The Joy bent to fiddle with the dials on her radio, which whined begrudgingly before it flared to life in a burst of static. She wasn't worried about being heard by the patrols. The men who were supposed to watch over the street below had been stuffed underneath a staircase after choking to death on their own blood.
"Cobra-4, this is Cobra Actual, do you copy?"
"Copy, Cobra Actual. This is Cobra-4. These radios are cheap American trash, I could do better with a Molotov than these fucking Limey pineapples, and a Tunisian whore was supposed to be screaming my name four hours ago. Fuck I hate these fascist Italian shitbags."
Great. Her ballistics expert was on the rag again. The Joy wouldn't normally have given a damn, but The Fury lapsed halfway into his native tongue when he was feeling stir-crazy, and nothing in her language training had prepared her to decipher bullshit Russkie-English over these half-assed excuses for walkie-talkies. Her handlers claimed that the poor reception was due to some kind of advanced signal security measure. She wasn't sure if she believed them.
"That's nice. Now report your situation."
"Artillery's rigged to blow, Boss. Cobra-3 scared up a Jagdpanzer for the ride out. We're sitting here with our dicks in our hands."
"Then I suggest you shut the fuck up, eat a D-bar, and take a dump while you still can," The Joy said sweetly. "Cobra-2 and I have secured the target. Cobra-5 and Cobra-6 are waiting in the scrub to cover our escape. Be ready to light this dustbowl up in a half-hour."
"Fucking finally. I roger that, Cobra Actual. Cobra-3 and I are standing by."
Their radio feed died as petulantly as it had lived, cutting out with an undignified squawk. The Joy wasted no time in strapping the bulky device back into her pack. There weren't many locations in Fort Cappuzo as secure as Colonel Lazio's palatial office suite, but they'd still have to haul ass out of there if an orderly stumbled across them. The bullet-hole in the Colonel's temple didn't match the rest of his décor.
The Joy was silent for a long moment, savoring the smell of spent gunpowder and listening intently for approaching footfalls. Then she turned to look at her partner, who was still kneeling over the Colonel's cooling corpse like a fretful mother hen. The beauty of working with The Sorrow was that they never had to go to the trouble of keeping hostiles alive in order to interrogate them. It was one of the reasons she'd snatched him up from Russian intelligence. There was nothing The Joy hated more than having to hold back in combat when her heartbeat had already found the rhythm of the battlefield. It ached worse than a week without cigarettes, or getting called out of the company showers just before she was about to come.
She had to watch herself. The freedom of working with The Sorrow at her side was almost intoxicating.
"You're not crying. Is everything alright?" The Joy couldn't help but crack a smile at the contradiction.
"Usually they're frightened enough to say anything, or they discover their old loyalties no longer matter." The Sorrow reached out to close the Colonel's glassy, unseeing eyes. "Not this one. He clings to his faith in his country. He's not going to tell me what we need to know."
"That's not acceptable. You know as well as I do that our boys are set to roll through here in two weeks, and if we don't kick the legs out from under the enemy by the time they get here, then El Alamein will be Gallipoli all over again."
Fuck. Fuck. It wasn't The Sorrow's fault, and The Joy would face down a dozen SS squads with nothing but her Patriot and a smile on her face before she'd ever admitted defeat. But The Joy had been tasked to win this war, and she had never failed a mission.
The Sorrow must have caught the look on her face. It wasn't like her to fall out-of-sorts when they were in battle, and the strangeness of it made his brow furrow.
"It will be fine. There's still a way."
Her partner stood and inexplicably began stripping off the belt that he used to holster his Makarov. When he was finished he placed his gun on the dead Colonel's glossy antique desk.
"What do you mean?" The Joy asked warily.
In response, The Sorrow offered her his belt.
"You need to tie me up."
"Tie you up?"
"If I trap him in my body, then you can interrogate him. You're more- ah, inspiring than I am." The Sorrow attempted a tentative smile. She wasn't sure what to make of that look. It blurred his frown lines and sanded down the harsh angles of his cheekbones. Normally he wouldn't soften like that until he was a fifth of vodka into a game of poker. "It would be best if I were bound. He is not very happy about getting shot before his nightly glass of whiskey."
Well, if that was the way of it, there was no sense in delaying. There was no room for second-guessing when they were two days behind schedule and hip-deep in enemy territory.
The Joy took hold of Sorrow's belt and tested the buckle for strength. He was right about the need for a restraint. It went without saying that she could handle anything this ghost-Colonel threw at her, but she didn't want to do any more damage to The Sorrow's body than was absolutely necessary.
"Alright. " She breathed. "Think you can handle a few bruises?"
Her partner didn't pause long enough for her to be disappointed in him.
"I believe so. My rib has healed from last month."
"Attaboy. Let's do this."
The Sorrow blinked with surprise when she darted forward to pluck his glasses off the bridge of his nose – if they got broken, he'd be a useless shot until they next time they made it back to base – and stumbled when she guided him over to the Colonel's plush desk chair. Soft leather creaked under his weight when he sat down. The Joy guided his hands behind the chair's high back and strapped his wrists together, palms facing outward.
"My legs as well?"
"No," The Joy decided. "We'll have to bolt quickly if we get company."
The angle of his bindings forced The Sorrow to slump forward, submissively baring the back of his throat, and he almost looked his age when his white-blonde hair fell into his eyes. He seemed oddly bemused for a man whose body was about to get worked by the most fearsome killer on three separate fronts. The Joy supposed that meant they were good friends.
She hadn't had much opportunity to make friends, before she found her Cobras. No one else had ever been able to keep up with her for long enough.
"Ready when you are," The Joy said. She crouched in front of The Sorrow and cracked her knuckles.
"Da. Just- a moment, please."
One moment stretched into two, then three, then four, until finally The Sorrow's muscles went limp and he started working his uncanny magic. No one in the Unit knew exactly what The Sorrow did to make contact with the afterlife, and even The Pain was loath to ask. The Joy suspected it was always with him, a bleak and inescapable twilight. When they stood back-to-back, firearms blazing, his eyes looked blankly through their enemies and fixed upon the other side.
The Joy knew that The Sorrow was no longer with her when his back jerked straight and his lips curved into a frown. Her partner was never that animated of his own volition.
"You're not him," The Joy informed the Colonel, shifting from English into lightly accented Italian. She pressed the barrel of her Patriot against his Adams' apple for emphasis. "Don't try to fake it. Your Russian doesn't pass muster."
The whites of his eyes had clotted dark red, and bloody tears ran down his cheeks.
"You fucking bitch." The Colonel snarled, straining against his bound wrists. "You fucking killed me, you fucking bitch, I should scream right now and get you and your freak boyfriend-"
The Joy unceremoniously smacked the Colonel in the jaw with the heavy handle of her firearm. Then she spun his chair about so that it faced his own dead body. Torture was distasteful, and she preferred to avoid it when she could. There was no thrill to a fight without an element of chance.
"Take a look at yourself, Colonel."
"Bitch." He halfway sobbed.
"It's nothing personal. We won and you lost, that's all. It's the risk of failure that makes this life interesting."
"I died for my country. I won't betray it."
"I understand," The Joy said, because she did understand, better than this clown would ever know. "But is Rommel really your country, soldier? All we want is the location of his base of operations and a heads-up on where he'll send the Afrika Korps during the October assault. You followed that German's command and it got you killed. If you don't talk, a whole lot more of your countrymen are going to have to die as well."
"F- fuck you."
"Alright then. I tried to play nice, but I've babysat bigger pains in the ass than you."
She felt a chill on the back of her neck, and wondered if The Sorrow was watching her manhandle his flesh. It wasn't something she could allow herself to dwell upon.
"You think threats will break me? You can't kill a man twice over."
"You're right. I can't kill you again. My partner is too valuable an asset to permanently damage."
The Joy deftly unzipped The Sorrow's sheepskin jacket, then unbuttoned the loose black shirt he wore beneath it, baring a broad expanse of pale skin. She'd seen it all before, of course. A special forces unit was no place for modesty. But it was different now that she could feel his breath on the side of her neck and smell the gunpowder in his hair. The blood was running down from his eyes in glistening little rivulets, pooling in the hollow of his throat and running intriguingly down the slope of his sternum. Without that belt his camo pants hung tenuously from the frame of his hipbones.
Christ. She had to pull herself together. The Joy was swiftly approaching thirty, and it had been longer than she liked to admit, but she'd never needed such a pathetic excuse to touch a good-looking man.
"But you know what?" The Joy stood between the Colonel's splayed legs and made a show of cocking her fist back. Her captive's attempts to spit on kneecaps were amusing, in a pathetic sort of way, but pathetic was never all that amusing, and for once the combat high was entirely beyond her grasp. "I can still beat some sense into your thick skull."
Driving her fist into her partner's gut was easier when she didn't have to look at his face. So she reduced him to bone, and flesh, and skin that reddened too easily with the beginnings of dark bruises. Those breathy gasps didn't belong to him, nor did the strangled moan that accompanied her second blow to the solar plexus. He did not strain against wood and leather before shuddering into a limp heap.
The Sorrow was not a proud man, nor an arrogant one, but he was the most dignified part of her band of bastards, and he would never falter in the face of his own mortality.
"No- stop. Stop." The Colonel finally blubbered his capitulation. A cold victory. "Stop making me look at- at me. I can't stand it. He says I can leave. I just want to go. God will forgive me, don't you think?"
"Give us what we need, Colonel."
"Rommel is leading the Panzer Armee Afrika to Suez Canal. He will take them past Alexandria, along the Qatarra Depression. His staff is in El Alamein, and the place is ringed with enough mines to greet your whole Eighth Army. I s-swear-" He flinched when The Joy gently cupped his cheek in her free hand. "I swear that's all I know."
"I believe you. Now get out of here."
That was when the Colonel screamed.
- - -
By the time that The Sorrow regained consciousness, The Joy had already jumped out of a second-story window carrying his limp body, gunned down half a company that tried had to herd them into a storm drain, and dragged him to safety underneath a broken-down armored truck. The Fury had thoughtfully detonated all of the base's anti-tank guns just in time to sew confusion around their escape. Next time they made it back to civilization, she was buying that asshole a drink.
The Joy couldn't keep the giddy grin off of her face. Their attempt at stealth had been blown to kingdom come, a bullet had grazed the back of her thigh, and she'd spent the last forty minutes sandwiched between a vehicle chassis and a hard place. Gravel dug into her shoulders and her wrists ached from recoil. In other words, she was having one hell of a good time. The chaos in this warzone was life, in all its screaming, bleeding, nitro-scented glory. It did not make her gut twist the way it had in the Colonel's office. It was her home, and it would never betray her.
"You back with me, pal?"
The Joy felt her partner stirring, and reached over to steady his shoulder so that he didn't startle and alert the enemy to their presence. She hoped he wouldn't think too hard about why he wasn't wearing a shirt beneath his jacket.
"My jaw-" The Sorrow winced. Lying on his stomach couldn't be very pleasant for him right now. "Mmm, it has had better days."
The Joy drew his glasses out of one of her pouches, and slid them up over the bridge of his nose before he could start blinking myopically. To his credit, The Sorrow did not seem particularly surprised to have woken up in a bolt hold in the middle of an enemy stronghold. These things happened when you were a Cobra.
"The Colonel and I had ourselves a little dance without you. In the end I had to knock your body out. You're okay, right? Tell me that son of a bitch is still floating around this dump."
"I'll be fine, thank you. It is possible, perhaps, that Colonel Lazio has not yet moved to the other side, but-"
That was all The Joy needed to hear before she wound her free hand in his hair, pulled flush against his side, and claimed his mouth with a slow, possessive kiss. Many soldiers thought that they had to shut down their emotions in order to be great, but The Joy knew better. Repression only dulled awareness. She kept no secrets from her battlefield.
The Sorrow tasted like blood and stale tea. Hard leather boots pounded down the alleyway a block behind them, and she could hear the frantic sound of propeller blades slashing through the air.
Eventually, The Joy was merciful enough to let her partner pull back for air. He hadn't been unenthusiastic, but the poor guy was obviously too dazed from the possession to know what to do with his hands.
"You were great. Our path is set. We can have Rommel dead within the month and then it's all the way to Stalingrad while Montgomery mops up the dregs." She chuckled, low in her throat, and nuzzled into the crook of The Sorrow's neck. For once in his life, he looked vaguely hopeful.
"You see that, Colonel? We're going to win."