The C 130's doors slowly opened. Scarlett winced as the sunlight streamed in. Joes unbuckled, hefted themselves to their feet, and slowly walked down the ramp. Scarlett could hear a commotion outside. She a glanced questioningly at Duke as she stood. He raised a blond eyebrow as he unbuckled his restraints. Although he attempted to cover it, she saw him wince as he pulled his big frame upright. She quickly moved to his side to steady him. Seeing her concern, Gung Ho came to Duke's other side.

"I'm fine. Fourteen hours in that seat is enough to make anyone stiff." Duke stood tall and smiled at both of them.

"That was one Hell of a fight, Duke." Gung Ho shouldered his XMLR-3A and offered Duke a hand. Duke waved him off.

"I'm OK. I mean it." Scarlett watched his blue eyes flick back to her. "Red, I'm fine. Just a little sore." He turned and walked over to where Snake Eyes and Bazooka kept guard over a still unconscious Serpentor. The Cobra Emperor was shackled, cuffed and chained to a stretcher and that chained to the superstructure- and still, Duke hadn't trusted that he was powerless. He'd ordered a rotation of Joes, two at a time and armed to the teeth on him at all times.

"Mutt, Junk, Bazook, any movement?"

"Nah. You hit 'em, Duke, they stay down." The dog handler shook his head at Duke. Junkyard barked.

She laughed. "Yeah, they all stay down when he hits them, but this is a long time, even for that."

"Not a peep, Duke." Bazooka popped his gum and shifted his piece to his other shoulder. "Not a shuffle."

"Hrm." Duke frowned. "Well, let's get him out and to the cell they've prepped." Scarlett grabbed a key out of her pocket and unlocked the chain from around the structure. Gung Ho and Bazooka each took an end of the stretcher and lifted the prisoner. The six Joes slowly made their way to the ramp, Junkyard skulking under the stretcher. Mutt kept his sidearm on Serpentor. Duke pulled his 1911 and chambered a round. Scarlett unslung her crossbow and aimed it at the Emperor's face.

"Let him move. I want him to."

She heard a warm chuckle and felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked back and into Duke's face. The glaciers in his eyes had melted, and the corners of his mouth pulled up, just enough for her heart to skip a beat.

He leaned forward to her ear. "My fiery little red fox has sharp teeth."

She smiled. He knew she could handle herself. She felt his hand slowly slide down her back, stopping just in time to avoid impropriety. "You put in all that effort and caught him, Duke. We might as well keep him."

He sighed and slowly let his hand slide away, nodding for her to move with the others. "You shoot him in the face, you'll kill him, Scarlett."

"I didn't say he needed to be alive, Duke."

He laughed again and waved her down the ramp. The commotion became a roar as they walked down the ramp and into the sun. The landing strip was choked with Joes. They saw the group coming down the ramp and howled. Duke made it to the bottom and was swallowed by Joes. If he hadn't been so tall, Scarlett would have lost him in the throngs. She watched him look back to her, eyebrows raised. Hands reached out from everywhere to shake his hand and slap him on the back. The crowd slowly moved him towards the main building.

"Help, Red!"

Scarlett laughed and waved at him as he was pushed along by the cheering mob, then dove into the crowd to follow her Field Commander, her partner, her quiet and gentle lover- across the tarmac towards where Hawk stood waiting for him. She watched as the cheering Joes swept the tall blond master sergeant up to the general, then ebb away from him like a retreating tide. Duke stood tall in front of Hawk, and gave a crisp salute. Hawk returned the salute, and then grabbed Duke's hand with one hand, his arm with the other. Scarlett reached Duke's side just in time to hear the General's last words.

"Good work, sergeant. Damn good job. You do your unit proud. My God! We've got him! I never thought I'd live to see the day. Duke!"

"Thank you, sir."

"Stand at ease, dammit."

"Sir." Duke slid into ease.

Scarlett saw the General's twinkling eyes light on her. She stood to attention and saluted him. "You, too, Scarlett. Well done!"

"Sir."

"Turn in your gear and grab a few days of down time."

"Sir, I need to appraise you of Roadblock's situation and give you my report." Scarlett watched as Duke's hand wandered up to rub his shoulder over the rip in his sweater. "I have no clue why the Commander would flee back into the mountains like that. There's nothing there. It makes me wonder."

"Come on then, son, got shower and clean up and then let's get it over with. Scarlett, you be sure to get a break! You've all earned it! Duke, I'll see you in my office in an hour." He strode away.

The crowd was slowly dissipating, many following Gung Ho and Bazooka as they carried Serpentor to the Maximum Security wing of the cell block. Scarlett heaved a big sigh and watched Toll Booth, Cover Girl and Clutch climb into the C130 to untie and unload the BET Vehicles and Pack Rats. It felt good to be back on base, as much her home now as anywhere else.

"Shatzi." His voice was hushed. She turned back to him. "I'll try to be done quickly. I will."

She stepped closer to him. Everyone seemed distracted. He saw it, too, or he would have never uttered the endearment. "I know. You work so hard. Give yourself a break. You look about ready to fall over, Duke."

His eyebrows shot up. "I do, huh?"

She looked into his face. Maybe he could hide it from others, but she knew him too well. His eyes were tight around the corners. Every so often, he rubbed a hand absent-mindedly over his arm; an old break long since mended that ached when he was exhausted. Duke Hauser was tired.

"Yes, my love, you do." Scarlett rested a hand on Duke's chest. She longed to pull him into her arms and hold him tight. "I'll turn in my gear and weapons and come by to pry you out of your office in an hour and a half."

"How do you know that's where I'll be?"

She laughed at him, and saw his tired eyes twinkle at the sound. "Call it a hunch. Hawk will be done with you by then. Then you're all mine, Conrad Hauser."

His grin threatened to split his face. "You can help me figure out where to fall over, Shatzi."

She circled a finger over his chest, smiled, and then left him to make his reports.

Scarlett reached the front of the line and handed the supply sergeant her winter gear. He handed her the receipt and went to stow it. She rubbed her burning eyes and sighed as she turned to let the next Joe to the counter. Dial Tone gave her a tired smile as she stepped around him.

"Home at last, hey Scarlett?" He slung his gear on the counter. "What you going to do with your downtime?"

"Soak for as long as I can in the hottest water I can find." She laughed. "Then I'm going to open a bottle of wine, lay back on a comfy couch and relax."

"Sounds nice." Dial Tone accepted his receipt form and crammed it into the pocket of his fatigues.

Behind him, Flint grumbled to himself. "Motherfuck it." He angrily flung his gear onto the counter, startling the sergeant. Flint crossed his arms and glared at the man. "Well? Don't stand there like a fucking moron, log it in." The poor man quickly scooted backwards, gear in his arms. He dropped a glove, bent to pick it up, and managed to drop the other one. Flint barked. "Pull it together, man!"

Dial Tone made a hasty exit. Scarlett grabbed one of Flint's suspenders and yanked. "Hey, secure it, Flint. Don't take it out on him."

"Don't take what out on him?"

"You know exactly what. It isn't his fault Jaye went with Roadblock." She reached for his arm. "She chose to go."

Flint snarled sarcastically and abruptly turned away from her, yanking his sleeve away right as her fingers brushed across it. "Leave me alone, Scarlett."

"Flint, pull it together. This shouldn't be a surprise to you. You should be used to it by now. She's a soldier. She does her job. Do her the honor of carrying on and doing yours." Scarlett put her hand on his back. She felt his muscles tense.

"Good pep talk, Scarlett, but you don't understand." He refused to face her

Scarlett could tell from his voice his jaw was tight, teeth clenched. She sighed. "I don't? You think I don't understand? I suppose I have no clue what it's like to see someone I love willing run headlong into danger?" She threw her hands up as she paced back and forth. "That's right, I forgot. Little old me has absolutely no concept of how it feels to worry about someone halfway around the world facing an unknown situation. I never have to lie awake at night wanting the one person who could be at that very moment fighting for his life to be lying next to me, holding me close. I haven't ever had to watch the one I love risk death. I have never wondered if the last kiss we shared would be the last one forever." She walked around in front of him and got right in his face, her finger pointing at his now surprised eyes. "That's right, Flint, you're the only person to know what that's like. I just wouldn't understand."

Flint took a step back, both hands up. "Ok, sorry. I'm sorry." He reached a hand up and grabbed his beret, slowly prying it from his head and slapping it against his thigh. "I know. I know you get it. You, of all people." He leaned against a wall, his head back. "She's just so far away. If something goes wrong, I can't help her. I can't even get there to help her. Thing's are supposed to get easier the more they happen. Why does it keep getting harder?"

Scarlett relaxed, feeling the flames of her fury die down as she saw his eyes glisten with restrained tears. She agreed with him; it got harder. The closer you got, the more you loved someone, the harder it got to see them face danger alone. The moment she knew Duke was more to her than an NCO and a partner was the first time she watched him fling himself into hand to hand single combat and her heart had leapt in her throat and dropped to her toes. It was as if the world was getting ready to snuff out. That was years ago, before she even conceived of the possibility of connecting with him. That had been nothing compared the anguish she had experienced as she watched him take on Serpentor a day and a half ago.

And yet she knew that to try and stop him would have been an insult to who he was. And who he was, was what made him so dear to her.

"It gets harder because the more you know her, the more you love her. Good bonds grow stronger, Flint. Stretching them hurts more. But you know she can take pretty good care of herself." She smiled. "She's with Roadblock. You, Duke and Roadblock have known each other a long time…since before Joe. You know you can trust him. She's with Quick Kick, Snow Job. Heck, Shipwreck. People don't give Shipwreck credit, you know, Flint. He may be the class clown, but he fights tooth and nail for his buddies. Dusty's there. He's got heart, Flint." She laughed. "Don't forget Snake Eyes. Who the Hell can get past Snake Eyes? It's just too bad Timber and Polly had to stay back."

Flint laughed. "Yeah. Right. She's as good as she could be up there." He stood and crammed his beret back on his head. "Well, let's see what I can keep myself occupied with. Thanks, Scarlett. That was, really, a good pep talk." Swagger regained, he strode from the room.

Scarlett thought about Timber and Polly. The big wolf and garrulous bird had not been on the Himalayan BET mission, by Duke's decree. Parrots never did well in the snow and Timber was beginning to show his age. He got grumpy when tired and had gone for Junkyard more than once on such occasions.

She knew it had been hard for Duke to order them to be left behind. His eyes had betrayed him as he grasped Shipwreck's shoulder.

"Look, she's just not built for cold weather. She'd be miserable; Ship, and you'd spend all your time worrying about her. I need you focused on the task at hand. Cover Girl said she'd look after her for you. She's safest here on base." He turned to Snake Eyes. "Old fighters deserve their rest. Junkyard's still young. Timber's put in his time. He's still a good guard on base, so let's keep him where he's at his best and can still help out. I can't have him wasting time and fighting with Junk. The last thing I need, really."

He had pretended it was for the best for the mission, but Scarlett knew; Duke had a soft spot for the animals. Every damn one. She had caught him baby talking Junkyard. She had walked into his office to find him rubbing Timber's belly, a huge grin on both their faces. One Monday football night, she had seen Polly sidestep off of Shipwreck, hop across the back of the huge sectional in the lounge, climb onto Duke's shoulder and, chuckling, cuddle up under his chin. And she'd be damned if the big tough soldier hadn't smiled softly and reached up to scratch the bird under her beak. Then there was the time she'd seen him kiss Freedom on the top of the head…

"Hey, Big Red. I'm 'bout to implode. How's 'bout we get a bite t' eat?" Wild Bill came up behind her. "Nothing makes me hanker for a feedin' more than a mission and a thirteen hour stint at the controls." He put an arm around her shoulder.

Scarlett grinned. The sensitive cowboy knew just what she was thinking. "Sure, Bill, I've got forty-five to kill. Let's go."

"You got it, Red. You ken catch up with yer big Yeller' Bear later on. I reckon he's hungerin' too." The grin lifted his moustache and his eyes twinkled behind his aviators.

"Bill…Honestly."

He laughed at her.

They reached the commissary to find it mostly empty, save a group of slightly nervous looking youngsters sitting on the far end. Five men and a woman and a dog, all looking exceedingly lost. They huddled together at a far table for camaraderie and comfort.

"Those must be the new recruits." Scarlett spoke over her shoulder to Bill. "They look a little abandoned." She grabbed a sandwich and shifted it to her tray.

Bill held a bowl for a serving of soup and grabbed a few rolls. " 'Member when we all showed up at base for the very first time, long ago? I seem t' recall a certain redhead lookin' more than a teensy bit worried."

"True, Bill. It was new and different. All the branches together, unknown enemy." Scarlett watched the short woman jump as Freedom flew in the doorway ahead of Spirit. She knocked over her glass, spilling it onto the lap of the extremely tall man next to her. He jumped up and quickly brushed off as much as he could. The short kid next to him handed over a wad of napkins.

"Well, they may feel intimidated, but they've got to be the pick of the crop." Bill led them to a table by the window.

Scarlett did a second scan of the group. "An MP with a dog-I hope he can get along with Timber and Junk, a martial artist, a Green Beret, Hawaii Five-o, Wilt the Stilt and a midget." Scarlett shook her head.

"Sort of peters out at the end there, don't it?" Bill chuckled. "Little one's a tunnel rat, for sure. I remember in Nam all the little guys got to go down into Charlie's little hidey holes. They were nasty, or crazy, or both." Bill sucked soup from his moustache. "He'll do fine as long as we find him someplace tight and dark."

"The others?"

"Duke picked 'em out, Big Red. I trust him to pick out the best. Man watches his own back. Heck, you and Jaye ran the security clearance on 'em."

"I didn't do the green beret." Scarlett finished her sandwich and drained her water.

Bill stared at her, his soup spoon stopped mid-air. "You sure? 'Cause Jaye told me it musta been you. She didn't run his file."

"No, Duke told me he gave that file to Jaye." Scarlett could remember that day clearly.


"Handle Arashikage, Lee and Provost, Scarlett. I'll give the other three to Jaye." Duke dropped the greensheets on his desk in front of her.

"Hey, isn't one of them a Green Beret, Duke? That Falcone kid. Must make you feel good, bringing another brother in the fold." Scarlett picked up the pile of papers and tapped it against the desk to even them out.

He looked at her in alarm. His face then slid into a smile she'd never seen before. "Uhh, Yeah. De Oppresso Liber, Red. Never hurts to have one more." He set his large hand over the kid's greensheet. "Right. Jaye can run his checks."


"You sure Jaye said I ran him?" Scarlett dabbed at her lips. "I distinctly remember Duke telling me she'd handle it."

Bill shrugged. "Only tellin' what I heard, Red." He glanced over at the new recruits. "Hell, everyone's ignorin' those poor kids. Let's give 'em a hello, Red."

"Sure, Bill, why not?"

They gathered their dirty dishes back on their trays, took them to the drop off conveyor and then walked over to where the new recruits sat. Five stood as they came up. The Green Beret stayed where he was, looked around him, and then slowly stood. Scarlett noted the bars on his collar.

Bill shook hands all around. "Good to see new blood on base, y'know? Call me Wild Bill. I figure I'll be one o' the guys hauling yer asses out of th' frying pan. This here's Scarlett, but then y'all knew that, didncha?"

The short Asian woman smiled shyly. "I'm Kimmi. People call me Jinx." She offered Scarlett her hand. Taking it, Scarlett found she had a firm grip. She remembered from the woman's file that confidence wasn't an issue.

The new Joes shook her hand in turn, introducing themselves one at a time.

"Brad… Call me Big Lob." Hi huge hand swallowed Scarlett's.

"Nicky, 'ma Tunnel Rat. They call me Tunnel Rat. Easy, huh?" On the other hand, this kid's paw was just about her size.

"I'm Chris, call me Law, and my dog's Order. Call him Order." He laughed and winked.

Scarlett shook the hand of the broad man in the loud shirt, but he didn't say a word. Tunnel Rat leaned in. "That's Chuckles. He don't say much. He's too busy thinking." Scarlett looked into the big man's eyes. She could tell that in there was a pretty quick brain. She guessed few people saw it.

She leaned forward and whispered. "It's easier if people underestimate you, isn't it, Chuckles?"

His eyes smiled at her, but his lips stayed neutral.

Then to the Green Beret. He was a brawny, dark-haired young kid with a pair of ice blue eyes. His face was split into a large grin. "Lieutenant Vincent Falcone. Most people mis-pronounce it, for some stupid reason. I'm Falcon whether I like it or not." He shook her hand firmly.

"And do you like it, Falcon?" Scarlett mused.

"It suits." He pulled the ends of his lips into a grin.

Scarlett paused. Something about that grin. Something about those eyes…The kid was familiar. "Have we met, Lieutenant? Were you ever in one of my past martial arts or hand to hand symposium classes?"

"No, I don't think so."

She didn't expect a 'ma'am'; the kid outranked her, but it might have been nice. In the Joes, rank tends to fall behind experience. She looked at the kid again, and couldn't shake the eerie feeling she'd met him somewhere before. "You sure? I swear I've seen you somewhere."

"Maybe in your dreams?" He winked.

Cute. Fresh. Scarlett heard a stifled giggle from Tunnel Rat. I wonder what Jaye found in his file check? She glanced at the clock on the wall. It was getting late, and she still wanted to stop back by her quarters to pick up a few things before she met Duke. "Well, anyways, good to see you on base. We could always use some new blood. Don't let Beach Head take the 'break' seriously when he breaks you in."

Jinx looked a bit nervous. Falcon put his hand on her shoulder. "Relax, it's a joke."

"I heard he don't use deodorant, he's so tough. The sweat's too scared to come out." Tunnel Rat rubbed his nose.

Wild Bill laughed. "If only that were true."

Scarlett waved as she moved to the door. "Later, Bill." The Cav man waved back. "Keep out of trouble, Rawhides."


Scarlett quietly knocked on the door to Duke's office.

"Come."

She pushed open the door to find him sitting at his desk in the middle of a darkened room, his desk lamp the only source of light in the room. His computer sat, unused, while he filled out forms on his old typewriter.

"Duke, Mainframe digitized everything. What are you doing?"

He looked up and, seeing her, smiled. "There you are, Shatzi. Did you get a little break?"

She shut the door behind her, put the bag she was carrying down and walked over behind him. "Sure. Took a short bath. Turned in my gear. Bill and I got a snack. I saw the new recruits."

"Oh? How'd they look to you?" He turned his chair slightly to look at her.

"Same way everyone looks when they first get here; lost." She laughed. "What's with that Falcon kid?"

Duke's eyes froze over, and the corner of his lip twitched. "What do you mean?"

"Well, he's kind of cocky, for one. But I swear I've seen him before."

Duke spun back to his typewriter and dove back into his form. "I can't imagine where, Red."

Scarlett shook her head. "Maybe I'm just imagining it." She stepped up behind Duke and began to rub his shoulders. She heard him grunt as she found a particularly tight knot. "Duke? The computer? Why aren't you using it?"

"I don't know. The monitor's fucked up. Stupid printer's jammed. No one's in IT. It's faster to type it out on this." He pounded away at the keyboard.

"Then Mainframe or some fobbit's going to have to spend extra time scanning it in." She moved her fingers to the back of his neck and worked a knuckle into another knot. She felt it relax, and heard him sigh.

"Right. Not my problem. As long as I finish it tonight."

"Did Hawk order it finished tonight?"

"…No."

"Does it need to be finished tonight?"

"…Probably not…" His fingers faltered. "Damn."

"So why are you finishing it tonight?" She slid her hands out from his neck and leaned forward, slipping them down over his chest while she rested her chin on his left shoulder.

"Because…I want it finished…tonight?" He sighed again. "There'll be more to do tomorrow. It's just a report of Roadblock's last check in. They're following them up the pass into nothing. I checked the maps. I checked all the maps I could find. There's nothing up that pass. Where are they going? Where are they leading my men?" His typing became more and more fervent. Finally he slammed his fist on the keys. "Where are they leading my men?"

Scarlett stepped in front of Duke, sat on the edge of his desk and blocked him from his typewriter. "Enough, Duke. You're too tired. You've been going for hours. You're stopping, now. No more work." She reached down and gently ran her fingers through his hair, then slid them down his cheek and under his chin. She lifted his face and looked deep into his blues. "You hear me, Top? You're done for the night."

"Red…"

"Nope, done." She slid off his desk and moved to his lap, putting a hand on each cheek. He needed a shave. But Scarlett loved the rub and scratch of his cheeks against her. "Done."

His arms slid around her. "Shatzi. If Hawk comes in…"

She held up a finger. "One: you and I and Hawk all know what's going on. He wouldn't do anything after what you've done over the past week." She raised another finger. "Two: he's not going to come in, I saw him headed out of his office to walk around and chat with everyone who came back. Then he's going to see Serpentor." She held up a final finger: "Three: in that bag I have your favorite beer, some massage lotion, and a bottle of linament. We're going to go back to your quarters so you can relax while I give those sore muscles a nice rubdown."

"Einbecker?"

"Yes."

"Ur-bock?"

"A whole six pack all for you."

"Rubdown, huh?" He slid his hands up her back. "In my quarters?"

"With oil and liniment." She sighed as she felt his fingers creep up into her hair. He was always eager after a battle.

"Do I get to rub you back?"

She laughed, and his face slid into a smile. "If you're good and stop filling in forms right now, I might think about it."

"Well, in that case…" He reached forward and flicked off his typewriter. Duke stood, picking her up as he rose and setting her gently back on his desk. Putting a hand on either side of her, he leaned forward to nuzzle her ear. She could still detect a faint whiff of battlesmoke and gunpowder lurking under the fresh soap. "Let's go to my quarters." His voice was a low growl more than a whisper. He came back to gaze into her eyes, then sneaked a soft kiss.

He stood and pulled her up after him. She fell against his chest and held him, feeling his strong arms wrapping around her to hold her tight. "Duke…you fight so hard. Sometimes it scares me."

He sighed. "I'm OK. I've got you now to take good care of me. And you take real good care of me, Red." He stepped back and grabbed her hand, picking up her bag and leading her to the door. "You take good care of me."

She was surprised that he held onto her hand as they walked from the offices to the barracks. Normally, Duke lived up to his promise to Hawk to be discreet. Something had made him a little bold. The sky was growing dusky and several Joes were changing shifts, those going off duty heading for the commissary and lounges. Those now on Duty crossed their paths on their way to the evening posts. It reminded Scarlett of the wolf and the sheep dog from old Warner Brother's cartoons, meeting at the timeclock.

Coming around a corner, they barely missed colliding with the Rawhides. Seeing Duke, they all snapped to attention and saluted, except Lt. Falcon, who crossed his arms over his chest.

Duke smiled. "At ease soldiers. You going off duty?" Scarlett recognized the brotherly tone Duke used when he was making the rounds of the troops to check morale. She liked to accompany him sometimes as he wandered through the lounges, checking in on his men as they kicked back. Not only did it endear him to the Joes, it seemed to help him relax.

"Yessir. Figured we'd head to a lounge, see a game play some pool. Maybe grab a beer or two." Big Lob's bass voice went with his smile.

"Don't call me 'sir', Big Lob." Duke tilted his head. "Never 'sir'. I work for a living."

"Sorry, Duke."

"That's better. Everybody settled in then?" He glanced over the six soldiers and scratched Order between his ears.

"Yeah, Duke. We've got it all stowed away neat and tidy." Tunnel Rat scratched his own ear.

"Scarlett says she and Bill ran into you in the commissary. So I imagine you've tried the food." He looked at Falcon, who, to his credit, stood up straighter. "It'll do, but it's not like home, is it?"

Scarlett was shocked to see Falcon boldly look Duke right in the eye. "No. Nothing like home, Duke."

Scarlett saw Duke raise his eyebrow and pull one corner of his lips back in a half grin.

"You have everything you need?" He spoke to the group, but Scarlett could see he was still looking straight at Falcon. He's a lieutenant. A kid, but a lieutenant all the same. Sometimes rank trumps experience, I guess. That kid probably has no real clue who he's talking to.

"Yeah. "

"Is Beach Head beating excellence into you?" Duke took a step back.

"He's a real bastard, Duke." Tunnel Rat spat.

Scarlett saw Jinx widen her eyes. "No, Duke, he's…well, he's-"

Duke laughed. "He's a bastard. That's his job. That's what I want him to be. I'll tell him to double his efforts. He should be a fucking bastard."

All six Rawhides look dismayed.

Duke laughed again. "You'll thank me for it later. Better toughen those hides up now. I don't want weak Joes. Weak Joes are dead Joes. You're not Joes yet, soldiers. Not till Beach Head tells me you're ready for me. Not 'till you prove yourselves to me on the battlefield. Not one second before then."

Scarlett grinned and nudged his side. "They look ready for it, Duke. I'm sure they'll step up and shine."

"That they do." He nodded to her, and then turned to grin at each one in turn, ending with Falcon. "That they will." He glanced down at the bag in his hand. "Well, carry on. I've got some relaxing of my own to do."

Scarlett heard Falcon make a clicking noise. He grinned knowingly. She knew Duke caught it, but rather than say anything, he winked at the kid.

What was that all about? She felt herself blush a little. She had been about to nudge him so they could go, but the almost imperceptible interaction between both men made her feel more than a little self-conscious. Duke wasn't normally the type of man to crow about his leisure activities. Maybe it's a Special Forces thing.

She turned to go and he followed her.

"Duke…"

They both turned to look back at the Rawhides. Jinx had stepped forward. "We wanted to say…you brought Serpentor down. You brought him in…that was awesome…" She suddenly snapped to back attention and saluted him again. The other five Rawhides followed suit.

Scarlett smiled at Duke when he glanced at her. He smiled back at her, then turned and returned the salute. "Thank you Arishikage. But it was just my job. Brute brawling and luck. Luck was on my side." He waved as he turned once again and nodded to Scarlett. "C'mon Red," He whispered. "I'm ready for that beer and that rubdown you promised me." This time, his wink was for her. "I'm getting kind of hungry."

Scarlett couldn't help but smile at him. "You want a little dinner?"

"Well, that too."

Scarlett laughed and gave the Rawhides a final nod as they walked towards Duke's quarters.

"Luck is always on the Joes's side with you here, Duke!" Big Lob hollered after them.

Scarlett heard Duke chuckle. They walked past a few picnic benches between barrack buildings. She watched as he reached out and knocked twice on the table top as they walked by.

There was no one in the passageway when they got to his door. Scarlett glanced around to make sure as Duke reached into his pocket for his keys. He opened the door and, casting a swift glance down towards Flint's door, wrapped his strong arm around her and guided her in.

Scarlett took the bag from his hand and went right to the galley kitchen, hearing the jingle and clatter of his keys on the coffee table. She stripped off her gloves and stowed it in the fridge, leaving one bottle on counter. Then she grabbed lettuce, bread, a block of cheese, mayo, and a tomato and set about making him a couple of sandwiches.

She was slicing cheese when she felt him come up behind her. His arms slid around her and pulled her back against him. She felt his breath tickle the back of her neck as he lifted up her ponytail and leaned down to nuzzle her. He lightly nibbled, and Scarlett couldn't help but sigh. He responded by pulling her against him tightly and kissing her shoulder. He'd removed his bandolier and unbuttoned his uniform shirt, and she felt his bodyheat through his t shirt. Scarlett put down the knife and reached up to stroke his head. His hands began to slide over her, exploring. One slid up her stomach to gently caress a breast.

"Duke. Don't you want to eat? When's the last time you've eaten?" She sucked in her breath as he nipped her shoulder. "I know you're hungry."

"Ummm hmmm." He moved to the other shoulder.

Scarlett managed to stack everything together into two sandwiches, wondering to herself why she was taking the trouble, when she really just wanted to fall into his arms and let him have his way. She put both sandwiches on a plate and covered them with a paper napkin as he nibbled her collarbone.

After their first night together, she had been happy to discover that Duke came home from missions, particularly from tough battles, more than a little keyed up. The tougher the battle, the more he wanted her. Something about a good fight turned him on. Making him wait just made him more eager.

Reminding herself of that, she managed to take control of her own desires. Turning in his arms, she pulled him down into a deep kiss, sliding a hand under his shirt and caressing the hard muscle of his abs and chest. He almost purred as she trailed a finger slowly down to his belly button. Scarlett was back in control.

She ended the kiss and leaned back to look into his passion-glazed eyes. "Go on, go sit down on the couch. Take off your boots and eat." She handed him the beer and plate of sandwiches. "Let me clean this up and I'll be right in with the lotion and liniment."

He pretended to pout and followed orders, walking back out to the living room. Scarlett put the food back in the fridge, washed off the knife, and wiped down the counter. She reached in the bag for her things and then went out to him, flicking off the kitchen light on the way out. He was already starting in on the second sandwich by the time she put her bottles on the table, slid out of her boots and sat down. The radio was on and tuned to a soft jazz station.

"I thought you were hungry." Scarlett took a sip of his beer and watched him wolf down the second sandwich. "That should keep you going."

He wiped his hands and mouth on the paper napkin, crumpled it, and tossed it on the plate. "Thanks, Shatzi. That hit the spot."

She offered him the bottle and he took it, smiling, and took a long pull. He sighed. "Ahhhh, that, too." He took a second pull.

Looking into his eyes, Scarlett took the bottle from him and set it on the table. "Take off your shirts, Duke."

He happily complied, slipping out of his uniform shirt and then pulling the black undershirt over his head. He ran his fingers through his short blond hair then relaxed back into the couch and tried to pull her to him. Scarlett took in the hard muscle, the few scattered tattoos and the collection of scars that testified that Duke Hauser was a man who had seen more than his share of action on the battlefield. The blond hair on his arms and chest wasn't too heavy. Scarlett couldn't stand a hairless man, but she wasn't about to put up with a bear, either.

"C'mere, Scarlett." He tried to pull her in, grinning. She laughed and fought off his hands.

"Lie on your stomach, mister grabby. Sometimes you make me wish we hadn't destroyed the Horn of the Sirens."

Duke grumbled, but obeyed, mumbling something under his breath about already being horny. She slapped him gently as he stretched out, resting his head on his crossed arms.

"This will be worth it, Duke." Kneeling next to the couch, she squeezed a little lotion on his back. He yelped.

"Hey! That's cold!"

"Hang on." She began slowly massaging at his shoulders, digging in deep when she felt a knot. For a few minutes, Duke alternated between grunting and sighing as she worked out the tension. She worked down his shoulders to his lats and then down to the small of his back. The grunts gave away to the occasional sigh. Slowly, as she kneaded and caressed, he began to relax. She heard his breathing deepen and slow. Scarlett slid her hands from his low back to his shoulders and back several times and then stopped. He wasn't asleep, but he was close. His eyes were closed, his face calm.

Scarlett smiled at her man. It had been tough. Keeping things discreet, finding time for each other. Watching him throw himself into yet another dangerous situation, wanting to stop him. Knowing he was worrying as she found herself fighting tooth and nail. But the terror and fear of losing him was matched in strength by the joy of the time they carved out for each other. From a gentle smile and a soft caress on an arm to a long night of passion and everything in between, Scarlett knew she was deeply in love with this man, and that all the pain and worry was worth it.

As she gently stroked his head, she thought back to the beginning, when her stomach jumped and her heart fluttered at his smile. When she had only dreamed of falling into his strong arms and resting her head against his chest. She had heard rumors of his reputation from other soldiers; Duke was a dog on the prowl. The man of reputation and the man she knew didn't match. The man she was beginning to know as a partner was warm, considerate, and polite to a fault. The man soldiers gossiped about was always on the hunt. The Duke she was flirting with more and more shyly ducked his head when she smiled at him. The Duke they talked about screwed 'em and left 'em wanting more.

Scarlett was brought out of her memories as Duke stretched and sat up. He smiled at her, and her heart skipped a beat. "Thanks, Scarlett, that was good. I feel really mellow." He reached over, took her hand, and pulled her up to sit on the couch next to him. Scarlett relaxed against him, resting her cheek on his bare chest. His arms slid around her and he kissed the top of her head. She sighed and cuddled closer. Something slow and full of saxophones was playing on the radio. They sat quietly, and Scarlett returned to her musings.

Selena had made her worry the rumors were true. She had pulled back from him after that. She'd spent a lot of time thinking, trying to remember if he'd ever actually responded to the slave girl's fawning. Not that much that she could see. In fact, he had made sure that she was around whenever Selena was until both she and Ramar were transported home. She'd never asked Duke, and he'd never volunteered if anything happened behind closed doors. At the time, Scarlett hadn't wanted to know. Now, she didn't care.

She had been home in Atlanta when he was blown off the oil platform, and, after agonizing for a few days, cut her leave short to rush back to base when she heard he'd slipped into a coma. Sitting by his side, holding her breath for any sign of consciousness, she'd almost poured out her heart. If Nurse Matthews hadn't kept coming in, she just might have laid it all on the table.

Scarlett absent-mindedly ran her fingers over Duke's pecs. Back and forth, around in circles as she thought back to how the chemistry between them had slowly re-built. When the roster had doubled, and Lady Jaye had fallen for Flint, Scarlett had felt jealous. It was so easy for them. So simple. But Duke held himself back from her, blocked by frat regs and something else. She knew he felt it. She had caught him staring at her more than once. It occurred to Scarlett that she had stopped hearing rumors about Duke and other women around about the time he came back from the leave Doc forced on him after the coma.

She felt Duke rub her back, and it brought to mind a day by the pool a few years back. She'd decided to go for broke and buy the daring black bikini Jaye and Cover Girl had teased she'd never wear. Scarlett had peeled off her cover-up before lying on a chaise. Clutch lost his footing on the diving board and flopped into the water. Duke, enjoying a rare afternoon off duty, grinned appreciatively and acquiesced when she asked him to help her cover her back with sunscreen. She had heard his breath quicken as he lingered perhaps a bit too long over the application. Suddenly, he was excusing himself, remembering a call he needed to make. Scarlett had watched him leave, wanting his hands to still be caressing her skin.

Then, there was that night on the balcony in India, falling each other's arms and damning frat regs to Hell… and everything was OK. Scarlett remembered how they had snuck secret dates: dinners, walks, movies-more and more often ending in fevered make out sessions. Eventually a passionate night in California had sealed the deal.

"What are you thinking about?" Duke's voice was soft. He smiled lovingly down at her.

Scarlett returned his smile and reached up to play with the hair at the nape of his neck. "Santa Monica."

"Ahh, yes. The Prominade. Dinner. The beach." He leaned down and stared deep into her eyes. His hands slid up to release her hair from the elastic band holding it back. He gently brushed a few strands out of her face. "The hotel." He leaned down and kissed her.

She felt his tongue begging entrance, and opened her lips to him, sighing as he explored her. She met his passion equally, kissing him back. They parted, and he nuzzled her and caressed her back.

"Scarlett, I'm still hungry." Duke growled in her ear, nipping at the lobe.

"Oh, are you?" She lay back on the couch, reached up to grab his dog tags, and pulled him down to her. "Come here, big guy."

He chuckled. "Getting' bigger, too."

They kissed again, and their hands eagerly exploring each other. His erection nudged her as he moved over her. Scarlett felt his fingers slip around to the back of her uniform and tug on the zipper. She lightly traced her fingers down his back. "Mmmmm, I can tell."

He struggled with the zipper and grunted in frustration. "Why am I the only one topless here, Red?"

She laughed against his neck, then nibbled his ear, making him groan. "Conrad…make love to me."

He stood suddenly, picking her up quickly. "You're wish is my command, Red." He carried her into his bedroom, kicking the door open and tossing her on his bed. Scarlett looked up at him as he unfastened his belt. He climbed onto the bed and slowly crawled over her, looking down with lust-glazed eyes. "Shana…"

Scarlett thought her heart would burst from loving and wanting him. She ran her fingers through his hair and brought him down to her. "My love…" The kiss was deep, hot and passionate. His tongue thrust through her lips to fence with hers. She lightly scratched her fingernails over his back. He moaned in her mouth and reached back again, this time finding success with the zipper. Scarlett was amazed at the speed with which he could undress her when he felt the need. Then there were the nights he liked to take everything nice and slow.

But not tonight.

In no time her hungry lover had peeled her out of uniform and underclothes. She smiled seductively up at him as he kneeled above her, taking everything in. His wolfish grin made her heart pound. She could see his arousal pushing against his fatigues. She reached up and unbuttoned them, slowly lowering the zipper. He closed his eyes as she reached inside to caress him; he was rock hard. His eyes opened, and he glared at her lustily, pushing her back as he lowered himself over her. He shoved his fatigues down and kicked them off, followed by his boxers. Scarlett smiled at him. Duke Hauser was well-built in more ways than one.

"Hmmmmm. Looks like someone's come fully to attention." She caressed him softly.

"Oh God, Scarlett…" He fell on her, growling low and nipping and licking his way to her breasts. He caressed and squeezed one while he laved and nibbled the other. She held his head and arched up to him, moaning. He filled his mouth and suckled. How her man loved her breasts. The first time his hand had softly and questioningly touched one, Scarlett had known he was a breast man. They had met each other for a drive in-movie, ditching one car at a public lot in town. Scarlett never could remember what the movie was. She'd rewarded him then with a sigh, and he had very happily focused his attentions there for quite some time. As he was doing now. Duke nuzzled between them both, tickling and squeezing her nipples with his fingertips to make them harden. Back then, she'd had to slow it down, she wasn't yet ready for intimacy with him. Now, Scarlett groaned huskily and urged him on.

He growled and continued down her body with his mouth, his strong arms lifting her up to him. Scarlett sucked in her breath as she felt his lips hesitate before the red curls at the apex of her thighs. Grunting, he moved lower, and she gasped when she felt him gently open her legs and explore her with his mouth. Scarlett twisted and gasped. He'd never done this before. Something in him was making him bold tonight. She arched and sighed as she felt his tongue and lips work in tandem, waves of pleasure washing over her. Scarlett knew she was close, and closed her eyes, gasping, as he tentatively penetrated her, then licked to where she was most sensitive. She moaned and purred. He focused on flicking his tongue over her, and Scarlett rewarded his efforts, cooing and rolling under his ministrations. She felt him kiss and suckle, then flick again. The tide of her pleasure surged and built. Then it all came crashing down, and she held his head and loudly cried out his name as she came. He moved back over her as she relaxed down to the sheets, floating.

"Did you like it? What I did to you? Was that good?" She opened her eyes to see him looking down on her excitedly. He sounded like a little boy.

"Couldn't you tell?" She kissed him deeply.

"Oh yeah, I watched. It was beautiful. You're beautiful." His hands once again found her breasts. She felt his erection rub against her thigh as he positioned himself between her legs. "I'm not done yet."

Scarlett traced a finger down his chest, over his abs and down to where he was ready for her. "Duke. When I see you fight, it makes me want you." This wasn't the entirety of it- it also made her terrified she'd never see him again; but telling him that wouldn't help either of them. If Duke were to hesitate in a fight for fear of upsetting her…it wasn't what he needed to hear. "It makes me want you to take me right then and there."

The look on his face told Scarlett it was the exact right thing to say. Duke kneeled and his hands on her hips, and pulled her up to him so he could guide himself where she was hot and wet for him.

He paused, and Scarlett looked up to see his ice blue eyes scan slowly down her body possessively. Although she constantly reminded Duke she could take care of herself, and asserted herself as an equal, it secretly gave her a thrill when he claimed her like an animal smelling her heat. She saw him reach across to his bed stand where he kept his condoms. She stopped him, running her fingers slowly from his hand up to his shoulder. He looked down on her questioningly.

She smiled. "Love, you don't need those anymore. A few months ago, I had Doc put me on the pill. It should be safe by now." It had been a bitch, taking pills along with her on missions, but she had managed, against the odds, to remember to take one every damn day.

"The pill?" Duke's eyes lit up.

She reached down and caressed the tip of his cock, feeling it twitch under her touch. "Mmmm hmm."

He raised an eyebrow. "No more rubbers?"

Scarlett circled her fingers around him and guided him back to her. "Nope. Not unless you want to keep wearing them."

"Hell no!" Grabbing her hips, he quickly thrust himself into her with a groan.

Scarlett felt him spreading her with his girth, his warmth slipping up until he bottomed out. "Duke!" He always filled her to overflowing. Scarlett had never had a man raw before. The few intimate liaisons she had experienced before Duke, she had insisted on condoms. She could feel more of the heat from his thick, long cock as he pulled out and then slowly spread her again. She mewled and sighed. "Oh, Love, I love to be full of you."

"Oohhhhhh Goddddd, Scarletttt…" He growled through clenched teeth. "Fuck yeah!"

Scarlett almost laughed at his response, but was stopped when he started stroking her with long, sweet thrusts of his hips. He let go of her hips, resting one hand next to her head and sliding the other up to a breast. "Mmmmmm, Conrad. You like?" She rocked her hips to match his rhythm, and tightened herself around him. Years of martial arts training had given her muscle control all over.

His blue eyes opened. He grinned down at her. "I like a lot." He increased the strength of his thrusts and leaned down to kiss and nuzzle her. "I…like…a …whole…lot…ahhhh, fuck. You're tight."

Scarlett stretched her arms over her head languidly, wrapping her legs around his waist. "Don't stop." She sighed. "You're so good, my love. Don't stop." She put her arms around his neck. "Conrad…just let go and do me." Sometimes, making love was better dirty.

"Shit." He began to hammer into her, panting. He growled as he thrust into her over and over, bracing his hands on the mattress to either side of her head and driving the bed repeatedly against the wall. "Shana…oh damn, this is …fuck!" He leaned forward and kissed her demandingly.

Scarlett felt it all start to build again. He was out of control and she loved it, because she was the cause of it. He lifted her knees to his shoulders and pounded into her. She gasped as she felt the length of him over and over, as he crashed into her. She felt the pressure suddenly break, and she was coming again. She grabbed his hips closed her eyes and let the world know that Duke Hauser had taken her to heaven. She floated up in the clouds.

"Shana, Shana…you're gorgeous…when…you…come." She could tell from his increase in speed that he was very close. "Oh, Hell. Oh, Hell. Shatzi!" She heard the sound of their bodies slapping together as he was lost in his own pursuit of pleasure.

And he was there. Six powerful thrusts as he released himself in her, grunting-and he was spent. He lowered himself on to her, dazed, and Scarlett held and caressed him while he hung in the aftermath of his climax. He lay with his head cuddled up against her bosom.

"My love. I love you so much, Duke. My Duke."

"Mmmmmmm." He sighed and came to. Rolling off her, he got up and went to the bathroom, coming back with a warm damp washcloth, offering it to her.

Ahhh, there's a more down to earth side of sex without condoms. It was like the many little considerate things he managed to come up with for her-realizing a need before she did and taking care of it. However, there was a little twinge of sorrow as Scarlett realized he knew what she needed because he had been with more than one other woman in his life.

The twinge was washed away as he slid back under the covers and pulled her to him. "Shana…my Shatzi. That was…that was increadible. You're amazing. How many Emperors do I have to clobber to have that again?" He kissed her.

Scarlett slid her fingers through his chest hair and played with his dog tags. "None. You never have to do anything for me to want to make love with you."

He smiled lovingly into her eyes. "Shana. Little Feisty Red Fox, I love you. Do you know I'm all yours?"

Scarlett happily snuggled up under his chin and held him close. "Mmmmmm." She knew it was true. No matter what the rumors were. Forget what he'd done in the past. Duke Hauser was her man, and she was his woman. That's all that mattered.

They fell asleep in each other's arms, exhausted.

He woke her later that night for a repeat performance, placing her on her hands and knees and pounding into her from behind, hands moving from her shoulders, to her hips, to her breasts, then down to tickle and flick right above where he entered her. They climaxed together, and she felt him collapse on top of her. Eventually, he rolled to one side and spooned her, his deepening breath tickling her ear as she slipped into slumber.

She woke him the third time, climbing atop him and riding him slowly, his hands cupping her breasts, their eyes locked they called love to each other. When she came, he held her up and quickly thrust into her, roaring and tumbling into climax right after her.

The fourth time wasn't as pleasant. Scarlett was jerked awake by a holler, and turned to see Duke sweating, his eyes clenched tight. He grunted and twisted his head to one side. He was having a nightmare again. It happened most nights.

"No. No. Stop…du tust mir weh! Don't…gehen Sie weg…stop! STOP!" He roared and sat up. His eyes were open, but she didn't think he was awake. He shuddered and stared at the wall. "….Pappa…"

Scarlett sat up and held him. He was trembling. "Shhhh. Duke." She murmured in his ear. "Its OK, I'm here. You're safe." Scarlett stroked his head. "It's all right, Duke." She brought his hand to her lips and kissed it over and over.

He turned to her, blinking. "Wha-Red?" He shook his head, then looked back to her. "Ah. Yeah. I'm sorry, Red. I did it again, didn't I?"

"Sorry? Duke, don't apologize. Come here." She lay back, pulling him down after her. He self-consciously settled back to the mattress, and she wrapped her arms and legs around him, stroking his chest and shoulder. She nuzzled his neck and murmured into his ear. "Just relax. Everything's fine. I'm here with you. Relax and go back to sleep. Sleep, Duke."

He sighed and held her tight. She kept nuzzling and caressing, murmuring comfort until his breathing slowed and deepened to the familiar rumble of his slumber.


For once, she saw the morning sun before him. She rested on his chest, listening his heartbeat. His arms were wrapped tight around her, one hand cupping her buttocks, the other tangled in her hair. She listened to the light rumble of his breath. Looking into his face, Scarlett saw he was smiling in his sleep.

She carefully pushed herself up, his hands slipping away, to check the wound on his shoulder. It wasn't hot, and didn't seem to be inflamed or puffy. He'd lucked out on a battlefield stitch job and field dressing and avoided infection. When glanced down, she saw he'd awakened and was looking up at her. He suddenly smiled. God, she loved his smile. His real smile, not the one he put on for the throngs of reporters they'd had to face, or visiting brass. The smile that spread across his face when something pleased him. The smile she saw when he looked at her.

"Good morning, gorgeous." He slid his hands down her back and squeeze her buttocks. "You were amazing."

She rested her head on her arms atop his chest. "Mmmmm, so were you. I like it when you're all over me." She felt him stir under her.

"You do, huh? You like it?" He put his hands under her arms and pulled her up. "You like driving me crazy?" He chuckled and kissed her.

"Oh yeah, Big Boy, I really-crap." She'd glanced at the clock. "Is that the time?"

He looked over at the digital display and sighed. "Yeah, it is. Damn. I have to be on in an hour." He rubbed her shoulder. "I could make you a quick breakfast. I have toast and eggs and…well, I have toast and eggs." No Joe with a refrigerator ever kept much stocked in it. Food had a habit of going bad over long missions. He stretched under her.

"I thought Hawk gave you some downtime." Scarlett sat up. She looked down on his well-muscled body, tracing his Special Forces tattoo.

"He asked if I'd do a half day kind of thing." Duke sat up, kissing her again and squeezing a breast as he slid out of bed. "I rather stupidly decided to do it in the morning."

Scarlett noticed he walked a little stiffly to the bathroom and turned the shower on. "Why'd you do that?" She called to be heard over the sound of water.

"I have a thing to do in town this afternoon." He stuck his head back out the door. "Do I have to shower all by my lonesome, Shatzi?"

She grinned and slid out of bed. She saw his eyes shine with appreciation for her approaching body. Other parts of him were signaling approval as well. She was wet before she reached the shower.

He climbed in after her, lifted her, and hungrily thrust in, biting her shoulder. It was rough, it was frenzied and it was just what she needed to finish off a perfect night. Scarlett wasn't sure, but she thought she'd screamed "You're mine!" a few times as she'd come. Or had that been him?

Afterwards, he held her under the spray whispering softly in her ear. "My Shana. I love you. I love you so much…stay with me. I'd die if you left me. I'll never stop loving you. My girl." She was shocked and touched. Duke was rarely so open with his feelings for her.

"I'm not going anywhere, Duke. Nothing could make me."

They stood like that for a while, and then the water ran cold and forced them to climb out. He shaved while she brushed her teeth with the toothbrush that had long since taken up residence next to his. He brushed his while she dried her hair with the dryer that had come to join her toothbrush.

"Let's go to the commissary." She decided as she got dressed. Yes, she kept a few sets of clothes in a space he'd made for her in his dresser. Better than showering and putting on a dirty uniform. The women all shared a single living space with separate bedrooms. Duke, being senior, had his own small flat. Not that he hadn't snuck into her bed a night or two.

"The commissary it is." He buckled on his bandolier and smoothed his hair.

"I'll leave the massage lotion. I never did get to use the liniment".

"Hrm. Maybe tonight?" He grinned. He opened the door to the passageway and took a quick glance outside. For Hawk's sake, they tried to keep their dalliances discreet. Or at least tried to look like they were trying to keep them discreet. Pretty much everyone had figured it out by now.

He nodded to her, and she followed him out. They walked together through the barracks to the commissary.

"So, what's this 'thing' you have to do in town, Duke?"

He glanced at her. "Oh, just something. I made the appointment a few weeks ago. Glad we got back in time for it, really."

She wondered. It couldn't be a medical thing, he'd just go to Doc. What is it?

"You're not seeing a doctor, are you Duke? Something Doc can't handle?"

He looked over, eyebrows raised. "No. Not at all. Well, it does involve needles, but you don't need to worry."

"Not a blood test?" She waved to Cover Girl as the tank driver left the women's quarters and jogged to meet them.

"Blood test? You going for a marriage license, Duke? Scarlett didn't come home again last night."

Scarlett's heart jumped. She wasn't sure she wanted to enter into that discussion yet.

Duke's ears reddened and he glanced nervously between Cover Girl and Scarlett. "Ahhhhhh. No." His eyes looked worriedly into hers. "I'm just. Well, to be honest I'm getting another tattoo, that's all."

Scarlett wasn't sure if she was relieved or disappointed. She felt more than a little angry at Cover Girl for putting them in the spot where she had to figure it out. But the answer in itself was an interesting one. Duke had a few tattoos. He sported a Special Forces tat on one arm. A pale fenris wolf adorned his shoulder blade, with his last name underneath. The rabbit kit on his flank seemed incongruous to all those who saw it, but Scarlett had wormed its meaning out of him. Duke had the tattoos, but he'd never gone to get ink in the entire time she'd known him.

Cover Girl smiled. "Going to Smitty's, Duke?" Cover Girl had one or two small tattoos, herself.

"But of course."

Plenty of Joes liked tattooing, and they'd all eventually figured out the best shop in town. It was clean, all three artists knew what they were doing and the prices were fair. In fact, Joes got a discount.

Scarlett wondered if the artists had fought over who got to ink Duke in their chair. Footloose, a connoisseur of tats had told her that they all "collected" Joes, giving extra points for Joes of higher renown or rank. A greenshirt was good. Footloose or Gung Ho better. Snake Eyes extra. Any of the four top Joes would be a coup.

They reached the commissary. There was already a line. "Whatcha getting?" Cover Girl grabbed a tray. "The new unit tat Rock N Roll designed?"

Duke shook his head. "Not telling. You might find out later." He smiled at Scarlett.

Across the room, she saw Hawk look up. He was eating with Flint. He beckoned to Duke, who saw the summons as he was grabbing a bowl of oatmeal and a plate of scrambled eggs.

"Sorry, Red, I have to go. He looks like there's something important."

"Not an issue. I've got a few reports to make, myself." She grabbed a bowl of fruit, a carton of yogurt and a cup of granola.

He touched her shoulder and turned to stride over to where the General sat.

Cover Girl instantly turned to her, a worried look on her face. "Oh GOD! Forgive me, Scarlett! Sometimes I open my mouth and something stupid falls out."

"Don't worry about it." Scarlett laughed lightly as she poured herself some coffee and led them to a table in the corner. "It's not that I haven't started thinking about it." She had. Usually, her thoughts took her to the same place. What if they married and she lost him? She couldn't imagine him leaving the service, or even Joe. Scarlett was pretty certain she wasn't entirely ready to give up her own career, either. And yet, there was certain permanence a ring provided, a permanence that was growing more and more tempting as she fell more deeply in love with him.

"So you both have talked about it?" Cover Girl sat across from her and ripped open her tiny box of cereal, dumping it in the bowl and splashing it with milk.

"I didn't say that." Scarlett mixed everything together and took a bite. "I haven't brought it up, and neither has he."

"Oh." Cover Girl looked glum. "Sorry."

Scarlett laughed. "It's OK. Really! I'm pretty happy with the way things have been going."

"You should be, you're absolutely glowing, and he has that mellow look that only a night of getting properly laid can give a man." Cover Girl grinned and took a bite of cereal.

Scarlett smiled to herself, and Cover Girl laughed. Looking across the crowded tables, Scarlett saw Duke rub his head in frustration. He looked angry. He and Flint stood and saluted as Hawk left, and then sank back in their chairs in deep conversation. Something's wrong.

"To tell you the truth, I don't think you're the only one. That new kid Jinx came back to the rooms looking more than a little rumpled." Cover Girl grinned wickedly. "I saw more than a few love bites peeking out from her collar."

Scarlett raised an eyebrow. "Really? Did you get anything out of her?"

"No, she's kind of shy. She went right to bed." Cover Girl "But she didn't need to. I saw her wandering off with that Lt. Falcon right after The Cosby Show."

"Ahhh, the kid. Not a good idea to start screwing around so early on here. But who am I to talk?"

"Whatsoever do you mean, Scarlett? You are pure and wondrous."

Scarlett snorted.

"Well, let's just say you certainly didn't jump right into it, now did you? My GOD, how long did it take? But it looks like Falcon doesn't just ignore Frat Reg, he damns them to Hell and back. Well, apparently Jinx, too." Cover Girl looked at the door. "Speak of the devil."

Scarlett looked with her and saw the Rawhides come in from a morning PT with Beach Head. They looked worn down. The balaclava sporting Drill followed them in. He bullied them right through the line and to a table. Order skulked underneath next to Law. Scarlett watched as the soldiers sat, and Beach Head got in each of their faces. Big Lob, Law, Chuckles and Tunnel Rat stared straight ahead. Jinx looked down at her tray. Beach Head reached Falcon, and the kid managed to look bored. He actually rolled his eyes. Most of the commissary was now watching as Beach Head bullied himself to within a half inch of the Green Beret's face and bellowed loud enough for the whole room to hear.

"Don't yew roll yer eyes at me. Yew call yerseff a Green Beret, boy? Don't mek me laugh. Yew think you ken run better'n me? Fight better'n me?"

Scarlett could see the rebellion flash through Falcon's eyes from all the way across the room. He turned and met Beach Head's glare with a grin. "Well, I certainly smell better."

You could have heard a pin drop. Then Beach Head exploded.

"Yew motherfuckin' waste of space! I will tear yew a new one just so I c'n shove both my boots up yew!" He grabbed Falcon by the collar and swung him away from the table. The kid got tangled up in his chair and fell with a clatter.

A loud roar, scrape and bang cracked through the room. Scarlett and about twenty other pairs of eyes turned to see what had caused the noise. Duke had bolted to his feet, kicking his chair away so hard, it shattered against the wall and put a hole in the plaster. Scarlett saw his fists clench and recognized the familiar stance. Duke was heated and ready to brawl. Scarlett watched him work his jaw and knew from experience that a low rumble was making its way up from his chest to his throat.

What has gotten into you, Duke? Beach Head's doing his job-the job you asked him to do.

Both men faced off across the room. Duke blazingly angry, Beach Head confused, but standing his ground. In a couple of seconds, the tension would snap and things would come to a head.

Then Flint stood, placing a hand on Duke's shoulder. Duke shook it off, but seemed to be listening as Flint talked him down. The warrant officer looked over at Falcon as he talked, shaking his head. Scarlett saw the tension slip from Duke's body. Flint put his hand back on Duke's shoulder. The big First Sergeant turned to face him, nodding once, and then glanced back at Beach Head and the Rawhides.

Falcon picked himself up and brushed off his camos. Beach Head let the kid sit down, one eye still on Duke, who was gathering up his dishes.

"All right, you six, eat fast. We've got more work to do." The Ranger went to fill his own tray. To Scarlett's surprise, he went right up to where Duke and Flint were preparing to leave. The three men talked quietly for a while, then Duke and Beach Head shook hands. Beach Head sat down to eat, and Flint walked with Duke towards the exit.

They passed Scarlett and Cover Girl's table on the way. Scarlett reached out to stop Duke. "What was that about?"

His blue eyes met hers, and he shrugged nonchalantly. He was trying to hide something, but she couldn't tell what. "Oh, nothing. Just a little on edge. Roadblock's missed a check-in. Three more, and I have to actually consider them MIA."

Scarlett looked to Flint. The poor man must have been worried, but he hid it well. "Flint…"

"I'll be OK."

Cover Girl stood and put a hand on his back. "Hang in there, Flint. I'm keeping fingers and toes crossed."

"She's tough. Lady Jaye's a tough woman. Besides, one missed check-in could be anything."

Cover Girl patted his back comfortingly. "Sure. They probably lost track of time. Or maybe the weather's interfering."

Flint tried his best to smile. "Right."

Scarlett turned back to Duke. "But what was all that?"

"All what?"

She waved over to where a member of the kitchen crew was cleaning up the bits of chair and assessing a hole in the plaster. "That."

He tilted his head and smiled. "Stress? Yeah, that's a bit embarrassing, isn't it? I'll pay to replace the chair and fix the wall. Heck, I can fix the wall myself, come to think of it."

"Ummm…" She could see he was keeping something back from her. Why would he go ballistic? Sure, Beach Head let the kid get to him, maybe was a bit rough-but Falcon had clearly been smarting off.

"Look, I have to go and get a bunch of paperwork and planning done, then go to town. I'll see you sometime late afternoon? Early evening? This particular ink could take some time."

"Sure you don't want Scarlett to come and hold your hand, Duke?" Cover Girl crossed her arms and grinned.

"Nah, she doesn't want to sit around a tattoo parlor all day."

"I'm sure she'll see it later, anyhow."

Duke stared Cover Girl right in the eye. He blinked once. The corner of his mouth pulled back into an amused grin. "I'll let her fill you in on the details then, shall I?"

Flint laughed and Cover Girl nodded, playing along. She had known Duke as long as Scarlett and was able to read his moods reasonably well.

Scarlett stood to clear her own tray. Duke leaned over to whisper in her ear. "I'll be thinking about last night all damn day long. Hell, I think I'll be thinking about it the rest of my life." She smiled as he straightened.

Scarlett stepped close to him so she could slide a finger down his bandolier to his belt unseen by anyone but Flint and Cover Girl. "The best it yet to come, Top."

Duke's smile grew wolfish again. Scarlett felt part of herself melt. He snapped back into soldier mode. "Flint, with me." Flint nodded and both men strode out of the room.

Scarlett happily considered the proposition of a full day to herself. Flint and Duke, sadly, had to work at least part of the day, but the rest of the Joes back from the Himalayas had been granted a full day off duty. She turned to Cover Girl. "I have a whole day! A bunch of time with nothing I have to do."

Cover Girl stuck her tongue out. "Lucky. I have to help Toll Booth and Crank Case go over the vehicles you guys tore up in the Himalayas. It'll take days to get them back to snuff." She shook her head as they both turned to leave. "Seems that I've got that Jinx for at least one shift. Apparently, she's got some skill as a mechanic. I'll pump her for details on her walk with Falcon. So what do you plan on doing with your free time?"

Scarlett smiled wistfully. "First, I'm going to climb into bed and take a long nap."

"Yeah, I figure you didn't get much sleep last night."

"Shut up. Then, I'm going to grab a book and a pitcher of sweet tea and go lounge by the pool as long as I can stand. Then I'll swim, and then lounge some more."

"Sounds awesome. I'm jealous. I'll come and wipe some grease off on you in revenge."

"Don't you dare you grease monkey. But do come fill me in on the juicy details you pry from my fellow martial artist." They parted ways, Cover Girl turning to head to the motor pool and Scarlett continuing back to the women's quarters.

Cover Girl waved over her shoulder. "Will do."


Scarlett shut the door of her apartment in the women's quarters. The Joe barracks were set up almost like college dormitories. The higher up the command structure, the more privacy a Joe had. In some clusters, lower ranking Joes shared sleeping quarters, two to a room. Main lounges existed in the hallway. A good number of Joes had individual sleeping quarters clustered in groups of three or four around a living room and kitchenette. Higher up, Joes like Slip Stream, Ace, Wild Bill, Stalker, Beach Head Flint and Duke had small apartments. Hawk had a small house away from the rest of the Barracks. It was where Colonel Sharpe stayed when he came on base, before he retired and Hawk came on post full time.

Scarlett and Cover Girl had started out sharing one of these flats. Lady Jaye had moved in later. Scarlett noticed Jinx had moved in when Scarlett was in the Himalayas. She now occupied the fourth bedroom, which had been empty for quite a while. Apparently she had little to hide; she'd left her door open. Walking by, Scarlett saw the room was neat and tidy, unlike Cover Girl's danger zone. There was a Fishbone poster on the wall opposite the door.

Scarlett went into her own room, opened the window, stripped down to her underwear, pulled down the covers and climbed into bed. She lay on her back, spread-eagled, closed her eyes and heaved a huge sigh, happy to have the entire apartment all to herself. Peace and quiet. She rolled over on her side and looked at the picture in the frame on her bedside table. Stalker had managed to catch Duke unaware. He'd just finished pressing, and had sat on the weight bench between sets in his black tank and gray sweatpants, elbows on his knees, his hair mussed with sweat. A second before the shutter had clicked, he'd noticed the ranger and his camera, and looked up, half grinning. Three seconds later, he'd sworn and thrown his gym towel at the photographer, laughing, and lain back to finish his final set. It was the Duke she knew. The Duke not everyone got to see.

Scarlett had expressed such admiration for the print that Stalker had given her a copy with a knowing wink. When Duke had seen it, one of the few times he'd snuck into her room, he'd blushed.

"How long has that been there, Red?"

"Not too long, you remember when he took it."

"Well…" He rubbed the back of his neck. "Wow. I didn't think…you have a picture of me? By your bed?"

"Sure, handsome, why wouldn't I?" She pulled him into a kiss.

A few minutes later, she had the man himself. In her bed.

Feeling like a schoolgirl with a crush, Scarlett flopped to her back and sighed. How great is it to be in love? A cool breeze blew in the window. Scarlett stretched and closed her eyes and was soon asleep.

She was awoken by a crashing sound and a curse from the kitchen. She slid out of bed and changed into her bathing suit and found the sun lotion. Scarlett had always had to take a little extra care in the sun; redheads burned easily, and not just with temper. She grabbed her hat, glasses and book and crammed them into a beach bag. Then she slipped into her cover up and sandals and left her room.

Jinx knelt in the kitchen, sweeping shards of something into a pan. She looked more than a little frazzled. Scarlett bent down to help her, carefully picking up a few of the bigger chunks. When the floor was clear, Jinx dumped the whole lot in the trash can. She smiled at Scarlett.

"Thanks."

"No problem. What happened?"

"I have an hour before I need to report to the motor pool. I thought I'd come back and just sit with some tea." She nodded to the kettle on the stove. "Genmaicha. Just something to relax. I dropped my younomi."

"Well, that's not all bad. You can help yourself to a mug from the cabinet. We have plenty of them. They seem to come out of nowhere." She reached into a cabinet and found a large mug with a smiley face. She handed it to Jinx. "There. That won't hold your tea with as much style, but it'll hold it."

The young woman smiled. "Thank you." She dropped a bag into the mug, then hesitated with her hand on the kettle. "Would you like some?"

"Sure, I could go for some tea." Scarlett took down another mug, this one announcing Garfield hated Mondays, and set it in front of Jinx, who opened a second bag and dropped it in and poured hot water into both mugs Scarlett added two heaping spoonfuls of sugar.

Jinx picked up her mug and dunked her teabag repeatedly, looking around the shared living quarters. She met Scarlett's eyes and smiled.

"Hey, why don't we sit down for a bit? I'm not in a rush to the pool." Scarlett waved at the couch, and Jinx nodded. Both women went to sit.

"It must be nice to have a whole day off." Jinx looked into her tea. Scarlett wondered if she found any answers there.

"I'll say! I don't mind having a day with absolutely nothing to do." She blew across her mug, then tried an experimental sip. "Not bad. Not bad at all. I know Beach Head is riding you all hard, but it really is worth it. This isn't a cake walk post."

"I know." Jinx sighed. "Actually, I don't mind. Not really. I know he's getting us ready. I've lived through training with tough Drills before. I did sort of thing I was done with all that. Oh well." She drank some tea and smiled at Scarlett. "He's underestimating me, I think. I've got stuff to show him. I'm not here by some fluke."

Scarlett nodded. "That's the attitude. You'll be fine. It could be worse, you know. It could be Duke."

"Duke? He seems pretty relaxed. I wouldn't mind it if he were training us."

Scarlett laughed. "Yes you would. He ran four Special Forces schools. Flint and Roadblock were in one of them. Ask either of them about it; he can be an absolute bastard. And he'll smile at you half the time, which makes it worse. He'll work you till you're dead and do it again the next day, and the next, until it takes longer for you to die. When you can end the day just wishing you were dead, he's satisfied. When you end it wishing he was dead, he's thrilled."

Jinx looked surprised. "Oh. He came across totally different."

"He is, really. But you'll see shades of it in a battle."

"Oh." Jinx shifted as she put her tea down, and Scarlett saw the hickies under her collar.

"Not to be rude, and it really isn't my place, but be careful with the boys on base. You know how they can be."

Jinx blushed and pulled up her collar.

"Look, I imagine you've heard stories about me and Jaye. I'm not stupid enough to know that people don't talk." Scarlett saw Jinx look down, and then nod once. "It's true, by the way. But neither of us fell into it, and it hasn't been easy." She caught the other woman's eye. "I'm not going to say you can't do it, although I'm supposed to, since I've got rank on you. It wouldn't be fair for me to. But be careful. This Falcon kid doesn't strike me as particularly serious."

"You knew it was Falcon?"

"Well, I do for sure now." She laughed at the woman's discomfort. "Cover Girl has a big mouth. Lots of Joes do. Get used to it. If you are going to do anything, try to be discreet, and pray like Hell he is, too." She finished her tea. "Frankly, I assume people are screwing like rabbits around here. Most of them just manage to keep it quiet. Stay safe, too. Make sure he keeps it covered."

Jinx's blush deepened. "But we didn't…It didn't go that far."

"He'll keep trying. Soldiers are the biggest horn dogs out there. All of them." She thought back to last night and smiled. "Like I said: be careful."

"Sure." Jinx finished her tea and looked at the clock. "Crap! I've got to change and get to the motor pool!"

"Go. Change. I'll take care of the mugs." Jinx started pulling her PT shirt off before she got to her room, and Scarlett got a second look at the hickies. How great is it to be in love? Smiling, she took the mugs to the sink and washed them, leaving them in the rack. She found her bag and headed to the pool.

She set her bag down next to a chaise, donned her hat and glasses, slid out of her cover up and stretched out. The sun felt good after the cold Nepalese Himalayas. It was warm, but not unbearably so. Scarlett reached back into her bag and cracked open her book.

She stared at it for all of half an hour before she lost interest and let it drop to her stomach. Alpine, Leatherneck and Bazooka were also spending their day off in the pool. She watched Alpine and Bazooka taking turns doing cannonballs in an attempt to knock Leatherneck off of his inflatable lounger. At the very least they were getting water into his beer. Dial Tone wandered past and sat on the chaise next to her.

"Hey Scarlett. Did you enjoy your wine and relaxation on the couch last night?"

She sat up and smiled. "Sure. I had a good time. I'm feeling pretty relaxed right now, actually."

He leaned back, doing his best to look nonchalant. "Great! Always good to have a day off. A break. Hey, you now, a bunch of us from the mission thought we'd celebrate catching Serpentor over at Joe's. Wanna come?"

Joe's was a local bar and grill on the highway, just outside of base. It used to be called "Moe's", but the enterprising owner had ordered a new letter for his sign when he realized the potential profit pony he had living just up the road. It was slightly divey, but the Joes loved it, and adored Moe. The feeling was mutual. He provided them with cheap draught beer, liquor and greasy food, and they paid both his kids' way through college. Moe almost retired when Zartan and the Dreadnocks tore the place up a year and a half ago, but Duke ordered the Joes to go and do all the repairs. Moe thanked him by ordering a beer from his distributor that Duke actually liked.

"You know, I think I just might. That sounds like fun."

"Just keep her away from the whiskey." Clutch plopped down on her other side.

"Shut up, Clutch." She glowered.

"Oh, come on, Scarlett. It was great. You should really let loose more often." He grinned.

"Let us not speak of it again." Scarlett couldn't live that one night down. She'd spent the next day alternating between bed and the bathroom, the next week in absolute remorse and embarrassment.

"And I thought you Irish could hold your liquor."

Scarlett held up a fist. "Keep talking if you want to be picking your testicles out of your teeth. I'm not sure which I'm kicking, but they'll end up together."

"Okay, okay. Geez. You're on edge. Maybe you need a drink?"

"Clutch!"

"Fine. I'm going swimming." He took two steps and dove in.

Scarlett turned to Dial Tone. He held up both hands. "I'm not going to bother asking."

Scarlett smiled sweetly and sat back. She closed her eyes and basked in the sun's rays. She couldn't but help remember. It had been her birthday. She was all set up to wallow in a comfy sweater and a pint of rocky road, but the girls had grabbed her, forced tight jeans and a dangerously low cut top on her and dragged her to Joe's, where everyone leaped out from behind something and yelled at her as she came through the door. If she'd been armed, she'd have shot them. All of them. Several times. Especially after they sang "Happy Birthday, You're Getting Old!"

Curse Rock n Roll forever.

When asked what she wanted, Scarlett had decided on Whiskey. She liked the occasional tipple, and she didn't want to get all bloaty with beer. Everyone wanted to buy her a drink. Every Joe. There were a lot of Joes, especially after the first time the roster doubled. Ever so many Joes.

She had been worried at first, but after the fourth or fifth round, it seemed a whole lot easier. They kept cheering her after each round. Her friends, the bastards.


"You having fun, Scarlett?" Lady Jaye leaned over from where Flint had his arm around her.

"Oh yeah! This is great!" She smiled happily. "Best birthday ever! Hey Duke!"

He was late. Poor Duke. Held down by paperwork and late for the fun. Poor Duke. Just got back on base after a three week leave to find everything had piled up on his desk. Poor tall, muscular, blond, blue-eyed Duke. Poor strong, well built, dreamy Duke. Was it hot? It seemed hot, all of a sudden. He stopped by their booth and smiled down at her.

"Happy Birthday, Scarlett! Sorry I'm late. Washington wanted the tallys by yesterday."

"You can make up for it by buying me a drink." She smiled at him.

"Sure! Hey Moe!" Duke waved at the old man behind the bar. "Gimme a rum and coke and get the lady whatever she wan-"

"Whiskey!" The whole bar cheered as Scarlett hollered her order.

"Um, bring the lady a whiskey."

Moe shrugged and went to fill the order. Scarlett reached up and tugged on Duke's shirt. "Sit down, Golden Boy."

Duke raised an eyebrow. Then a wide grin split his face. He sat. "How's your party going, Red?"

"Fan-fucking-tastic, Duke. You know, I was a little down about getting old. I mean down."

"You're like, what, twenty seven now?"

"Shhhhhhhh! It's a secret." She missed her lips with her finger the first time. "Shhhhhh."

"Oh."

"Yeah. Anyhow, I was real down, but my friends," She pointed to Lady Jaye and Cover Girl, who held up their drinks in salute, "my fucking amazing friends, they dragged me down here and everyone jumped out, and here we are. Look, they even helped me put on this outfit."

"I see."

"Do you like it, Duke?"

"Oh yes, it's very nice." Duke handed Moe a folded bill when he brought the drinks and waved away the offer of change. "Just bring me another round in a little bit."

Scarlett circled a finger on Duke's chest and down his arm. She stared up into his eyes. "Do you really like it, Duke? Tell me."

Duke took a sip and smiled at her. He seemed amused by something. "Sure."

"I don't normally wear things like this. It's very revealing."

"I can see that."

"Would you like me to wear things like this more often?"

"Ummm. Not on duty, maybe." He cocked his head to one side.

Shipwreck walked by on his way to the pool table. Scarlett waved madly and yelled. "Shipwreck! 'Wreck! Ship! Hey! Thanks for the whiskey!" Everyone in the bar cheered on "whiskey." Lady Jaye and Cover Girl raised their glasses and roared. Flint just shook his head and met Duke's amused grin with one of his own.

Shipwreck stopped and reached over to high five Scarlett. "You got it, Doll."

"You are, without a doubt, the best sailor I have ever met. I mean it. Even though you pinched my ass on the Flagg. I am utterly sincere. I love you so much. And you too, Polly. Hows about we go for that spaghetti sometime?"

Shipwreck eyed Scarlett and turned to their NCO. "Duke?"

"Scarlett's blasted." Duke smiled and took another sip of rum and coke. "Enjoy it while it lasts." He eyed the sailor. "You pinched her ass?"

"Later." Shipwreck disappeared.

A song started up on the jukebox.

"Ooh! Prince! I love this song! Let's go girls!" Scarlett climbed over Duke to get out of the booth. Cover Girl and Lady Jaye joined her and all three hit the space optimistically called "the dance floor" where they proceeded to bump and grind to "When Doves Cry". Scarlett danced by the pool table and snagged Wild Bill's hat, donned it, and looked to where Duke was still sitting. He was lounging, one arm along the back of the booth, the other resting on the table near his drink. He watched her with an amused grin that occasionally slid into something else. Scarlett decided to dance just for him. All three women started singing.

"Touch if you will, my stomach. Feel how it trembles inside. You've got the butterflies all tied up-don't make me chase you, even doves have pride."

Flint dropped his face into his hands. Duke's shoulders shook. Someone handed Scarlett another whiskey, and everyone cheered.

The next thing she knew, she was in the back of Cover Girl's car. For some reason, Flint was behind the wheel. It was only a short ride back to base. Pretty soon, the car pulled up beside the women's barracks. Scarlett heard a door open. Hands reached in and tried to grab her.

"Leave me alone, I'm trying to sleep." She slapped them away.

Flint's voice came from behind the girls. "You got her?"

"No, she's being difficult."

Flint crouched down and leaned in. "Here, Scarlett." He grabbed her wrist. She lashed out with a heel. "Ow! Lord! Fucking Christ, she got me. Scarlett, I was trying to help!"

"It's comfy back here. Lemme sleep."

Flint reached for her again, then had second thoughts.

"Why is this taking so long?"

Scarlett smiled to herself. Duke.

"She kicked me! I think she broke my thumb."

"That's because you let her, you pussy. She's tiny. I have no clue why this is taking you all so long." Looking out the door, Scarlett saw Duke crouch down. "Scarlett, it's late. I need you to hit the hay and Bill wants his hat back. Stop being a pain and let's go."

She held her arms out to him. "Carry me!"

Duke stood again, and his head disappeared. "Flint…"

"I think you'd better, Duke. She doesn't look like she could make it on her own. I just watched Jaye and Cover Girl stumble back to their apartment. It took them three tries to find the door to the building. She's had at least double what they put away."

"I realize that. Just keep your mouth shut about this, OK?"

"Everyone saw her at the party."

"I don't mean the party Flint," Duke crouched and half climbed inside. She held her arms out again, and he slid her towards him, then slipped an arm under her knees and another around her back. She hung on to his neck and buried her face in his chest. "I mean me carrying her into her quarters. Come on Red. Bedtime."

She smiled at him. "About time, cowboy." She took Bill's hat off and dropped it on Duke's head.

"Oh man, she's gone."

The MP stopped them. "Where you going, Top?" Scarlett waved at him. He raised his eyebrows and waved back, looking at Bill's hat on Duke's head.

"I am escorting sergeant O'Hara home, Simmons." Scarlett reached into his shirt and pulled out his dog tags.

"What's the 's' stand for, anyway?" She traced the lettering.

"Why are you escorting her, Top?"

"She seems to have temporarily lost the ability to walk, Simmons. I assume she will regain this lost ability sometime tomorrow. Flint will be assisting me in assisting her to a comfortable resting place until she recovers."

"No, seriously, what does the 's' stand for?" She pulled on his tags so she could see them more clearly. He made a slight choking noise.

The MP looked her over, then shrugged and stepped aside. "I'll come check things out if I don't see you come back through in 20 minutes, Top."

"Fantastic, Simmons."

"Just doing my job, Top."

"Yaaay, Simmons! Good job!" Scarlett cheered and waved to him over Duke's shoulder as he carried her down the passageway, Flint in tow. She looked back up at Duke. "Gosh, you're strong. You've carried me all this way as if it was nothing."

He glanced down at her. "Uh huh. I want you to drink a few glasses of water before you go to sleep, Red."

"OK, Duke."

They reached the apartment. Flint knocked gently.

"Open up! It's me! The Birthday Girl!" Scarlett sang happily. Lady Jaye opened the door. She was already in a robe.

"Hey guys, there you are. I knew you'd get her in here. Nice hat, Duke."

"Thanks." He pushed past her. "Which room is hers?"

"Second door on the left."

"Follow me in, Jaye." Duke carried her to her room and waited for Lady Jaye to open the door.

"Why?"

Duke shot her a look.

Scarlett put her hand next to her mouth and whispered. "He's worried the MP will find out he was in my bedroom alone with me. It's too naughty."

"Oh, yeah, sorry." Jaye opened the door and Duke carried Scarlett in.

"Pull back the covers, Jaye." Lady Jaye complied and Duke gently lowered Scarlett to the sheets. He tried to stand up, but she had firm hold of his dog tags. "Scarlett, let go."

"She needs water, let me get her some." Jaye wandered out, shutting the door partially as she left.

"Jaye! Wait!" Duke tried again to stand, but Scarlett refused to let go. "Red, let go of my tags now." He reached up and took off the hat, dropping it on the duvet.

"Not 'till you tell me what the 's' stands for." She giggled.

"Sebastian. Happy now?"

"Conrad Sebastian Hauser?" She slid a hand up the balled chain to his shirt, then let go.

"You got it."

"That's just cute."

"I guess." He pulled her shoes off and slid her feet under the covers.

"Where'd 'Sebastian' come from?"

"It was my father's name." He pulled the covers up over her, looking back over his shoulder. "Where's Jaye with that water?" He turned back to face her and she reached up to stroke his cheek.

"Duke." She heard her own voice grow husky. "There you are…"

He closed his eyes, and opened them. The ice had melted. She smiled at him and ran her fingers back into his hair.

"Duke…"

He sighed, and his fingers reached to brush her hair away from her face. "Scarlett…I…" His knuckles gently traced her cheek and jaw. He stood, suddenly, grabbing Bill's hat. "Get some sleep, huh?"

She sighed and rolled over. "OK, Duke. Goodnight."

He walked to the door and turned off the light. "Goodnight Scarlett, I hope you had fun tonight, because you're going to feel like shit in the morning."

Of course, he was right.


Scarlett got up and wandered into the commissary in her cover up and sandals for a late bite of lunch. She helped herself to a salad and asked one of the serves to chop come chicken on top. Filling a glass with iced tea, she took her tray and found a space at a table next to Beach Head, who had removed his balaclava to eat, Gung Ho and Short Fuze. All three stood up until she was seated.

"Nothing like southern-boy manners." She smiled at them as he sat.

"Hey!"

"Sorry, Steeler. But you're from south Chicago, right?" Scarlett sipped her tea.

"No."

"Well, then, you're just a natural gentleman."

"Oh yeah, that's me!" He scarfed half a hamburger in one bite. "You goin' to the WGTFBS party?"

"The what party?"

"The We Got That Fucking Bastard Serpentor party. At Joe's?"

She laughed and took a bite of salad. "Oh, that. Yeah, Dial Tone filled me in on that. Sure."

Gung Ho smiled. "Maybe stick to beer this time, Scarlett."

Short Fuze laughed.

"Shut up. I just went through that with Clutch." Would she ever hear the end of it?

"Whut?" Beach Head raised an eyebrow.

"Nothing important. How are the new recruits doing?" She picked out a pepper and laid it on the side of her plate.

"They'll do, mebbe, if they can stop waiting for someone to pat them on the back and just learn to do their jobs. Th' empee's the most polished. Th' woman's holding back. Th' beanstalk won't shut up and th' Tunnel Rat's Captain Sarcasm. Th' big Aloha Ox duzzn't say nothin'. But they'll do OK, when they get angry enough t' try."

"What about the Green Beret?" Scarlett pushed her plate aside and took up her tea.

"Leeeooootenant Falcon?" Beach Head snorted. "That one has me worried. Yew don't get through Special Forces training if y' ain't th' top of the crop. Yew don't. Yew wash out." He picked up his coffee cup and gripped it tight. "He made it through. Mebbe not on top, but he made it."

Short Fuze looked interested. "And?"

Beach Head sighed through his nose. "He's a complete screw up. All he duz is mess around. Oh, he kin make it through the PT, though he'z gone a tad soft. He's brawny. He's a good shot. He's sharp in t' head. But everythin's a joke to him. I put him on th' field, he's gonna get himseff or someone else kilt."

Gung Ho shook his head. "Maybe he's a diamond in the rough?"

"He's an ass. An' a horndog. I gotta watch him. Saw him droolin' over that girl Jinx. Wuz almost humpin' her leg."

Scarlett kept her mouth shut.

"Anyhoo. I gotta get back to 'em. Sent them out on base duties. They's just about relaxed b' now. I'm gonna run 'em round the fenceline a few times afore I take 'em to th' range. Settle 'em down, what." He stood and took his tray to the pass through.

Gung Ho finished his burger, wiped his finger on a napkin and guzzled his fruit punch. "Hey, Scarlett, I ran into Duke when he was on his way out to Smitty's. Told him about the party. He said he'd show up when they're done with him."

"Duke's getting' more ink?" Short Fuze grinned. "Right about time. Bet he's getting a clobbered snake. Something a little tougher than bunny rabbits an' boids."

Scarlett might have entertained the idea if Duke had been one to crow about his accomplishments in battle. Frankly, the only military tattoo he had was the Special Forces skull tat on his upper arm. The same one a lot of Green Berets sported. Besides that, he had his Fenrir Wolf on his right shoulder blade, the little rabbit kit on one flank, and two birds of prey on the other. But he had told her he'd made the appointment before they'd left for the Himalayas. He couldn't have known.

"Nah. That's not it." Gung Ho belched into his napkin. "Pardon, Scarlett."

"You know? He told you?" Scarlett was incredulous.

"I wormed it out of him. It's going behind his left shoulder." He grinned. "It's a good one."

"What is it?"

"I promised not to tell. Swore on my gran-mére's grave."

Steeler laughed. "Your granma ain't dead, GH."

"Yeah, well, I swore not to say a word. I imagine you'll see it, eventually." He winked at Scarlett. "Pretty sure you'll like it, Scarlett."

"Huh." She started to wonder.

"Well, I gotta go, too." Steeler stood up. "Hope Beach Head don't mind the Rawhides too much."

"Why, Short Fuze?" Scarlett stood with her own dishes.

"I invited 'em to the party."


Scarlett and Cover Girl pushed through the door to Joe's. A lot of people had already arrived and the party was in full swing. The whole group from the Himalayas, with the exception of Duke and the members of Roadblock's team, were already hanging out along the bar or at the pool tables. The Rawhides filled the big booth in the corner. Wetsuit, Leatherneck, Wild Bill and Rock N' Roll surrounded one pool table, Blowtorch and Barbecue were taking on Spirit and Short Fuze on another. Groups of Joes gathered to watch. Dial Tone and Mainframe took turns at Galaga. Everywhere she turned, Scarlett saw Joes. Even Hawk held court at a table by the pinball.

"Wow! I feel sorry for everyone who had to stay on base!" Cover Girl returned the waves of several Joes around the dart board.

"Seems like everyone's here." Scarlett smiled at Jinx, who had given her a shy wave. She waved back at the kid, and nudged Cover Girl, who looked, and then waved. "How did she do in the motor pool, Cover Girl?"

"Pretty good, actually. I've got her working on one of the HAVOKs you guys tore to shreds. She'd have finished if Beach Head hadn't come and dragged her off. As it is, I let it be her project. She told me she'd come finish it tomorrow night on her own down time. I like that."

Both women walked over to the bar. Doc and Flint nodded greetings and gave up their stools.

"Thanks, guys, you didn't have to do that."

Flint smiled and waved Scarlett to the empty stool. "We were just keeping them warm for you." They sat, and Flint reached in between them for his bottle of beer.

"How is Duke's shoulder, Scarlett?" Doc sipped something out of a highball glass.

"Last I heard, no signs of infection."

"Not puffy?"

"No."

"Not seeping?"

"No."

"Not hot?"

"Definitely not."

"Did you see any redness?"

"None. Moe, give me a cider." Scarlett smiled at the old man. He winked and smiled back.

"Beer for me, Moe." Cover Girl held up a finger. Moe blew her a kiss and pulled down two pint glasses.

"How about otherwise? Is his stiff or sore? Was he moving well?"

Cover Girl smirked. "She was pretty tired and happy this morning Doc, if that's any indication."

"Cover Girl!" Scarlett blushed. Doc and Flint laughed.

Right then, Hawk came up behind them. Although she knew Hawk was aware of what she and Duke did on their downtime, she still hoped he hadn't heard the last exchange. They all stood, but the General waved it off.

"Just making sure I get to everyone. I can't stay all night, I'm afraid. I have a late conference call. Washington's trying to figure out what to do with Serpentor."

"Shoot him." Cover Girl nodded at Moe as he set down their beers, and took a long swig from her glass.

"That's really not going to fly. Not part of the Geneva convention. He'll have to stand trial." Hawk finished his scotch and motioned Moe for another. "The problem is, everyone is arguing about who will do it and where it will happen."

"Duke should have shot him in the mountains." Cover Girl grumbled into her glass.

"We don't do that, we're the good guys." Flint reached under his beret and scratched a spot above his ear. "What are we going to do with him, sir?"

"Right now he's in a cell with laser mounted bars behind several yards of concrete and a pentaplastic shield in an entry controlled section of the cell block. I have three Joes inside with him and one outside at all times." Hawk picked up his fresh glass of scotch and sipped thoughtfully. "It should hold him for a bit."

Scarlett sipped at her cider. "Cobra will try for him soon."

"I'm guessing." He nodded at all of them. "I'm going to mingle a bit. Doc. Flint. Cover Girl. Scarlett." He leaned forward to Scarlett. "Don't look now, but I think my Master Sergeant's trying to find you."

She glanced over his shoulder and saw Duke standing in the doorway in civvies, looking about. "Sir."

"I hear he was in the chair at Smitty's today." Hawk smiled as he walked away.

"Why is it everyone runs from my needles but then pays to get the guys at Smitty's to inject them a million times in an hour?" Doc rolled his eyes.

"Your needles don't make cool pictures." Cover Girl gave him a nudge. Scarlett laughed. She saw Duke look their direction at the sound. He smiled when he saw her, and came their way. Flint made room for him.

"Doc. Flint. Cover Girl. Red." He nodded at each of them in turn, smiling at Scarlett. "Looks like the party's going full steam. Beer, Moe." Duke nodded at the barkeep who reached into a cooler behind the bar and pulled out a bottle. He popped the cap and poured it slowly down the side of a glass.

"Saved the good stuff for you, Sergeant." Moe set the glass down as if it were fragile. He watched expectantly as Duke took his first sip.

"That's great, Moe. Good stuff." Duke gave him a thumbs up.

"On the house, Cobra Killer. Heard you brought the big man down yourself."

"Then you owe a beer to the BET. I just kicked him into the dish. That electrocuted him." Duke took a longer sip.

"Not that you didn't fight with him for a good long time, first. One on one. Holding your own." Scarlett touched his hand. He cocked his head to one side and smiled at her, then put a foot up on the rail and took a swig of beer.

Moe slapped the bartop. "Next round's on me, Joes! Thank you!" The whole room cheered.

Flint and Doc grabbed fresh drinks and wandered off. Scarlett nursed her cider. Cover Girl chugged her first beer, ordered another, and then went to join the next pool game. Duke turned around, rested both elbows on the bar and relaxed. Scarlett saw him smile at the Rawhides. Falcon looked over their direction and grinned. Duke held up his glass and nodded once. Falcon returned the gesture. The other Rawhides, noticing, echoed his salute.

"Beach Head's worried about that one." Scarlett twirled her stool to face the room.

"Which one?" Duke didn't look at her.

"Falcon."

"Oh? Is he?" Duke sipped his beer and looked around the room, nodding to any Joe who looked his way.

"Yes, Duke. He thinks the kid's screwing up too much. He isn't living up to his potential." She set her glass down and looked at the new bandage peeking out of his tank top over his left shoulder blade. It matched the one over his wound.

"But he thinks he has potential?" Duke still wouldn't look at her. He was staring into his beer.

"Well, yeah. He made it through Special Forces and was commissioned. That means he's got something, although I've meant plenty of shit officers in my time. You're not commissioned, and you're the best soldier I know." She hoped the compliment would get him to turn her way.

"I keep turning them down. You're right, though, commissions mean little. Sometimes they give a kid a commission to keep his old man happy." Duke sipped his beer, then stared off towards the pool tables. His eyes focused somewhere far away. "But Beach did think he had potential?"

"It's what he said." She rested a hand on his muscular shoulder.

"So he just needs a kick in the pants to wake him up."

"Maybe." She decided to drop it. He'd put some wall up, and Scarlett couldn't figure out why. She slid her hand down to the new bandage. "So how did it go?"

He turned to smile at her. "Great! It took a while, but they got it all done today. Kind of what I wanted. I don't have time to go back and sit again."

"Did it hurt?"

"Yeah, like Hell. But I didn't whine like the guy in the next chair." He finished his beer and held up a finger for a second. Moe cracked open another bottle and poured a fresh glass.

Scarlett laughed, and saw his smile broaden at the sound. "Is it what you wanted?"

"It's perfect." He took a large swig of his second beer. "It came out exactly the way I told him I wanted it."

"Well, it better have, it's going to be there forever."

"That's for sure."

"So." Scarlett leaned forward on her stool. "Do I get to see?"

"You want to see it now?" He grinned. "Right now?"

"Sure I do." She moved to peel away the bandage. He leaned forward, moving out of he reach.

"I dunno, Red. You sure you want to see it now? I mean now now?" Duke teased. "Don't you want to finish your drink?

"Duke! Stop it. Let me see."

"Oh no, I think it'll look better after it heals. That's only going to take a week or two." He turned to face her, his eyes twinkling.

"Don't you dare make me wait, you jerk. I want to see. Did you get the unit tat, like Cover Girl thought? You did, didn't you?"

He laughed. "You really want to see right now, huh? Fine, come on, I'll show you outside in the fresh air. God knows what's floating around here." He put a beer mat over his glass and hers and walked towards the door to the patio out back. Scarlett jumped off her barstool and followed him. More than a few sets of eyes followed. The mouths under them broke into knowing grins.

Moe had attempted to create a "beer garden" out back. Duke quipped often that a man needed two things for a beer garden: beer and plants, and Moe's sort of had neither. In response, Moe had brought in a few potted plants and tried to get a hopvine to grow over a trellis. It almost worked. There were several long tables and benches on a large concrete slab overlooking a small grassy lawn that sometimes hosted lawn bowling or Frisbee games, which Junkyard usually won by running off with the Frisbee. White Christmas lights were strung on wires stretched between the building and a few tall posts. When Tripwire had fallen and broken his ankle in the dark, Moe had brought in a few floodlights. It wasn't too bad; a far as bar patios went.

Duke sat down on a bench under a floodlight and stripped off his tank. "Peel it back slowly, Shatzi, it might have stuck a bit."

Scarlett came up behind Duke and gingerly grabbed a corner of the bandage, sliding a nail under the medical tape. She carefully peeled it back a little. She stopped. "You didn't get something to commemorate your fight with Serpentor, did you?"

"Now Red, would I tat something like that into my skin? I only get things that are important to me. Things I want to have forever. Keep peeling."

"So it is the unit tat!" She continued to peel the bandage away, revealing the fresh inked skin underneath.

Oh…Duke.

Peering out at her was a little red fox, nimbly climbing down through a few peonies on his shoulder, proud tail held aloft. Its eyes shone blue.

"You like it?"

Oh…Duke…

"Red?"

Oh…Duke…My Love…

"Scarlett?" He turned to look over his shoulder at her. "Is it OK? Don't you like it?"

"Duke." Her voice broke, and things became blurry as her eyes filled with tears. "I love it. It's beautiful." She felt a tear escape and roll down her cheek. She reached out and gently put a finger on the fox. "You put that there, forever."

He stood up and turned to face her, putting a hand on each shoulder. "I put that there for you Shana." He brushed a few strands of loose hair back. "For you."

"Duke…"

"I know sometimes you wonder about what I was like…the things that you heard…before." He slid the back of his hand down her cheek, wiping away a tear. "That's not me anymore, Scarlett. A woman, she hurt me, Scarlett. Bad. So, I guess I screwed around. But then I found you, and you make me happy. I don't want anyone else. All I want is to be with you."

"Duke…" Scarlett pulled herself close to him and held him tight.

"I love you, my Little Red Fox. Shana, I do." He wrapped his arms around her.

"Duke, I love you. I…" She looked up into his eyes. "I love you!"

He smiled and used his thumb to brush more tears from her cheek. "So it's better than a unit tattoo?"

"Much better." She reached up around his neck.

He leaned down and their lips met, softly. They shared soft, light kisses for what seemed like forever. Scarlett felt him slide his hands down to her lower back and pull her tightly against him. His tongue gently ran over her lips. She parted them to let him in. He slowly explored her lips and teeth and tongue. One hand slid up her back and reached to free her hair. Scarlett sighed and kissed him back, just as passionately. She let her hands slide down from his neck to his bare chest, feeling the firm muscle. His skin was warm. They parted, leaned their foreheads together.

"We're out in the open, Duke" Scarlett murmured.

"So we are."

"Anyone could walk out here."

"So they could." He ran his fingers through her hair and caressed her back.

"They'll see us."

"So they will."

"It's not very discreet."

"I don't care." He pulled her back to his lips and took her mouth possessively. She felt as if she were melting into him. He pulled her firmly to his hips and she felt his hands begin to wander. Scarlett sighed. He broke from her mouth and slid his lips back along her jaw, kissing and licking until he was able to nip and nibble at her ear. She moved her hands up his chest, over his shoulders, up the back of his neck and through his hair to the back of his head.

He whispered into her ear. "Shanna. I'm all yours. Are you all mine?"

Scarlett nuzzled his neck. "I am, Duke. You know I am. I love you so much."

She pulled back and held his face in her hands so she could look into his eyes. He gazed at her lovingly and heaved a long sigh. They kissed deeply again, twined around each other.

"Whoops! Sorry!"

Scarlett jumped and looked towards the building. Falcon and Jinx were standing just outside the doorway, beers in hand, Tunnel Rat and Big Lob bringing up the rear. Falcon's face split into a grin. Jinx had the decency to blush.

Falcon chuckled. "Busted…"

Scarlett and Duke reluctantly parted. Duke looked perturbed. "Vin—Falcon…"

"Ummm, we were just coming out for fresh air. Ahhhh it was getting hot in there, all those bodies pushing togeth-uhhh…" Big Lob stood lamely indicating over his shoulder with his thumb.

"You mean this is the one time you can't come up with some sports analogy?" Tunnel Rat pointed to Duke's shoulder. "Nice tat."

Cover Girl burst out the door and pulled up short when she saw Duke without his shirt. "Geez, guys, get a room already. You're a lucky girl, Red, he can't keep his clothes on around you."

Duke shook his head and turned to grab his shirt off the bench. Scarlett saw Cover Girl's eyes grow wide.

"Hang on. Is that your new ink, Duke?" She was over next to him in a flash. "Hey." She turned to Scarlett, her smile sincere. "That's really nice, Scarlett. That's really sweet. You really are a lucky girl."

"Thanks. I am." Scarlett touched her shoulder, then found the bandage where she'd left it face up on the table. "Do you need this, Duke?"

"Nah, it's probably OK. I just have to keep cleaning it is all." Duke gingerly pulled his tank top back on. "Come on, Red. There's stuff unfinished." He indicated she should follow him inside.

Cover Girl called after them. "Moe asked about your drinks, since you were gone so long. I told him to leave them there."

"I wasn't talking about the drinks, but I guess we might as well finish those, too."

As they walked by the Rawhides, Scarlett heard Falcon mutter under his breath.

"Sprung…"

She almost collided with Duke's back as he suddenly stopped. Slowly, he turned, and she saw his blue eyes regard Falcon in a way she'd never seen before. It wasn't anger. It wasn't really remonstration. It was…different. Different than any look she'd seen him use on a soldier in error.

Falcon's eyes stopped their merry twinkle and he looked like a little kid. "Yeah…sorry."

Duke nodded and pushed through the doors into Joe's, holding them open. It was loud inside. Big Lob was right; it was very hot. As they made their way back to the bar and their drinks, Scarlett realized that Duke's tank top did little to hide his new tattoo.

People will see it. They're going to know for sure. They'll know which rumors are true.

Scarlett didn't know if the idea thrilled or terrified her.

They found their glasses, and there was enough space for them to sit at the bar. Gung Ho, on their right, raised his glass in a toast.

"Told ya you'd like it, Scarlett." He insisted happily. "Nice, eh? 'Ol Duke did ya right." He slapped Duke on the newly tattooed shoulder. Duke winced, but didn't flinch.

"You squid fucker, GH."

"Haha, all in fun, Top. Do you like it, Scarlett?" Gung Ho rubbed her shoulder and gave her a friendly smile.

Scarlett smiled back at the big marine. "It's gorgeous."

To her utter horror, Hawk slid in between them. "One more Scotch, Moe, and then I'm heading back."

"Sure, General." Moe quickly served up a finger on the rocks and placed it in front of Hawk, who lifted the glass to his lips and took a small sip.

Scarlett tried to look anywhere but Duke's shoulder. For his part, the Master Sergeant looked utterly unworried.

"Duke, first thing after breakfast I need you to come to my office. We still haven't heard from Roadblock. It's been over 12 hours since his last check in." The general leaned against the bar, his foot on the copper rail. "More importantly, I want you to help me plan how we're going to transport Serpentor when the big hats figure out what the Hell they want to do with him. You and Flint are both good at those kinds of logistics. Plus, Lifeline and Iceberg have earned Unit Commendations and I wanted both of you to be there when I handed them out. I wanted Beach Head too, but his hands are full with green Joes."

"I'll be there, sir."

"Good. I see the crew at Smitty's did a good job. That's nice work. The colors are perfect." Hawk smiled and tipped the last of his drink down his throat. "Well, I'm done. See you tomorrow." He nodded at both men and turned to her.

"Goodnight, Scarlett. Try to get to bed at a good hour tonight. Both of you." To her shock, he winked at her before he walked away.

She watched him leave with her mouth open, then turned to Duke. "The old man's getting soft on us."

Duke raised both eyebrows, then grinned. "Three scotches will probably do that to anyone. Still…" he gulped the last of his beer. "You done with your cider, Red? I could drive you back to base."

"Sure, I could use a ride."

Gung Ho snorted. "So could he."

Scarlett dropped her heel just behind the toe of his boot. Gung Ho grimaced. But then he smiled and laughed. "Get lost, you two."

"Night, GH." Scarlett followed Duke out the door, noticing several Joes looking at the fox on his shoulder blade and smiling. No one really seemed surprised.

He drove his Charger to the common lot and parked. Scarlett sat for a while, looking out the windshield at the darkness. Duke rested his arms and head on the steering wheel, peering up at the stars.

"You coming with me tonight, Shatzi?"

Spending two nights in a row with him was a rare treat for Scarlett. She answered the best way she knew how: moving close to him, turning his face to hers, wrapping her arms around his firm body and kissing him deeply. He sat up from the steering wheel and slid both arms around to hold her tight. They stayed like that, taking turns to explore each other's mouths, and then pulled apart, breathless.

"Come on, Duke. Let's go."

They were soon at his quarters, and he fumbled his keys into the lock. As soon as the door was shut, he was on her, pushing her back against it and pressing his lips to her insistently. Scarlett moaned into his mouth as he gently stretched her bottom lip with his teeth, and then nipped down to her shoulder, stopping to take a deep breath and inhale the perfume she'd put on in anticipation of seeing him at Joe's. He sighed. Then inhaled a second time.

"You smell so good, Scarlett." He bit at the part of her neck between her clavicles, then quickly kissed and licked it to soothe any hurt away. She slid a leg up and around his waist. He moaned into her neck. Knowing he had tattooed himself for her, marked himself as hers gave her a feeling of power that turned her on. He was her man. He wanted her. He hadn't been devoted to any other woman enough to do such a thing. His devotions were to his service, his family and, now, to her.

Scarlett thrilled in the fact that he wanted her so badly. She could feel his erection hard against her, and slid a hand down to caress him through the denim. He ripped open her civvy shirt, popping the buttons, and forced it back off her shoulders. She arched up as his hands found her breasts and he fondled her through the lace of her bra.

"Mmmm. Conrad… yes." Scarlett knew hearing her say his name pushed him further over the edge. She kept it for the times she wanted to urge him forward or the times when they were utterly open to each other. In response, his hands slid around her back and unhooked her bra. He leaned her forward, yanked her shirt off the rest of the way and tossed it aside, then grabbed the bra from the front and tore it off. Scarlett grabbed his tank with both hands and twisted her fingers in the fabric as he lifted her to his mouth to suckle on a breast, nipping and licking and then hurriedly sliding his tongue over to relive the ache in the neglected nipple.

God, he's nearly out of control. What's gotten into him lately?

Not that she was complaining. He was always eager for lovemaking, whether tender or rough, and quite often came to her lustful and hungry for her. Since coming back from the Himalayas, the intensity had doubled. He seemed perfectly willing to bring everything out in the open, when before he had taken pains to cling to discretion. But the tattoo, the unguarded moment on the patio-Duke wasn't just claiming his love for her, he was screaming it.

Then again, tomorrow we'll be back in uniform.

Thoughts of tomorrow were swiftly swept from Scarlett's mind as he grabbed her buttocks and lifted her, wrapping both legs around his hips and pushing her back. He growled deep, and bit into her shoulder. She clung to him and felt him thrust himself against her, knocking her against the door.

Anyone outside heard that one.

His teeth, lips and tongue played across her skin as he moved up her neck. Oh God, that's good. She found herself cooing and purring as he ran his tongue over her throat to her other shoulder. Again he bit and thrust into her. She grabbed his head in both hands and forced his mouth back to hers, opening and demanding he taste her want for him.

Groaning, he turned and stumbled with her wrapped around him, their lips meshed, tongues fighting. He took a few steps towards the coffee table, then seemed to change his mind. "Too low…" He mumbled into her.

He managed to stumble into the kitchen. With a sweep of his arm, he sent the contents of his counter to the floor: canisters of rice, coffee and cereal, the sugar bowl, salt and pepper shakers, a bottle of olive oil, another of vinegar and the coffee machine all flew. He sat her on the counter and hurriedly unbuttoned her pants. She hung on to his shoulders and lifted her hips so he could yank them off-the underwear going at the same time. The tile felt cool on her buttocks. He left her mouth with a moan and ripped off his shirt and eagerly yanked off his belt, then tore open his jeans and shoved them down. Glancing to his crotch, she saw a quick flash of little lipstick kisses.

Duke and his crazy underwear.

He shoved the boxers down, showing her that he was, indeed, very eager for her. She reached for him, and pulled him back to her. His fingers slid along her thigh to feel that she was more than ready for him.

He groaned and stepped into her, and Scarlett wrapped him tight between her thighs, her ankles crossed over his lower back. She felt his hands take hold of her hips and, with another growl, he was in. She sighed and cooed as she felt him slide in. He stopped halfway.

"…God…tight…" He panted. He slid out to the tip, and then thrust in again, this time sinking in until she felt him bottom out. She gave a little chirp as he quickly repeated the thrust, then dragged her nails down his back as he did it a third time.

He paused, then put one arm around her, grabbed a breast, and mashed his mouth to hers as he began to pound himself into her. Scarlett held on as best she could, reveling in his furious lust. The kiss ended, but the thrusts didn't. His testicles slapped against her as he penetrated her over and over, sweet pain driving her closer to climax.

"Conrad, please. Don't stop. My love, harder…fuck me, my love. Hard." She moaned into his ear, hardly believing those words were coming out of her own mouth.

He roared and obeyed. She was trapped between wanting it to last and knowing that if things kept up this way, it couldn't. His breath tickled her ear, and he began to whisper to her.

"Red, do you like my tat? Do you like it on me? What I did for you? You're on me, now. Forever. Mine. You're mine, Red. Mine…mine…no one else…mine! You're mine!"

It all crashed down. She pulled herself to him and felt everything come down around her, crying out as she heard him claim her the way she used to only fantasize. He kept hammering into her as she came, and then continued as she floated. In very little time, she felt him speed up and change angles, thrusting as deeply as he could as he reached his own peak. Still, he panted into her ear.

"My..Scarlett…mine…My…Shatzi…My…little…red…fox...u nhhh… ." He was there. She felt him shudder as he finished in several quick, sharp thrusts.

She held him while he panted and drifted in the daze of the aftermath, kissing his face and neck. Eventually, he straightened, arms around her, and glanced around at the debris on the floor.

"What a mess."

Scarlett had to agree. There was rice, coffee, cereal, oil and vinegar mixed into shattered glass and crockery. The poor coffee machine huddled dejectedly in the corner, surrounded by shards of the carafe, as if to say 'what the Hell did I ever do to you?'

Duke saw it the same time Scarlett did.

"Uh Oh. No more Mr. Coffee! Sorry about that, Mister." He looked back down at her. "That's going to be a problem come tomorrow morning."

She held him to her and laughed.


Scarlett woke the next morning to hear the shower going. Duke had slipped out of bed carefully enough not to wake her. For that, she was grateful. After they had cleaned up the kitchen, he pulled her into the bedroom and kept her up a good part of the night. She stretched languidly, smiling at the pleasant ache in her body after a night of good lovemaking.

He had woken up yelling again; he'd done that most nights she was with him. By the time she was fully awake, he had already wrapped himself around her and nestled his face in her hair. He was quickly asleep again, and the gentle rumble of his deep breathing lulled her back to slumber.

Scarlett turned to glance at the clock.

"Oh crap!"

She jumped out of bed and ran to the bathroom to catch him stepping out of the shower. Pushing by him, she turned it back on. She heard him laugh.

"I would have woken you, mein Shatz, but you looked too peaceful to bother."

"Peaceful, fine, but late's no good." There was still hot water, thank God. When he was alone, Duke took short showers. She quickly shampooed her hair and used the leftover suds to scrub her skin. She rinsed off and jumped out to find him shaving. Normally, Scarlett loved to watch him shave. This morning there was no time.

The bathroom was small, and space was tight. She shoved him over. "Move over, you big bear."

He chuckled and grinned at her in the mirror. Then continued working on his chin as she started to brush out her hair. Her reflection revealed two large bite marks on her shoulders.

"Damn. Duke!" She thwapped him with her brush. "Look at those!"

He smiled. "You weren't complaining at the time." Turning on the tap, he rinsed the foam off his face and then toweled dry.

"Thank God my uniform will cover them."

"You think those are fun, check this out." He turned, and she saw red stripes going down his back. She'd just missed scraping over his tattoo.

"Uhhh, sorry about that."

He turned back and shrugged. "Battle scars, right?" He handed her a tube of ointment. "Here, can you reach up there and rub this in? It'll help it heal right."

Scarlett grabbed the tube and squeeze out a little antibiotic ointment. She stood on her toes and gently kissed the tattoo, making his reflection smile again at her. Then she gently rubbed a thin film over the healing skin. "How does it feel?"

"As good as it could. It'll sort of go flaky and hazy for a bit, then clear up."

She stroked his back, then pulled out the hair dryer she had stowed away in his bathroom and started to dry her hair. He escaped to avoid the windstorm and went back to the bedroom to get dressed. It took a good while to get it all dry. By the time she had finished and brushed her teeth, he was buckling his belt and pinning on his master jump wings. She handed him his bandolier and found one of her spare uniforms, even more thankful than usual that she kept some in his dresser. He'd popped all the buttons off her shirt.

She watched him slip into his boots, then stand and make the bed. He walked past her, sliding a hand over her rear as he passed, and strapped on his watch. Glancing at it, he raised his eyebrows. "Damn. I've got to make a quick breakfast and go. You want anything?" He finished the sentence over his shoulder as he wandered out of the bedroom to the kitchen. "Damn again." She heard him curse as she was pulling on her boots. "No coffee. Oh well. Hawk will have some going."

Scarlett found him in the kitchen, slathering bread with peanut butter. He wiped the knife, and then sliced a banana on top. He squirted honey over the whole thing, crammed a second slice on top. He glanced at her. "You want one?"

She waved it off. "No thanks. I'll hit the commissary."

He looked at his watch again. "Gotta go. Lock the door on your way out." He kissed her quickly, the grabbed his sandwich and rushed out to the door. He just as quickly rushed back in, pulled her to him tightly, and kissed her passionately.

She hung on to his neck and leaned into him. When the kiss broke, he lightly stroked her hair. "Thanks for another amazing night, Scarlett. I love you."

Her heart fluttered. "I love you, too, Duke."

He gave her another quick kiss. "Have a good day, huh?" Duke rushed back out, and she heard the door slam.

A few minutes later, Scarlett peeked out the door, saw the passageway was clear, and quickly stepped out. She felt ridiculous doing it. If people didn't suspect before, last night would set the rumor mill on overdrive. Whatever the Rawhides decided to share would be added to it.

But it isn't a rumor. We are sleeping together. We are in love. How great is it to be in love?

Scarlett went to the commissary, waved at a few Joes and managed to find a quiet corner. She wanted to think. Eventually, she shook herself, glanced at the big clock over the door, and rushed off to another day of duties.

Scarlett thought through morning PT. She thought through code checking. She thought through target practice. She thought through lunch. The more she thought, the more she came to realize that there was a downside to hiding everything, and perhaps just quietly loving each other openly was just as good as sneaking around.

Then Flint dropped a stack of files next to her tray. She looked up to see him once again carrying winter gear.

"Sorry to drop this on you Scarlett, but I need you to review these personnel files. We're putting together a team to transport Serpentor whenever they choose where he'll be put on trial and who will try him. Washington insists on collaborating with NATO forces. I was going to do it myself, but…" He trailed off.

"But?" Scarlett flipped lazily through the files.

Flint's face grew somber. "Roadblock hasn't made a peep in twenty four hours. I'm heading up a search party. We're leaving today. Now, in fact."

That just leaves us short-handed…with Serpentor on base.

"Flint?" She saw the worry in his eyes. She knew what he was feeling. There was no way he could do nothing while she was lost. It wasn't just her being lost, it was the not knowing… Not knowing what had happened. Dead, alive, nothing was worse than not knowing at all. He needed answers. He deserved answers. She stood up and rested a hand on his shoulder. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, keeping himself together.

"You'll find her, Flint. You'll find all of them. If anyone can do it, you can."

He nodded squeezed her hand and turned to go without a word. Scarlett took the stack of files to the intel room and began to go through them. Soon, she was so wrapped up, she barely noticed time passing.

It was three when she decided to take a break. She leaned back from her terminal and stretched, twisting to work the kinks out of her back. She stood to stretch some more. Suddenly, there was a slam, and a loud commotion in the hallway. Peeking out the door, she saw Duke storming through the hall, fuming. He looked ready to explode. The few Joes already there jumped out of his way or beat a hasty retreat through the nearest door. He stormed by intel, oblivious of her presence, stalked down to his office, yanked the door open and then slammed it shut so hard his nameplate fell off. The commotion continued inside.

Scarlett jogged down the hall and stood before the door. She heard desk drawers slamming open and shut. She reached for the handle.

"Scarlett!" A voice hissed from the door behind her. She turned to see Rip Cord leaning peering out of the staff lounge. "You're going to go in there?" Another rhythmic pounding echoed through the door. "Are you crazy?"

Zap and Lift Ticket looked out behind him. Zap's eyes were wide. "Woman, no one goes through that door when he's that mad."

Lift Ticket nodded. "I haven't even seen him that angry since Wet Suit and Leatherneck duct taped Shipwreck to the flagpole in his briefs."

Scarlett remembered that morning. The flagpole was pretty tall, and they'd used a cherry picker to get him pretty high up. It took all day to get him down. Duke wouldn't have gotten mad if the Joint Chiefs of Staff hadn't been due to drop by for a tour and inspection.


"Let's get this straight. You fuckers used how many rolls?"

"Five."

"Five goddamn fucking rolls of fucking duct tape to fasten Shipwreck to the goddamn flag pole?!"

"He weighs more than you would think."

"Explain to me again why you settled on five fucking rolls of duct tape."

"It's not like we wanted him to fall."

"I understand, seeing as you taped the bastard two hundred fucking feet up."

"Well…yeah."

"Do you think you might have let me raise the Goddamn flag first?"

"Yeeeeooowwch! Lifeline, stop!"

"Look, Shipwreck, it'll just be better if I do this bit by bit. I may need to use something to cut it away a few hairs at a time."

"Duke, General Hawk just radioed, he's about ten minutes away with the Joint Chiefs."

"Motherfucker! You! Lower that cherrypicker."

"But Duke…"

"Lower it, you goddamn motherfucker."

"All right, but I don't think."

"Get me up there. NOW."

"Right, Top."

"I am not a fucking toy, soldier."

"Sorry. Wait, what are you doing? Don't grab it all at once, you'll rip out all his-"

"YEEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWW! Oh CHRIST ALLMIGHTY!"

"There. He's free. Now get him out of my sight. And you two fucking clowns! You're going to clean all this sticky crap off my flagpole. Then you're going to switch off doing kp and latrine duty for a month, and…and…and you'll be changing the paper in Polly's cage for a goddamn year! Am I making myself clear?"

"Yes T- Duke."

"Fucking A! Get that flag up!"


Scarlett shrugged at Zap. "Something's wrong. Maybe I can help solve it." She reached for the handle as another round of pounding erupted from behind the door.

"Your funeral."

She turned the handle and went in to find Duke standing at his desk, furiously pounding something with a hammer. She shut the door behind her, and he whirled.

"Scarlett, not right now."

He tossed the hammer across the room and stood, leaning onto the desk with both hands and staring at the crumpled dark thing in front of him. "Fuck. Fuck. FUUUUCCK!" Duke slammed his fist onto the object a few times.

"Duke, what on Earth is wrong? What is that?"

"It's film. One of those new discs of film. Goddamn it!"

She carefully came forward and gently laid a hand on his shoulder. He didn't turn around. "Why are you hitting it with a hammer? Why do you even have a hammer in your office?"

"A woman! He brought a woman onto base! My base! He brought a motherfucking woman onto my base and into a restricted area with a motherfucking camera! Right to Serpentor's goddamn cellblock! With a camera! All to get laid!"

Scarlett's heart jumped in alarm. "Who Duke? Who would be stupid enough to do such a thing?"

"Fucking Vincent! Falcon! That little…Why? Why would he even consider that? He's no idiot! He's got a fucking brain in there somewhere! Goddamn fucking horny bastard."

Scarlett was confused. "Wait, hang on…I thought Falcon was messing around with Jinx…"

Duke turned to face her, his eyes wide, face flushed with anger. "Jinx?! The little fucker's playing around with Jinx as well? Oh God…it's a nightmare. I've brought a nightmare on my base. I could throttle him. Why wasn't he with Beach Head and the others?" Duke picked up the crumpled disk and managed to tear it in two, then four. "He was with some civilian woman. Giving her a tour. Showing off with his sidearm. He nearly shot me in the head!"

"Well, it's obvious he missed."

"I ducked. Three seconds slower and you'd be cleaning by brains off of the blacktop outside of cellblock four!" Duke shoved at his desk, pushing it back a few inches. His desk lamp wobbled.

"But we're not." She put her free hand on his other shoulder and tried to rub some of the anger out. It wasn't working.

"The bastard! When I said I'd keep my eye on him, I didn't think I'd have to watch him every second! What's happened to him? Where did the kid go?"

"Duke, what are you talking about?" He wasn't making any sense. Scarlett couldn't make heads or tails of what he was ranting about.

"Vincent!"

"What?"

He turned his head and looked at her, his eyes blazing blue fire. They burned for a second, and then the flame died, and he looked lost. He turned away and sighed. "Nevermind. It doesn't matter."

Duke walked behind his desk and dropped wearily into his chair. Scarlett pulled up another chair and sat across from him, watching as he rubbed his eyes with one hand and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"What did you do, Duke?" She kept her voice light.

"I took her film and had her escorted off base. He's got guard duty on the outer door to Serpentor's cell block till I decide he's done. Alpine, Bazooka and Gung Ho are on the inside. He's just minding the perimeter." He reached over and lifted the model Skystriker off of his desktop. Scarlett watched as he stared at it, slowly twisting it this way and that. "Goddamn it, kid." He muttered.

"Well then, Duke, it sounds to me like you did everything right." She stood and walked over to him and leaned against his desk in front of him. "It's all taken care of. He's learned his lesson."

Duke gazed into the cockpit. "Has he? I hope. He's better than this."

"Because he's a Green Beret?' Scarlett knew most Joes were partial to their own branch and discipline, even if they worked together as a team. She'd not seen it before in Duke, though.

"Because he's…" His eyes flicked to her. "Because he's a Green Beret, yeah." He looked back at the model. "He's a goddamn Green Beret" Duke's voice was barely a whisper "…like me."

Scarlett had never seen Duke like this before. There was something so close she could touch it, some connection she wasn't making to understand it all. "Duke, if you're worried about Lt. Falcon, just wash him out. Send him back to his old post. That'll take care of it."

Duke sighed and carefully set the model back on his desk. "I can't." He rubbed both his hands through his hair. "I can't send him back there."

Scarlett felt her temper flicker. "Why not?! What's stopping you? If he's screwing up so badly, why do you want him here? Trust me, no one else will. He's a liability! Any fuck up can get any one of us killed, or all of us. If he's a pathetic-"

"He's not a fuck up! He's not pathetic. He can do this, I know he can."

"How!? How do you know Duke?" Scarlett knew she was raising her voice, but she couldn't stop herself. Duke was acting odd, and it worried her.

"I…he's…I just know. Trust me on this, Scarlett. I know. Don't ask me anymore. Please stop asking." He reached for her, his eyes pleading.

"There's something you're not telling me."

"No."

"Yes. There is, you're keeping something from me, Duke. Has he got something over you?"

"No."

"My God, he's blackmailing you, isn't he? Has he threatened to tell the people upstairs about us?" Scarlett was yelling now.

"No! Nothing like that." He looked at her sadly. "Why can't you just trust me?"

"I would, if you would just trust me. What is this awful thing you can't tell me?"

"It isn't awful."

"Then tell me!"

"I can't! For the last time, I can't. Not now. Maybe…maybe later. And that's final Scarlett." He reached into his inbox and riffled through a stack of papers, the matter dropped. "Don't you have work you should be doing?"

Scarlett's temper exploded into full flame. "You're not getting away from it that easy! You can't pull rank and shut me up! I want to know why you are keeping soldier on base who didn't think twice about bringing a civilian with a Goddamn camera into a restricted maximum security cell block holding an internationally wanted terrorist leader! Why is a fuck up like that still here?"

"Because he's my fucking BROTHER is why!" Duke pounded his desk, then dropped his head in his hands. "That fuck up…" he sighed "is my little brother."

Oh.

It all made sense now. The almost unnoticeable interactions between them. Duke's explosion in the commissary. The strange look he'd given him at Joe's. The queer feeling she'd met the kid before. It all made perfect sense.