before he'd be on mission again, and she wouldn't have to avoid him at all. She glanced at the text.
Time was, she thought ruefully, when she'd have given quite a bit for a message like that. To know that he noticed her absence... maybe missed it.
Of course, it's Snake Eyes. He's probably just stating the obvious. She reached for the phone, trying to formulate something bland, something marginally believable. Nothing defensive, no playing games...
u r a lousy liar, red.
She rolled her eyes. What to say to THAT?
busy NOW, she replied. talk later?
want hlp folding ur sox?
She closed her eyes for a long moment, throttling the urge to fling the laundry basket against the wall, before moving to the door. He was leaning against the wall a few paces down the hall, mercifully not in uniform... and he wasn't grinning smugly, like too many men would have been.
Damnit, Snakes... She retreated inside again, back to the door, trembling. She'd been hoping that she could have a bit more time before this conversation... but... well, it would be now, instead of later. Sometimes, fate has its own mind made up. Maybe it would be better that way. She'd give him a clean break, and he'd head off on the next mission - and that would be it.
She ignored the heaviness in her chest. It was the right thing to do. The only thing to do. She wouldn't have It hanging over her, over them...
As if there was ever an "us" for It to hang over. She opened the door. He hadn't moved.
"How about taking a walk instead?" she offered. His eyes met hers, neither of them smiling... and she knew that he could sense, somehow, exactly what that invitation meant. He slipped his phone into his pocket, nodded once, and waited for her to retrieve her jacket.
They'd walked out past the tarmac in the bright sunshine, under skies naked of all but the highest cirrus wisps. Silently, side by side, neither looking at the other - the sounds of the base around them seemed muted, dulled. A grassy berm ran the length of the airstrip, tall grasses bending in the breeze, and as view of Baxter disappeared behind the man-made hillock, a small path appeared... something relatively fresh, perhaps carved out by Joes wanting an early morning run in the open air. Scrubby bushes filled space between the path and a rusting chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire - a fence keeping out nothing but prairie, but doing its job well.
When he felt they'd gone far enough, Snake Eyes lay one rough hand on her arm, its warm, gentle pressure insistent.
Scarlett stopped, turned slowly, eyes downcast, lips set in a thin, stubborn line, guarding against tears. He cupped her face now with both hands, thumb caressing the line of her cheekbone, until her eyes flickered upward, the shame and anger and fear and hurt naked before him. She knew. She knew that he knew, and it was eating her from the inside out.
Scarlett. Unwilling to release her face, he mouthed the words – an intimacy reserved for her alone. Shana. We need to talk.
It had been one of the first bonds between them, the fact that she could read his lips and body language so easily. It had been her intelligence training, she'd said – practice in observation, covert surveillance when bugs could not be planted or when the situation presented itself – but it had always been something private to the two of them.
She looked at him, eyes flickering over the ruin of his face, and a shadow passed over her - the old guilt that lay dormant most of the time, rearing its head only in times of extreme strain. But there was more to that shadow now - a keener pain, a sharper sorrow. She closed her eyes, turned her face from him. Firmly now, he took her chin, forced her to look back at him, and shock at the action made her eyes go wide.
I can't talk to you if you don't look at me, he said, countering the glare that he knew was coming, allowing his own frustration to show - just a bit. If she was angry, he could take that. He'd rather have her angry at him, if it meant that she'd break the silence. Her body's every nuance, every flicker of her eyes, reminded him of a deer ready to bolt... and if she bolted, he'd lose her. He knew that, somehow, instinctively - and that fed his determination, gripping her shoulder, her jaw. Don't shut me out.
She tensed then, muscles in her arm and shoulder flexing in response to countless hours of training - he released her, stepped back a pace as she swung at him, easily avoiding the defensive cut of her hand. She backpedaled, putting space between them, eyes flashing between anger and fear, her arms rising instinctively to that defensive chamber, elbows tucked, fists clenched, that he knew so well. He spread his hands in a gesture of both apology and surrender.
Shana. I just want to talk. That's all. Please.
A moment, two moments passed between them, and she didn't move any further away. Then, finally, the protective stance relaxed, her arms lowered, and she nodded.
"This... what Duke did. What he told you. I never wanted you to know. Never wanted anyone to know. It... it changes things, between us. Changes… everything." A heartbeat, two, neither of them moving. He tilted his head.
Does it? he mouthed. She just stared at him. The tears threatened to spill now, and she wiped at them angrily… but the look she gave him was pleading, frightened, hollow.
"Doesn't it?" Her voice trembled, and he heard her curse softly, begin to turn away.
He reclaimed the distance between them, moving to intercept her line of vision rather than trying to control it. His eyes never leaving hers, and slowly took one of her hands, raised it to his own cheek, pressed it there. After a moment, her fingers curled, brailling the scars, the ridges and beads of raised, proud flesh, the cavities and crevices, fingers flowing across his face, tracing it with a feather-light touch as though seeing it, seeing him, for the first time.
It only changes things if you run away. From your past... from me... it's all the same. he said. If you do, it's your choice. I can't judge you. But... And he moved half a step closer, gently brushing a wayward strand of hair from her cheek. But there isn't a place on this earth you can try to hide where I won't find you. He tapped her chest softly. Not even in here. You can go in... but I'll be here, waiting, when you come out. I just want you to know that.
Something uncoiled in her then, and finally, he saw the beginnings of belief in her eyes, along with the tears - saw that she wanted to believe him, at least. That could be enough for him, if it was all she could give him. But she was embarrassed at her weakness - he could see that plainly - and with her nerves this raw, embarrassment could too quickly turn back to anger, and anger turn to flight. She did not want to cry in front of him... was fighting it with every fiber of her being. He could help her there, at least. He bumped her softly with his shoulder and raised an eyebrow, consciously breaking the tension, distracting her.
You were such a pain in the ass, right from the start, you know... he mouthed, lips quirking in a wry smile. You never let me hide behind MY scars. Never let me wall myself up, pull myself away. You kept at me and at me until I let you in. He grinned now, allowing himself to look smug. You got what you wanted, woman. Guess you'll have to live with it.
That did it. As suddenly as the distance had pressed between them, all tension vanished. He felt his heart lift at her return smirk, felt the rigid muscles of his shoulders and back melt. He'd come close, so close, to losing her... but now, she dropped her chin and raised her eyebrows, and her tone was one of amused indignation.
"Woman?" THAT was the Scarlett he knew. She might hit him... but he would welcome that now, and he smirked teasingly.
What? You'd rather... sweetheart? Princess? Your royal highness, ma'am?
"Quit while you're ahead," she growled, punching softly at his chest, and began to step away - only to find her wrist captured and held tight, and a challenge meeting her eyes.
Give me a reason to. He tugged gently at her, urging her closer, until she could feel the warmth radiating off him and wrapping her arms around his shoulders seemed the only natural place to put them. His arms, solid and strong, slipped behind her, his hand finding the knot of tightness at her hairline, fingers gently massaging the tension away. In her eyes, he could see the last lingering echo of uncertainty still hovering there, brought to the fore by his touch - so he dipped his head and found her lips, kissed her gently, hesitantly, tenderly. When they parted, he placed a finger to her lips, forestalling any more words that could force their way between them, rested his forehead against hers. No more words. Not now.
He was beginning to worry that he'd made a mistake in that, pressed her too far, when he felt her shift in his arms, felt her arms tighten about him as though she'd come to a decision, and having made up her mind, would not allow him the chance to change his. Her embrace was fierce, possessive, the look in her eyes doubly so, daring him to contradict her.
And then she was the one kissing him, warm and sweet and strong and fragile all at once, and he was responding to her closeness and her touch just as eagerly, savoring the feel, the taste, the scent of her. He felt her heart thudding against his, knew that it matched the rhythm and intensity of his own. He followed her lead, mind and body hyper-attuned to detect any reluctance on her part, and hint that he should stop. He hesitated only a moment when she stepped back, twining the fingers of both hands into his, and glanced meaningfully at the grassy berm. She began to lower herself down, drawing him with her...
And he stopped her then. A gentle tug, bringing her back to her feet, feeling his insides knot at the look of shame and guilt that washed across her face...
Not you, he mouthed, caressing her face, trying to brush away the blush that burned into her cheeks. It's not you...
"If you say 'It's me,' so help me, Snake, I will put you down. Right here, right now." Her voice was tight, almost strangled. He shook his head emphatically.
No, not me. It's... He turned his gaze to the grass, to the groundcover moving gently in the breeze. It's poison ivy. He nodded at the cluster of shiny green leaf trios, peeking from the base of a shrub. And... ants. He nudged a sandy mound inches from his boot with a toe, then blinked at her.
"Poison ivy... and ants." Her voice was faint now, with a tinge to it that might have been the precursor to hysteria. "Poison ivy. And ants."
I know you're plenty tough enough to ignore bug bites and nasty rashes in the name of incredible sex... but my sensitive ninja skin isn't up to the challenge. Her shoulders were shaking now, her head bowed, and then she couldn't hold it in, hold it back.
She was laughing.
Laughing. Breath catching between rolling waves of laugher, she collapsed against him, forehead pressed to his shoulder, and he found himself laughing, too, albeit in near-silent huffs.
It really was pretty funny, when he thought about it. Big tough ninja... scared of a little poison ivy. And ants.The Hard Master would make him lie ON the ant hill, for even thinking such a thing...
When the laughter had finally spent itself, they stood together, foreheads together, fingers fully twined. He could have stayed that way for... for forever, really... but this time, she was the one who caught his eye, and there was something in her expression that made his heart skip the proverbial beat.
"Incredible sex, huh?" She smiled, poking him in the chest. "You sound awfully confident about that."
With you? Of course I'm confident. And... patient. He dropped the lightness for a moment, kissing her fingertips one by one. You don't have to prove anything to me, Shana. I'm not going anywhere.
She regarded him for a long moment, her eyes reading his face, his expression, and he found that he could easily get lost in those sea-green depths. For emphasis, he said it again. I'm not going anywhere.
The smile unfolded slowly, teasingly, as she stepped away from him, fingers trailing along his before contact was broken.
"Except maybe... back to quarters?" she murmured. "Your choice, tough guy... I can't speak for your room, but I promise that mine's completely free of ants and itchy vines..."
They lay together in the darkness, snugly spooned, breathing as one. Scarlett slept. Snake Eyes did not. Consciously matching the rhythm of his breathing to hers, he considered the warmth of her slim nakedness, pressed so trustingly against him. The scent of her hair, reminding him of sunshine on linen. The feel of her heartbeat under his hand, the gentle rise and fall of her side under his encircling arm. She murmured in her sleep, and his eyes turned to her face - but it was still sleep-blank, no shadow crossing it.
She still cries in her sleep, sometimes, the letter had told him. Well, if he had his way, she wouldn't often be left to cry alone in the night, the ghosts of the past circling her dreams. He would guard her, whenever he could, even if it meant not sleeping a wink - just laying beside her in the soft, enfolding darkness. Just watching her sleep woke something inside him, something primal and possessive... she was his now, his alone, his to defend from all comers, seen or unseen. He wondered, fleetingly, if women felt this way about their chosen men.
I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of Scarlett, if she does... though, given the chance, it might be fun to watch. Not that there was any waiting line of ladies for him, but he'd a feeling that on his side of things, he might need to keep an eye on more than one of his teammates.
The room was still, the sounds beyond drifting through, muffled as though in cotton. Footsteps and laughter passing, a door opening, another shutting with a bit too much force. A knock, some distance away. Running footsteps, then a complicated shuffling sound followed by a thud and a cheer - "INTERCEPTED! Eat that, man!" - and the sound of something lighter ricocheting off another wall.
Hallway football... the things I miss out on.
After that, the hall grew quiet for a long while. Music drifted down - country western, and someone accompanying on harmonica.
Who the hell plays the harmonica? That's a new one on me.
His own room was quieter - Scarlett had apparently pulled a few strings, knowing his preference for an atmosphere conducive to meditation. By contrast, her own wing seemed to have its own heartbeat of sounds... lying here in the darkness, there was no way, really, that she could ever feel truly alone. The thought comforted him, knowing that there would be too much time he'd need to spend apart from her... far too much for his liking.
In the back of his mind, the Soft Master chided him - Be in the now. Let the future come when it will. Even the memory settled him, and he let his head rest back on the pillow. Scarlett stirred again, tilting her head to peer over her shoulder at him through half-lidded eyes. He rummaged closer to her, lips pressing the nape of her neck, was rewarded by a pleased, inarticulate murmur and her sleepy smile as she drew his arms closer about her like a blanket. Soon, her breathing had resumed its steady in-and-out. Holding her to him, Snake Eyes allowed his own eyes to close... not to sleep, as the slightest motion or sound would rouse him, but to allow her presence to flow over him, warm him, as he kept the night-watch while she slept.
The future could take care of itself.
When I wrote Promises to Keep, I had no intention of writing a sequel. I played with the idea, yes - but it was a thread on the IDW forum about how realistic the Joe comics could/ should be gave me some insight into how the male mind works, when it comes to uncomfortable issues. The general feeling, among those who participated in the discussion, was that they wouldn't want a story to touch too deeply on any aspect of the wounded warrior; G.I. Joe is a fantasy, and as such, there's no place for such things. Realism in battle is one thing; realism in the characters affected by battle is, apparently, entirely different. I did broach the topic of the female soldier, the statistics I quoted in Promises to Keep, and the response was definite. No, the comic should not delve into such things; one board member was adamant that even knowing that the character of Scarlett might have been raped at some time in her past would cause him to change the way he looks at her entirely. She would cease to be Scarlett, the strong female warrior; she would only be Scarlett, who'd been raped. Hmm. That got me thinking about Snake Eyes; would he have felt the same way? Duke certainly seemed to, at least the Duke who spoke to me in that story. And this story became less about a rape and more about how rape affects the survivor (I refuse to say "victim" - the connotation is one of helplessness, and any woman who has survived a rape is anything but weak) and those around her. Thanks to TV for her ceaseless prodding to get this done. Couldn't have done it without you, cybersis.