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.

Continuity: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, aka the Hamaverse, somewhere after issue 177. Forgive any small lapses... I don't usually write ARAH fic, but the snippet at the beginning wouldn't leave me alone.

Author's Note: As I write this, Scarlett, Duke, and Stalker have not yet joined up with Snake Eyes and the Baroness, and while Storm Shadow did escape from the hospital, he has not rejoined his sword-brother yet, either. This vignette assumes that after the Joe trio meets up with Snake Eyes and the Baroness, they together encounter the Blue Ninjas and take to the road following the battle, heading west. See IDW July 2012 solicitations to explain the choice of direction. I also erred in projecting Snake Eyes' grief over the loss of Billy - as Storm Shadow's apprentice, it would be Storm Shadow who feels the loss most keenly, and Snake Eyes really didn't have much to do with Billy, as Karama correctly pointed out on the JoeMommas Facebook group. My oops there - but Hama's Snake Eyes tends to take things to heart and angst over them anyway, so maybe I've a bit of wiggle room? Otherwise... assume a canon hiccup, please. :)


"Girls on the left, guys on the right?" They didn't look like tourists... not the average sort of tourist, anyway, the cluster of five at the far end of the hallway. Duke held two key cards while Snake Eyes checked the view from the hall-end window. Stalker kept watch in the opposite direction. None of them particularly wanted to be here... but they'd been driving for too long, and a third-rate motel on the outskirts of Las Vegas was as good a place to hole up for a bit as any.

The Baroness, of course, had make her feelings about the choice of accommodations perferctly clear. Now she sighed the sigh of one long-suffering, and Scarlett, who hadn't allowed the other woman from her sight since they'd made their escape, rolled her eyes.

"Ah... no." Scarlett shook her head. "One, that's way too 'Scooby Doo' for me. Two, just... no. Sorry, Duke. You and Stalker can chaperone our mutual friend. Snake Eyes and I have... catching up to do." She glanced sideways at the ninja, who moved away from the window. The Baroness sniffed, rolling her eyes in turn.

"Could you two be any LESS subtle?" she complained. Scarlett only smiled, but it was a smile with a slightly wicked edge to it.

"Jealous?" Unexpectedly, Snake Eyes laid a quelling hand on her shoulder. She glanced at him, one eyebrow arching, and he replied with a barely perceptible shake of his head. Her lips tightened momentarily, eyes flicking back to the woman in black - but the Baroness had stalked to the window, arms folded, back to the Joes. Shaking her head, she looked at her teammates. "Have fun with your slumber party, guys."

With that, she plucked a passkey from Duke's fingers, then brushed past Snake Eyes, trailing a finger along his chest, glancing back coquettishly as she vanished into the room.

Snake Eyes stood for two full heartbeats, regarding his three companions, before pivoting on his heel and following her.

"How does a guy in a mask manage to blush?" Duke wondered aloud. Stalker shook his head.

"Or grin like the cat that got the cream," he chuckled. "Well, roomies, let's let the kids have their fun. I'd say they've both earned it."


The door safely closed and locked behind him, Snake Eyes turned to find his lady watching him - not from inches away, as he'd half hoped, but from the edge of the bed, her face a study in mixed emotions. He stripped off his mask, moving to her in soundless strides, took her hands and drew her to him. For a moment their eyes locked, and he could see the worry she'd been hiding, the love that was his emotional true north, the constancy that balanced him. What, he wondered, did she see in his eyes?

She kissed him first, arms twining around his neck, and he could feel the tension in her diminish as he responded in kind, his own arms tightening around her, pressing her warmth to him. When they parted, neither moved more than a breath apart. She buried her face in his neck and shoulder, he nuzzled his rough cheek against her hair. Her arms were fiercely tight, possessive, as though now that she had him in her grasp again, she might well refuse to let him go.

His own embrace was no less than hers, feeling after far too long the release that he only felt when they were together. After far, far too long, he was whole again. Complete. They stood that way for timeless moments, allowing the days and weeks standing between them diminish, their bodies remembering one another's touch, their breathing falling into unison. He stroked her hair, fingers combing through it slowly, tenderly, a gesture that always settled her even as his own tightly-coiled muscles unwound, and she sighed - a small noise of relief, contentment. They did not speak... no words were needed. All that words could convey, their heartbeats, their most minute movements, their touch said with far more economy.

God, I missed you. I missed you so much.

I was so worried...

I'm sorry.

I love you.

Reluctantly, he kissed her one more time, then stepped back, caressed her face, and began the long process of removing and stowing his gear. Katana, thigh holster, weapons belt, baldric... as though protesting being removed from her touch, his muscles began to knot again. Scarlett returned to the bed, leaning against the headboard, drawing her knees up to her chest, watching him.

"It's not like you to stand up for the bad guys," she said at last. Her tone was muted, and he glanced at the wall separating the rooms, then at her. "You and the Baroness buddy-buddy now?"

She's on our side, he signed. For now. And... she's been through a lot.

"So have you," Scarlett countered. "So have we all." He felt a surge of irrational anger at her tone, though he knew she was not challenging him... still, her words fell like a dropped glove between them. She didn't understand. He removed his ammo clips with more force than was strictly necessary, placing them in the top bureau drawer with an audible thump. Behind him, Scarlett frowned.

"So tell me I'm wrong, then," she said, and now her voice was tighter. "Tell me that those blue ninjas took any greater toll on her, personally, than on us. Billy was one of ours, Snakes. They took him, they brainwashed him... just like they took and brainwashed you."

She's been through the brainwave scanner, too, you know.

"Is that supposed to make me feel sorry for her?" She had moved to the foot of the bed now, and he could see, out of his peripheral vision, how she was trying to catch his eye. He turned from her. "Snake Eyes, I can't talk to you if you won't even look at me. The Baroness was Cobra from the start. Why she's playing Benedict Arnold right now, I haven't a clue... but I don't trust her. And I want to know why you do."

She loved him, he signed, still not looking at her. Inside him, dark feeling was coiling like an angry snake. He did not want to be having this conversation. Why was she pressing him like this? Together again after how many weeks apart... and the first conversation is a badly-picked fight? She loved Billy.

"So did we," Scarlett answered, her voice catching a bit. "So did you." A moment's pause, then, "Is that what it is, then? It's about Billy? I'm sorry, but... it doesn't hold water with me. Whatever she and Billy had... whatever she felt for him... it was a lie, Snakes. It was built on lies. And you trusting her... bringing her in on this..."

Tommy would be dead if it wasn't for her! He turned toward her, eyes flashing, signing jerkily. I could be dead, if it wasn't for her! If the fact that Billy loved her isn't enough for you... isn't THAT?

"And what would Billy say, do you think, if he knew what was happening right now?" Her voice was soft, but insistent. Then, when he did not respond, her voice softened further. "You can't blame yourself, Snake. Billy's death wasn't your fault. I know that's what you're thinking... but it's not true."

His fingers fumbled on the holster buckle he was unfastening. His shoulders slumped, pain still far too fresh rising up in a tsunami. She was right, of course. After all this time, Scarlett knew the insides of his heart as well as anyone... even now, his inner voice protested that it WAS his fault, that she knew nothing of what had gone down that day, that she couldn't possibly understand.

That if he'd been faster, stronger, in a different position, more alert, that Billy wouldn't be dead, that Tommy wouldn't be in the hospital now. That if he'd insisted that they needed backup, rather than drawing into their exclusive clan of three, the odds would have been better. That he should have at least thought of the consequences before it had become too late.

He'd put his grief into a box, the way he had to in order to survive an op, but now, his defensive shields down, Scarlett's words chiseling away at the box itself, that grief demanded attention, surged out, threatened to swamp him. Grief, and worry for Tommy, and self-blame, and...

Scarlett was at his side then, hand pressed to his cheek, and he could see the tears in her eyes even as he felt them pricking at his own. Gently, she removed the holster from his hands, set it aside, drew gloves off hands that were beginning to tremble with pent-up emotion. She steered him gently to the foot of the bed, sat him down, then moved behind him, gathering him into her arms and folding herself around him, a living warmth, tangible comfort.

"It's okay, Snake," she whispered, lips brushing his ear as she spoke. "It's just us now... it's okay. You can't hold it in... you shouldn't... just let it come. Even badass ninjas mourn their brothers."

He surrendered to the grief then, felt it crest over him and break, tears stinging and burning down his face. He folded in on himself, curling into a fetal position and slipping to one side, cheek pressed to the mattress. Scarlett moved with him, holding him close, gathered into her arms, shielding him from the world outside even if she could not drive back the demons within.

Death. Too much death... too much. It followed him like a shroud, dogging his steps, waiting until he'd all but forgotten its malevolent presence before threatening to engulf everyone and everything that he allowed into his heart. His parents. His sister. His buddies. His Arashikage masters. Billy. It was as silent as he was himself, as relentless, a dark spirit shadow of himself, and inescapable.

My fault, my fault, my fault...

He sobbed soundlessly, ghosts of all those he'd lost swirling about his mind and heart. It never got easier... but, in the corner of his mind that could still formulate rational thought, he knew he wouldn't want it to. It would be a betrayal of sorts to those he had loved, to those who loved him, not to ache with the loss, with the repressed agony of it.

Dimly, he was aware that Scarlett was speaking to him, close to his ear, words meant only for him - murmurs of comfort and love, a low chain of syllables threading their way through his consciousness. Her arms held him tight, her smaller frame trying to absorb the wracking grief as he allowed himself to feel, as if for the first time, the full impact of Billy's death. The gap it left within him, the space that could never be filled, yawned before him, threatening to engulf him... but she held him back from that abyss, anchoring him, allowing him to look into the void without vanishing into it entirely.

Time slowed, lost all meaning, until finally, the tears were spent. The room, lit by sunset when he had entered, was now shaded in deep twilight. His body's trembling eased, then stopped. The choking, gasping sobs gone, his throat unclenched, feeling raw and aching - but it was the pain of a freshly-cleaned wound. Scarlett's hands still stroked him, gentled him, and it was only then that he was able to hear her own quiet sobs tapering off, feel the shuddering breath that was not his own beginning to ease.

As with so many things, she had ridden out the grief-storm with him, feeling his pain as her own. Of course she mourned for Billy - and certainly she worried for Tommy - but now, as he lay still in her embrace, he realized how much she must have been holding in, too.

There had been times... too many times... when her own missions had gone sideways, when he found himself powerless to help her. As satisfying as charging to her side was, it was not always possible. He hated that feeling. It was the nature of the life they had chosen together, but he didn't have to like it. He hated watching her head off into harm's way. Hated being apart from her even under the best of circumstances, hated feeling half of his spirit, his very soul, torn from its moorings, hated walking around pretending that he wasn't half of himself in her absence.

And Shana feels things so much more deeply than I ever could...

He unfolded his limbs, rolled to his back, felt her shift to accommodate him. One hand still rested on his chest, but she'd propped herself on one arm now, regarding him with eyes slightly reddened, cheeks a bit splotchy with her own tears.

Thank you, he mouthed, not bothering to sign. Reaching up, he brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, then traced her lips with a finger. She kissed the fingertip, brushed her own fingers lightly across his face.

"I missed you..." Her whisper was fragile, held together by sheer willpower. "I'm... I'm sorry about Billy, but... I missed you so much." He marveled at the raw emotion in that half-tone. How many years had they been together now? How many battles had they fought, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, back to back? And yet... whenever they were parted, whenever they came together again, there was still that so-appealing vulnerability in her, that softness and uncertainty.

You say that like you think I didn't miss you every bit as much. He covered the hand on his chest with his own, gazed deep into her eyes. Scarlett... Shana. What would I do without you?

"Let's hope you don't have to find out anytime soon," she teased, and he knew she was putting up her own walls, shielding him from her own pain. He put a finger to her lips, shaking his head.

Anytime, period. Her brow creased softly, and she lowered beside him, pressing her forehead to his. I couldn't do it, you know. Any of this. It would all fall apart if I didn't have you to come home to.

"We're not home yet, Snake."

Wherever you are... that's home enough for me. YOU are home enough for me. He leaned in, kissing her slowly, deeply, breathing in her scent, allowing their shared body heat to envelop him, willing everything away for that moment except her lips beneath his. Her responding kiss was warm and sweet, and when their lips finally parted, they were both slightly breathless. You are my EVERYTHING. Don't you EVER forget that.

"Do you ever think about... before?" Her eyes dropped from his. "Before Anabasis. Before Duke called us in. Do you ever..."

Wish that we'd packed up the cabin and headed off to someplace even a satellite couldn't find, where nobody could ever bother us? He smiled now. Wish that I could go back to having you completely to myself every day, every night, with no world crisis to fix, no missions, no blue ninjas or Cobra or god-knows-what-else? You really have to ASK?

"Yes. I really have to ask." She propped herself on one arm again, gazing at him fondly. "For no other reason than I really, reallylike to hear you say it."

Then I'll say it again. I wish I could go back to having you completely to myself... every day... every night... He slipped closer to her with each word, still on his back, and she giggled at his mock-stealth. She kissed him, allowed his hands to slip from her shoulders to her waist to her hips, gently urging her closer, until he could feel her heart thudding against his own chest and she was looking down at him through half-lidded eyes, her smile one that he knew all too well and had missed more than he would ever confess to her.

I wish... And now she tilted her head, one eyebrow raised, softly biting her lower lip as though trying very hard not to laugh. She adjusted her weight in a way that made his breath catch, smirked at his reaction, and did it again. I wish...

"Hmmm?" She leaned down, nibbling softly at his ear, his jawline, nuzzling his cheek and laughing softly as his hands slipped under the hem of her shirt, moving up her ribcage, fingers fumbling with the clasp of her bra. "You wish...?"

I wish hotel room walls weren't so damned thin, he managed, then gasped as her hands did a bit of exploring of their own. And she thinks... I didn't... miss her?

Scarlett only smiled.