Billy didn't give Storm Shadow the luxury of thinking about it: he got up and tackled him in a hug. Tommy returned it, fighting back the irritation at Billy showing affection for a father who had tried to brainwash his own son into an obedient slave. The boy was delirious, he could hardly be expected to act or think rationally.
Billy was so relieved that the complete confusion he was in barely registered. He wasn't so confused as to not recognize the short but deadly looking Japanese man: his father was here, and he was okay.
"You're okay again," he mumbled against the man's shoulder.
The memory of why this person was okay again, as opposed to having been okay all along, poked at the edge of his mind. Someone else was doing something… his eye widened when the fact his father had been doing something clicked in. Something horrible, to someone he cared about… it was fuzzy, but he remembered enough. What was he doing hugging him? He hated him, he wanted him to leave them alone.
He brutally pulled away from the Commander, frowning and throwing a punch. "Leave him alone!" he shouted. "Leave US alone!"
Tommy blocked the punch, trying hard not to wonder what Billy was talking about; it wasn't important, it was all just delirium. But who did Billy want his father to leave alone? Him? Or had his apprentice just recognized him? Was Billy asking him to leave the Commander alone?
Billy's eye narrowed in concentration when his hit was blocked. That had been pathetic; he needed to do better than that if he didn't want his sensei to start demonstrating better punches. He blinked and shook his head a bit.
That was Sensei… and he wasn't attacking him, and he looked completely normal! He backed up, trying to think.
Tommy let Billy back away, listening intently to his pulse: it was slowing down, the boy was growing calmer. Billy huddled against the wall again and for several minutes, did nothing but rock himself, his eye closed tightly. Tommy let him to it, figuring his apprentice was trying to piece reality back together and not wanting to disturb him.
The strategy seemed to pay off; Billy eventually lifted his head back towards him in a fairly calm fashion. However, that calm evaporated instantly once the teenager saw him.
Billy's jaw dropped and his breath caught. Of all the people he hadn't expected to see here… actually, he hadn't expected to see this person ever again. He remembered the ninja erupting into Mindbender's lab and freeing him from the machine, screaming at him to run and leave him behind. He remembered his rescuer collapsing almost immediately, and he remembered following the order and fleeing, because… he could not remember why he'd done it. He couldn't even remember why Storm Shadow had collapsed, although he thought he knew back then. Whatever the reasons, however, he'd left him behind, at the mercy of Cobra. He didn't think he'd ever forgive himself for it; up to this moment, he thought he had condemned his sensei to a fate worse than death. "Tommy?" he croaked. "How…?"
He let the question die. How didn't matter, he couldn't remember ever being so happy. It felt as though a huge weight had been lifted off his chest, it felt like he could fly if he just tried.
"You… you escaped too!" he babbled, throwing himself against Tommy with no recollection of having done the same thing minutes earlier. "I'm so sorry… I didn't want to leave, I don't know why I did…"
This time, Tommy could easily guess what Billy was talking about: he knew he was giving a difficult order back then, and had been incredibly relieved when he'd found out Billy had followed it.
"If you hadn't, we'd both still be there," he said soothingly. "It's okay, we're both free. We're safe, you can relax."
Billy tensed up and straightened up, looking deadly serious. "I'm not doing that again," he said. "We're getting out together this time."
Tommy held back a sigh, but before he could try and reassure Billy again, the teenager's eye widened in horror, fixed on a chair in the living room.
Billy gulped and applied all his willpower to staying calm. He finally recognized where he was; this was Mindbender's lab. The brainwave scanner was right there in front of them, not even disguised.
He turned to Storm Shadow to grab his wrist, but suddenly noted the pulse of his companion and jerked away: it was all wrong. The man wasn't Storm Shadow. Logic dictated it could only be Mindbender.
He yelped in shock and backed off as quickly as he could, but he tripped on something and suddenly found himself being held to the ground by a crimson guardsman. All thoughts of trying to stay calm evaporated as he pictured himself back in the brainwave scanner, the searing pain ripping his mind apart. He started trashing madly and screaming for help.
Storm Shadow clenched his jaw: he couldn't let Billy scream like that for any length of time and hope not to alarm the whole world to their presence here, and he was still quite set on not doing that. He hurried to his apprentice's side and muzzled him with his arm while getting him back up from the corpse he'd fallen on.
"Billy, it's alright," he whispered slowly, trying to make his voice as calming as he could. "We've already escaped. Everything's fine."
"Sensei?" Billy mumbled through his arm.
Tommy frowned: Billy was not calming down, even though he obviously recognized him. "Yes, it's me," he said. "It's okay, there is no danger here. Relax. I know everything's very confusing right now, but you're safe. Trust me."
Billy felt his heart sink; the only reason Sensei would insist they were safe was if he was being deluded into thinking that they were. Unless he had simply been ordered to and was too much out of his mind to even know what he was saying and who he was talking to.
"Sensei…" he groaned in the arm. "We're not safe at all. Listen to me. We…"
He stopped mid sentence and his eyebrows shot up: Snake Eyes had just dropped from the ceiling. Storm Shadow's sword brother and best friend, but also the person who had tried to kill him at least once and who often injured him. The black apparition took out a gun and gestured Storm Shadow to release him.
Billy yelled at him not to shoot; that Storm Shadow was not trying to hurt him; that they needed help. What came out was an incoherent mumble which made no impression on the UZI wielding ninja. Tommy's hold on him tightened and he started telling him there was no danger again and that there was nobody there.
That answered Billy's question on what state his sensei's head was in: clearly, he was completely out of it not to see his own friend standing right there with a gun aimed straight at him.
The teenager started trashing wildly, desperately trying to speak clearly through the arm, but to no avail. He heard a rattling thunder, felt something hot whip by his face, and the arms holding him went limp. He turned to Storm Shadow, intent on doing whatever he could to save him, but there was nothing to be done: the flesh was already melting and within seconds, there was nothing left but a skeleton.
Billy's mind went blank. He wasn't sure how long he blacked out, but when his senses came back, he was curled in a ball next to Tommy's corpse. Snake Eyes was in the corner, just standing there, with nothing more to do now that he had murdered a man who loved him like a brother. A growl rose in the grieving teenager's throat and he sprang at his sensei's assassin.
Storm Shadow's eyes widened when Billy, who had suddenly curled into an unresponsive ball several minutes earlier, jumped up and tackled the floor lamp in the corner.
"MURDERER!" the teenager screamed, kicking at the lamp and 'strangling' it. "How could you? He was your brother! And you killed him! He's more my father than the Commander ever was and YOU. KILLED. HIM!"
Tommy swallowed, blinked, shook his head to make himself concentrate on the matter at hand and dragged Billy away from the lamp before his apprentice could manage to electrocute himself, or break his fingers or toes punching and kicking said lamp.
The movement seemed to snap Billy out of his current delusion and straight into another one. The young man went limp for a second, but then tensed again and started screaming about a snake again, pointing at the lamp's cord. Even while his mentor was holding him, he got as close as he could to a fighting stance and started telling off the cord, pulling away with all his strength. Tommy turned them around to make the teenager face away from the cord. The struggle immediately stopped.
"Wh… what?" Billy stuttered, looking at the corpses of the six yakuzas. "Sensei? Did you…?"
"Yes," Storm Shadow said. "They poisoned you and demanded a piece of information I didn't have in exchange for the antidote. I tried to scare them into surrendering it, but it didn't work. They're criminals, Billy; hired killers and goons. They don't deserve your pity."
"Please tell me they weren't soldiers sent by the Order?"
Storm Shadow bit his lips – he was getting rather tired of the Order recalling itself to his mind today. Billy's tone made it clear, however, just was delusion the boy was fighting now: he could recognize him, but he thought him still brainwashed like he had been when he'd been training him. Guessing that denying it would either have no result or make Billy sink into a more violent or distressing hallucination, he quickly decided to try and bring Billy back to reality by making this fantasy coincide with it.
"I wish," he lied. "I suspect the Order enjoys the fact people like this exist, because they help scare everyone else into accepting whatever authorities are put in place in exchange for some protection. But other than that, they're an entirely different variety of scum."
He let go of Billy when the teenager sighed heavily. His apprentice turned to him with an expression mixing exasperation and pity.
"No they don't," he said, "because they don't exist. The Order DOESN'T EXIST! Cobra just made you think they did, and that they were the good guys fighting them, so you'd help them!"
Tommy resisted smirking: the speech was nowhere near Billy's usual standards, reflecting that the young man was not exactly thinking straight, but he had also just been struck with the idea that if Thompson had stayed, the conspiracy theorist would probably have been unable to resist 'correcting' the teenager on the existence of the Order and their actions.
Back in the days of Billy's training in the water tower, Tommy would have usually started explaining, at that point, that the Order had to exist because they had eradicated his whole family. Today, however, he needed to let his apprentice win the argument to bring the boy back to reality.
"And you think Cobra is sending those fake memories?" he asked. "Just to erase them whenever I ask? That makes no sense."
"They're not fake!" Billy said, gesticulating in a salesman-like enthusiasm. "They're your real memories! Nobody's sending them, they're just resurfacing! And Cobra is all too happy to erase them because if you remembered everything, you'd be fighting THEM!"
Tommy widened his eyes and let his mouth drop open, acting like the truth had finally pierced and the shock was rendering him speechless. He kept it up for exactly two seconds before grasping his head and letting out a whimper. He then gave his head a vigorous shake and met Billy's eye again.
"I remember," he said in a low whisper. He grunted again and fell to his knees.
Billy's heart skipped a beat and he barely held back a scream of triumph. He wasn't sure why, but he thought his sensei had gone through some pain to make him be quiet just a bit earlier, when they were still captive. He frowned, puzzled: when had that been? He couldn't remember now.
Tommy clenched his jaw when his apprentice looked confused for a moment and then acquired a blank expression again: he expected the teenager to go back into the foetal position any second, and there was no telling whether the young man's brains would actually piece things together correctly this time or just come up with a new delusion.
Billy wrapped his arms around his knees, but not nearly as tightly as before, and only rocked himself slightly. Tommy sat a few feet in front of him, so as not to crowd him while still being right by him when he became aware of his surroundings again. He glanced at his watch: it had been about an hour since he had made his apprentice swallow the antidote, and the boy's stance certainly seemed less tense than the other times he'd blocked out the outside world. Things were looking promising.
As soon as he allowed himself to hope his apprentice would soon be over the hallucinations and delirium, the nervousness Storm Shadow had felt earlier in the day returned, stronger than ever. He sighed; he couldn't pretend to know what had been going through Billy's mind in the last hour, but he did know what the rant to the lamp had made him conclude, and although he could not be certain the conclusion was right, he did know for a fact that he had reached it because it mirrored his own feelings.
If his guess was right, Billy had thought the lamp had killed him; he was the one seen as more of a father than the Commander. If he assumed that much, the rest of Billy's actions in the last hour fitted nicely with the idea that the delirious teen was getting confused between the Commander and himself because he was identifying both of them as his father.
He knew his guess could be wrong: there was a good chance that there was no underlying sense to what Billy had been doing and saying. It didn't make any difference to how he felt about it, however. When the thought had first struck him, he hadn't been vaguely touched and slightly annoyed, like a teacher might towards an overly affectionate student; instead, he'd gone through surprise, relief, and now something uncomfortably close to fear.
He could cite rules and traditions on apprenticeship, on the roles and responsibilities of a sensei, all he wanted; those things only partly explained his feelings. When it had seemed like Billy was trying to avenge his imagined murder by viciously attacking a floor lamp, and when the young man had stated that he was a father to him, it had felt like finding out his own feelings were reciprocated.
Perhaps just as importantly, it had made him aware of the nature of said feelings: at some point while they had been hiding from Cobra and the non-existent Order, his apprentice had become more of a foster son.
So now, Storm Shadow was worried to find out that his guess was wrong, worried that Billy might not even be so much as happy to see him. Alternatively, he was also worried that Billy might be attached to the sensei he knew, but that the real, un-brainwashed but unarguably damaged version he'd meet now would not measure up.
It was pure foolishness, and the ninja was beyond irritated with himself for it. Being irritated, however, really didn't change anything.
Billy stopped rocking when he became aware he was doing it. He felt as though his brains had been put in a blender, and he vaguely remembered a lot of things that made no sense at all. He could hear someone just a few feet from him… whoever it was reminded him of Storm Shadow. Suddenly thinking that in most cases, having a ninja close by was probably not a good thing, he opened his eye.
His jaw dropped.
"St… Sensei?" he sputtered. "Wait… are you another thing that's not going to make sense in a minute?"
Storm Shadow smirked. "I'm real," he said. "Glad to hear you almost making sense again."
Billy swallowed. His heart was hammering, and he felt himself turning red in embarrassment over it. Something told him ninjas did not hold much with emotional displays.
"You'd say that even if you weren't," he muttered, more for something to say than anything else.
"Do I need to smack you in the head to prove I'm not an illusion?" Storm Shadow asked. His tone was deadly serious with just a touch of curiosity.
Billy snickered. "No, I think I'd rather just assume you're real for now. I'll reconsider if you sprout wings, just to warn you."
He paused. Storm Shadow waited, in part because it looked like the teenager still wanted to say something and in part because he didn't really know what to say himself.
"I had some really strange dreams," Billy finally said. He glanced around at the corpses. "They drugged me, didn't they?"
"They poisoned you," Storm Shadow corrected. "The antidote sometimes causes hallucinations and delirium; or more precisely, the combination of the poison and the antidote sometimes does."
Billy's eye widened. "Are you saying I was awake?"
Storm Shadow nodded. "As nonsensical as you were, you don't need to be embarrassed. It wasn't your fault."
"What did I do?"
"Well, you did assault that lamp in the corner, and accused it of murdering someone."
The teenager groaned and buried his face in his knees. Storm Shadow chuckled.
"Do you know why these people were after you?" he said. "They thought you were someone else, the son of some crime lord called Tony Vizzori; nothing to do with Cobra at all. You're obviously a true Arashikage: incapable of staying out of trouble."
Billy snorted, his head out of his knees again but not quite meeting the ninja's eyes. "I wish," he muttered.
Storm Shadow smiled at the response. "You are," he said. "Family is not limited to blood. Snake Eyes could not be any more my brother were he my twin."
Billy swallowed. "Does he have any blood relatives?" he asked. "Do you?" he added as if in an afterthought.
Tommy kept his face carefully neutral. "Does it matter?" he said. "He'd still be my brother if he had fifty others."
Billy finally looked straight at him, smiling. "You haven't changed much. Are you sure you're not still brainwashed? You don't still believe in the Order, right?"
"Nope," he replied, grinning. "You might eventually get a new brother who does, if he ever comes to his senses and agrees to train, but he also believed Snake Eyes was a werewolf, so…" he trailed off and shrugged.
Billy blinked and chuckled. "Do I get to hear the story behind that?"
"Of course. We can start right now, it will give us something to do while we wait for our ride to the Pit."
Billy's face suddenly looked like that of a kid who'd just been told he was going to Disney World. "We're going to the Pit? For how long? I figured you'd just drive me somewhere!"
"Long enough for a few lessons," Tommy replied, smiling. "Now about that story… You see, Snake Eyes has a pet wolf in the Sierras…"
There you go, General Zargon, I hope the above is satisfactory!
If the line 'Long enough for a few lessons' seems familiar to you, it may be because you remember Obake Obaasan saying something very similar to Alcazar in the seventh issue of the Storm Shadow miniseries. I think Tommy would have similar views on making the most of whatever time you have.
Thank you for reading, and please review!