Categories > Cartoons > G.I. Joe > Reflections of a Shadow

Reflections of a Shadow

by Wolfman769 0 Reviews

On a lonely Valentine's Day, a Joe travels to Arlington Cemetery to find some old memories.

Category: G.I. Joe - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Angst - Characters: Other - Warnings: [X] - Published: 2005/09/17 - Updated: 2005/09/17 - 5635 words

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G. I. Joe: "Reflections of a Shadow"

By; "Wolfman Six"

Disclaimers:

G. I. Joe, Cobra and their associated characters are trademarked and copyright Hasbro International, and are used here without permission. The author doesn't profit from the use of any copyrighted material in this work of fan fiction.

Lieutenant Kurt "Crypto" Williams is my character, and I will kill and eat anyone who uses him without my permission. So are Yeoman YN1 Penelope Anne "Seagull" Scott, and Sergeant Claudia Lynn "Takedown" Pearl, for that matter.

All characters, locations and events are not intended to depict real-life equivalents, although some essentials of the story are drawn from or based upon reality.

Author's note: The flashbacks in this piece are purposefully generic and under-developed. I plan on writing a full-length, multi-part fan fiction about the gory details of Crypto and Seagull's recruitment into the Joes, their training, and the fateful Baghdad mission and its consequences.

*

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington, Virginia

14 February, 2004

A thin layer of snow topped the trees and blanketed the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, located just outside of the bustle of Washington, DC. The sprawling property had once been a residence of the ex-Governor of Virginia and commander of the Confederate States' Army, Robert E. Lee, before it was seized by the Union Army during the Civil War, and converted to the region's military graveyard soon afterwards.

A lone, green Ford Taurus SE rolled slowly along the narrow paved streets of the famous military burial ground. Behind the wheel sat a naval officer, attired in full dress blue uniform, with a solemn look fixed on his face.

Because of the cold conditions, very few people in general, and fewer tourists in particular, had chosen to venture out among the rows of simple white markers that signified the names of America's honored dead, those who gave their lives in military service to their country. But Crypto, a Navy Lieutenant and member of the G. I. Joe Team, made the pilgrimage at least once every year on Valentine's Day, or at least as often as his duties allowed.

Crypto's assignment to the New York bureau of the Joe Team, at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, put the lieutenant too far away from the Washington metropolitan area to just hop in a car any time he felt like a road trip. Thus, the intelligence analyst had arranged for a weekend pass, taken a pre-dawn taxicab ride from Brooklyn to Penn Station in Manhattan, and then caught an Amtrak Metroliner to Washington's Union Station, all told a four and a half hour effort.

Upon arriving in Washington around ten in the morning, Crypto rented his Ford sedan from the National car rental agent, conveniently located inside the train station next to a McDonald's that provided his fast but less-than-healthy breakfast. Then he fought his way out of the thickening weekend traffic in the district, taking a brief run down Massachusetts Avenue and around DuPont Circle before ending up on New York Avenue.

After some vehicular legerdemain, a feat worthy of the saltiest local cabbies, he was speeding along Interstate 395 as it ran through tunnels built under the city. He drove along with the flow of cars under the hustling neighborhood around the Capitol building and the numerous Federal department offices, before crossing the Potomac River near the Jefferson Memorial.

The officer was familiar with the route, especially because the highway also led from the nation's capital and hub of all things political in the United States to the Pentagon in Alexandria, the hub of all things military. Crypto had served there briefly under a posting with the Joes, when the Department of Homeland Security established a liaison office with General Tomahawk in that very building.

Crypto had made it into Virginia and onto the George Washington Memorial Parkway in less than forty minutes, and was at the cemetery by eleven. His military ID granted the officer unlimited access to the cemetery, and he was allowed to drive his rental car anywhere he wanted on the grounds. He knew exactly what section to head for. Stopping at the landmark that he had memorized, the officer alighted from the car and slammed the door shut with a sharp bang.

Crypto's feet crunched on the semi-frozen snow, protected by thick rubber galoshes that fit over his government issued, 'Bates Lites' patent-leather dress shoes. A heavy, knee-length woolen pea coat was draped over his body and buttoned up tightly, the black collar turned up around his neck and tied off with a civilian knit cotton scarf, also in black. The white crown of his dress cap was covered with an elasticized plastic cover to keep his head dry, and black leather gloves protected his hands from the bitter temperatures.

He walked the course from his car to the grave marker in an even, measured pace, as if he had counted the footfalls off precisely and walked them from memory, as if each step was a piece of his recollections coming back to visit his consciousness.

One among many, the white marble marker was carved neatly in the shape of a curved arch and adorned with a small cross and the information of its owner. It was planted at the end of a row under a spreading tree. Crypto reached the marker and leaned down to run his gloved fingers across the ice-cold stone. As his fingers gently dusted off loose flakes of snow from the inscription, his eyes traced each letter to remind himself once again of the memories associated with the gravestone that he had kept buried deeply within.

Penelope Anne Scott

Petty Officer 1st Class, USN (Yeoman)

August 25, 1968 - April 16, 1993

Headquarters, CENTCOM

Navy Meritorious Service Medal (P)

"Died honorably in the line of duty."


Although the contents of the inscription were standard for everyone interred at Arlington: the name, rank, branch of service, dates of birth and passing, unit being served and citation or posthumous award name, every item of every line held a special meaning for Crypto. He knelt in front of the marker and closed his eyes, forgetting the cold surrounding him and allowing the inner warmth of a happy memory to fill him up while he reminisced.

"Hi, Penny," Crypto whispered to the marker. "It's been a while. I missed out on our annual visit last year because the Joes were deployed to Saudi Arabia, and we had to go back to Baghdad and kick Cobra's ass once again."

"They never seem to learn, do they, Penny?" Crypto whispered, recalling briefing after briefing concerning Cobra's secret involvement in the political affairs of the Arabian Peninsula. "If they had, we might never have been assigned to work together... Our friendship might not ever have developed."

Crypto shook his head slowly. "I'll always remember the Valentine's Day we shared in Maryland, right after we completed training for the Baghdad mission." /Even though Baghdad was the mission that took you away from me/, Crypto thought with a heavy heart. "It was a pleasant and very special memory for both of us, huh?"

*



Chincoteague Marine Wildlife Refuge

Outside Ocean City, Maryland

14 February, 1993

Waves crashed on the sands of a secluded beach on federally protected government property, as the sun began to peek out of the horizon in the eastern sky. Dawn came early during the winter, and the orange glowing ball of fire that fed energy to all of the Earth's life was beginning its journey across the sky right on time at three minutes past six in the morning.

Two people had already been jogging for an hour on the beach, working out the physical kinks in their bodies from a twelve-hour tactical exercise the night before.

The woman, YN1 Penelope "Seagull" Scott, was tall, nearly five-foot-seven. And she was thin, with long, shapely legs and muscle tone like an Olympic swimmer. She wore her less than shoulder-length, blonde hair tied up in a simple bun while in her duty uniform, but allowed it to fall gracefully free during her runs, to frame her face and calm green eyes in a flowing halo of soft hair. It didn't matter if the hair got in her way; running time was her time, and she liked her hair down to get whipped around in the ocean breezes.

The man, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Kurt "Crypto" Williams, was five-foot-eleven, with hazel eyes and dark brown hair, buzz-cut nearly to his scalp save for a very close flat top on the summit of his head. Not too muscular, the man still kept up with the woman as they ran, his legs being well-proportioned and accustomed to running long distances from being a track and cross country athlete in high school and college.

He had the broad shoulders of a Bavarian German, a hereditary gift from his grandfather, who had been descended from Bavarian railroad builders. His height was from his father, who towered over him at six-foot-four until he became wheelchair-bound from complications arising from long-term kidney disease.

A wave crashed on the beach, rolling foamy white tendrils up onto the sand. Crypto's feet splashed in the edge of the ocean, while he planted long, flowing strides beside his partner. Upon reaching a large rock that stuck out of the beach like a dark obelisk, the pair of newly graduated G. I. Joes paused to catch their breaths.

"Are you actually panting, Lieutenant Junior Grade Track Star?" Seagull asked with a laugh, chucking her partner on the shoulder as he bent over at the waist and supported himself by placing his palms against his knees.

"Hardly," Crypto replied. "I'm just refocusing my energy since you decided to stop."

"Let's see how focused you are," Seagull said with one of her sly smiles, the kind that told someone she had a devious challenge in mind. "What say we strip down to our skivvies and race out to the rock jetty? That's got to be a good mile or so swim from here."

Crypto brought a hand up to his forehead and looked at the stone jetty that stuck out into the ocean. "The very end? Sure. How about first one to shake the red beacon light wins?"

"You're on," Seagull replied, peeling off her white Navy tee-shirt to reveal a fetching, blue string bikini underneath. When she dropped her blue running shorts, the bikini's matching bottom was more akin to a pair of tight Speedos, form-fitting to provide less resistance in the water, yet it certainly accentuated the positive aspects of her curvaceous and developed figure.

Crypto began to peel off his shorts and tee-shirt when Seagull charged into the surf, diving under a crashing wave and emerging on the other side, taking long, powerful strokes against the choppy low-tide surf. The lieutenant was only a heartbeat behind, splashing through the waves as he surged seaward.

The two SEAL-qualified Joes pulled themselves powerfully through the water until Crypto began to tire. He fell back slowly until he was about a hundred yards behind Seagull. She reached the end of the stone jetty and rocked the floating marker buoy that was moored to its tip, ringing the foul weather bell that hung inside the buoy's frame.

Seagull looked out over the water and didn't see Crypto. After thirty seconds of waiting for him to pop up at the buoy, her lips turned down into a concerned frown. Her sharp eyes picked out a splash, and then another. Crypto was foundering, caught in an eddy of ocean currents that had formed along the jetty.

"Lieutenant!" Seagull shouted, but the crashing waves drowned the sound of her voice. She climbed onto the edge of the buoy to spot Crypto, and then dove back into the water, striking out as fast as she could to reach him.

Seagull reached the eddy quickly enough to see Crypto run short of energy and slip below the waves. Bending at the waist, she propelled herself under the surface and found the lieutenant struggling to get back to the surface for a breath. She grabbed onto his arm and touched his cheek to calm him down. Together, the pair kicked out and were able to pull free of the cross currents and undertow that had almost brought Crypto all the way under and kept him there.

When the Joes reached the shallow water, Crypto crawled out onto the sand under his own power, and Seagull ran ahead of him to their gear, grabbing a large beach towel. She returned as Crypto stopped on his hands and knees, gasping to regain his composure. Seagull rolled Crypto onto his back, wrapping his upper body with the towel, and began to massage his chest.

She leaned over him and pressed her lips against his to blow fresh air into his mouth and get oxygen into his system. After a couple of raspy coughs, Crypto finally spat out most of the salt water that he had taken into his lungs, and his ability to breathe normally on his own returned.

Crypto blinked his eyes a couple of times, as the warming sunlight beat down on his face, and then his vision cleared. He stared up at Seagull's silhouette, and she smiled back at him.

"You had me worried for a while there, Lieutenant," Seagull said softly, not budging from her sitting position atop Crypto when he nudged her. "How do you feel?"

"I'm okay now, Penny," Crypto replied. "Thanks for helping me out."

"That's what swim buddies are for, Kurt," Seagull said.

"You know, you could get off of me now," Crypto suggested. "Even though it's not bad scenery from where I'm looking."

"I kind of like having you as a captive audience," Seagull said, her lips parting into a more suggestive smile. She commended herself mentally for opting out of wearing the usual one-piece ladies' swimsuit that SEAL training standards recommended.

Both Crypto and Seagull regarded each other silently, spending the next moments thinking about their training for the Joe Team. They reflected on how, as trainees, they had been nearly isolated from their families and the outside world. Other than the instructors, who were all too aloof to everything but their training tasks, Crypto and Seagull could only rely on each other's company. They trusted each other implicitly, and both of them felt comfortable sharing very intimate, personal thoughts with the other.

They had become a tightly knit team, and maybe even more than that. They felt like the common ground between them was more than that of colleagues from the same posting, or the fact that they both intended on making a lifelong career out of the Navy and the Joes. However, prior to their graduation, regulations, decorum and the rigors of training prevented them from finding out for sure.

Seagull pressed her warm palm against Crypto's cheek, and their gazes locked together. "Do you realize that today is the day people celebrate their relationships?"

Crypto's mind swam, and he shook his head. They had been training so hard that days ran into each other, and taking a second to look for a calendar once in a while was a near impossibility. Unlike Seagull, Crypto was a lot more reserved in discussing feelings, despite having a "share and share alike" attitude towards their more personal discussions. So, romance didn't bubble very quickly to the surface of his thoughts.

"Happy Valentine's Day, sir," she said. "We sure picked a helluva way to start it."

Seagull's voice slipped into a semblance of shyness, and her facial expression appeared like she had much more to say about their situation. Perhaps she caught herself in mid-stride, hoping not to cross an inappropriate emotional line with him. Instead, she broke her train of thought and changed the subject. "You know, we never did discuss a bet for the winner of the swimming race."

Crypto reached out with his hand and slid his palm behind Seagull's neck, drawing her down and giving her a lingering kiss on the lips. He could feel her tug backwards and released her. The yeoman's face appeared to have a look of confusion on it.

"I'm sorry," Crypto whispered, his voice still impaired by the seawater he had swallowed. "I was way out of line, wasn't I?"

Seagull didn't reply, or even nod her head in agreement. She just kept looking at him, blinking her eyes occasionally, as if she had retreated into herself to think. With the kiss, she realized that they still shared a level emotional playing field; they were both afraid to completely let go. There was something more, but the box was still closed and they couldn't see it from inside.

Crypto pulled his hand away from her neck and sighed, suppressing the urge to cough before speaking again. "For all the time we spent segregated from the world, honing our skills and teamwork to prepare for joining the Joes, I had wondered what it would feel like to kiss you."

He scanned her face, studying it for some sort of response. His lips sagged unconsciously into a neutral line; Crypto was afraid that he had broken their trust, but decided to push the envelope instead, to try to open the box. "I--I liked it; and I hope that you did too."

Seagull was speechless in her response. Her lips broke into a warm smile and her gaze burned into his in a way Crypto had never seen before, as if his kiss had set her free from an inhibition she was struggling with inside.

"Um, if it doesn't seem too forward," Crypto added. "Perhaps for winning the swim race, letting me give you another kiss would suffice as a prize?"

"No, it would not suffice," Seagull replied, reaching behind her back to untie the straps of her bikini top and letting it fall off her shoulders. She pressed her body against Crypto's and cupped his cheeks in her palms, giving him a passionate kiss in return. Moving her lips to his ear, she whispered, "Make love to me instead."

*



Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington, Virginia

14 February, 2004

The weather forecasts had varied between the different news channels for the morning of Valentine's Day, but they all had one thing in common: it was bitter cold, colder than a witch's teat out on the cemetery grounds. Crypto felt the chill wind going right through the layers he had on, tickling at his skin like the day he and Penny had consummated their newfound relationship on the tide swept Maryland beach.

Crypto stared at the grave marker, tracing the engraved letters with his fingertip over and over. A small speck of white came down and stuck to his pea coat, and then another, and another still after that.

"It's snowing again, Penny," Crypto said. "Winters have been horrible recently. But I've somehow gotten through them. I might have hated the heat of the desert, but I abhor snow and cold more."

Crypto dusted the snowflakes off his pea coat and tried to think of more to say. Most of what had come to mind was old news. He had already laid the major points of his life out to her headstone during previous visits.

He had already told her about leaving the Navy right after she was buried in Arlington, and how it broke his heart to go. But his mind and body needed to mend from the torture Cobra had subjected him to when he was caught trying to exfiltrate from the city after the botched raid that took her life.

He had given her the low-down with a smile on his face, when he had found a job working with computers in a civilian think tank, and that he met someone that he intended to marry and settle down with.

Crypto had returned to her grave to share the sad news that his wife had been a Cobra plant, an enemy agent sent to track him down, make intimate contact, and then eliminate him for the work he and Seagull had done in Baghdad. Although she had come close to doing him in, she was ultimately unsuccessful, thanks to some Joes that broke up a Cobra spy cell that had been controlling her activities.

After G. I. Joe had disbanded and become a faded memory, New York City and Washington DC were hit in the largest terrorist attack in history, on September 11, 2001. Although reinstating the Joe Team had been an idea being fought over in the Pentagon since 1999, the attack drove home the need to revive the crack unit, and Crypto had accepted a return to duty with his former teammates, along with a promotion to O-3, a full Navy Lieutenant.

For a long moment Crypto kept still, listening to the muted sounds around him. The frigid blowing wind whistled through the barren trees; an occasional soft drip-drop from every snowflake that landed on his cap cover; and the distant footfalls of a lone 3rd Regiment guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Each element of the near-silence echoed in his ears while he searched for words to say. Finally, he spoke:

"I'm sure you're shaking your head up there in Heaven, looking down at me," Crypto whispered. "...Wondering why I came back after watching you die over there. I think it was a feeling of duty. I didn't feel like I was honoring your memory right by staying a civilian. But the time I spent out of uniform had been good to me."

"I got my life in line," he added. "I confronted my demons and got rid of the baggage that being in that Cobra dungeon left me with. I even went back to Baghdad during this past conflict. Cobra took me prisoner again, and they tried all over again to break me. I didn't let them win. I never forgot my promise to you..."

*



Ba'ath Party Ministry of Information building

Central Baghdad, Iraq

April 16, 1993: Midnight, local time

Crypto and Seagull had been under deep cover in Baghdad for two straight months. And they really made Cobra's lives a living Hell for that time, uncovering their activities in Iraq after the Coalition had all but pulled out of the country and left Saddam Hussein's government intact.

Their mission had been to operate in secret, working with CIA and MOSSAD assets to expose Cobra's complicity in secretly re-arming the Iraqi Army. The enemy had also bypassed the United Nations trade embargo by smuggling weapons and manufacturing materials for weapons of mass destruction into the hands of the dictatorial regime.

The Information Ministry attack was the largest covert raid to date that had been orchestrated by Crypto and Seagull while in country. They had planned to penetrate the concrete and steel fortress where most of Iraq's political records and data had been stockpiled for the reference of the scores of government functionaries that kept the Saddam Hussein regime going. Crypto and Seagull had obtained information from a reliable CIA asset that Cobras frequented the building as a secure place to conduct their business as well.

An entire SEAL platoon, numbering sixteen elite commandos, had been chopped to the operation by SOCCENT and delivered secretly by parachute into the city, because the powers-that-be had decided the CIA's network of indigenous operatives wouldn't be sufficient to tackle any organized resistance. And the CIA's special paramilitary "wet works" team was committed to the hunt for Mohammad Farah Aidid in the depths of Mogadishu, Somalia.

The G. I. Joe Team had been tied up in numerous high-profile anti-Cobra operations around the world, and even if any other members had been available, their presence might have compromised the relative 'quiet' of the region. Cobra thought they had the drop on the Joes in the Middle East, and they were wrong. But since Crypto and Seagull were under deep cover and even their Joe personnel files had been buried, Cobra would never know they were Joes at all.

The assault was planned for midnight, while the lightest security force was on duty at the Ministry of Information facility. The plan had called for the SEAL platoon to split into dive pairs, two-man teams that represented the smallest element of the platoon. They would take out the guards and then cover Crypto and Seagull as they located and bugged the central information network, transmitting every piece of communication to G. I. Joe Headquarters and thus exposing Cobra's operations in the Middle East.

At first everything went according to plan. Three dive pairs, including the SEAL platoon's dedicated sniper team, secured the outer perimeter, watching the streets around the Iraqi government facility for police patrols or hostile troops. The other five pairs escorted Crypto and Seagull into the building itself, to silence the building's internal security force and cut the alarms and communication lines.

But an ambush orchestrated by Cobra was waiting for them. For all the years that Crypto had replayed the planning and execution in his head, he never figured out how the raid had gone wrong. Although it was likely that Cobra had 'flipped' a Company asset to learn about the Joes' presence, the unknown answer plagued his nightmares every day since.

Crypto was in the lead and Seagull just behind him when one of the SEAL dive pairs crossed an open area of the Information Ministry's cavernous lobby. Iraqi Special Forces troops, under the command of a Cobra advisor, had drawn a bead on the American commandos with the help of laser aiming devices attached to their assault rifles.

The enemy troops cut the commandos down in a hail of gunfire and sprung their trap on the rest of the dive pairs, pinning them down in a murderous crossfire from prepared strong points and from second floor balconies that overlooked the main lobby.

"Dammit!" Seagull swore when she heard the reports of weapons echoing down the hallways from the main lobby. "Our op is blown! They were waiting for us!"

"We can still plant this bug and fight our way out," Crypto said. "We can't leave without trying to complete the mission! Those guys know their duty, and we have ours! We can't let our country down!"

Seagull crept up close to Crypto and whispered directly into his ear, giving him a tiny peck on the cheek as she did. "I'm with you all the way, partner."

The sounds of gunfire faded as the two Joes crept deeper into the building. As the pair crossed an intersection of corridors, Crypto turned and spotted two Cobra Vipers leveling their weapons and preparing to fire.

"Seagull, look out!" Crypto called to warn his partner, reaching out for her combat webbing to pull her behind cover. But instead of following her partner further down the hall, Seagull pushed Crypto out of danger and raised her MP-5 SD3 silenced sub-machinegun.

Seagull and the Vipers fired simultaneously, trading a hail of deadly gunfire in the confined space of the corridor. She was able to mow down the Vipers with her SMG, but the more powerful AK-74 assault rifle rounds punched through her black commando clothing and into her body.

Seagull crumpled to the ground with a soft moan and Crypto ran back to her. The yeoman's blood was beginning to seep onto the polished floor, and Crypto could identify at least two bullet entry wounds in her chest. He hoisted her over his shoulder and ran back to the lobby, firing only when he spotted an enemy guard and not lingering about to see the results. "Penny, you're not gonna die, baby," he said, wiping a tear from his eye. "We're getting outta here."

The naval intelligence officer grabbed his throat to activate the radio microphone that hung there. "White Lightning Leader to all White Lightning elements. Abort mission. I say again, abort mission."

Stray rounds from the lobby crossfire chipped away at the plaster walls along Crypto's escape route as he ignored the danger and kept running. "The operation has been compromised," he said quickly. "Collapse on the rally point with any wounded and mount up in the vehicles. Someone knew we were coming."

The SEAL commandos grumbled with displeasure in their fighting positions about Crypto's evacuation order, but some of them had also been hit and wounded badly. Crypto got Seagull outside and down to the street where their civilian cargo trucks were parked. As the dive pairs made their way to the vehicles one by one, the platoon medic set to work on assessing Seagull's injuries.

When Crypto heard frantic radio calls from one dive pair that was covering the commandos' retreat from the building, he squeezed Seagull's hand and whispered to her, "I'm going back for them."

"Bring them home, you hero," Seagull replied weakly, forming a smile. "I'll be here waiting for you."

After a short while, Crypto had returned to the trucks with the badly wounded cover team and the raiding party evacuated the area, headed for a helicopter rendezvous to be extracted. He knelt on the pitching cargo bed of the truck next to Seagull, and looked pleadingly at the SEAL medic, who shook his head sadly before moving on to help his wounded buddies.

"I'm sorry, Crypto," Seagull whispered in between muffled coughs, her voice hollow as she tried to inhale through a sucking chest wound the Vipers inflicted. "I blew it. Too slow."

"Don't apologize," Crypto said, leaning in close to hear her voice over the noise of the truck's worn-out diesel engine. "We're getting you out of here. You're riding home with the SEAL platoon."

"I'm not going to make it, baby," Seagull managed to say, wincing in pain when the medic pressed a gauze dressing into one of her wounds.

"Don't say that," Crypto urged. "You're gonna live!"

Seagull blinked and a tear ran down her face, smudging the black camouflage paint smeared under her eyes and mingling with the perspiration and caked blood on her cheek. She reached out to touch Crypto's face and caress it one last time. "No. I'm not. Just promise me two things. Don't you ever forget me, and don't let Cobra win, no matter what. Promise me that."

"I promise, Penny," Crypto whispered, cradling her head in his lap. "I promise."

Seagull sucked in a deep breath and her chest heaved as her wounds made breathing more and more difficult. Crypto ran his fingers tenderly through her hair and tried to clear some of the blood and camo paint from her face. She kept her hand on his cheek for as long as possible before her body began to spasm and her systems started to shut down. "I... love... you... Kurt..."

"I love you too, Penny," Crypto whispered, as Seagull exhaled her last breath and collapsed limply, her hand dropping from his face to the floor of the truck with a soft clunk.

*



Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington, Virginia

14 February, 2004

Crypto had forgotten about the passage of time as he remembered everything about Penny. He thought about her smell, and her face, and the softness of her lips. He recalled the way they challenged each other to succeed and goaded each other all in fun. They had been a great team. At least a half-inch of snow had fallen, surrounding Crypto with a pile of fresh snowflakes.

When he finally took his gaze away from the grave marker, he noticed that snow was sticking all around him, but none had gotten on his pea coat. Turning his head up, he saw someone standing behind him, holding a black umbrella over him to keep the snow away.

Crypto got onto his feet and turned around to see his current girlfriend standing there with her thick winter coat pulled tightly around her body. His face was somber and his expression was neutral when Sergeant Claudia "Takedown" Pearl gave him a supportive smile.

"I wish you hadn't taken off so quickly this morning," Claudia said softly. "I know that coming down here a couple times a year to visit helps you heal, but I'd have liked to take the train ride with you."

"I'm sorry, Claudia," Crypto apologized. "There are some things that I still have to tackle on my own."

"Well, now you owe the living a part of your Valentine's Day," Claudia said. "How about we get out of this cold and have a nice lunch in DC before catching the train back to New York?"

Crypto nodded, reaching into his pocket for the car keys. "Didn't you drive here?" he asked, when he noticed that there was no other car in sight but his rental.

"No," Claudia replied. "I got in on the eleven o'clock Metroliner and took a taxi right over here. I figured that you would probably rent a car. I can drive back to the station, if you like."

Crypto shook his head. He slipped an arm around her waist and said, "It's okay, I can drive."

After a pause to look back at the marker one last time, Crypto continued. "Let's go. I know a nice little place on Pennsylvania Avenue. Come to think of it, if you had the chance to meet Penny, I think the two of you would really like each other, despite having me in common. She was a great woman, and a loyal American."

Claudia leaned close to Crypto, wrapping her arms around him and sharing a warm kiss before he opened the rented car's passenger door for her. "I would've liked her too. She had good taste in men."

Crypto helped Claudia into the passenger's side of his Ford, slipped behind the wheel and started the engine. Both Joes spent one final moment looking at the grave markers of the Americans who paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom before Crypto shifted the car into gear and drove off into the snowy, overcast day.

The end, for now.
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