Snake Eyes adjusted the television for the third time. Properly positioning the couch had been a nice distraction, but now there was nothing else to do. In the fifteen minutes he'd already waited, he had dusted the spotless room from top to bottom, cleaned his Uzis twice, and even scrubbed the tiles in the bathroom, all while trying to remember a time when Scarlett had shown up late before.
Why had he even accepted her suggestion? They'd broken off the relationship cleanly two weeks ago, but ordinary teammates didn't meet in the evenings like this. Of course they didn't. Not that he'd ever had a teammate besides her who knew about his secret enjoyment of so-bad-they-were-good kung fu movies.
A knock at the door, too authoritative to be a lost greenie but too quiet to be a CO, snapped him out of his nervous musings. He straightened his mask and opened the door slowly.
"Sorry I took so long. I stopped by the rec to get popcorn." Scarlett proffered a bag of freshly-popped microwave popcorn and a selection of movies. As he welcomed her with his usual sweeping gesture, he thought he detected the faintest spontaneous blush on her cheeks.
"So, what will it be?" She fanned out the movies in front of him. He took a minute to deliberate, then pointed to one. At least she was making it easy for him to communicate. Some of the team members still hadn't figured out that asking him open-ended questions would result in a blank stare due to his inability to answer well.
He chose a DVD and popped it into the slot. Thanks to Scarlett's tinkering, it skipped straight to the menu. If the FBI wanted to come to the most avoided room in a military base so secret it didn't technically exist to investigate a few instances of copying DVDs, he figured they could try all they wanted. Mostly it would create a tangle of paperwork for Hawk, but that was beside the point.
One press of the remote, and the blocky faux-calligraphy letters faded into some sort of exaggerated chase scene, complete with music too dramatic for the accompanying stumbling of the actors. Scarlett settled comfortably on the couch, taking a handful of popcorn and chewing slowly. Snake took the opposite side, nearly sitting on the armrest in order to afford space between them on the suddenly too-narrow seat.
She held out the bag of popcorn, but he shook his head. Popcorn wasn't on the list of soft foods he could eat. "Oh, I forgot." The redhead set the popcorn down, guilt written on her face. "You're off the liquid diet now, aren't you?"
He nodded slowly.
"But popcorn's still rough." She chewed a single piece and nodded as if she understood what it felt like for every breath, every motion to bring back the blinding pain of flames.
The ninja turned his attention to the screen, where a pair of 'kung fu masters' were swinging their arms at each other in excessively exaggerated series of blows that conspicuously stopped five inches short of actual contact. Scarlett chuckled, taking another handful of popcorn. "Think that one's called the drunken windmill?"
He fought to avoid attempting any sort of vocal expression of amusement. When the urge to cough had subsided, he nodded heartily.
"Oh, and there's the tilt." She slapped the arm of the couch as the actor onscreen wound up for his final attack, gazed cross-eyed into the camera deeply, and thrust three uselessly curled fingers at his opponent's neck. The hand hovered for a moment under the man's chin before he went flying backwards, only to collide with a wall, fall to the ground, perform one last dying gasp while clawing at the air, and fall limp.
Scarlett was in hysterics by this point, gasping out protests. "He couldn't even- did you see... his fingers- ten feet!"
Snake couldn't help but join, laughing for what he realized was the first time after the accident. Well, attempting to laugh. The actual noise was somewhere between a wheeze and a choke, and his throat promptly informed him that this was closer than it ever wanted to come to a laugh again. He began to cough and immediately tasted blood, doubtless from the invisible knives ripping at the remains of his larynx.
"Oh, god, Snake, are you alright?" Scarlett leaned over, patting his shoulder helplessly as he slowly caught his breath. He returned her hand to the couch cushion beside him and made an "okay" sign.
She turned back toward the television slowly, reluctant to believe him while he was still wheezing as if he'd personally taken the Flying Pig Claw killing blow.
After about a minute of acting interested in the movie while discreetly clutching at his throat waiting for the pain to subside, Snake Eyes stood from the couch. When he returned with a freshly brewed cup of tea, Scarlett relaxed visibly.
The movie had turned to a humorous training montage, including a few exercises that made him wonder if the Hard Master had been secretly inspired by these scenes. Somehow, all this balancing in absurd locations, hanging from trees by his ankles, and being hit with light wooden planks was supposed to be preparing the student for learning the Twisting Dragon technique, which was actually a butterfly twist and two punches.
"With a name like that, don't you think they could have come up with something a little better? I mean, even I can do that."
The ninja set down his tea, paused the movie, and reached for his pad of paper. "They did," he wrote. "The actors just can't perform a Twisting Dragon."
Her eyes lit up, reflecting the light of the screen as she looked up from the paper with a familiar thrilled expression. It was the reason they'd grown close in the first place; she was eager to learn anything he could teach. The students in their hand-to-hand classes lamented regular training and groaned at the mention of new techniques. Scarlett had returned for more humiliating, painful defeats day after day, copying what she could of his methods before he finally agreed to teach her. It was that determination in the emerald fires of her eyes that he'd quickly learned to look forward to. He was helpless against it, and that was what had finally convinced him to open up to her.
He rose from the couch, taking a precise stance in front of the television. Two breaths, and then he was arcing from step to step, striking blindingly quickly at the air in every direction. At some points he twisted through the air, appearing to float off the ground while maintaining the force behind dozens of strikes. In seconds the whirlwind was over, and he straightened and half-bowed in his lone audience member's direction.
She clapped obligingly and learned back from the edge of her seat, occupying the entire center cushion. He paused for a moment. Was she stealing his seat on purpose? Probably not. She looked quite comfortable as she toyed with the remote, waiting for him to sit.
"It's hardly kung fu," he carefully inscribed on his notepad before settling into the narrow space between her hip and the end of the couch. "And almost entirely decorative, but good practice."
She unpaused the movie to allow the protagonist to continue his bumbling attempts to acquire the misnamed move. Snake noted, to his minor discomfort, that Scarlett had shifted again, crowding him against the armrest. He reached for his notepad to politely request she keep to the proper side of the ex-girlfriend buffer zone, but paused when he realized that request would be hard to explain.
Instead, he lifted his teacup and sipped calmly. She hadn't taken the news of the breakup easily, only giving in when he explained that he'd lost interest in wake of the traumatic event. Despite regretting ever writing those words, he was thankful she responded as quietly as she had. In the tumbling wake of misplaced blame and regret, it was all he could to focus on that one distracting needle of sorrow, the one he could face first. It was shallow, but that was what made it bearable.
He supposed he should have considered himself lucky to have met a woman devoted enough to remove essential requirements like 'a boyfriend must possess a face' from her standards in his honor, but her devotion was foolish. He had nothing to offer now. It must have been pity that kept her pursuing him, or the idea that she owed him for saving her life, and he wasn't about to ask her to 'take one for the team' in the form of her entire romantic future. In a few months she would have come to her senses and left him decisively, reopening the wound.
The tea began to burn the back of his throat, and he realized he was sipping the hot liquid too quickly. In the back of his mind, he faintly registered the babble of the movie characters, arguing in overemphasized tones.
Then again, maybe he was wrong to lie to her. When he'd been unable to sleep even with Doc's strongest painkillers, he lay awake pondering this question. After all, the sting of regret was unnoticeable in the face of that level of pain. But his mind had been the very definition of muddled then.
What if... she'd taken the time to think over her choice, and decided there was some reason to stay with him? What if tonight was her expression of that choice? It was a hope he wouldn't allow himself to consider, but one he needed to stay sane. He'd been told dozens of times in the past few weeks to reach out, to communicate, to not withdraw into himself. To 'talk about his feelings,' though Psyche-Out had very obviously been avoiding the word "talk," among several others. It was, like most of the shrink's prescriptions, primarily - ahem - bullshit.
His mind wandered back to the redhead. Recently, Scarlett had been his only outlet for that sort of thing, and, on top of that, she made it appear acceptable to be overwhelmed from time to time. By leaving her, he was accumulating more sentimental mush at the moment than any amount of mind-cleansing meditation could keep up with.
He hated it when Psyche-Out had a point.
Still, he wasn't going to let his mild suffering interfere with what was best for the team. His decision stood, unless...
Scarlett's uncouth snort startled him out of his reflection. She was doubled over with laughter, shaking the entire couch.
"Did you SEE that?" she gasped, wiping tears from her eyes. He stared blankly at the screen, where a momentarily defeated protagonist was groaning and rolling on the ground. His momentary lapse in attentiveness went unnoticed as she recounted the failings of the scene. Had he really just allowed himself to get so lost in thought he missed his surroundings? Any of his masters would have had a fit if even a trainee on his first day had such a lapse. Or if that trainee had attempted the moves Scarlett was attributing to the movie's antagonist.
Mid-description, her stream of speech slowed. Her southern accent became quite noticeable as she trailed off, a sure sign of distraction, before it disappeared entirely and she paused the movie. Sometime soon, he'd have to remind her she was doing that again. It meant she was relaxed, or had been until she'd been distracted, but one day it could get her caught on an undercover mission. That wasn't a risk he would let her run, especially when it could be solved by an hour with Jaye.
"You're awfully quiet," she observed.
Was that an intentional prod? She looked sincere enough.
There was a long silence before she spoke again. "See, you didn't even complain about that. Not a twitch, even compared to recently."
He shook his head and removed the remote from her loose grip. 'It's nothing,' he tried to convey with a 'calm down' motion. She was right, but this was the worst time to bring it up.
Scarlett tilted her head - a move Snake knew meant that she suspected he was lying. "Snake Eyes..." her voice was quiet as she gazed at him, her green eyes filled with concern and... something else.
His outfit suddenly felt too hot for comfort, and he subconsciously wriggled to convince himself he wasn't going to spontaneously combust. He fumbled for the notepad and pen, and wrote on a fresh page. "I'm just fine, Scarlett. You need not worry."
Scarlett raised an eyebrow at the sheet of notepad paper. "If you say so, Snake," she said with a sigh. "I understand."
Snake was pretty certain she didn't. Had she ever been anything but one of the smartest, most beautiful people in the room? He mentally shook himself and pressed 'play' on the remote.
It took a few minutes for Scarlett to stop looking at him and watch the movie, but - eventually - she ended leaning against his shoulder familiarly, spent and gasping for breath between fading chuckles. This was how they normally sat, affectionately sharing a single couch cushion. She seemed to have forgotten the existence of a buffer zone entirely as she relaxed, resting her head lightly on his shoulder. It took quite a bit of concentration to not tense up.
Old habit, old habit. It's just an old habit. He feverishly repeated the phrase in his mind until a traitorous thought wriggled in; it couldn't just be old habit, could it?
Snake Eyes found himself leaning toward her touch ever so slightly. Before he could stop himself, he imagined giving in to temptation and letting her comfort him. She would listen- no, read- quietly, with that thoughtful, understanding expression. With one insightful remark she would get to the heart of the tangle he'd lost himself in.
He didn't even know if she cared to help, he reminded himself sharply, but he knew her better than that. Her interest was questionable, but he didn't doubt for a moment that if he hinted at his continued feelings she'd try her best to solve his problems.
Scarlett's subtlety had always been a game for him. He'd had her mostly figured out and took delight in reading her nods and winks. But she'd never shied away from telling him up front what she was thinking. If he just asked about the situation... no. That could wait. For now, he'd let her enjoy this uncertain night. For all he knew, it could be their last together. And she did seem to be enjoying his company, or at least his prowess as a backrest.
But if it was their last, he should tell her the truth. Not disruptively, no. Just a touch. A hint, if she wanted to pursue it.
She was nestled comfortably against his side now, her shapely legs drawn up onto the couch and half-wrapped in the blanket he'd set out as an afterthought .The third kung fu master of the film was training the protagonist with a combination of snark and humiliatingly simple yet back-breakingly difficult exercises that brought a smile to his lips with memories of the Soft Master. The young trainee was jumping around a sparse room, trying to stay ahead of the master as he smashed furniture behind him.
The absurdity was sending Scarlett into fits of giggles. Snake couldn't hold back a careful laugh of his own, and it came out as a painless, shaky wheeze. She turned to him, not bothering to mask her mild worry. "Was that a laugh?"
He nodded, and she smiled warmly. It still bothered her, he could tell, but less than he'd expected. And it felt good to laugh again.
Almost good enough to convince him to make a move. She was in a good mood; she would listen. But he would be interrupting the moment...
He groaned internally. He dimly recalled Tomisaburo teasing him about his awkwardness around members of the opposite gender, and about how he would love to be there when Snake finally couldn't get a certain woman off of his mind. "My prediction?" his brother had laughed. "You won't even approach her. Oh, no; it'll be the other way around. She's going to have to be the one who brings you out of your little shell of leave-me-alone."
Snake Eyes snuck a glance at the redhead. Oh, how right you were, Tommy.
He knew how to approach. He knew her. He just...
Before he could dissuade himself again, he smoothly wrapped one arm around her shoulders. Telling her the truth.
To his mild surprise, she accepted the gesture without pause. Onscreen, the master's voice, spouting stilted and mistranslated proverbs, faded into the background as Scarlett's hand came to rest over his.
Was it that simple? It couldn't be.
Scarlett closed her eyes in contentment as she pressed her head against his shoulder, obviously no longer interested in the movie. She released her breath in a slow sigh.
She sure made it look simple.
A/N: CO stands for Commanding Officer.
Shoutout to Kusari-Gama 61602 for tons of help motivating, writing, and editing. Her stories are awesome, so if you didn't come here from one of them, you should go check them out.
Special thanks to CrystalOfEllinon for letting me use the idea of Snake and Scarlett enjoying bad Kung-fu movies together. She's also an awesome writer; read her stories too.
Thanks for reading! I welcome reviews, especially constructive ones.