Disclaimer: I don't own it. Really. Seriously. Just take my word for it, okay?
He had heard once that all life had sprung from the ocean. It was bitter irony indeed, then, that he would die in it.
Storm Shadow watched as the lights floated slowly away from him. He could almost see the narrow platform where Snake Eyes probably still sat, watching to see if a man summarily stabbed and pushed from a precipice would ever resurface. It would be a long wait, for Storm Shadow was certain that he was about to join the steerage passengers from the Titanic as a lump of anthropomorphic ice. But there were worse ways to die, he mused, than returning to the sea. At least the funeral costs were taken care of this way…
But obviously, this whole returning-to-the-sea thing was not going to end well. The cold had numbed them for the moment, but already the cuts that scored across his chest were beginning to sting in the frigid salt water, and the lights that flashed before his eyes simply couldn't be real.
It was, he supposed, one of the downsides of having a secret underwater base in the Arctic. Undetectable? Yes. Difficult to access? You betcha. But if your ninja gets stabbed and pushed into the water…
Well, it's endgame.
Still, after almost two decades of playing the villain, death seemed almost friendly. There was nothing he couldn't use more than a long, long sleep…
He closed his eyes, and once again, the memories were upon him.
He had spent his youth running from those memories. For the last twenty years he had tried to distract himself with literally anything that had come his way. Ironic that now, when his last moments were upon him, the peace that had eluded him for a lifetime was still just beyond his grasp.
And so now, even as his descent through the water slowed, he could not help but remember.
He was young again, innocent and blameless and just a few weeks past thirteen. He was up late – past his bedtime, he remembered with a wry smile – and creeping down the hallways to his bedroom when he saw that the door to his uncles' study was open just a crack. He tiptoed closer, intending to eavesdrop for only a moment.
"Brother, I notice you've been spending a significant amount of time with our newest pupil." Soft Master had sounded, he remembered, almost as though he had known the answer to the question.
Hard Master had waited a moment before answering. "Snake Eyes is progressing more quickly than I expected," he admitted finally,
"What does that mean, then, for Tomisaburo?" Soft Master asked.
"I think it is more important to consider what it means for us," Hard Master said.
"It means," Hard Master said, "That we must redirect our focus."
Storm Shadow still remembered how he'd stumbled back from the doorway as though he'd been punched in the gut. Redirect their focus? Where? Away from him? Towards…Snake Eyes?
It had set his head reeling, alternately awestruck and devastated. Where had he lagged behind? Was this fixable? Or had his talent finally failed him?
He hadn't felt well that night, and the next day was no better. He found himself watching Hard Master closely…too closely. In a way, it felt terrible. How could he so deeply distrust the man who'd raised him? What kind of monster was he? Yet, for all the guilt that he felt, most could be easily reasoned away. This was protection, he finally decided, against a storm that he hoped would never come.
Yet, as the day progressed, he could see that it was already upon him.
He could feel Hard Master's disapproving stare each time he bested Snake Eyes. He didn't understand why it was bad, necessarily. He was giving it his all, and he was winning. Somewhere, he treasured the notion that this might change his uncle's mind…
His hopes were dashed each time Hard Master pulled Snake Eyes aside, each time his uncle smiled approvingly upon Snake Eyes's technique. With each compliment and stroke to the other boy's ego, Storm Shadow felt himself crack. When that day's training ended, it was all he could do not to leave the field sobbing like child half his age.
Yet he'd sought out his uncle, hoping that Hard Master would set everything right. Think how unlikely it is, his mind had whispered seductively, that he would play favorites. He's a good man, a good person. This is certainly below him.
"Uncle, wait!" Hard Master had stopped and turned, waiting for the boy.
"Is something wrong, Tomi?"
"I heard you talking last night," he replied.
"I heard you as well," Hard Master said.
Storm Shadow remembered smiling sheepishly. He didn't do it often anymore: not that there was nothing to be sheepish about, but simply that he no longer felt embarrassed. Perhaps, he mused, the human spirit was not meant to survive half a lifetime of killing. But then, twenty years back, mere eavesdropping had been enough to make him blush.
Now that he was dying, he couldn't help but smile fondly at the precious innocence of it all.
"You said…you said that you wanted to redirect your focus to Snake Eyes," he stammered.
"That wasn't meant for you to hear," Hard Master said. "I did not soften my words."
"But…it's not true, is it?" Storm Shadow had searched his uncle's face, but Hard Master had made no reply. "Is he really better than me, or is it because I don't practice the way I should? Because if I need to, I can give something up-"
Hard Master had silenced him with a simple hand on his shoulder. "Tomi, Snake Eyes is very talented. Some day, he will be better than all of us."
"But…I'm still important, right?" Now, having played the imperious master a few times himself, Storm Shadow could almost imagine how his uncle had felt. Thirteen is a hard enough age without being told that you were no longer the shining star of your sensei's eye.
But Hard Master, true to his name, had given him the hard truth. "A meritocracy is a hard place to survive and flourish, but it is ultimately the fairest system I can put in place. While you will always be excellent, and I have no doubt that you will be a ninja of international repute, your days alone at the top of the class are over."
"And there's nothing I can do?"
"Nothing. Which reminds me, Tomi, that I don't need to see you for early morning training," Hard Master said. "Now, I must be going."
Now, in his old age, Storm Shadow knew a few things about crimes of passion. That they were not the same as premeditated murder, that his youth at the time made it almost certain that any lawyer worth his pretentious education could have gotten him off. It was a comforting, almost absurd thing for a chronic lawbreaker like him to dwell on, but he liked the idea that the law held him in only the slightest shades of accountability, that what he had done was not as wrong as his conscience thought it was.
But, as strange as it sounded, he hadn't seen himself do it, for when he thought back upon that day, he could never quite pinpoint when he'd stabbed his uncle. He knew – knew – he'd done it. Who else could it have been?
But all he remembered was his rage, covering his eyes like a red blindfold…
And when his vision cleared, there was the sword smith's boy, looking shocked. Hard Master himself looked pretty surprised, eyes wide with fear or pain. "Tomi…"
"You need to run. Now."
Already, Storm Shadow had heard cries of outrage. How had this happened? What assassin, in what cruel disguise, had struck down the Hard Master?
And so he ran. He stopped to look back only once, to freeze his childhood home in his mind forever, and noticed Snake Eyes cradling Hard Master's head as he died.
He's an ass-kisser to the end, he'd thought, smiling as he turned away. To this day, Storm Shadow had prided himself on telling it like it was – although, he had to admit, perhaps if he'd kissed up to Snake Eyes a little in that last fight he wouldn't be in this particular jam now.
This little jam…
The thought brought him back to the problem at hand. To tell the truth, there were multiple problems at hand right now. He was shirtless and floating in the Arctic Ocean…there was a stab wound in his shoulder that just wouldn't die…even if he did waste energy and swim to the surface, he had nowhere to go…
And so he resigned himself to his death.
Just as the oxygen deprivation seemed to get the best of him, just as the cold seemed about ready to claim him, just as the bright lights of hypothermia swept down to take him away…
His head broke the surface of the water.
A/N: Storm Shadow's given name is usually Thomas Arashikage. However, he is alternately called Tomisaburo in the Storm Shadow comics, and I figured it would be more appropriate for a boy born and raised in Japan to have a Japanese name.