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“We’ve got a new recruit you might find…interesting,” Sergeant Slaughter said casually to Beach Head after the monthly recruiting and training briefing to General Hawk.

Beach Head didn’t usually communicate with Sergeant Slaughter much about new recruits – no point in wasting time, energy and brain cells on people he would never need to worry about. New recruits were Sergeant Slaughter’s responsibility – it wasn’t until they had survived the Slaughterhouse and Renegades that Beach Head needed to care about them, and the Slaughterhouse had a pretty high washout rate.

The fact that it was the first time they had ever had a conversation like this made Beach Head curious. “What makes you say that?”

Sergeant Slaughter handed Beach Head a file. “Read this.”

On paper, the guy sounded good – a first lieutenant, so not too much experience, but what experience he had was solid. No enlisted time, some issues with superiors, a little cocky, great PT and marksmanship skills, and an apparent talent for languages, with fluency in several languages. But this Vincent Falcone didn’t have anything that plenty of other recruits had not possessed – plenty of other recruits that had failed right out. The Joe team needed people who had a…special…mix of skills.

He looked at Sergeant Slaughter and shrugged. “I fail to see what you find so interesting,”’ his Southern accent deepening slightly.

“He’s Duke’s little brother,” Sergeant Slaughter said with a grin. “Well, half-brother. And he don’t want his big brother to know what he’s up to.”

“That is interesting.” Beach Head hadn’t even known Duke had a brother. “You think he’s trying to get you to go easy on him?”

Sergeant Slaughter shook his head. “Pretty sure not. But I’ll run him a little harder just to make sure.”

Beach Head could only imagine that. He had joined in pre-Slaughter days, but General Hawk had brought him in at one point to give the team a refresher, and sharpen up the edges,

It had been miserable. Just like training should be.

Beach Head almost pitied the kid.

Almost…

*** ***

Vincent Falcone stood under the showerhead, reevaluating his life choices. At least the place had plenty of hot water – the one human luxury they were allowed. Sometimes, Vincent thought. Other times, they got dragged out of the shower to be ready in ten minutes, and not see another shower again for a week.

The food was nothing to write home about, not that he ever had more than ten minutes to eat it anyway.

Sleep – well, he might dream about it if he ever slept long enough again. Now and then they were able to get a decent sleep in when they were being ferried from training location to training location. Some of them were recognizable, like the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, while others were just little swampy hellpits that he doubted existed on any map known to man.

It was quite frankly the most exhausting experience in his short Army career – pushing himself to his absolute limits and over them.

Maybe it would be enough to earn Conrad’s respect, he told himself as he dried off. He’d foolishly thought that his senior non-commissioned officer brother would be impressed by him becoming an officer.

Vincent wasn’t sure if his decision to tell Sergeant Slaughter about his relationship to the GI Joe First Sergeant had been the right one. Maybe if he had kept his mouth shut it might suck just a little less. He’d never imagined anything could suck this badly. But then Duke might have been told he was here – worse, he might have made Sergeant Slaughter feel like he had to go easy on “the kid”.

Or worse, if he had failed, Conrad might have found out.

Even worse, he might have bailed him out. If he couldn’t make it on his own, he didn’t want Conrad to know he had even tried. Vincent had a little pride left – Sergeant Slaughter and his crew that seemed like a modern-day retread of the Dirty Dozen had not been able to crush all of it. In fact, Vincent was pretty sure sometimes that pride was the only thing that kept him going through hell.

But so far, he was making it. Fifteen people had started the training. Sergeant Slaughter and his instructors had put them through the most hellish PT session of his life, and Vincent expected that their goal was to go until someone cried or collapsed or gave up. Finally, one person had broken down, giving the rest of them a reprieve. They hadn’t been seen since. Throughout the last five weeks or so – Vincent thought he might have lost a few days – their group had slowly declined, from fourteen – thirteen – ten – nine – seven – to the five of them that were left.

Vincent had to admit he was kind of going to miss the most recently departed, whose constant reference to sports metaphors had kept everyone distracted from their misery. The group made it a point to use each other’s first names, to remind them they had names, not just the insults the instructors hurled at them.

He was a little surprised to see the one woman hanging on. There had been two initially, but one had washed out pretty early. She – Michiko – was a delicate little thing, and looked like Sergeant Slaughter could snap her in half, but she’d hung on where men twice her size had thrown in the towel and cried. Another of their current group was Chris – an MP who kept a picture of his working dog on his locker. Another guy – Philip – was built like Thor and had taken numerous ribbings over the Hawaiian print boxers he favored, while the last guy – Nicky – was a short, scrappy guy who seemed to be made entirely of steel, and an accent that one of the instructors – Sergeant Slaughter called them the Renegades, and the group had quietly speculated about what prison they had escaped from – mocked mercilessly.

Vincent had no idea when it would be over, as Sergeant Slaughter only ever said they were getting “closer”. He wasn’t sure what they were getting closer to, but at least none of them had gone home in a ditty bag – an itty, bitty one, much like the one that hung on Sergeant Slaughter’s door.

He just had to keep holding on…

*** ***

He wasn’t entirely sure how they were still alive. One moment, they were on the helicopter going to parts unknown, and then something had hit the helicopter. They had crashed on some godforsaken jungle island – the snakes he had seen were huge. Their pilot had been killed, and Sergeant Slaughter led them and the Renegades towards what looked like an abandoned temple. Unfortunately, it was occupied by someone with excellent taste in very modern laser weapons. There were ground troops, and the group was kept quite busy. The cut on Vincent’s head kept bleeding at inconvenient times, and he knew he’d done something to his left leg. Sergeant Slaughter had been killed in the fighting, along with several Renegades. They hadn’t been able to recover his body, as enemy troops had beat them to the grim task. Somehow, Vincent had become the leader, and he couldn’t be prouder of his team. Maybe they would live long enough for him to buy the beers.

They just kept going somehow – blowing in doors when a kick wasn’t enough, shooting people who were trying to kill them, racing to the top level of the temple. Nicky had a special talent for explosives that Vincent admired, but sometimes they were able to get by with brute strength.

When they got to the last door, the last possible door, they found it unlocked. If their target – the enemy commander – was not in there, he had either been beamed aboard the Enterprise or had a secret escape hatch. Of course, they had destroyed the helicopters on the pad, so getting away might be a bit of a challenge. Vincent didn’t intend to fail on this mission, not after everything they had sacrificed so far.

But finding the door made him suspicious. It was too easy, and reeked of a trap, somehow. So they stacked up on either side of the main door. Philip was on the door, and he locked eyes with Vincent.

This was it. They either succeeded or died trying.

Vincent nodded, and Philip kicked in the door, allowing the others to rush in.

It was empty…until it was not. A trap door slid open, and they could hear what sounded like a hydraulic platform rising up. Vincent half expected to see something like Doctor Claw, or a Bond-esque villain, complete with white Persian cat, or a mask. They kept their weapons trained on the open space.

The group held their breath as the platform rose, with a large metal cylinder on top of it. Vincent was beginning to think his Bond villain guess wasn’t too far off, when a panel on the cylinder opened and two men stepped out.

One was Sergeant Slaughter, very not dead. The other was an older man wearing green fatigue pants, brown leather jacket, and a green helmet. There was an air of controlled violence about the older man, and Sergeant Slaughter deferred to him, which said a lot.

“Congratulations,” the older man said. “You have successfully completed the selection and training course for the GI Joe team.”

There was a moment of stunned silence.

“You mean that was all a test?” Vincent said, incredulously.

“Yes, Lieutenant Falcone, the only evaluation I am willing to accept.”

Sergeant Slaughter actually smiled, a pleasant smile and not the I’m-planning-to-make-your-life-a-living-hell smile they had seen so often. “Your group has set a record for the largest one to escape the Slaughterhouse, due in no small part to your leadership. You did well.” He turned to the lone female. “You, Sergeant Matsudaira, are the only woman to ever make it through. And that,” he said, reverting to the stern tones they knew so well from training, “makes General Hawk your new commanding officer.”

Vincent let his anger and irritation was away. A compliment from Sergeant Slaughter was a well-earned one indeed.

He had made it.

More importantly, they had made it.

*** ***

First Sergeant Conrad Hauser, better known to his teammates as Duke, pulled at the collar of his dress shirt. He hated wearing the Army Service Uniform, but General Hawk insisted on it for the reception for the team’s newest member. Duke was convinced that the general knew how much he hated wearing it.

“I hear it’s a big group,” Scarlett commented as she joined him in the hallway. “Think maybe Sergeant Slaughter’s going soft?”

Duke chuckled. “He’d have to have some softness first. From what I hear, this is a pretty exceptional group – they’re really a team, not just a collection of people.”

“They ought to fit right in,” she replied. “Of course, after a few days of Beach Head, they may wish they’d never set foot in the Slaughterhouse."

They turned into the conference room, where all the members of the team present were assembled – a few were away on missions, but General Hawk liked to introduce new people to the entire group where possible. After all, the Joes were a team – some of them closer than family, with a trust in each other that had been forged in blood and steel and fire. They would make the newcomers welcome, but Duke knew his team would find ways to subtly test them. It was always interesting to see how new members did.

One of the other few women – Lady Jaye – came up to them, with Flint behind her. “I hear we’re finally getting another woman.”

“Yes,” Duke commented. “Although it sounds like she might spend more time hanging out with Snake Eyes and his crew.”

“Do we really need any more martial arts experts?” Flint commented. “Pretty sure ‘ninja’ isn’t an Army job.”

General Hawk entered the room, and there was a scramble to get chairs. There was an excellent lunch laid on for afterwards, so they could socialize and eat.

“Good morning, team,” Hawk said when he reached the podium and the room was quiet. “Sergeant Slaughter is here with some new friends for you.”

Sergeant Slaughter stepped up to the podium, and Duke had the enjoyment of knowing that there was at least one person who looked as uncomfortable in the dress uniform as he felt.

“It’s my honor to introduce you to the largest group to survive the Slaughterhouse,” Sergeant Slaughter said without preamble. “Sergeant Michiko Matsudaira. Sergeant Nicky Lee. Sergeant Philip Provost. Sergeant Christopher Lavigne. Lieutenant Vincent Falcone.” As the names were called, they entered through a side door. It was also the last time their real names would be used, before they were all assigned code names.

It was all Duke could do to stay in his seat. At first, he thought it must be someone with the same name – it was a small Army, after all – but then he saw the tall, athletic figure, and the piercing blue eyes under the green beret. Eyes just like the ones he saw in the mirror every morning.

Scarlett leaned over. “Isn’t that…” she breathed, but Duke shook his head.

His eyes met Vincent’s. Duke could see the healing cut on his face, the slight stiffness on the left side. He knew something of what the Slaughterhouse entailed, but he had never imagined his little brother the lieutenant trying it, much less surviving it.

Maybe there was more to Vincent than he had realized, Duke thought.

Sergeant Slaughter and General Hawk had a few remarks, but Duke barely paid attention.

Finally, the team was able to get up and congratulate their newest members. Duke waited as others filed through the line, impatient. Vincent was the last in line, but somehow he was the only one Duke really saw, although he did his best to say something meaningful to each of them. They shook hands, a firm clasp that neither really wanted to end.

“Congratulations on making the team, Lieutenant.”

“It’s an honor,” Vincent said quietly, but there was a smile breaking out on his face. “Especially hearing it from you.”

Then suddenly they were embracing – the first time they had done so in several years.

“Of course,” Duke said when they stepped back from each other, in an attempt to lighten a moment that was too heavy, too important to both of them, “you realize the rest of the group is going to give you hell because you’re my little brother.”

Vincent flashed the cocky grin Duke knew all too well. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”