OK, I have to first say that, obviously, this story involves a lot of my other ones. They've sort of been woven in. However, it wouldn't be right of me not to put right here that there are lines and scenes from 1987 movie. I have it on disk, and I have a copy of the script. Ron Friedman has the screenwriting credit, but Buzz Dixon put a lot into it, and should have also gotten credit. So, the lines and scenes from the movie are all theirs. Thank you gentlemen, for making childhood wonderful.

It's been a while between chapters. This one took some time. I may still go back and make a few changes...


Scarlett lay on her bed in the dark, unable to sleep, unable to stop the tears coursing down her cheeks or the sobs that wracked her body.

Duke...My Love. Why? How can this happen? This isn't real. This is a bad dream. Usually, he has them, but this nightmare is mine. In another second or two, I'm going to wake up, and he'll be holding me, the way he always holds me when we're together at night. He'll be cuddling me close, and when I wake up, he'll wake up, too.

Scarlett rolled to her side and grabbed his picture off her nightstand. Her hair stuck to the smeared tears on her cheek.

He'll wake up, and he'll smile at me. When I tell him about this crazy nightmare, he'll chuckle and kiss me. Probably he's going to rub my back. Knowing him, he'll want to make love. So, wake up already, Shana. Wake up so this can be over. Wake up so you can be in his arms again.

No matter how hard she tried, closing her eyes and wishing, praying for consciousness, she couldn't wake up. Scarlett kept telling herself over and over to wake up, to just let it all come to a halt, but every time she opened her eyes she was still in her room, facing the possibility that is was all real. That Duke was lying in a bed in that hospital, a tube down his throat. That, there was a possibility that, he also might just never wake up. That eventually, someone would have to make a choice and flip a switch. That the man who only a few nights ago had held her in his strong arms and made her feel things she had never felt with anyone else would never kiss her again, never touch her again, never smile or laugh with her ever again.

Never. I thought we had always, and now, there's never.

Scarlett looked at the picture in her hands.

There he sat, on the weight bench, peering up, that quirky half-smile on his face. Hair mussed. Sweaty from hard work. Caught for once in a moment with his guard down. Not being the man the media saw all the time or the Joes saw most of the time. The imperfect Duke. Her Duke. The same Duke who had tried so hard to keep himself apart from her, to keep himself on a professional level. Who had tried to deny the chemistry between them, to stay just her friend and team mate when they both longed to be more. The same Duke who had finally broken down and opened himself up for her on a balcony on a hot night in India-it seemed so long ago. The one who did little things to make her day better, who shared lusty passionate embraces with her every chance he got. Who came home from his missions eager to see and hold her, or whose eyes filled with relief and joy the second he saw she was home safe from hers. The same Duke who had become so much a part of her life, she just couldn't imagine it without him.

Oh, Duke. Please don't leave me.

She sat up, put down the photo and looked through blurry tears at her hands folded on her lap. His head, it had been resting there. She had caressed his cheeks, held his shoulders as he had twisted with pain each time it seared and gripped him. When he was still, she whispered comfort as best she could, watching the blood soak through his shirt, turning away when Doc ripped the sodden fabric and sucked in his breath at the sight of the wound.

She remembered a blanket in the park in Keystone city, off in a corner of the lawn in partial shade. She'd taken him on a picnic in the semi-secluded spot, knowing no one would bother to look for them. He'd just come back from some skirmish and was exhausted, but he promised her a week before when she'd asked, and so he'd gone. They'd lounged and munched on cheese and a loaf of crusty bread, a few pickled vegetables and a summer sausage. She'd felt very European packing it, and had even slipped in a bottle of wine. After they had eaten he stretched out on the blanket with his head in her lap. Scarlett had stroked his hair for a while, sometimes tickling his nose with a yellow dandelion to tease him. She remembered looking up to watch some kids playing football. When she'd looked back at him, he had slipped into sleep, his eyes closed, a soft smile on his lips.

Scarlett quickly flashed to Dukes eyes closing as he grimaced in pain below her, his hand clenching Falcon's. She'd watched in disbelief as his face had slowly relaxed, the breath he had been holding in his agony hissing away as he'd gone limp, his head falling to one side.

She scrubbed at her eyes, trying to erase the image from her head. It really didn't help.

Duke, please don't leave me.

A soft knock at the door distracted her. Scarlett grabbed a tissue and wiped her eyes. The knock came again. "Yes?"

The door cracked open and Cover Girl peeked in. "Scarlett, can I come in?"

Scarlett took a deep breath. "Sure. But I don't think you'll find me good company."

Cover Girl pushed the door all the way open. "It doesn't matter. Look who I brought with me." Timber pushed through the open door and jumped up on Scarlett's bed. He circled once and lay down, his head in her lap. Cover Girl padded across the floor in her robe and slippers and sat down next to them both. "He's been trying to get out and over here for hours. I couldn't really sleep, either. I figured you'd be up. You want some tea or something?"

"No. Thanks, but no. I just..." The tears started again. "I can't..." Scarlett took a deep breath, her fingers wound in Timber's ruff. "I keep telling myself that he's alive. He's still alive, and that's incredible."

"Cling to that, Scarlett. As long as Doc can keep him going, everything will be OK." Cover Girl reached over for a dry tissue and handed it to Scarlett. "You're not the only one crying, Scarlett. We're all lost. But we've got to hold out hope. He's strong, you know."

"What if he never wakes up?" Scarlett could hear herself mumbling. Timber's eyes flicked up to her. He pushed himself up with a soft whine to lick the salty tears from her cheek.

"He will. He's been through this before, remember? He woke up. Doc said its some sort of way for him to escape pain."

Scarlett tightened her hands around the wolf's fur into white-knuckled fists. "But it isn't the same. All that blood. All the damage. You didn't see it like I did. It was terrible."

"And they stitched it all up. All the vessels, all the muscle-everything. Look, I'm not going to tell you he's going to be instantly okay, I don't know. It's bad, it is. But I do know that he wouldn't want you to give up hope. Or any of us." Cover Girl sighed, and Scarlett saw a tear course down her cheek. "No matter what happens, we've still got a job to do. We've still got to find Roadblock's team. We've still got to find the BET."

"I know. I know." Scarlett straightened up. "And I'll do it. I will. But tonight...tonight it hurts so much." She fell back into tears "Duke! "

Cover Girl grabbed her and held her close. Scarlett found herself sobbing into her friend's shoulder. She knew Cover Girl was crying, too. She could feel Timber leaning into her back.

Scarlett took a deep breath and pulled herself together. "I just can't believe. It took me forever to get close enough to him, and everything was perfect and now..." Scarlett let it all out.

Cover Girl squeezed her. "I know. I know. You two were dancing around each other for years. But nothing is over. He's strong. You know he is. Heck, both of you are. But I've known him just as long as you, and the I can tell you two sure things about Duke Hauser: He's strong as an ox and he'd never want to leave you behind."

"I can't think of the next step. I know we have to keep going, but I just can't think to the next step. I keep thinking I can somehow go back and stop it, change it so that he'd be right here and not there, in that bed. Just last night, we were having dinner and he was showing me pictures of Falcon and his sisters." Scarlett sighed. Timber lay back down with his head once again in her lap. She stroked him gently.

"His family, they're on the way. Falcon told me Hawk called them. I can't imagine what that must have been like." Cover Girl sighed, pulling Scarlett into her shoulder.

"Falcon came here?" Scarlett smelled a combination of gasoline and perfume that was oddly pleasant.

"He came here. He was looking for you, really, but I figured you needed some time to yourself. He asked about you. Said he wanted to see you were OK. You know, he's not such a bad kid. Slaughter told me he did OK on Cobra Island, and he did manage to take out Serpentor's Night Raven with that mortar."

"He's more than he lets on. I'm seeing that now." Scarlett played with Timber's ear The fur on the back felt like velvet. "Duke's family. He used to talk about them, but he was always worried they could become targets, so never used names or showed me pictures. Not till last night." They should be here, in case... She stopped herself from finishing the thought. If she thought it, said it, considered it, it just might happen.

"Well, I can't say I've never wondered. It was kinda fun seeing your and Thunder, Shipwreck, Spirit, Quick-Kick and Gung Ho's families. I'd like to meet Duke's." Cover Girl let Scarlett go and sat back a bit. She brushed hair out of Scarlett's face. "I'll help you get ready before you meet his mother. I'm pretty sure you'll knock her socks off."

Scarlett laughed, despite herself. "Well, I hope so."

They sat quietly for several minutes, two women hanging on to each other, the wolf purring in his chest as Scarlett scratched the bridge of his nose. The silence wasn't uncomfortable. Scarlett turned to her friend. "Look, at least one of us needs to get some form of sleep, right?"

Cover Girl ducked her head to look into her eyes. "You sure you're going to be OK?"

"No." Scarlett scrubbed at her face with a wad of tissues. "But I'll make it till the morning now, thanks to you two. From there, I'll keep myself busy. Maybe there'll be some good news."

Cover Girl smiled and stood up. "I'm sure there will. Maybe not tomorrow, but, you know, soon. Hey, why don't you hang on to Timber? I'm pretty sure I couldn't get him to leave, anyhow."

"Sure." She did her best to smile back. "Goodnight. Thanks."

"Any time." Cover Girl paused halfway out the door. "Goodnight."

Scarlett watched the door close, and then flopped back on her bed. Timber rearranged himself so that he lay alongside her. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her head in his fur. She knew she couldn't find sleep, but she'd managed to find just enough peace to make it through the night.


Scarlett lowered herself next to Mutt in the briefing room. From under his seat, Junkyard whimpered and licked her hand. The dog handler turned to her, his eyes full of concern, and nodded. Mutt was never a talkative man, but, like his partner, he didn't need words to let people know what he felt. He put his hand over Scarlett's and squeezed. She placed her free hand over both and smiled her thanks to him. She knew, though, that now was not the time to dwell on her sorrow. Now was time for focus. For action. Dial Tone and Mainframe had zeroed in on the BET.

Hawk climbed to the podium and used his stick to point the map on the screen behind him. "Right here is where Roadblock and his team disappeared, weeks ago. Flint, Iceberg and Lifeline have been wandering around, searching for our men." The pointer hit another spot on the map with a thwack. "Right here is where Dial Tone locked in on an enormous burst of energy. We checked in with Flint during a break in some hairy weather up there. He confirms a huge burst of energy, heading skyward, at exactly the same time." Hawk's face fell. "We lost contact with him right after that, and haven't been able to re-establish it."

The room broke into random chatter. Scarlett saw Falcon in the front row. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared forward. Jinx and the Rawhides sat next to him.

"I'm not going to lie, Joes. We don't know exactly what we're going in to. We know exactly where, but not what." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "My field commander...my... best tactician is...Duke is..." Hawks eyes flicked from Falcon to Scarlett. She nodded at her C.O. "...is down. We're going to have to make do without him. For now. But I have perfect confidence that we are capable of bringing the BET home. Beach head has the ability to take up the slack. Our transport and hardware is ready. Insertion is prepped. Let's do this thing, Joes." Hawk grabbed his rifle and strode forward. "Prepare to move out."

Falcon stood, calmly brandishing his shotgun. "All I want is Serpentor." His voice was quiet, menacing. Scarlett had heard Duke sound the same way right before he threw himself into a fistfight. The calm before the storm. "Just give me one...Clear...Shot." He cocked the gun. Jinx stood from her chair, her hand in a fist.

"Not s'fast, Rawhide." Beach Head strode forward from where he had been leaning on the door. "You ain't going anyplace."

Hawk looked surprised. "Problem, Beach Head?"

The brawny Ranger turned from a glowering Falcon to the General. "Affirmative. Ahm not sure the Rawhides'r ready yet." He pointed to a glowering Falcon. "An' I'm 'specially not sho' 'bout him."

This is interesting. Scarlett glanced at Mutt and then back to the front of the room. What is Beach Head seeing that Hawk can't? She watched thoughtfully as the rest of the Rawhides rose in support of their comrade.

Falcon looked livid. "But Serpentor-"

"Beach Head is right." Hawk stepped up to stand in front of the surprised young Joes. "The six of you still lack experience."

Falcon took a step back from the general. "I have a right!" He jerked his thumb angrily at his chest. Scarlett could feel his rage wash over the room from where she sat.

Hawk was unaffected. He wasn't about to question Beach Head's assessment, he wasn't about to undermine the only field commander he had left.. "What you have is an order, G.I. Joe." Scarlett knew Falcon probably didn't notice, but Hawk had just granted him the one boon he could...No one had called the kid a Joe, not till right then. The General sighed, and put his hand on the kid's shoulder. "Besides, we need someone to guard the base and try to contact Flint."

Which is more important than any of them would know...Scarlett thought to herself. Did Falcon understand how vital it was to have contact with the eyes that had been all over those mountains for the last few weeks?

Falcon straightened up into attention. "Yes sir..." He didn't look happy, but he was done with arguing.

Mutt leaned towards Scarlett. "You comfy with that?"

Scarlett met his eye. "With what, Mutt?"

"Ya feel worse if the kid was with us watchin' our backs or back here watchin' our home?"

"Give him a chance, Mutt." Scarlett looked back down at Falcon, now sitting in his seat and glowering at his rifle. She'd seen that look of determination before, on another face. "I think he has more guts than we've given him credit for."

Mutt looked surprised. "Sure, if you say so."

Hawk's voice silenced the babble that had filled the room. "Grab your winter gear, check out your weapons, and get ready for transport, Joes. This is a full-on assault. We're throwing it all at them."

Scarlett stood and joined her team mates in checking out her cold weather clothing and weaponry. How long ago had she checked it in? When was it she and Duke had gotten back from the Himalayas? Now, she was checking her gear back out and going back there-without him. She stowed her winter gear and then checked out her rifle and crossbow.

It seemed like no time at all before they were all loaded and in the air. Scarlett sat in her web seat next to Cover Girl and fingered her arrows. One or two, Duke had put together for her. Mostly, he let them be surprises, but the last few, she had caught him making at his desk. There he sat, jewler's loupe in his eye, gunsmith toolkit open next to him, focused on an unfinished arrow in the rig in front of him so intently, he hadn't heard her walk in.

He jumped when she pulled the door shut behind her.

"Crap!" He'd looked up at her, loupe still in his eye. "Ah, you caught me, Red. So much for your birthday surprise." Duke took the loupe out of his eye and grinned sheepishly at her. "Well, part of it, anyhow. I've got a few less-lethal things up my sleeve."

She'd laughed. "I'm sure. So what do these do?"

Duke held up one of the arrows next to the rig. "This one? Its head explodes and fragments on impact with a soft target. Plays hell with the internal organs, I'd imagine." Duke had picked up another. "This one has a small vial and a plunger that activates once it stops forward momentum. You could use it to inject stuff. Whatever Doc'll lend ya." He pointed to the one in the rig. "and this...well, this one's not so fancy, but I'm fitting the head out with a small battery and electrodes so it tasers someone from the inside."

"That's brutal, Duke." Scarlett crossed her arms. "You can be pretty nasty, sometimes."

"To people who want to hurt you, Schatzie, yeah. If I'm not there to tear them apart myself, I damn well want to give you a few ways to play havoc with them for me." He'd looked at her. "Not that I don't think you're capable of that on your own."

Now here she was, on her own. Scarlett glanced around the bay of the cargo plane. Snowcats and Havoks fitted for arctic duty were strapped down tightly in the middle. Along each side, Joes sat in web seats. Some played poker. Some chatted with each other or read. A few stared off into nothing. Many had tried their best to get some sleep. The lights had been kept dim to encourage this. Hawk wanted his troops fresh for the battle.

Scarlett reached into her coat pocket and pulled out the small carved wooden animals she often carried with her. Every Joe packed a little something for good luck. In a pocket, a pouch. Some talisman for comfort and good luck. Duke had asked her for a lock of her hair not long after the first time they'd made love. She'd cut one and carefully worked it into a complex braid before giving it to him.

His eyes had sparkled when he saw it, and he'd kissed it and tucked it right away into the top pouch of his bandolier. In return, he'd taken his old pocket knife and a few finer tools and whittled and carved her the small talisman she now fingered. He'd been working for a long time, even taking them along with him on an insertion flight or two. He'd never let anyone get a close look at what he was carving, though she and other Joes had bugged him incessantly. He hid it all away as soon as anyone came near.

She held it in her gloved hand now; a rangy yellow wolf and a little red fox, curled sleeping around each other, as if getting warmth and comfort from one another. A yin and yang of loving mates. They twined around and completed one another.

Duke had finished them, boxed them up and wrapped them prettily as a long ago Valentine's day present. Scarlett remembered the day vividly. She hadn't known about the carving until nearly midnight. Flint had once again gone over the top for Lady Jaye, filling her gym locker, the apartment, and her usual breakfast table with dozens of roses, and then reciting a sonnet and presenting her with diamond earrings in front of everyone as she finished her oatmeal. Feeling outdone and embarrassed, Duke had shoved the box back in his pocket and slunk away to his office before Scarlett had sat down with her tray. He'd spent the day hiding behind paperwork and avoiding her.

Scarlett wondered all day long what he was doing. She had paid a friend at Leonard Wood in Missouri to ship her a case of his favorite hometown beer. She'd snuck it into his office as a surprise and was waiting for some sort of response. Receiving none, she'd stormed through his door at eleven that night to find him gazing out the window at the stars, deep in thought.

She'd stomped across the room to him, pointed out his beer, reviewed in detail the trouble she'd gone to, and demanded an explanation for his disappearing act and silence. Wordlessly, Duke had handed her the wrapped box and returned to his desk chair, heaving a heavy resigned sigh.

Scarlett had slowly removed the paper and lifted the lid to see the intricate carving inside.

"Duke." She lifted the entwined pair into her hand and caressed the carved and stained wood. "They're beautiful."

He avoided her eyes. "They're not good enough."

"They're perfect. Look at that intricate carving, all the detail. You did all this fancy woodwork for me. They're gorgeous. They're us." She walked behind him and wrapped her arms around his neck, the carving still in one hand.

He shifted and turned his head to look at her, his eyes sheepish. "They aren't enough...Red. You deserve something more special then plain carved wood."

"This is what you've been working on forever. I don't even know anyone else who can carve like this. You put hours of your own time into this, just for me. It's precious to me. It means more to me than something you could whip out a credit card and pay for in a second. It has love worked into it. I'm keeping them with me, always. They'll bring me luck. I love them."

"That's what I'd hoped for, Little Fox." Duke had reached to pull her into his lap. Their lips found each other. It was Valentine's day, after all. That night, they, too twined around each other lovingly.

Scarlett kissed the tiny wooden wolf's head and rubbed the even tinier fox on the back for luck, then stowed the pair back in her pocket. She kept her hand on them and settled back as best she could against the webbing and closed her eyes. With her mind distracted from the man on life support back home, and the sad eyes of his brother, the eyes she had seen watch the Joes climb into the planes and leave behind, she was able to slip away for a few hours rest.


Scarlett sat in her Snowcat, the canopy open to the cold. Around her, other Snowcats and Havoks sat, ready to move forwards. Before them lay a great glacier, beyond that the BET and revenge. They'd never been able to re-establish radio contact with Flint, but Dial Tone had been able to get them through the pass and to the doorstep of...of...

She didn't know exactly what, but she was perfectly aware that whatever answers she needed could be found lay beyond the cleft in that glacier. The cleft Leatherneck and Wet Suit were now lining with plastique. Scarlett and her fellow Joes watched and waited while they set the explosive in place and attached the det cord. Both of them began unspooling the cord back towards the unit. Scarlett could hear them bickering. Their voices rose and the bickering escalated to arguing as they backed closer.

"Next time I work with a SEAL, I want the trained kind that balances a ball on his nose." Letherneck managed to sound like he was muttering, even at the tops of his lungs.

"At least they know which end of a fuse to light, jarhead."

"You don't light det cord, Dumbass."

"You do, you stupid gyrene." Wet Suit attached his cord to the detonator switchbox.

"You lookin' for a fat lip, Wet Suit?"

"It's better'n a fat head..."

Scarlett sighed. Duke would have stopped this three insults ago...She watched both men begin to posture, facing off. Hawk intervened.

"The enemy is inside right?" The General sounded Joes spun and snapped to attention.

"Yessir!" The two responded in harmony.

"Then blow that glacier and let's stomp serpent!"

Leatherneck attached his det cord to the detonator and thumbed the toggle up to release the safety. He punched the the switch and the plastique went off with a bang that probably started several avalanches.

Rubble fell. The smoke cleared. The way was open.

"Move it!" Hawk bellowed from his Snowcat and thrust his finger at the jagged opening. "Yo Joe!"

The column took up the battle cry and surged forward. Scarlett sat back in her Snowcat, lowered the canopy, and gunned it through the chasm and over a stone bridge. She came into the eerie light on the other side to see the largest, oddest plant ever. It was something out of a science fiction movie. Huge segmented trunks towered above them, each one capped with a sharp looking forked set of spikes. From the base of each plant, thinner green tendrils, vines really, wound by the hundreds around and up each trunk. Scarlett climbed from her Snowcat, continuing the assault on foot with her unit. As she watched, she could swear the tendrils, the trunks themselves were writhing. An odd sound, like fingers moving across a balloon, accompanied their swaying.

But they're plants. Some sort of forest. Like the one outside. We'll be through them in minutes.

She heard Hawk begin to bellow a second before she reached the 'treeline'.

"Get back! Halt!Watch out! GET BACK!"

Scarlett turned to look back over her shoulder at the General. He was waving his arms and shouting from his Snowcat, back on the stone bridge. All around her, the Joes began to cry out in surprise. Scarlett felt something slither over her foot. She looked down just in time to see a tendril as thick as her arm wrap around her ankle. Bastard! She unsheathed her combat knife...the tendril suddenly tightened, it's grip like iron, and Scarlett was swung skywards. She felt the vines slipping around her body, trapping her arms against her. The vines were covered in hundreds of tiny barbs that rasped her skin. She felt something cold flow into her, and began to feel faint

No! No! We were close! We're here!

She watched her team mates struggle, but the all were ensnared. Her last vision was of Hawk, tumbling out of his snowcat to evade the vines that had shattered the canopy. Then he, too was trapped, pulled into the plants and cocooned by the vines.

A final vine wrapped her head and Scarlett was firmly bound against the trunk. Before she lost consciousness, she thought of the man back home, tied to machines.

Duke...I'm s-


Consciousness his Scarlett like a freight train. She gasped and blinked. She found herself on her back, staring up at the ice dome. Above her, the plant swayed and writhed, dropping a harvest of lifeless Joes. They hit the ground with sickening thuds. Scarlett felt the iron grip of the tendrils around her own body loosen, then slip away as they withered. Sound came back to her again, fading in from nothing to eardrum splitting explosions. She heard hollering. Her back, the back of her head- both screamed in pain.

Scarlett slowly propped herself up, putting her hand to her head. She took stock of her injuries, twisting and feeling over herself; her torso arms and legs seemed fine.

No broken bones. Maybe some heavy bruises in the muscles.

The noise continued around her. She was shocked to find her rifle next to her. Plants don't disarm their prisoners.

The battle...

She looked around. Footloose, Leatherneck and Beach Head were both getting to their feet. And ahead of her...

Quick Kick? Here... So where's...

Roadblock was off in the distance. Scarlett watched the big man fling a Viper into an army of...she didn't know what. Beside him were Flint and Iceberg. The Rawhides? They were there too.

Falcon!

The Green Beret rode a Swapfire with Lifeline and Chuckles. Out of nowhere, a wad of the same white tentacles that had bedeviled them around the BET slapped onto the rotors, tangling within them and stalling the chopper. It slammed into the ground, the Joes managing to bail out before impact. They flung themselves to the dirt.

Scarlett stood, hefting her rifle. Around her, Quick Kick, Footloose, Leatherneck, Spirit and Beach Head brandished their weapons.

"We're not finished!" Scarlett yelled.

"Rahhht!" Beach Head bellowed. "Less go! Less do this thang!"

"Yo Joe!" They cried in unison. It sounded ridiculous outside of battle, sometimes. Especially to anyone not in the unit. But when the bullets were flying, when the fear and thrill of the fight was highest, it helped everyone focus their energy, anger and rage to have something to holler. It rallied them every time.

Scarlett and the Joes charged into the fray. She saw that everyone had made it off the plant OK. She saw the Joes that had disappeared into the pass over a month ago. They joined with the Hawk and his team, then joined again with Flint's team and the Renegades. Now, Cobra and their otherworldly allies were fighting the entire unified Joe force.

The only Joes missing are in the hospital. Scarlett thought as she took out a strange trooper with a headshot. Alpine, Gung Ho and Bazooka were still recovering. Doc was back home, watching over them. Them... and Duke.

Angrily, she spun with a kick to knock a Snow Serpent back into two strange guardsmen. Rock N Roll hefted his machine gun and brought down all three with a ribbon of bullets.

Scarlett shot one Viper, then used the butt of her rifle on another. She watched Quick Kick take one down with a classic boot to the head. Wet Suit caught a fist to the face, but Leatherneck was right there to back him up. Cover Girl kicked a Cobra regular in the solar plexus, then dropped to trip another as Scarlett socked him in the jaw. Flint and Jaye sandwiched two vipers between them and took them down hard. All around her, Joes were shooting, knifing, kicking and going all out in hand to hand. Blood and bullets were everywhere.

She heard Falcon cry out. "General Hawk, we've gotta shut down the BET!"

"Then let's do it soldier! Joes! Move it!" The Joes formed up to sweep over Cobra and their freakish cohorts, Hawk at the lead. They washed across a wide parade ground and towards stone bridges carved to look like giant insects. Quick Kick pulled up suddenly, eyes wide.

"That's not rock!"

The bridge began to move, raising it's head to look at the approaching Joes with multifaceted eyes. It turned to regard Slaughter, who was already halfway across. Scarlett held her breath as the Sergeant's rifle refused to fire...jammed. He roared and used it as a club, breaking it over the insect's head. The beast howled and collapsed back into place.

"Come on!" Sgt. Slaughter growled, and Scarlett joined the others to rush across, using a 360 kick to knock a guardsman into the chasm as she passed. He cried out as he plummeted.

Bastards. All of you.

She rushed across the insect bridge. And then another, larger one. Right as she stepped off, it slipped, the supports becoming legs. The Joes were split in two, but only momentarily, as the space beneath the bridge was more of a large ditch than anything. Some sort of wash to bring in water. Assured her team would be able to reassemble, she kept going, using her rifle to take out as many of the enemy as she could and her feet and hands to take out the rest. She had no time to load her crossbow. All around her, the architecture and agriculture was coming to life in defense.

"Joes! Head for the palace!"

Hawk pointed to a massive tower, covered in spikes and horns and what looked to be giant insect eyes and terraced ledges. From the largest terrace, a plume of energy coursed skyward. Scarlett could smell burning ozone.

The BET!

Scarlett watched Spirit wrestle with a Viper and one of the strange Cobra allies. The big man was holding his own, but it was becoming clear that he wouldn't be able to keep it up for long, even with Freedom's help. There was no way she could shoot without risking hitting Spirit or his eagle. Scarlett double-timed it to where they fought, pulling out her combat knife and plunging it into the Viper's back. The man fell, and Spirit was able to get a handle on his own knife and fling it into the freakish trooper. It stumbled, but didn't fall. Spirit tackled the reeling creature. Scarlett climbed on top and finished it off.

Spirit helped her up from the corpse. There was no time to wipe the blood from her hands. She looked off to where Hawk had lead his troops. Slaughter and a few of the Rawhides flanked him, Chuckles using his sidearm and a bazooka to cover their charge.

"Let's go, Spirit, the fight's that way."

Spirit nodded and followed her, grumbling as they ran. "This place...this very place is alive. The people are one with their home. There is great anger here. Great anger and evil."

"You can say that again." They both started following the others as they climbed to column up towards where the BET spat pure energy into the sky. "And we're only making it madder."

They reached the terrace. Scarlett pulled herself over the lip and stopped.

Spiders. It had to be spiders. Why does it have to be spiders?

A few small arachnids she could have handled with mild distaste. Swarms of average-sized ones she would have gritted her teeth and dealt with. There were only two, but two was enough. These beasts turned her stomach. They were huge, each bigger than a Havok. They were huge, they were growling and they were angry.

These can't be saved with a glass and a playing card, Duke. These are not a farmer's friend. Dammit, Duke, this is not funny.

She was certain though; if he had been there, he'd have found it amusing. Someone finally found the one thing that could stop Scarlett O'Hara in her tracks.

Falcon, Slaughter, Hawk and Jinx Stood next to what looked like a giant dead earwig, blasting away at the eight-legged beasts. Every so often, they would turn a gun around and bash one with the stock of their rifle. Scarlett watched as Slaughter momentarily stunned one that way and slipped by to dash off towards the BET. Hawk saw it too. Scarlett and Spirit came up behind him, adding their guns to the fight.

Hawk nodded to her, then called out to Jinx and Falcon.

"Shut down the BET! We'll keep this party going! Scarlett, Spirit, back me up!"

Scarlett, Hawk and Spirit began skipping shots back and forth across the spiders' eyes. Blinded, distracted, the creatures were unable to stop the two Rawhides from slipping by to follow Slaughter.

"Scarlett, we have to keep the outer defenses occupied so those three have time." Hawk managed to shoot through a leg. It's owner squealed dropped back, huddling. The General took the opportunity to glance back at her.

Scarlett took a shot at the second spider and looked around at the battle beyond the ledge. Giant insects and freakish footsoldiers, Vipers and Cobra Troopers battled with Joes. Huge mothish, firefly like creatures flitted through the air. But it looked like the Joes were holding their own.

"We can hold out, General Hawk. I can't say for how long...but we can hold out."

Chuckles finally made it over the lip of the ledge, the bazooka in one hand, a Viper on his back. He pilled himself to standing, grabbed the Viper's arm and flung him backwards into open air.

"Chuckles, take out that thing!" Scarlett pointed to the spider on seven legs, then resumed her attack on the whole one. Chuckles shouldered the bazooka, and blasted his target's head into a storm of flash and goo. The body collapsed.

Spirit cheered. "I hope there are no giant roaches."

Hawk fired a shot and looked to his infantryman. "Why?"

"They can live ten days without their head. The central nervous system is in their main body. They only die when they starve from a lack of food."

Scarlett grimaced. "Ugh." She managed to shoot out a mandible, and the remaining mega arachnid squealed in pain. "You know the most random shit, Spirit."

"I watch a lot of Public Television. I have a subscription to 'Scientific American'." He shot out the remaining mandible. Chuckles had reloaded his bazooka by then, and he sent the last giant spider to meet its friend in a flurry of arachniguts.

Hawk stood on the edge of the terrace and rallied his troops. "Keep fighting, Joes! Two legs or a hundred, take them all down!"

The whole team roared and redoubled their efforts. Scarlett and Spirit knelt on the edge of the terrace and began picking off enemy troops, one by one. Chuckles reloaded his sidearm and joined them, now and again pausing to blast at a giant insect with his bazooka. He took out two wasps and five beetles before he ran out of rockets. It was an advantageous position, and Scarlett didn't see any point in leaving. Hawk agreed with her-she watched as he used both of his sidearms on the enemy below. Eventually, they were joined by Stalker, Snow Job and Low Light. The sniper grinned as he settled in with his rifle. The two others on either side of him. All three began systematically taking down enemy troops.

"Like shooting fish in a barrel." He purred as he took out one enemy after another. "Couldn't ask for a better nest."

Scarlett took out a few troopers, then stopped to reload. She watched as Snake Eyes whisked through a unit of the freakish Himalayan infantry. It was superb. It was a dance. If he hadn't been slaughtering the enemy, she would have called it performance art. Most of them died before they even knew what hit them. Whoever didn't, Timber finished off as he trailed behind his master.

Cover Girl was right to bring him along. Reuniting those two was the best thing we could have done. Dammit, Snake's as good as he ever was.

She took minute to admire the work of one of her closest friends and then took aim once more.

Bang.

Viper.

Bang.

Snow Serpent.

Bang.

Crimson Guardsman

Bang.

Whatever the Hell that was.

Just for fun, she unslung her crossbow and quiver and threw a few arrows into the fray.

The first one was a thermal arrow. She loved those. Sure, they were good for lighting up a dark spot, or blowing up an enemy vehicle. But they also did a satisfying amount of damage to giant dragonflies.

Oh yeah.

She took out more than a few with a couple of plain square-tipped arrows. Not all were lethal shots, but every single one was painful. She managed to catch several troopers on the edge of the chasm, knocking them back into it.

Scarlett fingered Duke's "shrapnel" arrow. It did a good job of dropping the Crimson Guardsman who had been about to ambush Cover Girl from behind. The Wolverine diver peered up at the ledge, then gave Scarlett a "thumbs up" and flung herself back into the fray.

Right. Next?

Scarlett loaded the taser arrow, pulling out the small plastic strip to activate the battery inside. It was live.

"Holy crap!"

She looked around in surprise. It was the first thing she'd heard out of Chuckles' mouth, ever. He stumbled back a few steps, yanking his foot from the hands of one of the odd Himalayan troopers. The thing had a snout and bug-like eyes like all the rest, but up close Scarlett saw it wasn't his face, it was a mask of some sort. The trooper began to pull itslef over the edge.

Scarlett launched the arrow right into its face. It caught the thing right between the eyes, and the taser activated. The creature's fingers grabbed tightly to the ledge, and it quivered as the electricity ran through it. She saw smoke rising from its head. Then both eye coverings burst and it fell limply back, fried.

That wasn't a taser. What kind of amperage did you give that thing, Duke?

Spirit stood at the edge, looking down. "Scarlett, that was spectacular." Freedom landed on his shoulder, talons digging in.

"Yeah, well, I'd like to say I knew that was going to happen." She took stock of the remaining arrows in her quiver. A few normal barbed heads and three grappling arrows for climbing. "Here, grab onto this for me, and don't let go." She handed Spirit the end of a line and loaded the grappling arrow that went with it. Freedom launched into the air. "Chuckles, help anchor him." The large Rawhide figured out what she was up to and, grinning, wrapped his arms around Spirit's waist and digging in.

Scarlett launched the arrow at a passing mutant wasp. It hit dead center and the grapples deployed inside the carapace. The line quickly grew taught. Spirit hung on, muscles bulging, teeth gritted. Both he and Chuckles had enough weight and strength to avoid being yanked skyward. The Native American gave a mighty yank, bellowing. The wasp was pulled into an arc and collided with the stone column head-first with a disgustingly wet crunch. Freedom swooped past, screeching angrily.

"Hell, that was great." Scarlett laughed. "Let's do that again!"

The next time, they took out what appeared to be a large flying beetle. As it crunched into the wall, it gave out a fetid cloud of stench. Everyone on the terrace grimaced

"OK, not so great, but still satisfying!" Scarlett covered her mouth and nose to prevent herself from gagging.

Suddenly, the plume of electricity disappeared. The BET had shut down. Scarlett turned to Hawk. Stalker and Snow Job stood and looked around, confused. Below them, the battle still raged.

"Is that it?" Hawk pondered. "Have they done it? Maybe..." He peered through the tunnel Falcon, Jinx and Slaughter had dashed through. "It seems..."

Suddenly, the plume returned, three times as large. It blasted a massive hole in the ice dome above them. The crackle turned into a roar.

Hawk's eye's widened. "Go! Go! Get out! Now!" He waved them towards the ledge. "Over, down and out Joes!"

Scarlett wasted no time swinging over and scrambling down, nor did her team mates. Looking back up, she saw Hawk start down, followed by a two wild-eyed Rawhides and Sergeant Slaughter. Falcon had lost his beret. Slaughter's brown round was still balanced atop his head.

I swear he glues it there. Scarlett mused.

"Run! It's going to blow!" Falcon lost his grip and slid, but managed to catch himself, climbing down to where he could drop safely. He met her eyes, briefly. "The BET's going to blow!"

A massive explosion confirmed it. Scarlett watched as the entire palace broke loose of the column and fell, beams of energy blasting through the walls in all directions. She didn't wait for it to hit.

No one did.

Joes, Cobras and whatever else that survived ran to escape the collapsing ice dome. Huge chunks broke loose and shattered whatever they encountered on their plummet to the ground. Bridges, buildings, creatures, people.

The Joes regrouped and retraced their way out past the carnivorous forest and towards the pass on the other side of the glacier. Cover Girl came up beside Scarlett, running with her. She saw Jaye fall, her face sliding against the dirt. In no time, Flint caught her up under the armpits an brought her to her feet, pausing a half second the shoot her a lopsided grin before they fled towards safety.

Around them, Vipers, troopers, and odd blue-skinned people ran, frenzied and desperate to get out. She saw the Dreadnocks in a group. Destro and the Baroness were not far behind. The fight was given up for flight.

Scarlett made it past the glacier wall and flung herself into a snow bank. She heard Hawk and the other three behind her. A huge explosion echoed through the passageway. The General took a breath and bellowed.

"Hit the dirt!"

And then the shockwave hit them. Scarlett felt it push through her body. Debris landed all around.

And then it was quiet.

"That tears it. Dammit sir, I want a transfer to Tahiti." Scarlett sat up and turned around to see Shipwreck shaking the snow from his cap and then wipe slush from his beard. Next to him, Iceberg sat up, chuckling.

"What are you complaining about? Can't handle a little snow?" He scooped a handful and threw it into the sailor's face.

All around, Joes were rising from snowbanks and climbing out from under rubble. Dead mutant insects were scattered across the floor of the pass, legs curled. Enemy troops both kinds, found the nearest Joes and surrendered.

Cover Girl's hand grabbed Scarlett's shoulder.

"Look at that. All the fight's gone out of them." She laughed.

"Yeah. Well, they know they're through." Scarlett looked around. She saw what must have been civilians. Elderly men and women. Children with their mothers. They looked lost. A few broke down into sobs and wails. Enemy Himalayan soldiers took off their masks and went to search for family to provide comfort.

They're through. All of them. From enemy to homeless refugee in seconds.

Destro, the Baroness, Mindbender, the Crimson Twins. Dreadnocks. Storm Shadow. Scarlett looked for them. She saw Thrasher and Zandar being cuffed by Law and Mutt. Snake Eyes had Monkeywrench. The others were nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly, Dial-Tone's radio crackled to life.

"General Hawk! Doc to General Hawk. Do you read?" Static took over, and then the voice returned. "General Hawk, do you read me? Do you read? This is Doc at headquarters!"

Scarlett had never heard Doc sound so excited.

Hawk moved closer to his telecommunications man, who was unslinging his rig from his back. "Turn it up, soldier. I can't hear him very well over this ringing in my ears." He laughed.

Dial-Tone nodded and twiddled a few knobs.

"Great news!" Doc's voice caught the attention of all the Joes. "Duke's come out of his coma!"

Scarlett's heart nearly stopped.

"Duke's come out of his coma! I just left his room. He's awake!"

Scarlett could hear riotous cheering through the speaker. The people in the hospital with Doc were going nuts.

Duke...Duke you stayed for me.

Scarlett couldn't stop the tears. She looked to the General, he was talking to Slaughter.

"Looks like we made it, Sergeant. All of us." Hawk turned to his troops. They stood, waiting next words. "Men! Doc says Duke's going to be A OK!"

The cheers were deafening. Scarlett and Cover Girl embraced, then Bill wrapped his arms around both, only to be joined by Gung-Ho and Ace. Tunnel Rat socked Big Lob in the belly, and the tall athlete hefted up his shorter pal and flung him around. Both dogs and Timber capered and barked, caught up in the excitement. Relief and joy collided in a cacophony of celebration. Scarlett saw Flint pull Jaye to his lips. A few feet away, Falcon and Jinx were doing the same, laughing. Scarlett reached into her jacket pocket and took out her talisman. The wolf and fox had come through with her, wrapped around each other.

Soon, My Love. I'll be there by your side soon.

"Come on, Joes, let's go." Hawk slapped Slaughter on the shoulder. The Joes gathered themselves, their prisoners and their vehicles to make the trek back to the C-130s and, eventually, home.


Scarlett stood in front of the door. He was in there. He was awake. She knew she should just walk through and see him. She'd declared she would, she'd had every intention of rushing in and taking whatever part of him she could into her arms... but something was stopping her from taking those few short steps to get inside.

His family. They were all in there. She could hear them. Falcon had gone in, Jinx at his side, and been greeted with warm cries of joy. Hawk had gone in and come out, a gentle satisfied smile on his face. Duke was in there. Duke had woken up. He was there, just through that door. Just a few steps. But his mother was there. His sisters. His stepfather. The rest of his life. The bit she wasn't a part of. He had nearly been torn from them.

What right do I have to go in there? How can I possibly walk in there with them? I'll just wait till they leave.

The thought occurred to her that, most likely, they would sit with him till visiting hours were over. Perhaps his mother would even stay through the night. But Scarlett just couldn't overcome the feeling that she didn't belong.

Did he even tell them about me?

Scarlett decided to wait a little longer. She took a few steps back, trying to ignore the tears on her face.

Why am I acting so stupid?

She took another step back, turned, and ran right into Nurse Matthews.

"Scarlett! There you are!" The head nurse smiled at her. "Where have you been?"

Cover Girl, who had been sitting on a chair in the hall watching the whole performance, crossed her arms and shook her head. "She's been right here. Or, in the hospital anyways. It took me forever to drag her this far." She snorted. "I have no clue what's gotten into her. You don't know what it was like prying her out of our quarters and across town. Jaye shoved. I pulled."

Nurse Matthews looked surprised. "This is Scarlett, right? The woman who took out three orderlies in her way last year? The woman who incapacitates Vipers for fun?" She put her hands on Scarlett's shoulders. "Scarlett? Are you in there?"

"It's still me."

Nurse Matthews pointed to the doorway. "Then why on Earth aren't you in there?"

"It's…He nearly…Falcon…His family…" She sighed and gave up trying to explain. "I don't belong in there."

"Bullshit." Cover Girl jumped to her feet. "Bullshit!"

Nurse Matthews gripped her shoulders and shook her a little. "I agree. Bullshit, O'Hara. You belong in there as much as anyone else. More."

Scarlett broke free of her grip. "That's his family."

Nurse Matthews rolled her eyes. "Yes, and the Joes are his family, too. You're all his family. Let me tell you one thing. I was there right after he woke up. There was only one name he even tried to call out, breathing tube down his throat and all. Only one name, Scarlett. He cried out for you."

The world stopped.

I've been a fool.

"He's waiting for you, Scarlett. I was supposed to dose him with more painkiller half an hour ago. He's been refusing, because he knows it'll knock him right back out. I won't say he's completely conscious, but he wants to hang on to what he's got until he sees for himself that you're back safe. I was just on my way to force this on him." She held up an IV bag. "Better get in there, because, really, I can't leave him to feel much more pain."

Jinx popped out of the room. Her eyes lit up when she saw Scarlett. "Oh, good. I was just on my way to find you!"

That's it. Forget this. What have I been doing?

Scarlett crushed her doubts, pulled herself together, and walked through the doorway. The room was full. Four people who looked sort of like Duke turned to gaze at her. Falcon sat in a chair by the bed. A slim girl who couldn't have been more than nineteen sat on its arm, her elbow resting on his shoulder. Her long black hair hung loose past her shoulders. Although she was a few years older now, Scarlett recognized her as Jennifer from the photograph Duke had shown her at dinner. Sprawled over the foot of the bed was a young girl in spectacles, her hair pulled into a braid down her back. Rabbit? Drew? The girl grinned and waved. On the right side of the bed, across from Falcon, sat a slim woman in her early fifties. Duke had said his mother had him when she was nineteen or so.

A man with silvering hair stood looking out the window, his face hidden from her. Duke's stepfather Jack. Scarlett knew he had served his own time in Special Forces.

Duke.

He lay almost in the same position he had been when she left; flat on his back, his arms at his sides. The wires and tubes ran from under the sheet to various ports and bags. The breathing tube for the ventilator was taped into his mouth, and Scarlett could hear the whoosh of the bellows. His eyes were shut. There was several days' worth of stubble on his face and his hair was mussed. But his skin had color and he somehow seemed more substantial. His left hand clutched his mother's. She looked again at his face. His eyes winced and then relaxed.

"Hey!" Drew rolled over on her stomach, still waving. "Hey! Scarlett!" The man at the window turned around, smiling. He looked a lot like Falcon.

The young Green Beret sat up. "Where were you?"

Scarlett couldn't look away from Duke's face. Cover Girl's voice came from behind her. "She was terrified. We've never come this close...to losing him, I mean. There's been a few close ones, but nothing like this. I don't blame her for being scared to see him. I'm not sure she believes he's OK."

Falcon growled angrily. "She makes about as much sense as he does."

"Shut up, Falcon. It's hard to see someone you love hooked up to all this stuff."

"Bite me. How do you think it feels for him?"

"Falcon!" Jinx sounded dismayed.

Scarlett ignored them all. "Is he asleep? Should I wake him?" She saw his eyes barely open, two tiny slits of blue that flicked towards her.

"Scarlett, dear, go ahead an take my chair, it's away from his wound, and more comfortable than the others." Duke's mother stood and indicated the large padded chair.

Falcon scowled. "No, Mamma, you shouldn't have to get up…"

"Hush, Vincent. You're not helping. The mannered thing would be to introduce us all, since your brother can't."

Falcon sighed. "Sorry, Mamma. Cover Girl, Scarlett…" He looked at her. Scarlett saw the anger ebb from his face when he saw hers. "I'm sorry, Scarlett. That was stupid. It's just...well, he's been waiting for you. He doesn't believe you're." Falcon collected himself with a deep breath. "Look, this is our mother-"

Scarlett nodded. "Ma'am"

"Call me Jane, dear."

"My Pop-"

"Sir." She shook his hand.

"Jack. To you, I'm Jack."

"Our sister, Jennifer." Falcon jerked his thumb at the oldest girl.

The teenager smiled. "Hello." She lightly took Scarlett's hand.

"And the dinky one currently putting Duke's feet to sleep is Drew."

The youngster pushed herself up to her elbows and waved. "Hi!"

Scarlett wasn't sure what to say or do. She looked around the room. With the exception of Jack, they all shared the same eyes. Jack Falcone stood ramrod straight, years of military service ingrained to the core, but he smiled amiably enough.

Duke's mother smiled and held out a hand. "Scarlett, please. Take my chair. He's been asking for you. He's in and out of consciousness right now, but I know he already knows you're here. Please, sit. He needs to see you. He's desperately worried that you were hurt."

Grateful for the friendly gesture, Scarlett made her way across the room and to the proffered chair. As she passed, Duke's mother touched her arm and smiled warmly. "Sit. Please. Scarlett... You have no idea how long I've wanted to meet you."

"Thank you." She lowered herself next to Duke. His chest rose and fell with the whoosh of the ventilator. It was a wonderful sight.

"You know, I'm getting kind of hungry. Why don't we go try and find something to eat, troops? How about that pizza place we saw on the way to the hotel last night?" Jack made a move for the doorway.

"Sure, Pop." Jennifer agreed. "I'm starving."

"Pizza! With anchovies!" Drew waved a fist over her head. She glanced up the bed at Duke. "You don't want pineapple, right?"

Duke's right eyebrow arched.

Jack laughed. "I don't think your big brother has a say in this one."

"Vince?" Jennifer looked to her brother. "Can you come with us?"

"Yeah. I'm not on duty." Falcon glanced at Duke, then his mother, then Scarlett. "I'm pretty famished. Jinx," Falcon grinned at the martial artist. "Wanna come?"

"I bet she does." Jennifer grinned.

"Come with us, Jinx! " Drew sat up on the bed and gave a thumbs up.

Jinx smiled. "Sure." Scarlett felt a twinge of jealousy.

"Cover Girl?" Drew apparently knew several Joes on sight.

"Nah, that's OK, I think I'll hang around outside for a bit. I love hospitals." Cover Girl leaned against the wall.

"Scarlett, I hope you don't mind. It's been a long time since lunch. We'll be back." Duke's mother rubbed Scarlett's shoulder. "You can come, please do. But I think Conrad would prefer you stay and keep him company." She nodded to her son. " I know he would. We might as well leave you alone for a while." Her smile widened, and she picked up her purse. "If you want, we can bring something back for you."

"Thank you, but I think I'll be OK." Scarlett couldn't help but return the smile.

Jane nodded again and then leaned down to her firstborn son. "Conrad, we're going out for a bite to eat. I'll be back later, Kleiner. I'm going to stay with you all night again to keep you company. " She gently stroked his hair. "Okay? You'll be fine, you've got your Scarlett here now. We'll leave you two." She kissed his cheek. Scarlett heard Duke sigh deeply through his nose.

Duke's stepfather came up behind his wife and laid a hand on Duke's shoulder. "Back soon, Champ." He led the way out the door, nodding to Cover Girl as he left. Falcon grabbed Jinx's hand to bring up the rear. He caught Scarlett's eye on the way and nodded, a half smile on his lips. Jane Falcone put her hand on her youngest daughter's head and nodded to Jennifer. "Let's go, girls."

Jennifer walked over to Duke and kissed him loudly on both cheeks. Scarlett listened as she whispered in his ear. "See you later, Con. Hang in there, stud." He nodded, just once, but he nodded.

Drew slid off the bed and walked up to the head. She suddenly climbed up and cuddled against his chest, avoiding the wounded side. "Wish you could come, Duke. I'll bring you back a slice." Scarlett watched, a thrill traveling through her body as Duke's arm slowly move to curl around her.

I never thought I'd see him move again.

"Drew…" Jennifer stopped at the door. "He can't have pizza yet. You know that. There's a tube in his throat. He's eating through the one in his arm."

"Hey don't say that. He's got to have something to look forwards to, right?" Drew looked up at Scarlett and grinned. "You know, he asked for you. I heard it. Yeah, it was all around that tube and sounded sort of like 'Scrrrrcchhh'. But what else would he say, right?"

Scarlett laughed, despite herself. "Thanks."

"Yeah! Anyhow. We'll be back later. Mamma convinced them to let us stay late. But we can't all stay the whole night like Mama. They won't let me stay. We've got to go back to the hotel again with Pop. I have to share a room with Jennifer." She leaned forward, her eye serious and whispered. "She snores almost as loud as Vince."

"Drew…"

"I'm coming, hang on." Drew slid of the bed and followed Jennifer. She stopped by the door and looked up at Cover Girl. "He says you make sailors blush."

"That is true." Cover Girl folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the door frame.

"Cool." Drew followed her mother and older sister out the doorway.

Cover Girl walked over to Duke's bedside. "Duke. I know you can hear me. I've watched those blues pop open a few times." She turned to Scarlett. "I bet you anything in less than a week you'll be driving Matthews crazy." Her hand touched his. "You came close, Top. Don't do that again."

Scarlett was no fool. She had been completely aware that for a short time, Cover Girl had been considering a try at their master sergeant. But it had been more of a whim than a resolution. Cover Girl squeezed Duke's hand. Scarlett saw his eyes open again, and he slowly turned his head to one side, then the other.

"Right. I'll be in the lounge, Scarlett. Plenty of riveting magazines to keep me busy. Let me know when you're ready to go."

"Sure." She reached out and found Duke's hand with her own.

"See you later, then. I'll come back, Duke. There are a lot of people who are waiting to visit you." Cover Girl left, and Scarlett was finally alone with him.

She leaned close, clasping his hand. "Duke." His eyes flicked halfway open, and turned to her. She saw his brows rise. He tried to say something around the breathing tube. "Shhh, no, it's OK. Relax." With a gentle touch, she stroked his hair back off his forehead. "There you are, my love. You scared the Hell out of me." She kissed his hand. He sighed, and his eyelids dropped closed as she continued to caress his head. "Don't you do that to me again, do you hear me, Duke? Don't you dare."

His eyes opened one more. He tried again to speak. Frustrated, he weakly reached a hand towards the tube. She used both hands to grab it. "Uh uh. Nothing doing. You'll have to leave that in 'till Doc's good and ready. I imagine that will be pretty soon." She released his hand, only to see him reach for it again. "No you don't." She stopped him again, his hand clasped in hers. "There'll be plenty of time to talk."

Weak as he was, he managed to get his hand free. He reached up and touched her cheek, tentatively. She smiled as his fingertips brushed over her cheek to her lips. She grabbed his wrist to hold him there, and kissed each of his fingertips, then turned his hand over and kissed his knuckles. Scarlett twined her fingers through his and leaned down and kissed his forehead, then the tip of his nose. She sat up, and saw he was doing his best to smile around the breathing tube. A tear ran down his cheek. Scarlett leaned down and kissed it away.

"Happy to see me, huh? I'm sorry I made you wait. I wanted to be here when you woke up." She scooted the chair as close as she could get and leaned against the bed. "We were stuck in the Himalayas. You won't believe what we found up there."

Duke winced again, his hand clasping hers, then sighed as the pain let up. Scarlett leaned over and pressed the call button. Nurse Matthews had chosen to give her time with him before the next bag of painkiller, but Scarlett felt it cruel to leave him too long.

"You're hurting, aren't you?" She caressed his hand, then up his arm to his shoulder. Duke's eyes opened to slits again, and he nodded, once. "It's OK, my love, Nurse Matthews will be here soon, and she'll make sure the pain goes away."

Duke slowly shook his head in the negative. He tried to reach for her with his other hand.

"No, Duke, you have no say in this. You're can't keep suffering. You need the sleep, anyhow. It'll help you recover. So sleep."

He shook his head again, gripping her hand. He tried to say something around the tube. A strangled grunt was the best he could manage, and Scarlett could see it frustrated him. She used both hands to rub his, feeling the familiar roughness of the calluses on his palms.

"Sorry. For once, I get to order you around." His eyes opened wider, and he looked angry. He grunted again. Scarlett laughed. "Don't try it with me, buster, I have the upper hand. You can't pull rank flat on your back." She softened her voice. "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere." Scarlett put her hand on his cheek, feeling the rough stubble as she caressed him. "I'll be here, and if you want, I'll just keep kissing you 'till you fall asleep." She moved her hand to his far cheek and kissed the close one three times, the stubble prickly against her lips. "And once they take that breathing tube out, well, I'll kiss you even more."

Duke winced again, and his legs slowly kicked as another bolt of pain shot through him. Then he relented with another slow nod.

"It's really time for more, sergeant." Nurse Matthews stood in the door, IV bag in hand.

"Go on, please, My Love.." Scarlett smiled at Duke, brushing his hair back with one hand while she held his hand in the other. "It's OK, Duke, the pain will be gone, soon. You sleep, just sleep. It's OK to sleep now." She kissed him as promised, on the hand, on the cheek, on his forehead.

Nurse Matthews hooked the bag to the stand, attached the line to the drip already in his arm, and opened the flow. "It will hit him pretty fast through the IV. It's strong stuff. He'll be out in a few minutes."

Scarlett nodded, but didn't look away from Duke. His eyes held hers lovingly. She kissed him again and again on the back of his hand and the cheek as the painkiller ran through his body, washing away the hurt and putting him under. His eyes slowly closed and his head fell to one side.

"I waited forever for him to wake up, and we've just put him right back to sleep." Scarlett wasn't sure if she should laugh or cry.

Nurse Matthews came around and put a hand on her shoulder. "I know. But this is a good sleep, Scarlett. This is healing sleep. He's safe. He's not going anywhere, and he's only going to get stronger from here." She took a few notes from the readouts and checked his pulse. "That big strong heart of his is just pounding away. This one gets back up on his feet pretty quickly."

"He does." Although he had slipped into slumber, his hand still held firmly to hers. His face looked relaxed; no more wincing or bearing down on the pain. "I would like to stay with him, though."

"Of course you would. Take as long as you need." Nurse Matthews left, pushing the large door to as she did.

Scarlett sat watching him breathe for what seemed like forever. She switched on the television for a little background noise. After a while, Doc came in, followed by a slim bearded man in a white coat.

"Scarlett, Matthews told me you were here." Doc's calm voice had soothed many a soldier. Scarlett couldn't help but smile at him.

"Cover Girl's around somewhere, too."

"I saw her sleeping in the lounge. Duke's family stepped out." It wasn't a question. "This is Doctor Mahboubian. He was one of Duke's surgeons. He's also continuing with his recovery."

The surgeon nodded at Scarlett, and she returned the gesture. Doc leaned over Duke, then tapped him on the wrist. The big soldier shifted, then settled back to sleep. "He's still pretty much under. We've got him on a high dose of the painkiller. Now might be the best time to try it."

Dr. Mahboubian walked around the other side of the bed and checked a few readouts. "Yes, he looks stable enough. Why don't we see how he does?"

"Doc?" Scarlett felt a twinge of fear.

"Nothing to worry about, Scarlett. We're thinking of taking his breathing tube out." Doc came up behind the chair and put a hand on her shoulder.

Doctor Mahboubian lifted one of Duke's eyelids and flicked his eye with a penlight. "He's not completely unconscious, but he's mostly sedated. It won't last." He walked to the door and called to the nearby nurse's station. "Nurse, call me a team. We'll want a few strong hands, just in case."

"Wait, what?" Scarlett's fear was replaced with confusion.

"Just a precaution. We're going to make sure he's breathing on his own by unhooking the ventilator for a few minutes. If he's doing well, then we can pull out the tube. It isn't pretty, and it doesn't feel very good. If you remember, the last time I yanked one out of his throat, he knocked an orderly against the opposite wall. I'd much rather do it when he's sedated. It's easier for everyone involved."

Scarlett remembered. Duke had woken up soon after Dusty, Jaye, Flint and Shipwreck returned, armor treatment neutralized and Dusty cleared of treason. She was walking back to Duke's room from the hospital cafeteria and was startled by a roar, a slam and a large orderly stumbling out the door, clutching his shoulder. "Right, Doc, I get you now."

"First thing's first." Dr. Mahboubian reached over and pulled on the ventilator tube right in front of Duke's mouth, popping the two sections of pipe apart. Scarlett could hear the air whooshing through the pipe. Doc looked at his watch. All three of them stared at Duke's chest as it rose and fell on its own. Scarlett found she was holding her own breath, and, feeling foolish, let herself inhale. Duke's chest kept rising and falling. After an eternity, Doc glanced at his watch again.

"Right. It's been five minutes. I think he'll be fine. Do you concur, Doctor?"

Doctor Mahboubian nodded. "Yes, let's take it out. He doesn't need it anymore."

Scarlett's heart danced.

Two strong male nurses stepped into the room, followed by head nurse Matthews. "Are we ready, doctors?"

"As we'll ever be."

Does the woman ever go off duty?

"Right, boys, just brace yourselves on his shoulders there. Watch his wound, Martin." Martin hesitated. "Oh, he's sedated, Martin. He won't lay a finger on you." She chuckled. "Scarlett, please scoot back out of the way."

Scarlett stood and dragged her chair against the wall. Both male nurses moved to hold Duke down against the bed. Scarlett saw his eyes drift open, and then shut. Doc grabbed the end of the tube. "I'll do the honors, if you don't mind. He'll think twice about hurting me."

Dr. Mahboubian laughed nervously. "You're joking, right?"

"Mostly." Doc turned to one of the nurses. "OK. I'm going to do this on an out breath, so I'll count his breaths. One is an in, two an out, three and in, and then I'll yank on the out. Got it?" The nurse nodded, and Doc looked to the other man. "You?"

"Yes, doctor." The second nurse braced himself, closing his eyes.

"Good. Here we go." Doc started counting breaths. "One…two…three!" Doc quickly yanked back hard, and the tube came out, spraying saliva back as it flailed. Duke coughed loudly, a long, low whine coming from his throat. His eyes were wide open. The nurses let him go and gave him space.

"Sorry, Duke, had to be done. You'll have a sore throat for a bit. Bet you're happy to be free of that tube. You're going to have to wait a bit longer for the other one." Doc patted Duke's right shoulder. Duke's eyes blazed, but the drug was quickly pulling him back under. He coughed a few more times, and then relaxed back into the bed, breathing in great gasps. They all stood, frozen, until his breath settled back to a normal cadence. His eyelids drooped.

Scarlett heard one of the male nurses mumble to the other. "Great. The other tube. I'm not going to be here for that one."

Nurse Matthews scowled at him. "I heard that, Jacobson. Don't worry. I'll do it myself, you coward. He's a pussycat."

Doc laughed. Duke's eyes opened, and he growled something, his voice raspy. Doc leaned closer, and Duke tried again. "Where…"

"Your family went for dinner, Duke." Doc was reassuring. "They'll be back soon."

Duke coughed. "I…know…I remember…Where's…Scarlett? She, she was …right…here." Duke stopped and took a few deep breaths. He was fighting both a raw throat and the painkiller. "Where'd…she…go? Scarlett?"

She rushed to his side and grabbed his hand. "Here, Duke. It's OK. I was here the whole time. I didn't leave."

His eyes melted with relief. "Scarlett…Little Fox." He swallowed several times, his eyelids drooping again. "There…you…are." Scarlett felt his fingers tighten around hers.

"There, Duke. She was right in the room all along." Doc chuckled. The male nurses left for their normal duties.

"Red." Duke did his best to pull her closer.

"Duke?" She could feel his breath, his wonderful breath on her face as she leaned down to him.

"You…you promised…" He swallowed twice.

"Hmm? Promised what?"

"You…when the…fucking…tube…you said, when it came out…" He stopped and coughed lightly.

"What, Duke?" She stroked his hair and cheek.

"Said you'd kiss me…" He sighed.

Doc laughed. "That's our cue to scram." He nodded to Dr. Mahboubian and Nurse Matthews. "Keep an eye on him, Scarlett. Press the call button if he has any problems."

Scarlett pulled her chair back to the bedside and lowered herself into it, taking his hand again. "I did, didn't I?" She smiled down on him. He nodded, grinning.

She pressed the button the elevated the bed, bringing him closer to her. "Come here, My Love." Scarlett leaned over and brushed her lips against his, then gave him a soft kiss. Duke sighed, and she felt his arm slide around her back as he held her close. The second kiss was longer, but still light. She kissed him a third time, and felt his tongue ask her to deepen it. She did, letting her own explore him in return. When it ended, she kissed his nose and sat back.

His eyes were tired, but he was smiling happily. "I told you…Schatzi. You can't…be rid of me…if you tried."

"Duke. I wouldn't ever want to try." She wiped a tear away, and then kissed him again, running her fingers over his cheeks and down his neck.

"They're kissing. Eeew." Scarlett turned, blushing, to see Drew standing in the door, Jennifer, Falcon behind her. Jinx was nowhere to be seen. Scarlett assumed she had returned to base.

Jennifer smiled. "I think it's sweet. How often does anyone see Con go all romantic?"

"Um, never, that's why he's cool. He doesn't go all mushy like Mamma and Pop." Drew threw herself into a chair along the wall.

"Well, he's sprung now, Squirt." Falcon tucked his beret in his back pocket. "Hey, look in all the worry over the lip lock, you didn't even notice they took his tube out."

"So they did! Hey! Mamma! It's out!" Drew called out the door.

"How're you feeling, Con?" Jennifer sat down on the edge of his bed and touched his shoulder.

Duke grunted. "My throat …is on fire…but I was doing pretty well… 'till you all came back …and interrupted."

Falcon laughed. "Drugs and a hot chick, huh?"

"Fuck… yeah."

"Drugs are bad. Nancy Reagan said so on TV." Drew put on a fake shocked look. "You're not supposed to swear around me, you know. Not that I care, but Mamma said."

"Rabbit… that wasn't …swearing." Duke took a breath. "That was… affirmation. It's utterly… positive."

"You said 'fuck yeah' about drugs?" Drew climbed on his bed and looked down on him. Scarlett saw Duke grin.

"No…the hot chick."

Scarlett had to laugh. It wasn't in the least as she'd imagined Duke with his family.

"Conrad!" Duke's mother burst in and came to his side. "Doctor Greer was just filling us in!" She grabbed his hand. "Say something to me, I need to hear you."

"He's been doing a lot of talking for someone who just had a breathing tube ripped out of his throat." Falcon turned back to Duke. "Big Brother?"

"Mamma …did you bring back …any pizza? I'm …starving."

Jennifer rolled her eyes. "Figures."

Scarlett decided to make herself part of the conversation. "He hasn't had solid food in several days, his stomach is empty. I haven't seen Duke last more than a few hours without eating something."

Jack came in carrying a pizza box. "The only one with any pieces leftover is Canadian bacon... and pineapple."

Duke sighed. "I… don't …know you people."

"Pizza's probably a bit much, anyway, Conrad. You'll need something easy to digest to start off." Duke's mother patted his hand. "How about some oatmeal? Maybe scrambled eggs?"

"Rm." Scarlett noticed that Duke was still more than a little dopey. "Biscuits?" He sounded hopeful.

"I'm pretty sure the cafeteria here doesn't have those, Kleiner."

"I'm sure they don't, Duke." Scarlett pretty much remembered the menu from her own stays. "I guess someone could go to the chicken place in town and get you a few."

"Not...those." Duke made a face. "Those aren't... biscuits." He swallowed a few times. "I dunno...what...those things...are." He nodded at his mother. "Hers...with butter'n honey."

"Oh Conrad, now you're being silly." Jane blushed. "I can't make them for you here. I have no kitchen."

Duke frowned. Scarlett was more than a little shocked. He was sounding almost like a kid. But then, most Joes longed for home cooking. There were times, most often on cold missions in godforsaken places, she found herself dreaming of her father's stew. Duke wanted more than just food; he was hoping for a little comfort.

Falcon smiled. "Mamma, he has a kitchen. Duke's one of the few guys on base who has one."

Scarlett glanced at the young green beret. "That's true, he does. He's got a full stove and an oven. Heck, the girls and I have one, too. Come to think of it."

"Sport, they're not going to let your mother just walk onto base to bake biscuits." Jack shook his head. "She'll need to go through the right channels."

"Besides, Vincent, where would I get ingredients? I'm willing to bet Conrad never keeps flour and buttermilk on hand."

"I'm...right here...you know." Duke sounded grumpy. The painkiller was trying to drag him back under, and he was fighting it, but the effort and hunger were making him dopey and surly.

"Sorry, dear, but do you have flour? Buttermilk? Butter?"

Duke's eyes dropped. "No...Well, I have butter. Honey. No flour, no buttermilk."

"You might not," Scarlett smiled, "but the commissary does. Flour, at least. I'm not sure about the buttermilk. I'm pretty sure I could convince Roadblock to sneak in and grab us whatever you need besides that."

"I could get by with a bit of lemon juice and regular milk."

"Oh, sure. They've ...got plenty... of lemons. Gallons of milk." Duke grinned under half closed lids. "Signed...off on the...monthly chow...requisition...myself."

"Well, there you go." Jane smiled, satisfied.

"Almost." Jack spoke up. "You still have to get on base and into his quarters."

"I have a key." Scarlett held up her keychain, then blushed when she realized what she had done. Duke's mother looked mildly shocked. She lowered herself into a the chair next to her.

"Ooooooo!" Jennifer's eyes glittered over a devilish grin. "Con! You are a stud!"

"Wait, what?" Drew shifted in her chair and looked back and forth between faces. "What am I missing?"

Scarlett felt her blush deepen. She saw Duke's mother's face grow red. Duke, still half-drugged, didn't seemed bothered.

"Well." Jack leaned back against the window frame. "As perfect as that all sounds, we still need to get clearance for any of us to go on that base."

"We can get it, Pop." Falcon nodded to himself. "You think they're going to not allow you and Mamma onto base?"

"Getting it may happen, but it still takes time. You go ahead and put in the request, Sport. It'll take a few days."

Falcon begrudgingly agreed. "Yeah. I'll put it in first thing tomorrow."

"Meanwhile, Conrad's still hungry." Duke's mother dropped into one of the free chairs. She leaned over to the console in the molded plastic bedrail and pressed the call button. "I'll see if I can get you some oatmeal, Kleiner. Tomorrow you'll get breakfast when it comes around." She picked up the phone from the bedside table and pressed a few bottons.

"Rmm." Duke closed his eyes and squeezed Scarlett's hand. "I'm kinda tired."

Jennifer laughed. "Who would have thought you'd get tired out talking about biscuits?"

Duke's eyes stayed shut, but he snorted. "You get stabbed... See how much energy you... have."

There was an uncomfortable silence. Jennifer looked chagrined. "Sorry, Con."

"Don't be." He opened one eye. "It had nothing to do with you. I just..." His other eye opened. "Jennifer...I'm tired... I'm not... angry. This hurts." Duke looked at her comfortingly. "I don't...want you to...worry. It's just...just going to take me...a bit ...to get back... on my feet."

Scarlett suddenly realized Drew had been quiet for a long time. She turned and saw the little girl had somehow curled up into the last chair. She was tucked into a ball, asleep. "Looks like you're not the only one tired, Duke."

Duke's family all looked over to the chair. Falcon smiled. "Seems the squirt managed to drop off. The riveting conversation put her to sleep."

"Rabbit?" Duke craned his neck and tried to sit up. Scarlett leaned over so he could see past her. A smile spread across his face. "Huh. Right out." He relaxed back against his pillow. "Tuckered. She should be ...in bed."

"We're all tired." Jane sighed. "Scarlett, I bet you're exhausted." She looked over her son at Scarlett.

"In truth? Yes." Scarlett rubbed her eyes. Duke looked over at her, concerned.

"You should get some...sleep, then... Little Fox. Don't let yourself get...tired out." He pulled her hand to his chest. Scarlett could tell from his eyes he was conflicted with his concern for her well being and the fact he didn't want her to leave.

Scarlett saw Duke's mother smile when he let the term of endearment slip. He would never call me that in front of anyone, not without the drugs. But she was touched he did. "I will, My Love." If he does it, then why not me? "But I'd like to stay with you for a little longer." His eyes looked at her full of love.

"I'd...be OK...with that."

An orderly knocked on the open door gently. "I have some oatmeal here?" He held up a tray.

Duke tried to scoot himself to sitting. Scarlett took the control and elevated his bed higher. His mother pulled the bedtray over him.

"Here, he's famished."

The orderly came in and set a tray in front of Duke. On it sat a bowl full of steaming oatmeal. A pat of butter, two small plastic tubs of syrup and a few packets of brown sugar were laid out next to it. Duke's mother dropped the butter in. The brown sugar followed. She took up the spoon and stirred it all together, finishing by scooping up a spoonful and bringing it to her lips to blow on it.

Scarlett saw a look of pure disbelief wash across Duke's face, followed by a very quick shadow of shame. His eyes flicked to hers for a second, then away.

"Mamma... I can feed...myself."

She stopped. "Of course, Klenier. I was just...cooling it. Here." She put the spoon back into the bowl and scooted the tray closer to him.

Duke grabbed the spoon and took a taste. Once the food hit his empty stomach, his appetite kicked into high gear. Scarlett laughed as he made quick work of the hot cereal.

"That should feel better." She caressed his hand, then pushed his bed tray back and away.

"Yeah." He pushed the tray away and sat back against his pillow. "That was the best...oatmeal...I've had in some.. time."

Jennifer yawned.

"Right. It's late." Jack stood. "I'm taking these two girls back to the hotel. Vincent, you look done in yourself. Head back to base and get some rack time, why don't you, Son?"

Falcon nodded. "Yeah. I'm done in." He walked over to Duke's bedside. "I'll come back to check on you tomorrow, right? I've got a report to write, I guess." He scratched his head.

Duke grunted. "You do. Better...be sure to get it in...on time." He reached up. Falcon grabbed his hand. "I want to...read it. Hawk said...you did good."

Falcon shrugged. "I guess. I dunno. " He leaned down to Duke's ear. He dropped his voice, but Scarlett heard the whisper. "I did what I thought you'd do, Con."

"Kid, you did...what you had to...what I knew...you could do." Duke cleared his throat, and winced. "You're a good...soldier...I'm proud...always...was."

Falcon stood back and rubbed at his eyes. "Yeah. Thanks." He put a gentle hand on Duke's shoulder. "I'm glad you made it, Con." He glanced quickly back at Scarlett. "Duke. I...I thought that was it. You had me going for a while, there."

"Hnhuh." Duke grinned. "Thought...my own...number was up." His chuckle was light, but it made him wince all the same. Scarlett wondered if it was his throat or his chest. She gripped his shoulder till the coughing spasm passed. Duke's mother looked concerned. "Didn't...want to go. So here...I am."

Falcon smiled. "Right. Yeah. You're tougher than that. Anyhow, goodnight. See you tomorrow, OK?"

Duke nodded. "Sure."

"Night Pop, Mamma." Falcon hugged his parents. "Night, Jenn." He went over and squeezed his sister to him, then leaned down to kiss his smallest sister, still asleep, on the cheek. "Night, Squirt." he whispered. "Goodnight, Scarlett." He nodded to her.

"Goodnight, Falcon."

Falcon waved again and left.

"Right." Jack gathered a sleeping Drew into his arms. She shifted, then settled against his shoulder. "She's getting a bit big to carry." He turned to Duke's other sister. "Let's go, Jennifer. Time for bed."

Jennifer yawned and then went to kiss her mother and brother. "Night, Mamma, Con...night Scarlett."

"Goodnight, dear." Jane stood so her husband could kiss her without having to lean too far over with his burden. "Jack, be sure she brushes her teeth."

"I'll shake her awake and prop her up in the bathroom for a scrubbing." He turned to his stepson. "Champ, I'll bring 'em all back bright and early tomorrow to bug you."

Duke had let his eyes fall closed once more, but he nodded. "Great."

And just like that, Scarlett was alone with Duke and his mother. It was not the way she had imagined the first meeting going. She had, when she gave a thought to it, pictured a living room or some cafe somewhere for lunch. Once she had imagined his family coming to visit him on base.

Never once did it occur they would first meet over his hospital bed. She looked shyly at the Duke's mother, who was smiling warmly at her. Scarlett had no idea what to say. Duke managed to save the day.

"So. Now you're meeting Scarlett, Mamma."

Scarlett looked down. Duke's eyes were open, looking up at his mother. They shifted to meet hers, and he smiled. It was a lot like his mother's smile.

"Don't be nervous, Red." He reached for her hand and used his thumb to soothe her.

"Actually, your brother introduced us a while ago, Duke."

"I heard. That was an introduction. This is a meeting." He squeezed her hand and closed his eyes. "I hope you don't mind..." he sighed, "if I don't keep up with the conversation."

Scarlett sighed. "That's OK, Duke." She looked back at his mother.

Jane Falcone's smile was warm. Her blue eyes twinkled. Scarlett felt a little more at ease. "This is not the way I'd imagined meeting the woman in my son's life. In my head, we were sitting over tea and some sweet baked things. Cookies, maybe cakes."

Scarlett laughed. "I was just thinking along the same lines, myself." Duke's hand squeezed hers again. She looked down and he yawned.

"There. See, Little Fox? It's not so bad. I know you'll get along." He yawned again, his eyes droopy. Scarlett remembered that he was still reasonably drugged, and that, combined with his injury, made him tired and pulled down a few of the filters he would normally adhere to. "You'll get along fine."

"I never thought we'd do anything but, Duke." Don't make her think I didn't want to meet her.

Duke yawned a third time. "Every girl's nervous about meeting her man's Mamma. 'S only natural. I was uptight meetin' your father, 'n we weren't even...seein 'chother." His words started slurring.

"Conrad, please. Let go and sleep. Honestly." She grinned at Scarlett. "When he was a very little boy, it was a battle to get him to go to bed. He never minded having a bath, but after that, he would put up a fight, no matter how tired he was. There he'd be, in his robe and slippers and nothing else, staring me down. 'I'm not going!' he'd shout, in English and in German. 'I'm not going!'. Then he'd either dash around, his little robe flapping open, or he'd cling to a chair or the bannister. Some nights, he was so tired he'd pass right out clinging there."

Duke blushed and frowned. "Mamma..."

Scarlett laughed.

"You were stubborn as a mule, Kleiner. You still are."

"That's for sure. No one makes Duke do something unless he's good and ready." This time, Scarlett squeezed his hand.

"My lord, yes." Duke's mother rolled her eyes. "I remember when we'd wormed it out of him, his dilemma about you. I'd been hoping he'd settle down with someone for so long. He sort of slipped up at dinner one night and spilled it. He was torn between doing the right thing by the Army or by his heart. Took him forever to make up his mind. Didn't it, Kleiner?"

Duke grunted. Scarlett looked down on him in wonder.

How long ago was this?

His mother went on. "Oh, we all bugged him incessantly. His sisters. His brother. His friends. His cousins. Even Willy's wife Lena. Didn't she?"

Duke grunted again. More quietly. Sleep was winning the battle this time.

"He just went on, listening to us all and not letting on what he was going to do. I don't think he really thought he knew, himself. But when he finally let me see that picture of you he kept hidden away, I knew. He'd already fallen. There was no decision, was there, Kleiner?"

Duke turned his head a little and sighed. "Nah." His voice was peaceful and calm. "No 'cission."

His mother rubbed his shoulder. "That's right. My boy does the right thing. Like you'd let a wonderful, lovely woman slip though your fingers. And here we are." She looked up at Scarlett. "I know I'm understating things when I say I imagine you've not had a very good week."

Scarlett's laughter was more relief than anything else. "Oh God...It's been tough. But it's getting better now."

"Vincent told me over dinner a lot of Joes will be taking leave to go spend time with family. I imagine you might be wanting to see yours..."

Scarlett knew a hidden question when she saw it. There were two there. "When I know Duke's squared away and recovering, I would like to go see my father and brothers for a bit. It's been a while. My nieces and nephews get so big when I'm not looking."

"Your mother died when you were quite young. I hope you don't mind that he told me."

"No, I don't mind. I'm glad he talks about me at home. I was never sure. He didn't talk about you all, well, not by name."

"After what happened to your family and others, I think he was worried we'd become targets."

Scarlett nodded. "That's what he said. My..."

" 'm right here, y'know." Duke shifted into a new position under the covers.

"Hush, Conrad. You've fallen asleep more than once. Don't think I didn't see you. We're having a good talk that I've been waiting a long time for." Duke's mother patted his hand.

"Rm."

"That's what he always worried about; something happening while he's asleep that he didn't want to miss out on. Go on, Scarlett."

Scarlett liked this woman. It wasn't often she saw someone who knew enough to see through Duke's bluster. "My mother died when I was almost a teenager. Stomach cancer. By the time they'd found it, it was pretty much too late."

"It must have been hard on you."

"She missed so much." Scarlett sighed.

"And you missed out on doing things with her. Was she a martial arts practitioner?"

"No." Scarlett smiled. "That was my father's side of things. I think I was wearing a Gi before I was out of diapers. She was a 'home maker', as they say."

Dukes mother shook her head. "Oh, yes, 'home maker'. Meaning she worked all day long and a lot of the evening. Yes, I'm familiar with that one."

"She did work hard. Dad helped, but she took care of us and kept the house and the business. She helped run the financial side of the dojo. Dad ran the classes, and Frank helped out when he was old enough. But Mom did all the billing and kept the books. When she died, Dad had to teach himself how to do it all himself." Scarlett remembered; it had been a rough year while he figured out how to take care of four children and a business-things her mother had done well and without one word of complaint.

"Your father never remarried." It wasn't a question, jut a probing statement.

"No. He's dated, off and on, I think, but he never remarried. I don't have a stepmother. My aunt helped when she was in the country. But no mother. There's no replacement, I guess." Scarlett looked at Duke. "She missed so much."

"Would she have liked Conrad, do you think?"

Scarlett laughed. "She would have adored Conrad." Her heart took a strange beat. She didn't call him by his given name in front of many people. "I've gotten past a lot of the grief, but I do wish she could have met him. Sometimes I do really feel not having my mother."

"Y'can borrow mine, Red. She's nice." Duke mumbled. They both looked down at him, then up at each other.

Scarlett saw the clock on the wall over Jane's shoulder.

"My God! Is it that late?" She was amazed Nurse Matthews had let her stay so long beyond visiting hours. Cover Girl hadn't come to get her either. She must be exhausted. "If I could, I'd stay all night, but my ride has been waiting for hours."

"Conrad's not the only one looking exhausted. You need to sleep, Scarlett."

"I slept on the plane, though."

"I have a husband and two boys who are soldiers. That's enough to know that sleep in a transport plane is nothing like sleep in your own bed." Jane laughed. She looked down at her son. "He's finally out, too."

"You're staying here all night?" Scarlett looked around. The room only had one bed. Duke had enough pull to get a private room. Or perhaps it was more than pull, maybe it was a healthy respect for what he did.

"There's a cot in that closet." Jane pointed to a door. "I slept a little on it last night and the night before. It's pretty comfortable, really. I just fold it up, sheets and all, to keep it out of the doctor's and nurses' way." She stretched in her chair. "He's doing so well, this is probably my last night. Now that I know it's safe to leave him for a few hours, I can go sleep with Jack at the hotel. I just wanted to keep an eye on him for one more night. I grabbed a little nap this morning when they took the room for a few tests."

Scarlett remembered that she hadn't been the only one suffering when. What terror Falcon's call must have struck in her heart? How hard had it been, traveling from Missouri, not knowing if she'd make it in time, and the relief in making it quickly being washed away by the knowledge that even though she had seen him, it might very well be the last time? She would see her own son? "You don't mind if I wake him to say goodnight?"

"Why would I mind? You go right ahead. If you don't mind, I'll pull the cot out and set it up."

Scarlett stood. "Let me help you."

"Nonsense." Jane lightly waved her away. "I'm perfectly capable. You kiss him goodnight. He'd be upset if you didn't." She opened the door and started wheeling the cart out of the closet.

Scarlett turned back to Duke, and sat again so she could lean over to kiss his lips lightly. His eyes fluttered open.

"Little Fox..." He sighed and smiled.

"I have to go, Duke. Cover Girl's my ride back, and she's probably mad at me, I've made her wait so long." She kissed him again. "I need to get some rack time, it's late. I'll be back as soon as I can tomorrow."

He reached up and tucked a lock of hair that had fallen loose behind her ear. "Sleep well, Little Fox."

"Goodnight, My Love." She leaned over for another kiss, holding it a little longer than the other two. As she leaned back, he put his hand on the back of her head to hold her there. She felt his warm breath tickle her ear.

"I love you, Shana. My girl."

She couldn't help but kiss him again. "Goodnight, Duke." It was hard to make herself stand and step back, but she did. He was grinning sleepily up at her.

" 'Night."

She returned his smile. Then forced herself to turn and look at his mother, who had opened the cot and was now smoothing the sheets. An overnight bag had emerged from the closet and was now sitting next to her on the floor. "Goodnight, Jane."

"Goodnight, dear. I'll see you tomorrow. Be sure to get a good rest." She smiled warmly and lifter the overnight bag to the cot.

Scarlett looked back at Duke, who seemed to have already fallen back to sleep. Before she could argue with herself, she went to go find Cover Girl, apologize profusely, and get back to base.


**Epilogue**

Scarlett jumped out of the jeep and waved to Crank Case. "Thanks for the ride, I owe you one!"

He shrugged. "No problem, Scarlett, I was just on my way off duty, anyhow. Glad I could give you a lift and save you some trouble! Tell the Top 'hello' for me. I'll get in to visit soon."

So many Joes wanted to visit Duke, they were crowding his room and glutting the hallways all day long. Nurse Matthews had put her foot down and insisted most of the rank and file make appointments for visitation, and then only allowed it for part of the day.

"That's it, Joes, I'm tired of tripping over you. Clear out! Anyone who's not a general, family member or Scarlett will have to sign up. Three to a slot. Don't you dare try and find a way around it. Everyone will get their chance, but the poor man needs time to rest!"

Scarlett rushed with her bag across the lot and through the sliding doors, thankful the head nurse had been thoughtful enough to allow her unlimited access. Though rumors denied it, a heart did beat under her scrubs. The hospital was quiet. Most places tended to be that way at four thirty in the morning. Technically, this wasn't visiting hours, but Nurse Matthews had melted and given her leeway.

She pushed the button for the elevator and nervously brushed her hair back. She had hoped that by coming in at the crack of dawn she could get some time alone with Duke. His family was wonderful, and had already stepped out of the room for her a few times, but Scarlett couldn't help feeling like a bit of an intruder, and there were things she wanted to say to him that she would feel awkward saying in front of anyone else. Some things were just for them to share. He wasn't strong enough to talk for too long, but he could listen. Even without words, they could communicate with each other. She knew he just liked having her there.

The elevator pinged as the 'up' arrow lit. The doors slid open, and Scarlett stepped in and pressed the button for the fifth floor. It was a short trip up to his ward, but it seemed to take forever. She watched the light climb through the numbers and brushed her bangs back again. She had told him last night she'd be there before or around lunch.

It'll be a nice surprise to start his day. I don't have to be on 'till nine. That gives us several hours.

The doors slid open again, and she stepped out and made her way down the hall, past the nurses' station and onto the ward. Most of the rooms were still dark at this hour of the morning. Scarlett was surprised to see the light coming through Duke's door. She slowed, worried.

What if something went wrong? He's gotten better these last few days, but he's still weak and pretty doped up. An infection? His lung?

She could hear a low voice floating from the room.

"Right, just turn your head a bit...that's it."

Scarlett quietly peered into the room. It was Jack. He bent over the bed next to a basin on the bed table, a towel over one arm. In his hand, he held a razor. He spoke quietly as he used it to swipe foam off of Duke, who lay propped up as high as the bed would allow.

"Right, Champ, lift your chin and let me get up under there. Hang on..." He gently slid the razor up Duke's throat to his chin, then dunked it in the basin. "Good. Let me see. Sure, hang on, let's take care of that 'stache." Duke stretched his lip so his stepfather could make a few passes. He dunked the razor again, swishing it around in the water. "Right, all clear. I'm just going to even up your sideburns, and we're...just...about...done! Oh, wait, missed a spot on your cheek here. Don't want to look sloppy, do you?" He swished the razor and set it down, then stepped back. "Much better, Champ." Jack dropped the towel in Duke's hands. Duke did his best to wipe all the foam off. "Neat and clean. Very sharp. Now you're ready for her. Gotta look your best for your woman, right?"

Scarlett stepped back from the door. She didn't want to disturb them.

"Yeah, thanks." Duke's voice still sounded weak. "Thanks for coming here early to do this."

"My pleasure, Champ. I would have done it last night, but, well, you'd have had a shadow by lunchtime. I don't see why you have to sport whiskers just because you can't make it to a sink yet. Here, I brought my aftershave, splash a little on to complete the whole thing."

"Jack...thanks, really. I couldn't have her see me like that anymore. She likes me cleanshaven." Duke's words were quiet, halting. Not the strong assured voice she was used to. The injury and drugs had tamed the man like nothing else could.

"Conrad, you know you can ask me for help. I'm not about to stop taking care of you, just because you're a grown man. You're still...still my boy. Next time I'll bring a mirror and you can do it yourself. Just don't tire yourself out if you don't need to. I'm sure she'd understand."

"But she likes me cleanshaven. I want to give her what she likes." Duke's voice sounded adamant, if tired. "It's not a bother to make her happy. So, really...Pop. Thanks a lot."

"Champ..."

He told me he never called his stepfather by anything but his first name.

Scarlett took a deep breath and stepped around the door and into the room. "Hey there!" She waved cheerily. "How are you feeling?"

She saw Duke's eyes light up. "Scarlett...you're here!" He looked to the window. It was still dark. "It's not gone five yet, Red. You should still be catching zs."

Jack checked his wristwatch. "Four fifty. Still reads the sun like a pro." He smiled at Scarlett. "I taught him that. Good morning, Miss Scarlett."

"Good morning, Sir." She took his proffered hand and shook it warmly.

"Ah!" He raised a finger. "I'm retired now. I told you. To you I am...?" He raised an eyebrow questioningly as he threw the towel over his shoulder and picked up the basin.

"Jack. Sorry." Scarlett set her bag on the bed table where the basin had been.

"It's OK. I'm going to clean this up. Well, go on, sit yourself down by that fighting man of yours." He walked into the bathroom, and Scarlett could hear him dumping the water into the sink as he whistled.

Scarlett sat in the chair on the right of the bed, then leaned over and caressed Duke's cheek. "Mmmmmm, very smooth." He closed his eyes and rumbled happily at her touch.

Jack continued to whistle while rinsing off the razor and washing his hands. "Handsome devil, isn't he?" He called.

"Oh yes. Rather dashing." She leaned over the bed; Duke's eyes opened and he smiled lovingly up at her. The drug did make him weak, but they also lowered a lot of his inhibitions about affection in front of others. His emotions seemed closer to the surface. Scarlett nuzzled his nose. "Very handsome." She placed a hand on each cheek, leaned over, and kissed him softly, then deeply. She heard the heart rate monitor speed up. Duke sighed and returned the kiss. His right hand wound itself into the hair on the back of her head. She teased him with her tongue, and he returned the favor.

Jack cleared his throat.

They parted, reluctantly. Scarlett saw that Duke was blushing, and could feel the warmth on her own face.

Jack smiled. "Think I'll go down to the cafeteria and see if I can scare up a decent cup of coffee. Maybe breakfast."

"Oh! Jack you don't have to go! I didn't want to push you out." Scarlett stood to offer him the chair, but he shook his head and waved it away.

"Nonsense. No one pushes me anywhere. You try and do it. The only reason I slogged over here this time of the morning was to help this Champ of mine make a good impression on his girl."

"He shouldn't have worried. He already did that years ago." Scarlett took Duke's hand in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze.

Duke seemed to be trying his best to see something out the window. His eyes looked watery.

"Not a surprise." Jack chuckled. "He's got a habit of that. If you both will excuse me?" Jack nodded once and left.

"God, I love you." Duke was still looking out the window. His voice was rough. "I don't say that enough."

"Duke, you don't have to say it at all for me to know. You show me all the time."

"Not like I should. Not right out in the open. Not as often as I could have." She could see his jaw tighten. "Because I know you feel bad when Flint-"

"Flint's not you." Scarlett felt angry. Why would Duke even bother comparing himself to Flint? It was impossible to compare two so very different men.

"Flint's romantic. Flint…writes poetry and takes Jaye to fancy restaurants and…and does huge things right in front of everyone. Dozens and dozens of long stemmed rose. Giant bears and such. He does it right out in the open."

"Flint was able to! Flint didn't have your position. I don't want giant bears. Why are you going over this now?" She gently touched his chin and brought his face around to look at her. "Why?"

"Because…I almost…I could have…and I would have left you. Left you and not done enough. You deserve so much more. I've never been able to write a poem in my life." He sighed. "They all come out stupid."

Scarlett was shocked. The man who could strategize on the battlefield at the drop of a hat, the man who had taken on giants, robots, vipers, emperors and a whole horde of other threats, the man who successfully headed up an elite unit of misfits for years on his own, the well-decorated field commander of G.I. Joe was feeling himself a failure because he couldn't write poetry.

"You know Duke, I used to think I wanted poetry, fancy dinners and someone serenading me outside my window at night." She let go of his chin and took up his hand again. It was rough and strong from hard work. He worked hard on base. Scarlett now knew that he worked just as hard when he went home. His mother had confirmed her suspicions. Conrad Hauser kept himself busy, finding things that needed to be done and doing them without being asked, to make life for his family easier. That's what he did for her. She knew he would do whatever she asked him to, but usually he beat her to it. Those strong hands had found a million little ways to show her how much he loved her, from cleaning and maintaining her crossbow when she wasn't looking to passionate caresses in the dark.

"I used to daydream about diamonds and a room full of long stemmed roses. Stanzas like Shakespeare or Keats, or Shelley."

"I only know who they are, Red. Ask me to recite it, and I'm lost."

"So what?" She smiled. "Poetry is nice, flowers are great. Giant teddy bears are cute. Fancy dinner is tasty, I do admit. Then again, I had a guy do all that for me, once."

Duke snorted. "What's his name, Steven? That one?"

"That's the one." She'd told him the names of her two past lovers, but not much else. "Turns out he was doing it for another woman, too. Sometimes, he got two for one deals. I'm sure that made it easier for him."

Duke eyes blazed at the idea of someone hurting her. "The man was a fool. I hope you kicked his ass."

"No. I didn't. I hid in my quarters and felt ugly and unwomanly." She sighed. "Then I felt stupid. Then I moved on. He did me a favor, really."

"Why?"

"Because the next man I met was you. By then I knew what I really wanted." She stretched in her chair and then caressed his arm.

He shifted in bed, trying to find a comfortable spot. He was looking a little strained around the eyes. "Which was?"

"A strong man. A selfless man. A hardworking man. A considerate man." Scarlett stroked his cheek. "Duke, you love me. I know you do. I knew you did before you would admit it. The way you spoke to me. How you looked at me. Held doors for me. Did things for me. The things you do for me, even now." She slid her hand back to glide over where she knew the fox danced down the back of his shoulder. "This means more to me than a poem or flowers. You put your shirt down so I won't have to lie or sit on the ground. When we talk, or take a walk, go on a run, go for pizza or Chinese-and you're the only one I know who orders in Chinese, by the way-when do these things…when we make love, it's the best thing in the world for me. If I had lost you, that world would have been gone. I don't know what I would have done. Because there are plenty of men who can spout poetry and buy dinner or flowers or bears, but there's only one you."

Duke turned to look out the window again. "Scarlett…you don't know how you've saved me. You don't know." He lifted a hand to wipe at an eye. When he turned to face her, his eyes were red. "Maddy, she…she threw my ring back at me. I thought she was the one and when I came home from 'Nam, she threw it back. She hated me. Called me some sort of killer. And she's right."

"Duke…"

"She's right, Red. I do kill people. Lots of people." He sighed and shook his head. "Frankly, and it scares me, sometimes, in a battle, I just kill vipers, left and right. I keep thinking it should bother me more. I'm so good at killing."

"Duke…" Scarlett took his hand. He held on to her.

"So she threw my ring back, tossed me away. I didn't think love was for me after that. Figured it was made up to sell books and movies to women. Thought it made people weak." He swallowed. "I'm not proud. I played around. It was never hard to find a warm bed for a night. You know, a lot of guys cheered me on. But then... My cousins found good women. My two closest childhood friends fell in love. I kissed her, once. Just to see. There was nothing there. It was like kissing Jennifer." He was wandering.

"Duke, what does all this mean? I don't…"

"I watched guys I knew all find good women. Watched how Jack and Mamma took comfort in each other. How Willy doted on Lena, and how she took care of him. Heck, even Rolfe found someone who loved the Hell out of him. Then, Red, I got kind of scared. What if the problem was me? Who was going to want me? No one wants to get close to a monster, to a killer like me. I'd pretty much given up. All I'm good for is fighting. I don't even know how to be a normal person anymore. "

"Duke, that's nowhere near true."

"The first day I saw you…the first day, I thought you were amazing. Strong and confident, sweet and tough, and hot. Oh lord, you're the most gorgeous woman I've ever seen. And you never took any shit. You never do. Not from anyone. Not even from me, and you're really supposed to take it from me."

Scarlett laughed and Duke smiled at her.

"I pretty much fell hard right there. But I didn't think a woman like you would ever want a man like me. I'm older. I'm all scarred up, inside and out. There are things in me…" His eyes turned inward, then he shook his head to dispel the feelings. "I didn't think you'd ever want me, so it was sort of good I wasn't allowed to do anything. And then-" He pulled her hand to his lips and kissed it. "And then you started, well, smiling at me. Touching me. A hug or two, maybe three. Joining me on my strolls around base. Oh, God, there were times I just wanted to hold you. I slipped up a few times. You got so mad about Selena."

"Duke…" Scarlett didn't want to hear about the slave girl.

"She was nothing. Nothing compared to you. There was no competition there. Just a minor distraction, I guess, while I acted like an idiot and followed regulations. When I saw Flint play a fool for Jaye, I let him. Because I didn't want anyone else to go through the Hell I was going through. Wanting you and not being able to have you. Thinking you'd just end up hating me like Maddy. I thought it would fade. Fade when you saw the real me, or you'd grow tired of me, and then I could go on, jumping from bed to bed till I was killed or something. Every time you touched me, it was like the world was brighter. It got to the point I couldn't sleep, some nights. I wanted you so much, but I figured you'd end up…" He looked around the hospital room and laughed bitterly. "Anyhow, no matter what I did, you still made my day with that smile. You still wanted to go on walks and runs with me. Sometimes I got up earlier than normal so I could run and then shower and look my best to see you at breakfast first thing. Stupid, isn't it?"

"No, Duke, not at all. No one wants to be hurt that way twice. I just wish you would have said something." Scarlett leaned forward and stroked his head."

"No, because I'm a fool. I swiped a picture of you from Stalker. Toted it around with me. Tried to convince myself to grab you or be done with you, and I couldn't do either. Mamma and them figured it out at home." He rubbed his eye again. "Made fun of me for it. Big tough Conrad mooning over a girl like a kid. Puppy love after thirty. Everyone kept telling me they were tired of me being a dog and I should settle down, but I was worried you were too good for me. But, you never seemed to think that. That was when I made up my mind. That was when I knew that I wanted to be with you and no one else."

"Here, you big softy, move over." Scarlett stood up and slid onto his bed. Duke shifted to make room for her. She lay on his right side, resting her head on his chest. He held her with both arms.

"It's all I ever wanted, Scarlett. You're the best thing for me. It constantly amazes me that you still want to be with me."

"I have no idea why, Duke. Why would that amaze you?"

"I have nothing special to offer. I'm just a Missouri farm boy. I don't have money or a fancy degree."

"Duke, you speak seven different languages and lead an Elite anti terrorist unit. You have more decorations than entire platoons put together. Officers and officials have less experience. You fight hard and work hard. You can outthink most military strategists and you are one of the most hardworking, generous men I know."

He looked surprised. "Really? All that?"

"All that." She snuggled into his chest. "Plus, you're a considerate lover, breathtakingly handsome, fantastically strong, and downright amazing in bed. And you're all mine."

"Red…"

"Whoever that Maddy was, she was an idiot, and I'm glad she didn't snap you up, because now I've got you."

"Scarlett, it's a damn good thing she didn't stay with me." He kissed the top of her head.

"I agree." Scarlett sighed and closed her eyes.

"If she had, then I would have had to leave her when I met you."

Scarlett's heart jumped in her chest. She was about to ask him to say that again when Nurse Matthews walked in. "Don't mind me. Don't get up, Scarlett. You're due for your next dose of painkiller, Duke."

"Rmm."

"Pain's kicked in, yes?"

"A little. She's helping."

"Sure she is. If we could bottle Scarlett, there'd be no need for morphine. However, there' no argument. I'm giving you a little more. But Doc said you could go to pill form. It'll still make you drowsy, maybe a little goofy." She winked at Scarlett. "-and that's fun for the rest of us, Sergeant. But it's a step away from the drip. But if you play any games like cheeking it, back on the IV you go. Capiche?"

"Loud and clear." Duke grumbled.

"Besides, who wouldn't kill for an excuse for an extra nap now and again?" She handed him a little paper cup with the pills, then his water bottle, watching while he downed them. Duke opened his mouth so she could see he'd swallowed them. "Don't worry about that, Duke. I'll know in about 15 minutes when they kick in." She smiled at Scarlett and spoke in a mock whisper. "Ask him for anything you want then, he'll be much more willing to do it. He's always so much more compliant when he's doped up." Nurse Matthews winked again and left.

Scarlett laughed. "So, how about we cuddle for a bit, now that we're alone? I have a few hours." She turned on the TV so he could watch the morning news. It was mostly traffic and local stories, but there was a few follow ups on the mysterious explosion in the Himalayas. Washington had covered it up well. No one wanted word of Cobra La or the BET getting out. They couldn't hide the entire event, so instead they spun it as a basic Cobra conflict. Duke was reported as missing death's door by a hair, Cobra was once again routed. Hawk got a good amount of screen time, as did Flint and Beach Head. To everyone's surprise, the brawny Ranger did as well as the general and warrant officer in charming the reporters. He even introduced Jinx and Quick Kick for a demonstration piece on Joe martial arts hand to hand combat.

Scarlett watched and chatted with Duke off and on. An orderly brought him breakfast, sliding his bed tray over so he could reach it and not batting an eyelid at the sight of the redhead snuggling with him in bed. Scarlett sat up so he could eat. Duke lifted to cover off the tray. "It looks like eggs and bacon." He put the cover next to the plate and took a sip of juice. "It even smells almost like eggs and bacon." He shrugged. "I'll take a chance." Duke helped himself to a forkful of eggs, and then a bite of the bacon. He sat back and chewed speculatively. "Tastes sort of like it smells. Close enough. Wish it was Mamma's cookin'. Mamma, she can tear up th' kitchen. Them biscuits…yeah."

Scarlett saw Duke raise his eyebrows and give his head a small shake. He ate all the eggs and bacon quickly.

"They can't have been that bad." She chuckled.

"…hungry." He let his fork drop with a clatter and pushed the tray away. "Want Mamma's biscuits, though. With honey." His eyes looked a little droopy. He let her pull him back to his pillows. He held her to him. "Hey there, sexy. Talkin' 'bout sweet. Wanna kiss?" His hand wandered up to a breast.

Oh yeah, they've kicked in all the way.

She kissed him softly, and he quickly deepened it. Looking down, she could see he was aroused. Nurse Matthews picked that time to come in and check on him. Duke ignored her and kissed Scarlett again, then relaxed back and sighed, holding her tight.

"Looks like he's going under."

"Go away, Nurse, I wanna be alone with Scarlett."

Scarlett blushed, but the head nurse laughed it off. "Don't worry, that's often a side effect. He's going to be too out of it to do much for a while, really." She grinned. "Now Duke, you do your best to relax and enjoy it while it lasts. Some people pay large amounts of cash to feel like that."

"Fucking hippies."

"Well, yes, them too. You just cuddle up with Scarlett and take a nap."

"Um."

"And stop giving my staff such a hard time. You almost had Jefferson in tears last night." The Nurse smile broadly as she confided in Scarlett. "He refused to let her draw blood and called her a vampire."

"Duke, you didn't."

"Sorry, Nurse."

"You should be. She's very new. This is her first assignment and you'll make her wish it was her last."

"Mmmmmm."

Nurse Matthews came closer and looked at his eyes. "Oh yeah, there we go. Feeling good, Sergeant?"

"Fan-fucking-tastic."

"You want me to go so you can sleep?"

"Yeah. Go 'way."

"Okay, Scarlett, stay as long as you want." The head nurse picked up the breakfast dishes and pushed the bed tray out of the way. "I saw his step father, and he wanted you to know he was taking everyone else out to eat at the IHOP. They won't be back for a while, so no one will bug you."

"Thanks." She waited till the nurse left, then cuddled back up under Duke's chin. He sighed and held her.

"Shana. My Shana. My girl. Wanna make love to you now." He sighed and his eyes slid shut, his hands slowly starting to caress her. "Little Fox...Let me make love t'ya. Let me…" He trailed off and fell asleep.

Scarlett relaxed against him. For the first time in weeks, everything looked bright.