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One Man In A Thousand

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There was a murmur of disbelief from the spectators. Snake Eyes had already slammed him at least a dozen times. It was going to hurt like hell tomorrow. He wiped the sweat back from his eyes and turned his back to his black-clad teammate. He felt stone, hard arms encircle his chest then curl up. Black gloved fists clenched beside his temples blocking his peripheral vision. A body as hard as the arms pressed to his back. A leg slid between his from behind. The embrace was almost intimate for the moment, supportive. He could easily have sagged back into it and closed his eyes in his exhaustion. For a moment he was sorely tempted but instead he raised his head.




Like a snake uncoiling to strike the arms under his snapped up and back. He refused to cry out in pain as it felt as though his aching shoulders were being torn from their sockets. Instead he growled viciously and struggled against the hold. He had to do it without using his arms and that part of the exercise was definitely easier now that his arms were just too exhausted to lift. He shifted forward trying to find any leverage to toss the other Joe over his body. He felt the abdomen behind him tighten and flex then he was hitting the mat, hard.




He staggered up and turned watching Snake Eyes resume the stance, but a clipped voice ordered the ninja to stand down and he did so with a slight nod to Duke.


"But sir, I need to-"


"You need to stand down and grab a shower, soldier. You can try again another day."


He protested but was cut off with a raised hand. "I suggest you rein in that temper, soldier, before you take it out on someone who doesn't deserve it, someone you'll wish that you had at your back when the going gets tough. Now knock it off for the day, that's an order."


It wasn't until he stepped out of the shower an hour later that he realized what Stone had meant. There was no way Snake Eyes would think that he was angry at him and holding a grudge, or that he was jealous or anything like that, competitive yes, but jealous, no. He would never think that, he was sure he understood what it was like, the driving need to be better. He closed his eyes then jerked on a pair of sweat pants and headed across the hallway.


He knocked on the door but there was no answer. Not that there ever was, but polite was polite. It was unlocked. Snake Eyes never locked his door if he was in. He did not need to, everyone who did not respect him was intimidated by him. No one in their right mind would be foolish enough to sneak up on a legend who knew a hundred ways to kill a man before he could blink.


The other Joe was sitting cross-legged on his bed with his fingers steepled contemplatively before him. He had changed from his bio suit to a soft looking black gui. A cowl wrapped loosely around his head leaving his eyes exposed, something Duke had seen on very few occasions. It was a shame really, he had the strangest eyes, a light silvery shade of blue that almost seemed to reflect back the light in a watery shimmer.


"Am I disturbing your meditation?" He took the head shake 'no' as an invitation to sit and settled onto the bed facing him since there was no other furniture in the room except for a rack of weapons along the wall ranging from guns and knives to things that looked like long buttonhooks to his eyes.


"I just wanted to make sure you know that I'm not mad or anything about not being able to break that hold. I think the general thought I was, but I just get frustrated with myself for not succeeding. You knew that didn't you?"


The nod he got was accompanied by a decidedly amused look in the pale eyes.


"Are you laughing at me?"


Snake Eyes put his hand over his heart and gave him an innocent look.


"Oh yes you are, you're not fooling me with that pure as the driven snow act." He was rewarded with a crinkling of the eyes and shoulders that shook with silent laughter.


"I am so damned competitive aren't I?"


A slow half bow, half nod confirmed it.


"Is there a way to break the hold?" The nod seemed almost hesitant. "Is it dangerous?" A quick shake, no not dangerous, something else then. Most likely Snake knew just how exhausted he already was. "Will you teach me? I need to get it." A long hesitation then a single firm nod.


Snake Eyes rose. That simple act in him was supernatural, a lithe and sinuous undulating of muscle, controlled power, and grace that was accented more than hidden by the plain dark clothing. He stood in the center of the room on silent, bare feet and held his arms out.


Duke was reminded for a moment of a lover holding out his arms for his beloved to rush into them. He shook his head to clear the thought and moved into position. It felt quite a bit different with only sweats and cotton between them instead of fatigues and vinyl. He could feel the other man's heat, smell the lingering smell of soap and shampoo on his skin. He exhaled slowly seeking calmness and concentrating on the hold. The position of the hands were important. They were over the joints of his shoulder where he could get no leverage to throw them off. No one had been able to figure it out yet. You needed to break that hold and get your arms free because that knee between your legs kept you from getting any leverage up or down to break free. His mind switched gears abruptly.


Snake waited patiently, not yet snapping his arms up. He seemed to know that Duke was reassessing his options. He had a preternatural ability to tell when he was doing that. He often stopped dead watching his leader intently in battle to be ready for whatever unexpected order he might issue. In the beginning it had actually creeped him out a little, but as they completed mission after mission together, it had become part of the magic that made them the top commando team in an already elite force.


"You're not balanced on your back leg, your weight is here on this one." His brows furrowed. "Go!"


He fought the hold much more fiercely than he had in practice setting his muscles to screaming in protest. After the second try he relaxed catching his breath. The hold was back to its lose starting position. The balance situation began to nag at him again. If the balance was on the forward leg, directly underneath him.




He fought the hold a total of three more times, running through everything he had already tried.

Then his eyes lit up. The apartment floor was much harder than the training room mats, but he bounced back up with new purpose. "That's it! Snake, ready!"


He grunted as abused shoulders were once more forced up and back. He braced himself firmly on both legs letting his body sag into the cruel embrace instead of fighting it. Rather than trying to lift his opponent or lunge forward, he threw himself backwards adding all the force his legs could muster to his weight. There was a rumbled vibration in the chest behind him that he was certain was laughter and Snake was knocked down backwards. He realized they were going down together but it was too late to stop.


He weighed quite a bit more than his friend. He rolled immediately forgetting that arms still held him by the shoulder. Once he managed to untangle his limbs from his friend's he ended up on his back with Snake Eyes sprawled on top of him.


"Well that almost went according to plan."


There was incredulous look in the eyes above his face. There was no doubt he was being laughed at now. Snake's eyes crinkled and he lowered his head almost to Duke's chest. He took a gasping breath that hissed softly around the mirth.


"It isn't that funny, Well maybe it is." He smiled, realizing it was good to see the usually somber man amused. "It still isn't a perfect solution though. If you were a real assailant, you might have pinned me when we were both off guard or whipped out a dagger or something. I am assuming you aren't hurt unless you have a stitch in your side." His voice was dry.


Snake sat up balancing on the balls of his feet over him. His hands, very pale against the black, moved fluidly in sign language. Duke was not the best at reading it, but he was trying. "You break -uh- broke the hold, but you have no control the fall -during the fall maybe? Think and tomorrow do better."


"I will do better, thank you for letting me try until I got it."


He sat up catching Snake's thighs as he did. The ninja never even swayed, he was steady as a rock in the crouch. "You're balance is incredible. You know that don't you? It's absolutely disgusting." Strong hands closed on his wrists and he stood up pulling him up as if he weighed nothing at all. "Show off."


He took a step back and swept into a formal bow.


"And they say you have no sense of humor." He watched him straighten thoughtfully. "People don't really know you at all do they, even Scarlett. She thinks she does, and you two have served together a long time, but she hasn't got a clue what's going on behind your mask."


He blinked slowly and tilted his head up and to one side. "And I do? I'm getting better at reading your posture you know. No, I don't know you either, but I hope you'll let me. You're an incredible man and a good friend."


He bowed his head slightly and lowered his eyes before straightening back up.


Duke felt a rush of heat as he remembered with startling clarity the feeling of his body pressed against his. Not now, not him. He closed his eyes trying to shake the powerful wave of attraction. He felt eyes on him and prayed fervently that they could not read his mind at the moment.


"I am going to hurt very soon," he took the coward's way out. "I'd better try to get some rest. Night, Snake." He slipped out the door and all but ran back to his own quarters. He would need a cold shower then some serious exercise to get his mind out of the gutter.



Snake Eyes watched Duke's hasty exit thoughtfully then moved to the center of the room and did a handstand rising up onto his fingers and balancing his body rigidly above them. Discipline and training kicked in altering his metabolism and circulation until the position was as comfortable as standing up. Once his center was established his mind was clear to wander where it wanted and he was not surprised when it wandered back to the newest Joe. He reconstructed their meeting in his mind and replayed it, examining it from various angles. He was a puzzling creature. He had intuitively grasped that the arm pin was misleading, that balance was the key, but even so he had thrown himself against the hold multiple times before revising his strategy. What was he thinking during that time? Was he just being stubborn, was he using the futile attempts to buy time while he formulated a new plan, did he just like pain? It was fascinating to him. That event afterward was the most curious thing. There had been a strange look then some internal struggle that was not pain. No, he knew very well what pain looked like. It was some sort of personal battle but against what? It had been a long time since another person had intruded on his personal space as much and even longer since one had so captured his curiosity.

Chapter Text




"Please man, you have too, we're like brothers!"



"Absolutely not."



"Come on, Duke, she won't go unless I can get dates for her sisters! It's just one night!"



"You sound pathetically desperate when you whine, Rip."



"I am pathetically desperate, have you seen her?"



"She's not my type."



"If you're a man and breathing, she's your type. C'mon. I would do it for you."



"You would go on a blind date with some girl ugly enough to need her sister to set her up just so I could get laid by some beach blond bimbo with five pounds of silicon in each breast?"



"They use saline now, not silicon, and of course I would."



"Even if I said yes, you still haven't got anyone to go out with the other sister."



"If you go Snake Eyes will."



"Snake said that?"



"Well not in so many words, but he would."



"What makes you think that?"



"He obeys you without question, even quicker than he does the general."



"If you think for a second that I am going to ORDER Snake Eyes to go out with some girl so you can catch a piece of tail you have another think coming! I might give in and agree if you nag me enough, but I would never abuse his trust like that!"



"Uh, oh shit, guess you heard that, Snake Eyes," Ripcord had the grace to look slightly embarrassed as the man in question approached, "but it isn't what it sounds like. Amy says her sisters are really sweet. Please, please, I'm begging you both from one guy who hasn't had any in months to his dearest pals!"



Duke looked up at Snake Eyes who was still and inscrutable behind his mask and looking at him not Ripcord for an explanation. "You remember that reporter who did the recruiting piece last week? She said she would go out with Rip if he could find dates for her two sisters who are staying with her. Everyone else has turned him down so now he's begging us."



Snake Eyes dropped into the chair beside him and looked at the paratrooper a while. He took advantage of the moment to beg profusely. Snake touched his chest and nodded then jerked a thumb toward Duke.

"You'll do it if I will?" A slight nod answered him then the dark gloved hand touched his throat. "Right, Rip make sure they know Snake doesn't talk."



"Damn, I love you, big guy! You're all right no matter what anybody says about you." Ripcord all but leaped from his seat and hugged both of them from behind then ran before they could change their minds.



"You do know we're going to regret this don't you?" Another nod. "You're getting soft." A shake of denial. "Why didn't you take the promotion, I know they offered it to you first." He actually caught the ninja off guard, he could tell it by the way the head came up sharply. He really wished he could see his eyes. Snake slowly took off his gloves and signed the answer. He sounded it out. "You are leader I - I am honored to follow. You deserve." He closed his eyes then softly thanked his friend. He felt a touch, for just a moment as a strong, slender hand covered his then it was gone and so was Snake Eyes when he opened his eyes.

Snake Eyes held himself in the door frame to his bathroom. His legs were folded tightly and his arms crossed his chest with only his knees touching anything solid. They pressed into the woodwork halfway up allowing the weight of his body to be redirected into a controlled force. In seeming to defy the laws of gravity, one understood them most fully. As his knees pushed into the frame the frame pushed out, every cell of the wood exerting exactly as much force on his flesh as his flesh exerted on it. They were two creations of matter refusing to exist in the same place, proof of mass, proof of force, proof of control.



He was not a leader. If anything he was a loner. Duke was a leader, a natural. Command saw it and in time he would fit comfortably into his rank. He was confident he had made the right decision in turning down the promotion. He was not as certain about his choice to humor Ripcord. He examined his motives minutely and could not find a single reason that he should have consented. The bit of conversation he had overheard as he walked up kept intruding and confusing the matter. Duke would not abuse his trust. Duke trusted him. That was important to him.



He knew himself. Only by controlling your mind and body could you transcend the mundane world and find your truth and purpose. The others did not see it, but he knew that he had been behaving differently lately, pushing himself harder and consequently those around him, spending more time with the others and less alone in meditation, listening more and caring more about the people around him. Something inside of him, long dormant, was stirring to life and showing him the world with new eyes, something that was fascinated by the man he admired most.



The blind date was in three hours and as Duke had said, he would probably regret it. He pushed contemplation aside in favor of seeking the peacefulness of acceptance. It was only a few hours, how bad could it be?

Duke turned from the motorpool sedan as the gravel crunched behind him. A young man was approaching dressed in civilian clothes, black slacks and a dark blue button down shirt. Light blondish brown hair brushed his shoulders and hung carelessly in his eyes. He handed an ID to the gatehouse guard and was gestured on through. Something in the way he moved was just too familiar.



"Snake?" A nod confirmed it.



"Dude," Ripcord spoke up beside him, "I thought you were older, and Asian. You look like - what twenty three or so? I thought you would at least look like Jackie Chan or Chuck Norris."



Duke elbowed Ripcord hard in the side.



"Well I did!"



His lips twitched up in amusement as he signed.



"He says he's old enough to be your girlfriend's dad," Duke translated.



Ripcord laughed, "Barely legal is still legal, boys!"



Snake Eyes shot him a look and he sighed, "I know this is such a bad idea but it's only a few hours." He read the rapid signing and could not resist laughing, "Yes, they are legal, I ran their ID's."



Thirty minutes later he and Snake were squashed together in the back seat with the reporter's sisters on the outside so they could see out the windows. The one with Duke was skinny as a stick and talked constantly in an insanely cheerful voice which might have been alright if she had any intelligence at all. Unfortunately the phrase -brain dead' kept running through his head. The girl sitting with Snake was dark haired and overweight, bedecked in Mother Earth jewelry and ignoring him completely in favor of reading her book -The Fight for Lesbian Rights.' He felt a hand on his wrist and watched as Snake turned his watch to look at the time. Awkwardly he signed, -I'll never make it.' The hand slid from his watch to his hand squeezing it sympathetically. He was once more aware of how close and how warm his friend's lithe frame was against his own. He could smell his subtle cologne. He turned his hand over catching Snake's and returning the gesture.



Pale blue eyes slid in his direction. From the side he could see the maze of fine scars that marred Snake's pale complexion. They started just below his eyes, a map of fine silver lines. His hair and the collar of his shirt hid the worst, Duke suspected. He knew that his team mate had endured over twenty three surgeries, it was in his medical records. His real name had been deleted from the files, as had all pictures of him, and the details of whatever accident or torture had made the scars, but the surgeries were described there in lurid detail. He knew the file by heart. Five surgeries to reconstruct the nose and facial bones, two more and he could hear as well or better than before, three more and he could eat and drink without tubes, and then the cosmetic surgeries growing gradually farther apart making him look human again. His voice would never come back, though. The voice box had been crushed and the vocal cords sliced through. The neck wound that should have killed him had been cauterized on the field and that had kept him alive, but it had also taken his voice permanently. There was just not enough left of the larynx to save.



The hand withdrew swiftly from his and a second later his date was bouncing and cooing all over the vehicle babbling and pointing out the window at a brilliantly lighted club. Duke sighed and heard a similar exhalation beside him as the car headed unerringly to the club's parking area.



Three hours later he was glaring at Ripcord who could care less. The reporter was all over him, climbing in his lap, trying to swallow his face with open mouthed, very wet kisses, and rubbing lewdly against him to the cheers of the drunken crowd that surrounded them. His date was giggling continuously as she did Jello shots off a body builder's abs. Snake's was talking with a woman who looked like she could bench press the body builder with one hand. At least he thought it was a woman, she had enormous breasts, but the mustache kind of threw him.



He looked at Snake Eyes and could not help laughing. They each had a small menagerie of drunks vying for their attention. His group was all female, Snake Eyes had the oddest collection of males, females, and crossdressers hovering over him and treating him like some kind of invalid. Uncanny eyes found his immediately in spite of the smoke and the crowd. Duke wondered, not for the first time, just how the ninja knew when he was thinking about him. Maybe it was because he was almost always thinking about him lately.



He watched Snake tilt his head and gaze at him questioningly. Some girl with garish red hair and pins stuck through her face like Frankenstein's monster took advantage of the move to lean down close to his neck. He had to fight back a strong urge to push the little tramp away from him before she worked up her nerve to actually touch him.



He stood up actually over balancing the double-d wonder gushing over how much he looked like some movie star or another and walked over to him dropping his hand on the shoulder Pin Face was breathing on. "Time for us to check in with base, excuse us ladies and uh gentlemen."



He headed for the banks of pay phones at the back of the joint then checked to make sure the coast was clear before breaking the flimsy lock on the back door and stepping out into the relatively fresh air of the night. "Hope you don't mind." He didn't look behind him, he was pretty sure he knew his friend well enough to know he was relieved to be out of the press. "I was about to hurt someone, maybe Ripcord."



He turned back to face the bar and dropped down onto an upended crate. Snake eyes examined the area intently for a while, probably cataloging escape routes and possible weapons. When he was done, he jumped up onto the seatless frame of an old kitchen chair and dropped into a cross legged sitting position on the rusty metal.



"That looks even more uncanny in civvies."



He nodded acknowledgement.



"You do look young. Dr. Mariss did a fantastic job."



A sharp incline of the chin and a questioning look reminded him that the contents of his medical file were supposed to be confidential. "I pulled your medical file along with the rest of the team before we went into Laos. I wanted to double check immunizations records. Sometimes you assume your team is properly vaccinated without actually asking them. I shouldn't have read the rest, but the description was so graphic it was hard to put down." That was the truth, no need to tell him that he had copied the file before returning the original and had reread it several times since then. A nod of acceptance and he could relax again. Snake Eyes was way too sharp and it was only a matter of time before he realized his commanding officer had far more than a casual interest in him. When that time came, he would likely lose his best friend and finest warrior.



He sighed then jumped as a hand touched his forehead lightly. He had not seen him move from the chair frame. "You move so fast. I'm fine, no fever, not crazy, my psychiatrist assures me." The hand withdrew as his companion knelt in front of him looking up curiously. It bothered Duke to see him there, beneath him, crouching in a filthy alley.



"Let's go Snake, we'll catch up to Ripcord at the hotel. I want to go someplace quiet."



-What's wrong' was an easy sign to read.



"Getting severely claustrophobic."



A nod and Snake Eyes stood and motioned him to follow as he climbed over the brick wall encircling the small back area and dropped down lightly on the other side. Duke was less graceful but had no trouble following him over the wall. It was a little more difficult following through the press of the night crowd. The noise was terrible, hookers, hawkers, and drunks trying to out-shout each other, the roar of cars and blare of horns. Not the least bit too soon, Snake slid under a security bar into a private garden. It was dark and much quieter.



Dark clothes blended into the shadows making the ninja look all the paler as he picked his way through the tangle of plants and trees. The street sounds receded then disappeared replaced by the furtive movements of birds and animals and a low distant rumble like thunder. The sound of his footsteps changed and they stepped out onto a winding wooden deck. Snake, not surprisingly, made no sound at all as he walked. He never did. The deck ended at a small tree shaded dock lit by a single dim lantern.



"Did you actually know this was here or did your magical ninja powers tell you to come this way?" he teased.



Snake Eyes shrugged mysteriously then sat down on the end of the dock looking out at the lights of the condos across the water and twinkling lights of boats. Occasionally the wind brought sounds of laughter and music from the yachts and party boats, but for the most part it was blessedly silent. Duke was grateful for that as he sat beside the other soldier. The brisk breeze erased the stench of smoke and perfume from the bar as well and his mind seemed to clear along with his senses.



"Much, much better." He sighed and looked up at the scattered stars overhead.



Snake Eyes had actually been here many times and the garden they had passed through as well. Both it and the dock were always vacant except every other Tuesday when a gardening company came in to tend the garden. They did not stay long and he was patient. He liked to listen to the water. It reminded him of home. He could listen to its white noise and hear more clearly his own inner voice. He was tuning it out now though, focusing his attention on the man beside him. He had been sorting out his thoughts regarding his own behavior lately and overlooking the changes in his superior officer's own. His senses were telling them that the answer lay in comparing both.



He recalled the touch in the car. Why had he done that? He always knew what time it was. He had touched first, a seemingly innocent look at his watch and then the sympathetic touch that had been returned by a larger, gun calloused hand. He had pulled his hand away when the girl started to turn as if he were guilty of something improper. Duke had held himself still in the car when pressed against his side as if he had not wanted Snake to move and give him more room. He could have made a little room, squeezed against his so-called date instead of his friend but he had not chosen to do so. Then the look in the club was suspect as well. His eyes had been full of some hot emotion when he had looked over at the people gathered around him, not anger, not disgust, something else entirely. Now this new revelation regarding his medical file. Duke knew very well that he had been to Laos three times in the year preceding that particular mission. It was within his rights to look at the medical files when their were potential health issues on a mission, but he had not done it before, or if he had he should have remembered. Memory was another question, why would he remember something as obscure as the name of his surgeon if he had just casually perused the accounts of his recovery. He was not lying about it, he knew when he was being lied too. No, not a lie, just not all of the truth.



Duke had been involved with several women in the time he had known him. They had been relatively similar in make up. Intelligent, sweet natured, easy-going. He had dated none of them more than a month or two and had parted on good terms with each of them. Before that there had been the Baroness. That one had not ended on good terms. Most of the Joes assumed Duke was still mourning her, many had been sure he would go after her when she escaped, but he had not mentioned her at all or sought out any intelligence on her whereabouts. His date was not his type, but several of the women hanging all over him at the club had been close enough to catch his interest, but instead he seemed irritated, restless, and that brought him back to the look Duke had given him in the club.

"Are you meditating or just winding down?"



Snake looked up at him and gave him a rueful smile and a shrug.



"I'm sorry, Snake." He read the question in the tilt of his head, "for agreeing to this date and dragging you along. I should have known what Rip was up too. It isn't the first time, he's stuck me with some chick then ditched us so he could get some action. I just hate that you ended up pulled into it."



Snake folded his legs under him and turned to face his commanding officer. His hands flashed a question of his own.



" I guess I was annoyed in the club. I didn't like the way those freaks were hanging all over you." He watched one hand spell out the three word question he had been dreading. "I don't know why, it was just getting to me." He ran his fingers through his hair and looked away into the darkened water. Snake waited patiently. He always did.



"You know that patience is the reason all of us unload our problems on you. You're a perfect listener and you never seem to get irritated." He turned back looking at his comrade, memorizing the face he had never seen before today and might never see again. "I'm glad you did come tonight in spite of the situation. It's good to see you out of your suit."



His head tilted and the corners of his lips tweaked up.



"You have a devious smile you know. You look like a kid up to no good." That earned him a full smile. "You should do that more often you know."



Mobile hands rose to slide through his thick hair pushing it back from his face. For a moment, the lamp light picked out the jagged scar across his throat before the shadows once again concealed it. He wanted to reach out and touch the scar, his hair, his lips, but he could not do that. He could not risk the friendship they had for something that could never be.



A hand on his wrist made him realize Snake Eyes had asked him something. He was saved from asking him to repeat himself by the vibration of his cellphone.



He stood up as he snapped the phone closed, "That was Ripcord. He's in trouble, the reporter was married, her husband showed up and there was a fight. He's in jail and needs us to pick him up."



He tried to meditate but for the first time in years, he could not seem to find the internal peace to tune out the world around him. He was agitated and restless. He had stayed inconspicuous as Duke had dealt with the police officers and drove them back to base, then disappeared into his own quarters before anyone else saw him out of uniform.


He wished not for the first time that he had spent a little more time studying people and social interactions. He had done something wrong with Duke and had been shut out on the dock, allowed some problem to grow between them, something that might spring up and endanger his team mate or others at some critical time. It had to be dealt with now before it grew any bigger.


Someone knocked at his door then waited a moment for politeness sake before letting himself in. He was dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans. His hair was rumpled as if he had been running his hands through it and his eyes were shadowed, sad almost. He wanted to wipe that sadness away, it hurt him for some reason. He walked over and locked the door behind him, something he rarely did then moved back to the bed dropping onto it cross legged and gesturing to the place beside him.


There was definite hesitation in his friend's stride as he took the offered place, but he met his eyes without flinching that was a good sign. Then he had sensed it too, the breaking of some line between them. He had come to either repair it or sever it for good. He took a long calming breath and opened himself up listening not just with his ears but with every sense at his command.


Duke took a deep breath not breaking eye contact. Snake was listening to him in that quiet, calm way he had that made you feel like you were the only one in the universe that mattered at the moment. He had run through what he wanted to say a dozen different ways then just decided to wing it. He stopped hesitating and just launched into his explanation.


"Your friendship and your respect mean more to me than I could possibly tell you, Snake Eyes. I would never do anything, ever, to jeopardize them. I owe you an apology. I'm not sure why it bothered me seeing you in that place with those people hanging all over you, but it was none of my business if you didn't mind it. I should have asked before dragging you away. You might have noticed that I sometimes assume I know what's best for everyibe without consulting anyone else."


Pale eyes twinkled and a dip of the head acknowledged that he did indeed know that.


"You deserve better than that." Why again, he really hated being asked why. "You just do, you're not like anyone else."


He shut his eyes tightly and looked away trying to compose his thoughts. He was too tired to be this close to him, to be looking so intently at his emotions. There was no point in lying. Snake would know and be disappointed in him, but the truth might drive him away. He raised his eyes agan and blurted it out. "I was jealous."


His brow furrowed at the response. "Why was I jealous?"


He knew, he just did not how to answer in a way that would not deepen the hole in which he was already standing. He clenched his fist hard enough to feel the knuckles pop then looked him in the eyes instead of the hands. "Okay, no more rambling, I'm just going to come clean and wait for the fallout." A nod of encouragement spurred him on.


"I have never actually loved many people in my life. After what happened with Anna I promised myself that I wouldn't let myself fall in love again. Every time I've been attracted to someone, I just pictured putting them in danger and I could cool it off and send them packing. With the girls here who've seemed interested, like Scarlett and Lady Jaye, I was able to keep them away by thinking about chain of command and how relationships can get in the way of making good command decisions."


Snake tilted his head to the side a little but did not interupt.


"It isn't like I haven't wanted to have a relationship. I've been seriously attracted to some of them. I just wasn't willing to risk them getting hurt." He hesitated trying to think of some way to say what he needed that would not sound completely inane. "Some of the people I've been attracted to were men, Snake."


He looked intently into the astounding eyes. There was no disgust or revulsion that he could see in them. "I've never actually fallen for a guy though until-" He stopped unable to complete the sentence.


Silent hands finished it for him.


"Yes," he whispered, "until you. Do you hate me?" The negative shake was completely certain.


"I know you don't feel the same."


He blinked, "I must have read that wrong." The hands spelled out the same question again more slowly. "No, I didn't ask."


A buzzer sounding calling for an assembly. Snake unfolded from the bed moving purposefully to the closet.


"Wait, Snake, do you? Could you?"


The corners of his eyes creased a little as if he were smiling or laughing at him, but he only signed -get to work soldier.'


"You know I won't let it rest now until I find out."


The nod he received was both confirmation and dismissal. He took it for that and headed back to his own room and uniform at a sprint. He had not lost his friend, at least not yet. Maybe it was too much to hope for that Snake might possibly return his feelings. If he did, that would open a whole other can of worms to deal with, but what would it be worth to be loved by someone like him. He forced the thoughts from his mind as he dressed. He was the Joe's combat leader, the team and the mission came first. Personal issues were a distant third.

Chapter Text

It was the hardest order he ever gave, but he did it anyway. "The original plan is FUBAR, team. We're going have to bulldoze through and hope for the best. Snake, I need you to go in through the front door and draw their fire keep them distracted. Take out as many as you can. If it gets too hot, you high tail it for those water turbines. You have a better chance of loosing the robotic units in the water. You're on your own out there. We don't have enough firepower left to cover you. Do what you can then fall back to the chopper. You have the best survival instinct in the squad, use it."


"Scarlett, your team takes the high road, go around the left flank up that embankment and then drop down onto the roof. Blow it wide open, make enough noise to put the scientists and non-combatants into a panic, start a stampede if you can, then pick off those damned gun turrets. Once you have the big guns out, range your people around the roof top and knock out as many of the robots as you can. Remember they are programmed to explode when their functions drop below a certain level and the range is about the same as a hand grenade so make sure none of our own are close when they go up."


"Heavy Duty, you guys take the right flank and punch through the motor pool area to those long barracks in back. If anything gets in your way, knock it down. Intelligence says the prisoners are there. Mission priority is one, free the prisoners, two intercept the hijacked documents, and three grab any hard drives or electronic data storage equipment that we can. Once you have the prisoners send up the flare and all units will cover the extridition."


"Let's do it team, Yo Joe!" As the cry echoed back, he shouldered his own gun and charged into the fray.


Cold, it was too cold. He was growing numb and his lungs were burning. He needed to surface but he was too close to the huge water wheel. He lunged forward and caught another of the robot sentries. His stiffening hands fumbled at the panel covering its inner workings. It came loose reluctantly and he wasted no time pulling wires out by the handful. For just a moment, a bright flash of electrical light lit up the murky water as the machine shorted out.


He kicked away from it and angled toward the surface, but before he could make it a shockwave hit the river turning it into a fury of contradictory currents and eddies. The deathstrike function, he should have realized the range would be greater underwater. He swam for the surface with all his strength but something grabbed his ankle from below. He looked down to see another machine latched onto him. It was damaged in the blast, the control panel was glowing and sparking in the water but it was still mobile and heavy. It was hauling him back down toward the bottom. No, not the bottom, the junction between the massive wheel and the smaller cog and axle that turned it. They were drones programmed to kill, no sense of self-preservation. It was going through the turbine and taking him with it. He fought to free himself of the dead weight, but there was too little time. The sentry was drawn in between the wheels and he was pulled in with it.


He struggled to remain conscious and focused on his status. The pain in his thighs and abdoment were nothing beside the screaming of his lungs for air. The roar of the river filled his ears deafening even under the surface. The wheels of the mechanism groaned and creaked trying to force him through. He had somehow found leverage for one foot against the smaller of the two massive wheels and that one foot was forcing the two apart just enough that his leg and hips had not been crushed, but the lip of one of the partitions of the larger was mashing into his lower belly rythmically as it tried to turn. The robot was gone at least, it had not been so lucky. He smiled morbidly, or maybe it had been the lucky one after all. It was no more than a few bits of scrap drifting peacefully to the bottom. He was still here deciding whether it would be better to be crushed or to drown. If he could hold on long enough hypothermia might be a choice as well, but holding his waning breath that long was rather unlikely.


He kicked out again, not allowing either hope or despair to enter his mind looking for anything he had missed. As he arched his body against the savior leg that was now quite thoroughlly numb he felt something shift just a little. It was a chance and he would never give up while their was a hearbeat in his breast. He pushed with all his strength.


Everything went mostly according to plan. After the smoke cleared from the last explosion and the chopper was airborne he counted heads, all present and accounted for. The price of victory had been high, there were a lot of injuries, but it could have been higher. He stole a look back at the black clad warrior. He was leaning back against the wall of the jet, he might have been asleep or pondering the meaning of the universe or listening to an mp3 player under the featureless mask for all he knew. He not spoken or signed to anyone since they had made it to the retreival point and found him on board waiting. His head turned at that moment as if seeking him out, as if he could feel his commander's thoughts on him. He shook his head and settled back in beside the pilot. He had it bad, but it had not effected the mission at all. He was positive his training and sense of duty would steer him on a steady course and it had.


He sought out Snake Eyes once he was debriefed and cleaned up, but he was not in his room. He checked the training room and the dining hall but failed to locate him in either area. He had a habit of disappearing from time to time when he needed privacy or peace and no one had ever gathered the nerve to ask him where he went. He would come back when he was ready. He dropped into a chair and tried to read but he just could not concentrate well enough. Eventually he gave up and threw himself down on his bed with the casualty reports. He flipped through them cursorily then quickly turned back to the second page. He dropped them to the floor as he stood and rushed to the door, but there was a knock just before he could fling it open.


He opened it and was somehow not surprised to see the commando standing in front of him. "Snake, you didn't tell me you were injured." His voice held the edge of command and anger but his friend did not flinch. Instead the ninja pulled off his right glove touched his right temple and then cupped Duke's cheek shaking his head and effectively silencing him. Duke took the cue said no more but slid his arm around him and pulled him inside shutting and locking the door behind him.


Snake leaned into his embrace for an unforgettable moment then stepped back reaching up to the sides of his mask and pressing the hidden releases there. The visor slid up and the whole thing opened. He looked his age this time under the fluorescents, the scars were angry looking because the skin under them was ghostly pale except for the dark smudges under his eyes.


"How bad," he asked softly. "Nothing? Don't sign me nothing, you were caught in an explosion, then went through a damned water wheel. You were pinned under water for who knows how long. You could have been crushed or drowned."


-Or shot or stabbed, it's my job', was the signed reply accompanied by an irritated glare.


"You're right," he conceded, "of course you are. Are you going to be okay? Should you even be out of the infirmery?"


He nodded waving his hand as if dismissing his injuries. He looked around the room curiously then bent to pick up the files that he had dropped. He started to place them on the nightstand then paused looking at the one on top. He carefully set the other files aside and opened it. Duke froze as he recognized the medical file he had no business having in his room. He watched him then met his eyes as he looked up. "I'm sorry, Snake. I had no business with that."


No you did not. He really did not need the sign language on that one, the hardness in his eyes was clear enough.


Panic surged in Duke as he put his mask back on and headed for the door leaving the file laying in mute accusation on his bed. He caught his arm as he moved past him and abruptly found himself sprawled on the floor with no clear recollection of how he had gotten there. "Wait please, Snake, let me explain!"


He dragged himself up to his feet grunting as new bruises joined the ones he had gained in the last mission and lunged forward catching the other soldier around the midsection and holding on tight. "Just listen."


"Umph!" the floor was hard on his back, but at least that time he had seen the move, not in time to counter it, but he had seen it. He did not waste time climbing to his feet this time. He threw himself under his feet knocking him off balance then surged up catching him across his shoulder and swinging him around back into the center of the room. Snake turned the fall into a controlled roll and came up on his feet in an attack crouch. Then abruptly he swayed unsteadily and sat down heavily.


"Snake, are you okay?" He was kneeling in front of him fumbling at the mask in seconds. "Dammit, you're injured, I forgot. Shit!" He got the mask off then tried to find some way to open the suit. "Take this damn thing off before I cut it off."


Snake Eyes pushed his hands away then touched the suit lightly. It separated at the sides along the top and he pulled it down to his hips. His entire stomach was black and purple.


"I'll get you to the infirmary."


He shook his head and moved his hands.


"You are not fine, you almost fell and your hands are shaking. I've never seen your hands shake, ever. Shit, I am screwing everything up and probably giving you internal bleeding at the same time." To his surprise Snake Eyes smiled ruefully signing again.


"Nice move?" I hit you where you're already hurt and then manhandle you until you fall down and you compliment my attack?"


He nodded and coughed harshly. A cough was strangely eerie when it made no sound except the movement of air. Duke laid his hand on the bare chest in front of him feeling the vibration and trying to decide just how serious it was.


Snake closed his eyes for a moment willing the violent coughing away and the pain with it. The bruising was nothing, it would heal in its own time. The water he had breathed in and the coldness of the water he had been trapped in were the real enemy. Even he was not immune to pneumonia. Another few seconds under the water and he would have lost the strength to push against the smaller wheel until it tore lose and knocked the larger off its hub. Another few seconds and he would have died alone in the roaring river.


The roaring of a river, the thunder of chopper blades then that unearthly whistle as they whipped through the air toward his face, the civilian he was shielding with his body screaming, it would seem that death would not come quietly for him.


His anger faded away abruptly as he understood why Duke had taken his records. His wounds had changed who he was, molded him into someone new. He had adapted, turning weaknesses into strengths as he had been trained to do. Duke was afraid to express his feelings, afraid to risk losing his dream for the slim chance that he might feel the same way in return. The files were something private, a part of him that he could touch and feel and hold. He had lived the surgeries with him, felt his pain, and cherished it as all he dared to hold of him.


He looked at the younger man, really looked at him then and saw a hero, a warrior who would fight with his dying breath against all odds, one who would never give up as long as there was a single spark of life in his breast. He had never forgiven Storm Shadow for killing the master who had loved him when his own family threw him out onto the streets. He would never forgive Cobra Commander for the lives of Cover Girl and the other Joe's he had murdered. He had lived inside his training and his duty for so long that he had lost his understanding and compassion for others, everything but his hate and his need for vengeance, until now, until Duke.


He reached up and touched a face that looked as weary as he felt. His fingertips moved lightly over the whole, unmarred skin of his cheeks until they rested on his lips. He searched his heart and found no qualms over his masculinity, no concerns that his feelings might interfere with a mission, and no reason at all not to take the love he was offering. He leaned up and met his lips experimentally.

Duke's eyes closed as he sank down into the kiss. It ended way too soon and a solid hand pushed him back, though far more gently than normal.


"Snake, I- does that mean- do you-," he shook his head fishing for words that just weren't coming.


A raised hand stopped his rambling. He touched his temple again with a grimace of pain. The stood up with only the ghost of his normal grace. Even his hands seemed slower than normal and tired as they signed.


"You came by to ask if you could skip the debriefing and take a personal day and I stress you out and knock you down then kiss you."


A gesture interupted him.


"I stand corrected then, you kissed me and I most sincerely hope that happens again."


A small smile belied the casual shrug.


"Take as much time as you need, Snake. That was fine work out there, I wouldn't ask so much from you except that know you are perhaps the one person capable of getting it done."


Silver eyes regarded him seriously then the hands moved firmly.


"Yes, I know you well enough to know that you would leave if anything between us interfered with the mission in anyway or if I found that I couldn't order you into that kind of danger. I'm also guessing that you know I would resign my position if I thought for one second that I was compromising the team in any way. You wouldn't have kissed me if you had any real doubts about that, would you?"


A slightly mocking half bow told him he was correct.


"Then go take something for your headache and get some rest, my friend, my hopefully more than a friend soon. I'll come by and check on you as soon as I rearrange the duty roster. You're off active duty until the Doc clears it and you are definitely excused from the meetings tomorrow and keep your ass out of the training room until that bruising is gone, that's an order."


He watched the visor slide back into place and the rest of the mask close around it then he was gone. His hand slid up of its own accord touching his lips where the kiss still lingered. He shook himself out of the daze then headed for the medical lab to check the actual extent of his injuries. He knew bruising and he knew that kind of bruising tended to come with serious internal injuries.



"Keeping him in the hospital is about as easy as keeping you here." Lifeline groused. "At least if he promises me he'll take it easy, he'll keep his word and not forget like you have a habit of doing."


"Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm the worst patient in the history of patients." Duke had the grace to look properly rebuked."


"Snake Eyes has one thing most patients don't," the medic continued, "an awareness of his own body that's damned uncanny. He knew he was bleeding internally and told me where. He knows he has fluid in his lungs and will most likely be fighting pneumonia in a few days. He'll come back to me if he starts to bleed again or if he gets sick. I started him on an antibiotic just to be sure. The bruised organs and of course the muscles will take care of themselves on their own. He has some stretched tendons and pulled muscles in his right leg, but he knows what to do for those as well as I do. As soon as he feels he's up to it, light exercise is okay. No missions though, even the great Snake Eyes needs R&R once in a while."


"I took him off active duty until you clear him."


"He was okay with that?"


"Yes, why wouldn't he be?"


"Stone tried that once on him and he just stared him down. What did you do, threaten him?"


"No. I've never threatened him."


"I guess he just likes you better, huh?"


"Maybe. Or maybe he knows I wouldn't ground him if it wasn't for his sake and the good of the team."



He knocked then entered the room. Snake was sitting on the floor against the wall reading. He laid the book aside when he entered, Watership Down. "I loved that book the first time I read it. I was in high school and a teacher gave it to me. He told me that all I need to know about people and politics was in there and if I read it I might not spend so much time asking why. I was surprised to find out it was about rabbits until I finished it and saw what he meant.


Snake nodded his agreement and invited him to share the floor. He did not need to be asked twice. He slid down the wall beside the other man, close enough to feel his heat through the black sweat pants and T-shirt he wore.


"I would have guessed you were a reader. You score off the charts on the problem solving and comprehension scenarios. Of course, you score so well on the other scenarios, someone might get the impression that you were born with a gun in one hand and the keys to an assault vehicle in the other." That earned him a rueful smile.


"Head better?" Slow shake no. "Want me to leave?" Another no. "I was hoping that was your anwer to that."