Author: Karama9 PM
A re-imagining of part of Storm Shadow's story, in the first person.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Drama - Storm Shadow - Chapters: 34 - Words: 138,657 - Reviews: 245 - Favs: 30 - Follows: 18 - Updated: 05-01-10 - Published: 04-20-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5007774
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
I personally find it hard to believe, but this is in fact the final chapter. I'm sorry for the horrendous delay between the last few chapters, but at least this time, I do feel like I have an excuse: this one is much longer than usual – over 15,000 words if you're curious. I should probably have split it, but well… I didn't want to. I hope you can forgive me for keeping you waiting and that the length does not bother you too much.
The bonus material for this chapter will be parts of this chapter and the last, but in Snake Eyes' point of view... it will reveal some secrets that, as of the end of this story, Storm Shadow doesn't know about. How's that for a shameless sales pitch? :D
I'll be sending the bonus in about a week, basically as soon as it's ready. It may be earlier than that, but I'm going to be away for a while with very little computer time, so I just don't know for sure.
Thank you so much for reading! It's been a blast.
Disclaimer: I don't own GI Joe, I just really like Storm Shadow and have for most of my life.
A million thanks to WillWrite4Fics and Asterisk78 for the "beach-proofing", diamond-cutter design assistance and general consulting.
The wall does turn out to be decently sliceable, despite its obvious resistance to impacts. Expecting an alarm to go off as soon as I actually pierce it, I carefully slice only partway through the whole shape I'm cutting out, then slice just a bit deeper into the groove, and again until I actually break through.
As I had guessed, an alarm goes off down the hall from my cell the second there's a pinprick hole in the wall. I quickly slice through the rest of the shape, push it out and scurry out. I can already hear guards running this way, but they're still several seconds away. I jump for the vent, punch the grid in the duct, hoist myself in and replace the grid just in time for the guards to bust in. I start sliding silently along the duct, which is more than wide enough for comfort, as is typical for large facilities. I'm betting my brother was very careful never to remark on the fact ninjas like to crawl in those for the express purpose of not losing the convenient out of sight passageways.
I start listening for engines, hoping to locate the aircrafts that are about to depart, and immediately pick up on my brother crawling towards me. My first reflex is to avoid him, but I quickly dismiss it: he knows better than to think I couldn't do just that if I wanted to, and although he would easily guess that the ductworks is where I'm most likely to be, he'd find me much quicker running in the hallways with heat vision goggles than crawling around up here with me. My conclusion is that he's just trying to meet me in a quiet spot, so I head straight for him rather than avoid him, hoping I'm not underestimating his propensity to do things the hard way just to show off.
He's obviously startled when he sees me: his heart rate spikes, he gasps and he even jerks a bit backwards. I wave at him, smirking, thinking he just didn't realize I was this close. He signs jerkily to ask me how in the world I managed to get out of my cell, looking very much like he'd be stuttering if he were speaking.
My eyebrows shoot up, but rather than attempt to answer with signs, I point at the vent between us. He shakes his head and gestures me to follow, turning around in the duct.
He leads me two air vents away from where we were before removing the third one and dropping down. Not hearing anyone else than the two of us in the vicinity, I follow and find myself in a small storage room devoid of any window and lit by an old buzzing neon fixture.
"I used my diamond cutter," I whisper, finally answering his question. "If you didn't know…" I interrupt myself because he just signed to ask me what diamond cutter I'm talking about, going so far as informing me that I was stripped searched.
"The one in my tooth." I sigh, annoyed at his making me state the obvious. "What were you…?" I stop again: he just took a sharp breath in surprise and he's signing again, this time expressing that he thought I was joking when I told him about that, years ago, and asking how I could possibly fit a diamond cutter with a useable handle in a hollow tooth.
I sigh again.
"I don't know why you'd even think that, but no, I wasn't joking." I show him my finger, where I still have it attached. "It goes into an artificial tooth, hollow through the root, that replaces my wisdom tooth and the one next to it and that is about as large as the two of them together were. It's sculpted to look like two teeth, and the only time I was at a dentist that cared to ask why I had such big artificial teeth – I have another one on the other side - I told him it was because I wanted to look like I had wisdom teeth. He either believed me or decided I was too crazy to argue with."
He's bent down while I was talking and has been turning my hand this way and that, staring at the rubber elastic band attached to a small pointy diamond. He signs to ask how it doesn't keep sliding aside or tipping when I put pressure on it.
"The clasps holding the diamond are connected to a piece of metal shaped to match the curve of my finger, inside the rubber at the base of the diamond. That sits against my finger and helps keep it stable. Between that and the fact the band is tight and rubber doesn't slide against skin very well at all, it works just fine," I explain impatiently. "Now why were you crawling through the ducts towards my cell if you didn't know I was out?" I'm tempted to also remark the alarm should have given it away just to badger him a bit, but I know he'll just explain the alarm was meant to go off whenever I TRIED to escape and that he assumed I wouldn't actually succeed, so I don't bother.
He chuckles silently and signs to ask who's asking silly questions now. My eyes widen.
"You were coming to break me out?"
I try to act insulted, but I can't; much to my dismay, I'm completely choked up: his first loyalty has always been with the army, not with me or our clan, so I'm moved well beyond reason that he'd go against his superiors for me.
He nods and signs to express surprise that I'm not telling him off for insulting me. The prompt finally snaps me out of the shock enough to force a chuckle.
"One WOULD expect you to know better, after Alcatraz," I say, smirking. My cool composure is an act, but if he notices, he doesn't remark on it.
He signs to point out this escape is much more impressive and even adds, with far too much enthusiasm for me to take him seriously, that he's in awe and that my evasion skills truly exceed his. I play along and buff my nails on my prisoner's fatigues.
He performs a mock bow and signs that he supposes he'd only be insulting me further were he to tell me about the unlocked cargo hold on the third plane from the entrance in the first hangar to the left from this room, or to inform me that the grey uniforms behind me are the ones the mechanics wear. He even apologizes for the presumption which made him believe putting winter gear and weapons for me in said cargo hold was at all even helpful to a Master like me.
Normally, I'd snort and confirm that it's indeed insulting, but that I'll forgive his foolishness if he begs me to. Today, maddeningly, I lose my smirk instead, back to being far more touched than I'd care to admit.
"Why?" The question is out before I know I was about to ask it. I just barely manage to resist slamming my hands to my mouth and I occupy them by picking an uniform in my size from the shelf and starting to change.
He signs that he won't deny me a chance for vengeance if I still want it, and won't deny his team my help.
I swallow and beat back yet another overflow of emotions. I open my mouth to thank him and acknowledge that I owe him one, but suddenly realize that I don't really know whether I do or not. It's not that I'm not grateful, but between my saving his life; trying my best to save him for three years despite the fact he didn't need it; his setting me free but doing it by running me through because I was about to kill his girlfriend; my getting him adopted into my family and put through training best described as hell for a few years; his actually thinking I was guilty but not right away, to the point of sparing me when he first found me but trying to kill me later... I honestly have no idea whether I do, in fact, owe him one or whether we're even, or even whether he still owes me. I quickly decide that I'm quite happy with that state of affairs.
"Thank you," I say as I finish changing. "I don't know which one of us owes the other anymore… as it should be between true brothers."
I'm hoping he'll agree we are beyond debts towards one another, and I'm confident enough in his character to know that he won't object, but instead, his shoulders drop in an exaggerated sag and he pretends-searches his pockets before signing that he's very sorry but that he has no butter to offer me to go with that corn.
As another sign that we truly are brothers, I intentionally use his head as a boost in retaliation for that crack as I jump back into the air ducts, hurrying towards the engines I can hear to the left of the room.
One of the things ninjas are known for is stealth; to hear some people talking about it, you'd think we can somehow become transparent and literally fade into the wall, or contort ourselves in such a way as to be able to hide behind the smallest objects.
We can't do either, obviously. Even the best contortionists still have at the very least a head that can't really be bent on itself, and Zartan's cloak was the first working one I'd ever seen. We do, however, have a number of tricks that can indeed give the impression we're not there when we are. The most obvious one is hiding in the shadows; a lesser well known one is using the fact the human eye is not naturally drawn to immobile objects; old-fashioned hiding behind objects or people is popular too, as is simply positioning ourselves above people's line of sight to take advantage of most people's tendency not to look upwards. All those have the very distinct disadvantage that they only hide a person from sight; to someone with my hearing and training, they don't have much appeal due to the fact they don't work at all when used against me. I was still trained in them, but I tend to avoid relying on them whenever possible. As my brother obviously realized since he led me to a storage room containing mechanics' uniforms, I much prefer the other old standby of ninjas: disguise.
I drop out of the ducts as soon as I don't hear anyone around, adopt a slumped and drooped posture to keep my head low, and stroll to the hangar at a fairly fast pace, in essence trying to look like an antisocial but busy mechanic. Opting for a disguise rather than trying to hide turns out to be a very wise choice: the hangar is extremely well lit, crawling with people, and the ceiling is too high to be of any use: I'd be in mid-air too long if I dropped down from it and I doubt I'd be able to land silently.
I enter the hangar unperturbed, and everybody is busy enough to pay no attention to the slumped mechanic with his hat halfway down his face. I go straight to the third plane and stare at the wheels to keep my head low while walking around it to the cargo door; there are several Joes who have seen me without a mask in the past few days, and I can't exactly depend on all of them not being able to tell who I am if they get a good look at me. Therefore, I don't intend for any of them to get that good look.
I poke around the plane for a few seconds, open the cargo hold, and as soon as I get an opening when the few people who have me in their line of sights happen to be looking away, I slip inside it and close it back behind me.
I have to search a bit for the promised winter gear and weapons, but finally find one of the big boxes of gear is empty safe for a dozen of shuriken, half a dozen throwing knives and one snow suit with accompanying head, foot and hand gear. I grin and, taking advantage of the fact nobody else is in the plane yet to hear the noise, gear up and settle in the box. I know my brother wouldn't send me into battle with nothing but a few throwing weapons and therefore, it's an easy guess that he's simply kept whatever else he's prepared for me on himself so as not to make it more difficult for me to squeeze inside the crate. The suit feels warm, but not overly so - it's obviously designed to not become too uncomfortable when the wearer is temporarily inside and in any case, the cargo hold is bound to get very cold once we're in the air.
Unsurprisingly, Snake Eyes is among the Joes who board this particular plane. Stalker is also with him and is obviously in charge of our little group since he's the one directing everyone and who eventually gives the order to take off.
The flight is uneventful. I try listening in to the various conversations, but they're not interesting enough to hold my interest and I soon find myself fighting flashbacks yet again.
I clench my teeth, furious with myself. I can't be doing this for the rest of my life; I can't keep zoning out and working myself up to complete despair each time I don't have something immediate and urgent to focus on. I need to figure out a way to stop it, and I need to do it now; I can't afford to lose sight of where I am and mindlessly make any kind of noise that would give me away, especially while we're still close enough to the Pit to turn around. My plan is to reveal myself while we're still in the air, counting on the close quarters to make the option of trying to shoot me on sight less tempting and to encourage some kind of dialog where I can make it clear I'm not a threat to my flying companions. With luck, they won't even try to restrain me again and just accept my help, saving me the trouble of escaping their custody one more time.
I wish I'd been able to think myself into considering that getting rid of the flashbacks was urgent days ago: it works wonderfully. I hear the pilot announcing we're almost there without any more flashback or self-pitying thoughts bothering me. As a welcomed bonus, I've also been able to determine an immediate course of action: even though nothing I can do will completely erase the stain I have inflicted on my clan and myself, I can still make it a bit paler by helping to cripple Cobra and I can most definitely start avenging my uncles: I expect Zartan and his dreadnocks will have refused to come here and will therefore be manning one of the outposts, but the Commander IS here, and he's ultimately responsible for both their deaths. I can find Zartan – and if necessary, Scrap Iron - later, and since Mindbender is only for my own personal satisfaction, he can wait if I don't happen to run into him here.
I'm just about to casually get out of my box and walk into the cockpit when Snake Eyes jumps to his feet and storms into the cargo hold, obviously pretending he just heard me or sensed my presence. Stalker and another soldier I don't know by name follow. I figure the easiest way to play along is to pretend I was asleep, so I close my eyes and let my body go limp in order to provide a believable waking-up-with-a-start reaction when Snake Eyes 'finds' me.
He kicks the box fairly hard and whips the cover off. I jerk and open my eyes to see him with his fists clenched into claws, Stalker scowling wide-eyed next to him and the other Joe looking astonished. I make a show of stretching and smile sleepily.
"Are we there yet?" I ask, lazily scratching the back of my head.
Snake Eyes takes a sharp intake of breath and grabs me by the collar, lifting me out of the box.
"Oh, I'm sorry... was that YOUR box?"
He ignores the quip, bends both of my arms behind my back at such an angle that I'm forced to stoop, shows off he has big hands by holding both my wrists in one of them – not very securely however, I'm having to help hold my arms in place - pulls my hair to make me tilt my face upward and turns me to face Stalker.
"Sergeant Wilkinson," I greet, smiling widely. "I'd salute, but…"
"How did you get in here?" Stalker asks in a growl. "Where's the stuff that was in this crate?"
"Here and there," I reply vaguely, shrugging. I could make a few guesses, but I don't actually know where Snake Eyes poked the gear he took out of the crate I was hiding in, and the last thing I want is to give Stalker the slightest suspicion that this is the case.
Snake Eyes kicks the other big crate, prompting one of three other Joes, who have just come in from the passenger area to see what was going on, to check it.
"There's definitely more in there than I packed," he says, "but there's no way he would have fit everything from that crate into this one."
"Someone check under the seats," Stalker sighs, looking around the cargo area for other hiding spots. "Behind the crates, too," he adds upon noticing they're not flush against the wall.
Two of the Joes do as he requested, and as proof that he's good at finding stuff, not just people, both find more of the missing gear. Snake Eyes lightly morse presses "done" on my wrist, just in time for Stalker to turn his attention back to me.
"Where else?" he asks. "Just tell us, we don't have time for games."
"That's it. And you don't need to take my suit off, I brought it on board myself," I lie. "You're not short any, unless of course you didn't pack enough."
He lets out a long breath, visibly trying to relax.
"You people start gearing up. If we have to count anyway, we might as well save some time," he says, addressing his team. "Now," he adds, turning back to me and giving me his trademarked don't-mess-with-me look. "How the devil did you get on board? The hangar was crowded, there's no WAY you snuck by everyone, and don't expect me to take 'I'm a ninja' as an answer!"
I snigger. "I don't know why you even need to ask, it's so obvious… I simply spied on the door for a few minutes, long enough to see what the mechanics wear, then I poked around storage rooms until I found some paperclips, the right uniforms and some snow suits. After that, I just walked in with the snow suit under my arm like I was just asked to bring one, chose a plane at random, picked the lock on the cargo hold and climbed in." I chuckle. "With all due respect, saying 'I'm a ninja' would have been quicker."
He narrows his eyes at me. Snake Eyes's heart accelerates slightly.
"You picked this plane at random?" he asks, clearly doubtful.
I roll my eyes at him. "You think I picked the plane on which the one person who can subdue me would end up on purpose? And how would I even have known which plane that would be? I picked a plane that was still empty, so it's not like I heard him on board; I haven't quite yet mastered the art of hearing people that aren't there."
Stalker glances at Snake Eyes, who cocks his head at him, pretending not to realize Stalker is wondering whether he somehow helped me, presumably to demonstrate the very idea is completely alien to him. I decide that it's time I give Snake Eyes an excuse to rough me up a bit more and help him with his pissed-off-and-innocent act.
I snort. "He thinks you helped me, Brother," I chuckle, putting a sarcastic emphasis on the appellation. "He actually thinks you built a cell that could contain me and that you could prevent me from coming here, and so, that you must have broken me out and helped me stow away. Aren't you going to tell him the truth? That you didn't care enough for me to help me, that you felt no obligation to try and make up for trying to kill me on several occasions, that I'm just a much better ninja than you are and therefore didn't NEED help? That you're perfectly happy letting me rot in jail while you go claim the blood that I'm entitled to, that you think treating the brother who saved your life like a criminal DOG is appropriate? That…"
I of course don't mean any of what I'm saying: I more than deserved the way he treated me while I was with Cobra, and although I wouldn't have expected him to, he DID help me. I probably would have managed anyway, but the point is that he chose to assist me and disobey his superiors. I'm far from angry with him, which is why I'm doing my best to make sure he gets away with it.
Judging from his relaxing pulse and breathing, he understands what I'm doing, which honestly doesn't make the knee he plants and digs in my kidneys, interrupting me, any less painful. Between that push forward and the fact I could be reasonably expected to suddenly be more desperate to get out of his grip, I judge it believable that I'd escape his hold and slip free to face him, glaring at him. I'm about to shout nonsense at him some more, but he jumps at me and lands two punches before I recognize the training pattern he's using and start countering.
Despite the fact I know the pattern, I'm having to concentrate on following it because he's doing it about ten times faster than I ever have. I still manage to twist my face into what I'm pretty sure will be seen as extreme anger by the other Joes and will earn me a lot of jibes later on from my brother.
We don't have to keep going very long, which is probably a good thing: Snake Eyes' heart rate is already creeping up, demonstrating that even he can't move that furiously for long. We haven't even gone through the full pattern once when Stalker screeches an order to stop.
Snake Eyes immediately switches to a defensive stance and, out of reflex, I actually stop too.
"Ooooh…" I coo in a praising voice, "good boy, soldier. And here I don't have any treats for you. Maybe Stalker does?"
I turn to my former Sergeant as I say it, looking at him questioningly. He narrows his eyes at me but, remarkably, still stays calm.
"Swear to me you won't make trouble and I won't get Snake Eyes to break all four of your limbs."
I roll my eyes at him. "I came to help. What exactly would I gain by 'making trouble'?"
He glares at me without answering, obviously waiting for my word. I sigh.
"I swear I won't 'make trouble' for you," I recite. "Happy?"
He doesn't answer, turning to Snake Eyes instead. "I'm going to call Hawk. You keep an eye on him, and don't beat him up unless you have to."
"Insults don't count," Stalker specifies, walking out of the cargo area and back into the passengers' area, followed by the other Joes.
Snake Eyes visibly relaxes once the door is closed, but turns to me and signs to ask whether I meant any of what I said. I roll my eyes at him, shake my head and sign that the only part I meant was the bit about being a better ninja than he is, and that I can't believe he even needs to ask.
He nods and sits down, infuriatingly failing to react to my boast. I sit down too and concentrate on Stalker's voice as he greets Hawk, who's just taken his call and advised him that he also has Flint, Duke and Beach Head on the line.
"We got a ninja stowaway, sir," Stalker says, sounding somewhere between irritated and embarrassed.
"The spook? He's on your plane? Chuck him out, would you? I always wanted to see if ninjas could fly for real."
I instantly recognize the voice as Beach Head's and smirk. I can't fly, but I can certainly keep people from throwing me out of a plane. I think I rather like the nickname "spook", though.
"We're not executing our informant," Hawk snaps. He doesn't sound nearly as amused as I am. "Any damage, Stalker? How did you find him? Is anyone hurt?"
"Snake Eyes found him in one of our crates. We don't seem to be missing anything; he stashed the stuff around the plane. Nobody's hurt."
"Snake Eyes?" Beach Head asks. He sounds horrified to the point of denial, I'm guessing because he just got the idea that Snake Eyes may have assisted me. "Don't tell me he…"
"Snake Eyes had nothing to do with this," Stalker interrupts, obviously sharing my guess. "You have my personal guarantee on that: I practically had to pry them apart. It's just a lucky coincidence for us that Snake Eyes is here to keep him under control."
I look at Snake Eyes and pretend to clap at his performance. He answers by buffing his nails on his chest, but his breathing and his pulse betray a good bit of discomfort. I suppose it's not surprising: although he's doing it partly for their own good, he is deceiving his team mates. I've known him to feel guilty over less.
"Well, I don't want you to turn around," Hawk says, musing out loud. "It'd make no sense to delay the attack because we'd only risk Cobra somehow finding out, possibly by detecting us, and therefore lose any kind of element of surprise, and I don't want to attack without one of our units."
"I doubt it'd be wise to try and drag Storm Shadow back to the Pit, anyway," Stalker says, in my opinion quite wisely. "Flying for hours locked in a plane with an angry and unstable ninja just doesn't agree with my instincts."
I roll my eyes at being called unstable again and Snake Eyes snickers silently. I sign at him that in case he hasn't noticed, Stalker doesn't think he'd be able to keep me under control. He huffs and signs to ask whether I'd care to find out whether he could. I snort and sign that he can't even design a cell capable of holding a real ninja and that I don't wish to humiliate him further. He shakes his fist at me, but he doesn't quite manage to stiffen a chuckle. I start paying attention to the conversation again when it resumes – they've all been thinking silently since Stalker's last comment.
"Can Snake Eyes tie him up good enough to leave him in the plane?" Beach Head suggests.
"He'd have to pretty well immobilize him completely AND tie him up very tightly, which would partly cut circulation to his extremities. Between that and not being able to move at all, he wouldn't conserve much heat even with the snow suit," a new voice says.
"Flint's right. He'd be dead by the time we come back, or at the very least, we'd have to amputate his feet and his hands," Stalker says, sounding, surprisingly enough, just a teeny bit like he cares.
Snake Eyes signs to ask whether someone suggested I be left tied up in the plane, reminding me he can only hear one half of the conversation since Stalker doesn't have the speaker phone on. I sign the words for Beach and for Head in answer.
"Win-win!" Beach Head replies to Stalker's answer, barking a laugh.
"We are NOT killing him, OR torturing him." Hawk sighs. "Did he say what he wanted, Stalker?"
"He says he wants to help. He also mentioned, while screaming various insults at Snake Eyes, that he wants to collect some blood and doesn't want Snake Eyes to get to do it instead."
"Figures," Hawk answers. "So, we can't send him back and we can't keep him locked up. We agree so far? I'm open to suggestions."
"I still think we can lock him up," Beach Head objects. "Just keep one of the planes heated up."
"That would be like a beacon for Cobra," Flint remarks. "It's bad enough we wouldn't be able to hide his heat signature while it lasts, if we keep the whole plane warm, we might as well gift wrap him."
My eyes widen at the thought – he's right, and if he hadn't thought of it, the Joes just might have done that, and… I shiver violently and wince, suddenly seeing myself back in Mindbender's lab and, subsequently, bowing to the Commander, on the verge of tears because he's pretending to be angry with me.
I take a deep breath and force myself to focus again on the conversation.
"… guards with him," someone just suggested. I recognize the voice as the one who was interrogating Snake Eyes on the way back from Switzerland: Duke.
"That only brings us back to wasting men," Hawk objects.
"I'm out of ideas," Stalker admits. "Technically, he's still a potentially very dangerous criminal in our custody."
I scowl at the door.
"I also have my top three medical staff telling me he's in no condition to fight," Hawk says. "The problem is, I'm not sure what else I can do. He COULD stay with me, under guard."
I snort quietly at that one. Considering half the reason they're talking about not letting me fight is that I'm still 'potentially' dangerous, leaving me with the highest ranking officer present wouldn't make a lick of sense, guards or no guards. The fact is, guards would only result in someone being used as a human shield as I get out, potentially Hawk himself. In a twist that would probably give him a conniption if he knew, Beach Head actually agrees with me.
"With all due respect, sir, have you gone CRAZY?" he barks. "I am NOT leaving him alone with you unless you got at least three dozen guards, including Snake Eyes and me!"
"I have to vote against that option too," Stalker says.
"Then what do you suggest?" Hawk asks.
Stalker hesitates. "Well, sir… the fact is, we know he's not going to join Cobra again."
Snake Eyes perks up slightly at that, obviously sharing my impression that the conversation just turned to my advantage.
"Oh yeah?" Beach objects.
"Yes," Hawk says, "we do. Psyche-Out is completely positive on that, and I can tell as well from talking to him. And as angry as they might be with each other right now, we also know Snake Eyes is vouching for him. But, Stalker…"
"I realize Doc, Lifeline and Psyche-Out are all saying he'd be in danger, but he's obviously volunteering, and he's not really leaving us any other options right now."
Hawk doesn't reply, by all appearances thinking it over. Duke pipes in instead.
"He's right, sir. To be perfectly honest, we know we're going to have casualties in this battle. With two ninjas on our side, we'll have less - even if in the end, Storm Shadow ends up among them."
I roll my eyes at that. Snake Eyes cocks his head questioningly. I sign at him that Duke wants to let me fight so I can prevent some Joes from getting hurt until I get myself killed. He shrugs, too superstitious to dismiss the possibility and risk jinxing me. I scoff at him, pretending to be insulted, but he just shrugs again. After another thinking pause, Hawk's voice comes up again.
"Beach Head, your thoughts?"
"I can't argue the logic, but… I don't like giving him what he wants, and I still don't think we can trust him."
Nobody says anything for a few seconds, until Hawk speaks again.
"I have the choice between making Snake Eyes guard him along with more of my best men, therefore diminishing our forces and in all likelihood, increase our casualties and maybe even lose this fight, or let him fight and gain an extra fighter, who happens to be one of the bests in the world. The way I see it, it'd be incredibly irresponsible on my part NOT to use him now that he's here, no matter what the risk to himself. Stalker, bring him in and put us on speaker phone."
"Yes, sir, but just so we're clear, you do realize he's heard all this? Including YOUR side?"
I don't hear the answer, I'm laughing too hard. It's not that funny and I know it, but I'm feeling downright giddy – I'd probably laugh at anything right now. I barely manage to calm down by the time Stalker walks back to the door and opens it, showing me into the passenger area. I grin at him and walk in. He rolls his eyes at me, but his lips almost curve into what could, with some imagination, be interpreted as a very slight smile.
"He's here, sir."
"Storm Shadow, you told me not long ago that you considered the information you gave us as a start in repaying us for your life and your freedom. You're getting a chance to pay back a bit more today."
"No, I'm not: this is for me. I WANT to fight."
"I didn't mean by fighting," Hawk says. "We want the Cobra Commander alive."
My eyebrows shoot up. He can't be serious. "Why?" I ask. My tone is just a bit more murderous than I meant it to be.
"If we have the Commander captive, part of Cobra will remain loyal to him and therefore, it will take longer for someone else to take over the organization completely. If he dies, someone else will step in almost right away after, at best, a short skirmish between whoever that person is and a few others vying for position. With the actual Commander still alive, the division will be more profound and more fundamental. This decision is straight from the top, Storm Shadow. Arguing with me over it will do you no good."
I narrow my eyes, but I can't think of anything to say, unless you count curses.
"Snake Eyes. You will stay with Storm Shadow and keep him in line," Hawk concludes. "We land in a few minutes, get him some weapons."
Snake Eyes nods and salutes, of course unseen by Hawk, but Stalker answers for him.
"Order accepted, General. Stalker out."
He cuts the line then, leaving me snarling towards the intercom as Snake Eyes drags me back towards the cargo hold. I shake him off irritably just as Stalker asks him whether he really needs privacy to give me his spare swords.
Snake Eyes signs that I specialize in throwing weapons and since he has those hidden on him, he does want to give them to me in private. He adds, towards me, that if he breaks one of his swords and has to do without because he lent me his spare ones, he will NEVER let me hear the end of it.
As furious as I am with Hawk, I'm not about to fail playing along and thus get my brother in trouble. I am in a foul enough mood to do it as irritatingly as I can, however.
"You mean I'd never SEE the end of it, right? What do you care, anyway? It's not like I'm borrowing your precious guns and besides, if you're clumsy enough to break a sword, you DESERVE to have to do without."
While I'm saying this, he's pushing me back in the cargo hold. He closes the door behind us and signs at me to shut up before he decides to punch me to increase the level of realism.
"Very well, Brother," I say, making my tone sound calmer with each syllable. "Apology accepted. You ARE right, this is no time to be fighting amongst ourselves."
He sighs, takes a deep breath, and signs to ask whether I need more knives, shurikens, or other small weapons, getting back to business.
"Half a dozen knifes and a dozen shuriken will be fine, but only if it doesn't leave you with less," I reply, citing the actual amount he left me to signify that no, I don't need more, while making it sound like he hasn't given me any yet.
He signs that he doesn't use them all that much and that he's got plenty left. He then hands me two handguns in their holster strap and a box of ammo, signing the guns are loaded and have built-in dampeners.
I strap them on with a smirk.
"Gunslinger," I sneer. "So much for being silent and deadly ninjas."
He doesn't reply, busy undoing a chest strap on which are secured two swords. He hands it to me before signing that as much as he likes using throwing weapons for sport, the guns allow him to kill faster and efficiency ranks higher than fun when his team mates are in danger.
I scowl at him for the lecture, but I don't push the issue, mainly because he's right: if someone ever cared to make a numbered list of ninja rules, using whatever weapon you can that allows you the easiest victory would rank pretty close to the top. I attach the swords on myself, unsheathe them for a test run, adjust the strap a little, and try again a few times, varying the angle of my body, adjusting as I go until I'm satisfied they're positioned just right.
I doubt the whole routine took me more than two minutes, but by the time I'm finished, Snake Eyes is leaning on the wall with his arms crossed, somehow conveying resigned patience.
The second I'm done, he signs to ask me what I intend to do about the Commander.
I frown. I honestly don't know… annoyingly, I agree with the logic behind wanting him alive. There would be some short lived chaos within Cobra if he actually died, but the troops would quickly rally under the strongest would-be leader, most likely Destro. It's debatable whether anyone would even bother to oppose him. If, on the other hand, the Commander remains alive, you'll have a few people trying to take control on his behalf, intent on organizing a rescue or at least pretending that's their intention, and you'll have a few more trying to take control altogether and forget about the Commander. The troops won't know who to side with because most of them will be too afraid of the Commander returning to side with anyone who's trying to actually supplant him and won't know which brown-nosed would-be rescuer to trust.
As logical as wanting him alive is, however, I still want and need to kill him.
Snake Eyes observes me thinking for a moment, and signs that I need to decide what my priority is: my honour or vengeance.
The edge of my vision instantly tints with red and I swear I can hear my blood boiling. I snatch the fabric around his neck and if he hadn't already been against the wall, I would have slammed him on it.
"NO," I growl. "That's… NO. You… NO!"
I take a deep breath, trying to organize my thoughts enough to form actual sentences.
"You have no right to ask me to choose!" I hiss. My lips curl up in a snarl because the sound reminds me of the Commander, and I force my voice back into a low growl instead. "Killing them, killing HIM, is PART of reclaiming my honour. I HAVE to avenge my uncles. You KNOW THAT!"
He forces my hands off himself and pushes me a step back to reply more comfortably. I expect him to sign, but he takes out a notepad instead and scribbles away for a minute before ripping the page off and handing it to me.
I already reminded you, Sensei did not believe in vengeance. He never wanted it. Finding out you were innocent, when he had spent the last few years trying to find and kill you, cured the Soft Master of any taste for it as well. They don't need you to do this.
I can understand that you still want revenge for yourself, that's why you need to decide how badly you do. You know Hawk is right, I can tell you do. The honourable thing for you to do at this point is to do as you were asked and take the Commander prisoner without killing him. So you need to choose: vengeance or honour.
I glare at him and rip the note in two without consciously trying, just from my hands clenching into fists while still holding the paper. He stares right back at me, leaning on the wall with his arms crossed again. He'd appear completely calm, nearly bored, if his heart rate wasn't very slightly elevated.
"That's not fair;" I snarl, "you don't KNOW whether my uncles need this or not." I know I'm lying even as I say it. He's right about that much at least, and we both know it.
He cocks his head, silently asking me whether I really believe that. I throw the two pieces of the note at him.
"I swore I'd avenge both of them," I whisper harshly. "I've gone too far to give up now!"
He signs to request I think about it.
"What will you do if we find the Commander?" I ask. "Will you stand in my way?"
He sighs and signs that if we find him and I still decide to kill him, he will not stop me.
I was ready to scream at him, expecting him to inform me he would indeed prevent me from harming the Commander. His actual answer leaves me speechless for a second, and when I talk again, I only manage to sputter a thank you.
He nods and, having taken care of both arming me and torturing me by forcing me to try and make an impossible choice, starts gearing up, first removing his weapons, then slipping into his snowsuit, and finally adjusting all his weapons again.
"I did that much faster, you know... AND more quietly."
He signs irritably that he has more weapons to re-arrange than I did and finishes by putting on his gloves. He looks at me for a moment when I chuckle and finally, chuckles silently as well, signing to call me an idiot. Despite the fact the gloves are as thin as they can be and still protect our fingers from falling off in the cold, he has to exaggerate his signs and appropriately enough, still looks as muffled as we're all going to sound through our scarves.
I keep myself from actually saying it so he won't accuse me of being a cornball again, but the exchange, as silly as it was, was enough to make me realize just how much I've missed his friendship.
We go back to the passengers' area once he's ready, just in time to strap in as the plane lands.
"How far away is the base?" I ask of nobody in particular.
"Two hours drive to the south. Judging from Cobra Island, just air-bombing the fortress would be useless, so we're also mounting a ground attack to infiltrate and if we're going to do that, we may as well land a safe distance away rather than risk getting shot down," Stalker answers, talking very fast but still volunteering the information. I nod a thank you as he opens his radio and asks whoever may be listening whether the vehicle transports have arrived.
"All here," Duke's voice answers. "No sign of activity from Cobra. The new stealth screens are apparently working. Is Storm Shadow there? Ask him how Cobra's anti-stealth technology is. I'm kind of worried we're heading for a trap, to be honest. This is going a bit too well."
"I'm fine, thank you," I reply with a chuckle as an answer to his inquiry about Cobra's anti-stealth measures. "Other than me, I've never known them to use anything particularly outstanding, unless of course they've acquired something in the past year."
"He says they relied mostly on him, Duke. Basic anti-stealth otherwise. We may just have slipped by them."
"Nothing we can do about it if we didn't, either way," Duke concludes. "You have vehicles 16 to 19. Good luck."
The drive goes smoothly for nearly an hour and a half. Snake Eyes and I are in something that can best be described as an armoured bus along with 23 other Joes, so we keep conversation to a minimum. I'm bored to tears, frantic for action, and tired of thinking about what to do with the Commander, or more accurately, tired of thinking about how unfair it is that I'm supposed to be thinking about what to do with the Commander. It's honestly a relief when all hell breaks loose.
I hear a series of explosion ahead of us, each one closer than the last. The driver hears some of them too and veers violently, almost tipping the vehicle, while screaming at us to get out through the emergency exists.
Snake Eyes and I leave those for the rest of the Joes and jump out the nearest window. Our guns are out before we touch the ground, mine solely so he won't lecture me on efficiency again – fact is, I had my hands full of shurikens before I managed to beat myself into using the clumsy noisemaking toys.
The ambush happened right at the front of the convoy, so the troopers have time to see Snake Eyes and I coming as we run towards them, shooting as we go. The way their pulse jump when they see not one but two ninjas is priceless. Hearing no less than ten of them scream variations on "It's Storm Shadow! He's alive!" with a generous amount of curses thrown in, echoing each other, is like sweet music, ESPECIALLY considering that between my snow suit and my guns, they don't actually have any way to know who I am – they're just panicking because someone is running right alongside Snake Eyes, shooting at them with just as much accuracy, and they're rightly assuming the worst.
I grin under my scarf and put on an extra burst of speed, still shooting at the troopers while swerving to avoid their own fire. Between Snake Eyes doing the same thing I am and the Joes and Vipers firing their own weapons, ranging from guns to missile launchers with a few grenades thrown in for fun, not to mention the engines of several vehicles from both sides and the racket of planes and helicopters overhead and finally, a good bit of screaming, the noise level is eye-watering… but I can't stop grinning. Not only does it feel wonderful to finally be killing the right people, this is the first time I'm actually fighting on the same side as my brother since he's trained, and I'm absolutely loving it. Even the nagging question of what to do about the Commander doesn't manage to ruin it for me.
I put my guns away and take out my swords are soon as the troopers are close enough, quickly imitated by my brother. There aren't that many troopers left by then, and between our four blades, the battle is quickly over.
The euphoria I was feeling while we were fighting vanishes abruptly as I suddenly realize that even though we won this battle with minimal casualties and few injuries, the damage is done: the Commander now knows we're coming.
We engage less than half an hour later, within view of the main entrance to the fortress; a construct which can best be described as a cross between a snow fort and a low to the ground ice sculpture. It would actually be quite pretty if not for the prominence of the Cobra logo – not that I have time for more than a glance.
GI Joe is outnumbered about ten to one on the ground and the air support is busy dealing with Cobra's own air force, so Snake Eyes and myself once again fall back on our firearms as the quickest way to kill, much to my eardrums' displeasure. I'm almost thankful when we find ourselves surrounded closely enough for our blades to become our most efficient weapons again.
From there, my instincts take over within seconds. As usual when it becomes necessary to keep me alive, my body seems to be moving by itself, following strategies that are executed before I'm aware I've thought of them, dodging and blocking anything that comes towards me automatically and following through on openings quicker than the conscious part of me can think of what to do about them. I used to think of this as being on auto-pilot, but the term implies that I'm not in control and, now that I've spent some time desperately trying to get back in control of my mind and body, I can appreciate how inaccurate that is. I may not premeditate any of my actions, but I feel in perfect control and everything I do is exactly what I'd be doing if I did have the time to think about it.
For instance, when I spot a trooper aiming for Gung-Ho, I leave my left-hand sword in the Viper I just impaled with it, fish a shuriken out of my pocket and send it through the trooper's neck before he takes the shot. I recover my sword from the Viper's corpse and I've already moved on to my next target by the time I smile as it occurs to me that I've now at least repaid my debt to Gung-Ho for preventing Snake Eyes from killing me in Switzerland.
I've also automatically adapted to the fact I have allies around whose safety I actually care about: if it weren't the case, I'd deal with the timed bomb that just landed near my feet by kicking it as far away from myself as I can and I wouldn't worry about where it lands. This time however, I sheathe my right sword while I flip the bomb up with my foot, catch it with my newly free hand, throw it high in the air, take out one of the guns my brother loaned me and shoot the it, making it explode harmlessly well above everyone's heads.
The noise almost covers that of the gun going off behind me, but not quite. I duck and simultaneously sweep my sword through the legs of a Viper who was trying to take advantage of the fact I was distracted by the bomb to sneak up on me with a knife, apparently under the impression I can only dodge weapons that make noise. He drops with a yelp of surprise, not quite realizing what just happened and the shock preventing the pain from quite registering. I'm so focused on finishing off as many enemies as I can as quickly as possible that the thought of letting him live long enough to scream in pain only registers as a waste of time I don't intend to suffer, and my sword comes down on his neck, separating yet another part of him from the rest, lethally this time.
The other thing that makes this battle state different than a strict auto-pilot is that I am in fact aware of everything I witness, even though I ignore most of it in favour of reacting more efficiently to every bit of information that translates into a threat or an opportunity. Therefore, I do see the different expressions in each of the troopers I kill: the two that fall now to my latest swipe, their chests opened, both wear the incredulous expression of men who were here for the danger pay and thought themselves invincible… much more satisfying than the cloudy, puzzled look the junkies that make up a sizeable portion of this army get when they suddenly find their miserable lives slipping away.
I also find out why Snake Eyes has yet to show any kind of concern for Scarlett, despite the fact he hasn't even had visual contact with her since we left the Pit – she was good four years ago, but she's downright spectacular now. All the Joes are doing much better than would be expected from non-ninjas, demonstrating that they really are the cream of the crop when it comes to soldiers, but she's miles ahead of the rest of them. If nothing else, she's a testament to both her boyfriend's talent as a teacher and his ability to keep me focused on himself: she and I have been on the same battlefield several times since I've kidnapped her, but I had completely failed to notice she was progressing until now. In my defence, as long as I thought she was an agent of the Order, I couldn't have cared less about her personal progression. Afterward, I would have been hard pressed to notice had she sprouted extra limbs between two battles.
I bite my lips when I realize the implications behind her progress, and my next strike cuts a Crimson Guard in half lengthwise, in an upward motion. It's a deeply satisfying move, but one I would not normally use: not only is it relatively slow, but it also requires a good bit of strength because of all the bones I have to go through even if I slide along the actual spine instead of cutting through it. The fact I went for it this time shows how rotten my mood suddenly is.
My brother has obviously been training Scarlett as intensely as he could for the past four years, and his motivation for doing so is rather obvious: he was afraid I'd go after her again and he's been trying to get her to a level where she'd stand a chance against me if I did.
My mind automatically goes to all the Joes that had no chance at all when they ended up facing me. I see the uniform of a Viper I was about to strike change to green, and although a part of me does realize it's an hallucination, the bigger part of me is back at the United Nations, about to kill another soldier. Suddenly, my opponent is no longer wearing any scarf, goggles or insulated helmet and he starts taking on the faces of the other soldiers who were with me and Chatterbox in the War, both from our first and second tour.
I jerk back in horror and drop my swords. The soldier turns into my brother and his side starts bleeding, following my hitting him while trying to kill him. My eyes widen a bit more still, and the battle around us stops existing. He smiles, seemingly unbothered by his injury, and takes aim. I don't make a move to dodge or knock the gun out of his hand; I was about to kill my brother... I DESERVE to be shot.
It feels like my own heart stops beating when, instead of shooting me, my brother suddenly acquires a hole in his forehead and crumbles, lifeless. I lunge forward towards Chatterbox. I know he's not dead, I remember this. I can't hear his heart, but that's only because I can't hear anything at all right now. I can bring him back to the chopper, he'll be fine.
I feel the hands on my arms and I'm spun around just before I notice that Wilkinson is right next to me.
"LET GO!" I shout over the racket, prying his hands off my arm. "HE'LL BE FINE, I…"
I hear Chatterbox next to me and turn, confused. I don't remember his getting up by himself, I'm sure I'm supposed to carry him. Wilkinson screams at me to snap out of it, calling me Tommy - as usual when he can't be bothered with my family name. I don't know what he wants me to snap out of, and before I can make any sense of what's going on, Chatterbox slaps me across the face, hard enough to hurt right through the padding provided by my scarf and his glove.
Reality comes crashing back and I feel the blood drain from my face as I realize what just happened. I don't have time to reflect on it, however: the battle is still raging. I hear a gun go off to my left and tackle Stalker to the ground while Snake Eyes, who heard the weapon as well, rolls away.
My knife embeds itself in the shooter's left eye just before he collapses from the hole in his heart, courtesy of my brother's gun. I slip back in battle mode and put the incident away from my mind – it's bad enough flashbacks actually can take over in the middle of a fight, I really can't afford to let them slow me down even once they're gone.
I lose track of time again as the battle wears on. The Joes continue to genuinely impress me, and I find myself seriously coveting some of their toys – in particular, I decide that I simply MUST get some explosive javelins for myself. Thankfully, I don't fall for any flashbacks again, and eventually, from being outnumbered, the Joes have control of the situation: the Cobra troops are still fighting, but they're being separated into pockets, and the Joes fighting each of those small groups of survivors are suggesting they surrender. Orders start to come in through some of the radios - including my brother's - to move in the fortress.
I don't need to be asked twice – or even once, I suppose, since the request was not technically addressed to me. I bolt for the entrance, followed closely by Snake Eyes.
Although most of the Commander's army was outside, there are still some troopers inside, as evidenced by the fact we just had the pleasure of dispatching a twelve men unit, about ten minutes after entering the fortress. The other Joes that followed us in were much slower than we are, and we've long since lost them. By the sounds of it, they took a different turn at some point. I can't pretend I mind – it's not like the two of us need help to deal with a few troopers now and again.
I stop Snake Eyes by grabbing his arm just as he's about to run off again after dislodging his sword from the last trooper.
"Hold on and help me search them; we need to find the unit leader. His ID will say and he'll have a Cobra watch."
Snake Eyes pauses for a moment, snickers at the thought of Cobra giving out watches to unit leaders, and starts searching without bothering to ask why we need to identify the leader.
"Found him," I announce after spotting the gold watch adorned with the logo and confirming by checking the man's ID. "Give me a bag, would you?"
He digs in one of his pockets and hands me a plastic bag, just the right size. I smirk at him.
"Good boy, you DO catch on fast."
I unsheathe my sword and cut off the man's hands and head, stuffing all three items in the bag. Snake Eyes asks how much clearance I figure a random unit leader has.
I shrug. "It varies a lot… we'll see. We'll just have to find more if this one doesn't get us all the way to the Commander."
The level of clearance of our portable set of prints, DNA and retinas stops to matter after only one secured door: the base goes in lockdown mode at some point between that one and the next, as evidenced by the scan panels on that next door being shut down and by the "lockdown mode" display above it.
Snake Eyes takes out a knife and eyes the keypad lock, very obviously about to stab it. I push his arm down.
"Down, Brother. Let me try the usual passwords before we start hoping that whoever designed those doors never dreamed the lock panels might get damaged by intruders."
He signs to ask whether I really think the Commander would use a password I know. I smirk.
"I'm guessing that up to our encounter with the perimeter guards, I could have walked around here as though I owned the place," I say as I try a first password. It doesn't work. "The Commander was certain that I would be loyal to him until I died, so he would not have been concerned at all that I'd break his passwords. I figured any clearance he may have given me would be gone the second he found out I was alive, since he can do that at the database level with one click, but those passwords are hardwired on the individual doors because they're the backup in case the database goes down – or at least, they were on Cobra Island and in Springfield, so I assume they are here as well. He wouldn't have been able to change them in just a couple of hours and besides, he probably doesn't realize I know his patterns. Just the same, we better hurry; he's not going to just assume the doors are going to stop us. There we go!"
I've been typing away, trying different arrangements of the Commander's usual key words and number combinations, and the door has finally opened. I dash after Snake Eyes through the door, the bag containing the now useless head and hands still attached to my belt – if nothing else, they might still be able to provide a distraction if I throw them at someone.
Things get a bit repetitive as we get deeper into the fortress – we run into more and more patrols, confirming that we're getting closer to the Commander's hiding place, and at increasingly frequent intervals, I have to try a dozen passwords to get a door to open.
It becomes tedious pretty quick, and the more impatient I get, the more I find myself thinking of what I'll do when we finally find the Commander, assuming we do – he may have managed to flee, in which case he'd run into the Joes that are no doubt stationed at all the exits the X-Ray sweep identified and it's safe to assume they won't let me approach him.
We eventually find his Command Centre, and a still warm coffee - not to mention screens showing various security feeds - reveals he was indeed here recently. He is, however, gone. I resist the urge to throw the cup of coffee at something - or the head in the bag, for that matter - and peel my ears for receding footsteps. My self-control pays off: I hear faint running at 2 o'clock and take off, heading for the door at the other end of the room. Snake Eyes falls behind me, wisely letting my ears guide us.
We finally almost catch up to him a few minutes later, with not a whole lot of time to spare – he's running towards an exit, hidden by one of Zartan's cloak. If he makes it, he will be able to edge pass the Joes, quite possibly kill a few, and take off on one of the vehicles they used to come over here and guard this particular exit. I would certainly chase him all over the continent if I have to, but I'd much rather end this now.
I glance at Snake Eyes and roll my eyes: he's scanning the hallway, obviously still trying to locate the man despite the clear footsteps. It's funny in an infuriating kind of way; the Hard Master was one of the best the clan has ever had at sensory techniques, including the Ear that Sees, but my brother, the same one who seems to be able to learn anything ELSE at lightning speed, somehow managed to never even properly learn echo location.
I can't explain why I don't just throw a shuriken in the Commander's legs to stop him, or in his heart for that matter, except I'd rather face him before he's actually injured at all. I unhook the bag Snake Eyes gave me from my belt and look at him with a pretend nervous look on my face.
"Your unstable and fragile brother really needs you to hold his hands right now," I plead.
He staggers while running and stares at me. I take the head out and throw the bag that now only contains hands at him. His shoulders sag a bit under the weight of the truly horrible joke as he catches the bag, still looking at me, obviously wondering what I'm up to. Judging by a sharp intake of breath, he guesses about a quarter of a second before I actually throw the severed head right in front of the Commander. I put on an extra burst of speed at the same time.
The Commander yelps and jumps backwards, falling on his backside with a rather pleasing thud. I grab him by his collar, invisible but easily located between his heart and his mouth, and slam him against the wall.
"What's the matter, Commander? You usually like it when I lose my head," I sneer as I rip the cloak generator off his wrist and crush it. He's wearing his cloth mask today, and the sheer terror in his eyes is utterly delicious. Snake Eyes stops to stand next to me, arms crossed and very clearly intent on letting me deal with our prisoner or victim-to-be.
For now, I'm just staring at him. My good mood at finally catching him has evaporated already, replaced by cold fury. The skin around his eyes is turning whiter and whiter by the second, and his heart rate, which was already high from his run, is climbing to sincerely dangerous levels. He takes a deep breath in an obvious effort to steady himself, with very limited success. Remarkably enough, however, his voice is only slightly shaky when he speaks.
"Don't you want to know who hired Zartan?" he asks. "It wasn't me…"
My eyes widen slightly before narrowing again. "I don't care," I growl honestly. "The orders came from you, the arrow came from Zartan."
"But he's the one who gave Zartan the equipment that picked the wrong target!" he hisses desperately.
I bark a laugh. "And if he hadn't, I would have lost my brother instead. I don't CARE, Commander."
Next to me, Snake Eyes uncrosses his arms long enough to sign that he knows anyway. I resist the urge to ask and swallow my curiosity for now, keeping my eyes focused on the Commander's.
I can't just glare at him forever; I need to make the decision my brother requested of me. I've had plenty of time to think about it, but I've refused to reach a decision right up until now. I'd still prefer not to choose, but that's no longer an option: if I don't kill him now, I'll most likely lose my chance; if I do kill him, I won't exactly be able to change my mind afterward.
I've never wanted anything more fervently than I want to end his life right now, in the most painful way possible. I'm aching for it, my heart is hammering, my breathing is shallow from the anticipation, my hands are shaking… I've dreamed of this moment, I've lived for it, I've killed for it. This is the one thing I've desired the most ever since I saw the name "Cobra" associated with those silent helicopters. Killing the man responsible, even before I knew his identity, has been the only thing to matter to me ever since I failed to catch the arrow that killed my uncle.
My fists clench on his collar and my thumbs stretch by themselves, pressing on his throat. He starts gurgling and kicking until I manage to curl my thumbs back on my fists. Next to me, my brother's heart rate spiked briefly, but I can't tell whether it was out of fear that I'd kill the Commander or out of excitement at the idea.
I want this. I want this badly. I want to push my thumbs in his throat until his heart stops, I want to rip every last one of his internal organs out and feed them to him so he'll choke on them, I want to cut him into small pieces, starting with his toes and working my way up… I can think of about fifty different ways to go about killing him painfully, and to be completely honest, I'd settle for a quick death blow if I had to.
I kill my enemies all the time, this wouldn't be any different.
Except of course that it's completely different. The man is not a threat to me right now, I don't need to kill him to ensure my own safety or that of anyone else. It's just the opposite, in fact: it's been established that the whole planet will be safer longer with him alive behind bars than with him dead.
Even though I've been resisting actually making a decision regarding the Commander's faith, I have thought about the situation quite a bit, and as much as I'd love to be able to tell myself that although it's not necessary for my safety, killing the Commander is necessary for my uncles' peace of mind, I know Snake Eyes was right and that it absolutely isn't. This is not about my uncles at all anymore, it is strictly about me.
If I do this, it will be for my own personal satisfaction, and nothing more. The choice comes down to doing something for myself or doing something for everyone else… it's exactly like my brother said: vengeance or honour. I've always valued honour above most everything else, the main exception being my family. On the other hand, my quest for vengeance turned me into a monster, cost me the honour I value so much and that of my family; it needs to stop.
The mere thought hurts, and my fists clench tighter on the Commander's collar. I notice at that point that he's screaming, begging for his life, crying that he's a valuable prisoner, and generally being extremely pathetic. It only makes me want to squeeze the life out of him even more, but I don't.
As painful as it is, I can't escape my own conclusion: vengeance, at this point, only benefits me. It'd only be one more selfish act to my name, one more dishonour, one more instance of my putting my desires above everyone else's needs.
I thought my brother terribly unfair when he made me face this choice, but as I move my fingers behind the Commander's ear and press his sleeping point, causing him to stop whimpering and begging and to go limp, I realize that my being denied vengeance is not unfair at all, quite the contrary. I've spent close to twelve years serving Cobra, killing and helping to kill thousands of people for no reason at all other than the fact I wanted a promised payment for the first eight years, to live in a dream and forget reality the next three, and for things to stay clear and simple for the last one… being denied what I desire is simple justice.
I drop the Commander, letting him crumble on the floor at my feet, and step away. Snake Eyes moves in and picks him up, swinging him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, and squeezes my own shoulder with his free hand.
"You knew I wouldn't kill him, didn't you?" I breathe.
He nods and signs that he trusted me to do the right thing.
"It goes for all of them."
He tilts his head questioningly.
"Zartan, Scrap Iron and Mindbender… it's the same as for him: the only person who'd gain anything from my killing them in retribution would be me, and I most certainly don't deserve such a reward. I've let my desire for vengeance consume me…" I take a deep breath, steadying myself before I pronounce my own sentence. "No more. I've learned one last lesson from the Hard Master today: I will no longer seek revenge."
My voice breaks even as I say it. I know my decision is the right one, I know I cannot allow myself to fall again into the trap that kept me captive for all those years, but it feels like I've torn off my own heart to drag myself out of that trap. It was all for nothing… every crime I've committed, every shameful act, every stain on my family's name. I clench my jaw – it's no good dwelling on it, it's done and it's over. I need to concentrate on the future and on finding my new path.
Snake Eyes gives my shoulder another squeeze and starts walking towards the exit. I follow him, keeping my eyes to the floor in an effort not to see the Commander; having to hear his continued breathing is bad enough.
We come out of the fortress to find, as expected, a squadron of Joes ready to stop anyone from escaping. They stare at us in shock when we first come out, Snake Eyes with the Commander draped over his shoulder.
Cheers erupt and the Joes throw themselves on Snake Eyes, relieving him of the Commander and clapping him on the back without paying the slightest attention to his signed protests that he didn't actually do much. It's just as well they're ignoring him, considering he's lying through… well, through his fingers, I suppose.
While they're doing that, I hear Beach Head trying to sneak up behind me. I turn around and put out my hands, offering my wrists. I figure the only way I'm not going to be restrained again now that the fight is over is if I fight my way out of here, and the last thing I want right now is to fight soldiers again, especially just for the sake of avoiding the slight discomfort of wrist restraints.
Beach Head jumps just a little bit, startled, and then curses a blue streak while putting the handcuffs on me.
"And don't you go take 'em off, you damned psychic spook," he snaps. "Actually, scratch that. You go right ahead, give me an excuse to hurt you."
"I'm not psychic;" I correct him, smirking, "just not deaf, either. And I won't take them off… consider me terrified. Thousands of Cobras trying to kill me got nothing on one soldier who was obviously ordered not to hurt me."
"You got some mouth on you, don't you? Snake Eyes!" he bellows. "I got a whole lot of other snakes to look after, want to give me a hand with this one?"
Snake Eyes nods, digs into his bag and throws one of the severed hands at Beach Head. I'm too much in shock at the display of tasteless humour by my brother to laugh, until Beach Head catches the thing out of sheer reflex, without realizing what it is, only to jerk away from it in shock, dropping it, with a renewed stream of curses.
I can't quite stop laughing even when he picks the hand back up and slaps me upside the head with it.
"Yeah, real funny!" he growls at Snake Eyes, throwing the hand back towards my brother's head – only for said brother to easily catch it and calmly put it back in the bag. "Now get over here and take over!" Beach Head barks. "Make yourself useful!"
I've sobered back up by the time I find myself facing Hawk again.
We're in the General's plane, about to take off. I'm still in the handcuffs, my brother is sitting next to me - writing his report on a memo pad - and the other Joes on the plane all have their guns pointed either straight at me or at the Commander. Hawk is staring at me, trying to look stern but not quite managing. The Commander, still asleep, has been tied up very securely and is sitting on the other side of Snake Eyes.
"I'm getting very tired of thinking about you," Hawk starts.
I know this is really no time for jokes, but just like when Snake Eyes threw that hand at Beach Head, I can't help myself and I jump on the opening and on the chance for a cheap laugh. I'm pretty sure Psyche Out would say my surprising eagerness to fool around is simple escapism, and that suits me just fine.
"You can't mean that," I say, making my voice tremble a bit as though I'm in shock. "I'm a ninja! We're endlessly fascinating!"
My brother doesn't quite succeed in stiffening a chuckle, but Hawk is not amused at all.
"I've spent the last four years constantly debating whether to order my men to kill you," he continues, completely ignoring the interruption. "I did give that order several times, but I have also ordered them to take you prisoner instead at least as many times. Just recently, I had to make the decision to try and keep you alive and I've spent most of the last few days trying to decide what to recommend be done with you and the rest of that time thinking about how I'd make sure my recommendations would be followed, because I didn't want to have spent that much time making up my mind just for my superiors to turn me down flat. I've sent my recommendations when we landed here, and I got an answer about an hour ago: my recommendations are accepted, provided certain conditions are met. The first one is already taken care of." At that, he points at the restrained, sleeping Commander.
Snake Eyes, as if right on cue, stops writing and hands him the memo pad.
"Who's building up suspense now?" I grumble. I'm not quite full of myself enough not to realize whatever Hawk recommended and whether it goes through or not will seriously affect me. For one thing, if they decide to execute me, I'll have to escape and be on the run from my own brother again, unless I just allow them to kill me – an option I'm not entirely ruling out either.
Hawk ignores me and continues to read my brother's report. The plane's engines start and we take off while he reads through the few pages twice. He puts it away in his briefcase once he's done and turns back to me.
"Snake Eyes' report on your behaviour today meets the second condition: you've done your best to protect the members of this unit as opposed to focusing only on killing as many of the Cobra troops as you could, and you've spared the Commander's life as requested, instead of Snake Eyes having to restrain you."
"So the first condition was for the Commander to be captured, and the second was for me to be a good boy?" I ask. "I take it your recommendation is not for me to be handed over to a firing squad. What is it, then?"
"Basically? Not to let a ninja go to waste."
My eyes widen and my heart rate picks up. "What?"
"We still need to assess what we can expect from you, however," he continues. "So, talk. What can you offer? What are your intentions from here on out?"
I have to take a deep breath to recompose myself. He sounds like he wants me to serve them as a ninja, somehow. I'd be happy to, but I don't believe it at all: I know I've misunderstood him somehow, and when I answer, it is with the solid assumption that he'll stop me after a couple of sentences and clarify what he actually meant, which will turn out to be much less to my advantage.
"When they first start training, many students are overwhelmed by what they are expected to eventually be able to accomplish," I start, dimly aware that I'm purposely delaying my actual answer with an explanation that is not strictly necessary, just to delay Hawk telling me I will not, in fact, be given the opportunity he's just hinted at. "For most of them, the hardest hurdle to overcome is not pain but the certainty that they will never succeed. I've only had one student, but he was no exception and therefore, I had to deliver the usual lecture we give those who would give up because the goal seems unattainable."
He hasn't stopped me yet and is in fact listening intently. I sigh and keep going, talking faster, suddenly eager to get the whole silly misunderstanding over with.
"In essence, we tell them that a ninja's training is never complete: no one can ever be so perfect that improving further is impossible. We tell them that their duty, as our students, is to do their absolute best even when they think they will never succeed, because doing their best will at least ensure they achieve as much as they possibly can. I intend to follow the same advice now: I know I have no hope to ever fully redeem myself for my actions over the past twelve years, but I will devote the rest of my life to trying my absolute best to do just that. I'm fully aware that I will fail and still die without having restored my honour, but at least I will have lifted the dishonour as much as I possibly can. It's the only acceptable course of action."
He still hasn't stopped me, which is more than a bit surprising. Next to me, Snake Eyes' pulse is a bit fast, as though he's worried about what I've said.
"You say you intend to try your best. What do you mean by that? What would you do if given the opportunity?" Hawk asks.
"I've spent years assisting Cobra, so I will spend the rest of my life opposing them, and any other similar organization."
He nods and actually cracks a smile. "Glad to hear it," he says. "Here's the proposal I have been authorized to extend to you. In recognition for the information you have provided this unit and for your… insistence… to assist in this battle, and in light of your obvious regrets and desire to repay your debt to society, you will be granted temporary amnesty against all currently standing charges against you, in exchange for enrolling with the GI Joe division of the United States Army for at least a five year term. At the end of your engagement, provided your service is satisfactory, you will be granted a full presidential pardon. If you do not accept these terms, you will go to trial."
"I… you're not serious," I stutter.
He chuckles. "Translated into normal English, it means what I said earlier: we're not going to let a ninja go to waste if we can help it. Snake Eyes is too valuable and you've been too much of a pain for us not to try and capitalize on the chance to have both of you on our side. You said you wanted to oppose Cobra and the like? Do it with us."
"You ARE serious."
I swallow. My heart is hammering, and part of me still doesn't quite believe I heard him right. The offer is beyond pleasing, it's exactly what I would have been hoping for if I had allowed myself to hope for anything at all. Being part of GI Joe will not only allow me the best opportunities to continue to fight Cobra and others like them, it will let me do it with my brother by my side. I open my mouth to accept the offer and find I can't even talk. I get out of my seat instead and fall back on rituals: I bow and kneel on one knee, my right fist on my heart. The gesture makes it a done deal in my eyes, allowing me to calm down somewhat and speak again.
"Accepted," I say. "I hereby give you my loyalty and swear to serve you."
I've performed the very same vow countless times: most clients demand it because it strokes their ego to see the ninja they've hired kneel to them and swear loyalty, even if it is only for the night. Before he brainwashed me, the Commander also used to make me do it several times a month, for exactly the same reason. It's the first time in over a decade that I get to make the oath because I want to, and I grin through it.
Hawk raises an eyebrow. "A yes and a salute would have more than sufficed," he chuckles.
I get up, still grinning, and salute as well as I can with my hands still attached together. I lose my smile when I suddenly see myself leaning against a doorway behind the Commander, refusing to salute like the rest of the troops and claiming that I will never play soldier because I believed soldiers had slaughtered my family. I give my head a shake to dismiss the memory and focus back on Hawk.
"You need to realize integrating will not be easy," he says once he has my attention again.
I shrug. "It's only fair that I'd need to gain my team mates' trust."
"You will also continue to see Psyche Out every day until further notice. Stalker told me about your zoning out in the middle of the battle today and you just did it again. I will hear no argument on this."
"Yes, sir," I sigh.
He nods, satisfied, and moves to the radio to communicate the information to the rest of the team, motioning as he goes for someone to take off my handcuffs. Snake Eyes produces a key and unlocks them, tossing them aside before he signs to tell me he's glad to have me on the team. He hesitates a moment, then adds that he realizes how difficult it must have been for me to give up on vengeance and that he's rather worried about the way I said I'd be doing my absolute best. He finishes by asking me whether I'm all right.
The question is certainly more legitimate than when he asked it in the infirmary, but it's also harder to answer. From the cockpit, Hawk's voice announces that he's just recruited me. Over the speaker phone, Beach Head automatically starts screaming his objections to "letting a damn ex-Cobra spook join the team".
I snort and tune out the rest of the conversation, still wondering how to answer my brother's question. I meant every word I said to Hawk: just because I cannot restore my honour is no excuse not to keep trying until the day I die. I have no idea why the thought worries him. As for letting go of vengeance, it did hurt and still does, but I've endured worst and I can already tell that the sting will lessen over time.
I'm tempted to answer that I am fine, but it feels like a gross simplification. I'm very glad to be on the team, because I know I will be able to do a lot more towards redeeming myself with GI Joe than I would alone, and on a more personal level, because I'll enjoy being with my brother again. On the other hand, I know that Beach Head will not be the only one to object to my presence and that it will be an uphill battle to get anyone to trust me or even refrain from snarling at me. I also realize, as maddening as it is, that Hawk is right to insist I continue to see Psyche Out: mentally, I'm not fine. The thought mortifies me; I'm a ninja, I'm not supposed to have emotional issues. Denying their existence, however, will not make them go away.
I'm not quite all right, but I still feel generally good about the future. I'm finally on the right path again… as rocky a path as it is, and even with the knowledge I'll never get off, I'm still happy to be here and I can't wait to get started.
"I'm better than alright," I finally reply. "I'm ready."