More former Arashikage bonuses, in three parts again (I seem to have a thing for the number 3). Many thanks again to all the reviewers who agreed to share this by letting me post it.
Between the fact he actually thinks Tommy murdered the Hard Master and the fact he ordered the clan to kill or capture him, the Soft Master was not really gaining any fans with Arashikage for a while. I felt like redeeming him a little by sharing how all this looks like from his point of view – or at least how the death of his brother looked and felt like. So, this is in the Soft Master's point of view.
I still don't own GI Joe.
The arrow was so fast I only saw a blur right until it embedded itself in the wall opposite that through which it had entered the dojo.
In contrast, the spray of blood that follows it as it exits my brother's body seems to be moving slower than physics would allow. Every drop, every detail stands out. I even note a white silhouette running off outside, from catching a glimpse of it through the window. I also notice every scratch on the wall, every cluster of fibre in the screen behind my brother, and my brother's student's head turning first to the window and then to his Sensei.
I hear myself screaming my brother's name and before I know I've moved, I'm cradling him in my arms and the World resumes its normal speed. He feels even smaller than usual… I was teasing him just yesterday about being nothing but skin and bone; he had responded, as usual, by offering to punch my wannabe sumo belly to demonstrate he also had muscles.
I try to press against the wound to stop the blood, but he's hardly bleeding at all. He puts one of his hands on mine and we lock eyes.
"No good," he mutters. "Heart. Phoenix."
My eyes fill with tears and I nod. The arrow went through his heart and he's only holding on because he's put himself in a phoenix trance.
Once I've nodded, he starts muttering again.
"Don't be too hard on my nephew." I frown in puzzlement, as much at the message as at the fact he's saying it so well, as though it was vitally important that I catch and understand every word. "He'll have to live a lie to find the truth."
"Tommy?" I ask. "Why would I…"
I stop with my question unfinished. The Hard Master will not answer: the incomprehensible request for ME not to be too hard on Tommy, when he used to always complain I was too lenient with our nephew, were his last words. I'm staring into eyes that can no longer see me: the Phoenix trance only bought him less than a minute... my brother is dead.
The phrase repeats itself in my mind in a loop, as if to make up for the fact none of the words in it are strong enough to convey what just happened. I gather his thin frame against my chest, not so much hugging him as trying to get some comfort myself. I'm shaking with sobs, and it almost feels like he's moving himself.
My brother… ah! A lot of people have brothers; I had a second half. We completed each other in every way: our strengths, weaknesses, personalities... all in perfect balance. Without him, I'm less than half of what I was.
I can't do this: I can't continue on alone, I can't lead without him. Even now, I don't know what to do. I don't even understand what he tried so hard to tell me with his last breath.
Dead. He's dead, he's gone, I've lost him. The expression he has now is the last one he'll make on his own. No more scowls for me to snicker at, no more rare smiles for Tommy to stare at in disbelief. He'll never teach again, he'll never figure out what to do and how, he'll never explain anything to anyone ever again.
My hands close in fists under him and I deposit him on the floor. I wipe at my eyes to clear my vision and look around, searching for a clue that will tell me who did this. I don't care right now that my brother always discouraged revenge, I want to know who was the idiot who killed him and thought he'd get away with it. My eyes fall on the arrow and as my brains register that my brother was killed by an arrow that went through a solid wall, at an angle from which my brother would not have been visible through the window, I spot the Arashikage symbol on the shaft.
It feels as though the arrow went through my heart as well when things click into place.
There is only one archer who can locate and hit targets by sound only, through solid walls. The same archer who is also the only one to use our branded arrows – the ones he demanded to have, the ones nobody else is allowed to use because our smith wants as few of them to engrave as possible. The same archer who we've been so worried would eventually snap and leave us, because in all honesty, anyone else would have long ago. The same man I saw running off right after the arrow was shot. The same man my brother just asked me to forgive.
Our nephew... for all intents and purposes, our surrogate son. We spent more time with him while he was growing up than his father did. The Hard Master was the one who insisted we stopped trying to convince him to cheat on his seeing ear training and just give him official breaks. I was the one who punished the kids who went out of their way to make him trip or walk into things during that same training.
I was the one who kept meeting with his school director to explain why he was more often absent than present in class. My brother came up with the excuses and I delivered them.
His father once took off to the home of an enemy clan after an attack against us, and the Hard Master and I were the ones to forcibly keep his frantic 14 year old son from following.
It was I who recovered his medals from the uniform he just tossed into his bag when he changed into his mourning robes upon coming back from the War. I still have them because he never so much as enquired about them. It was my brother who tried everything to get him home faster so he could attend the funeral and who spent weeks trying to figure out a way to avoid having to make him earn wages – both efforts failed, but it was not for lack of trying.
"Tommy," I breathe, "how could you…?"
Bits of answers flash in my mind: countless things that made Tommy angry (it was never particularly difficult to do), ranging from being made to eat junk food like all the other kids at a birthday party for one of his classmates to the latest clash about our hiring criminal clients; several incidents where my brother was cold to him, because he didn't know how else to act; and, finally, all too many occasions where Tommy demonstrated he was, after all, his father's son: quick to anger, impetuous, and not one to shy away from violence.
Tommy grew up being treated almost like a Prince – he was the only heir, and as such, he got a lot of attention. He was very good, and that meant this attention translated into all too many praises and too much admiration. The main reason the Hard Master was always so strict with him was to balance the feedback he got and try to avoid his becoming too full of himself. It's debatable whether it worked – Tommy could sometimes go from thinking he was the greatest person in the World to thinking he was worthless and back all within the space of ten minutes.
He also grew up with the knowledge he would eventually lead the clan, and translated that for himself as an incredible amount of pressure: I found out just recently that he honestly thought his not being the best was completely unacceptable and put the clan in danger. And what did the Hard Master do in the past couple of years? Caused him to stop learning and improving, turned him into an employee at the service of strangers, taught a student who eventually defeated Tommy in a duel, went out of his way to ensure Tommy knew this defeat was inevitable, and just now, tried to talk this student into helping to lead the clan.
The question of how Tommy could do this eventually morphs into wondering how we didn't see it coming. Again, the answer presents itself easily: up to tonight, the boy had been loyal to a fault. I would have forgiven him in a heartbeat if he'd finally caved in to one of the other clans and left us. I would not have even been angry with him if he'd pull his first teacher's trick and faked his death to get away for a while. He never did either, however: he just kept going, ignoring the other clans making fun of him, working himself into exhaustion just because we asked him to, and using leftover energy he didn't actually have left over to try and not be an embarrassment to us by training until he collapsed. As if he could have ever embarrassed us, as if he wasn't our pride and joy.
But everybody has a breaking point. The Young Master was already stretched to the limit by what we were imposing on him and what he was imposing on himself; he was already hurt by the false idea that his friend was his uncle's favourite and was replacing him in my brother's heart; he was already angry with that friend for berating him about killing rodents, for refusing to earn wages and just for being so good; he was still angry with us for giving him criminal clients because as much as we had tried to explain it, he couldn't believe we had done it for his own good.
And tonight, he heard us talk to his brother. He heard us begging him to stay, offering him a position of authority. My brother even almost made it sound like he would be the real head of the clan with the Young Master as a figurehead. It was deceptive of him: that was never the intent. We wanted Tommy's brother to assist him, not replace him. But replacing him WAS precisely what the Young Master's overactive imagination and paranoia feared we wanted, and ironically, he fell for the deception aimed at his brother.
So, he snapped. I understand it completely – I've been worried he would leave for a long time and I now dearly wish he had, instead of all the resentment, all the anger just building up until this explosion. I understand it, but I can't forgive him.
I clench my teeth. My whole family died tonight – my brother and I finally finished killing everything that was our nephew, and the being that we left in his place has murdered my brother in return. I now need to make sure there are no other victims.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know that the order I'm about to give is more about revenge – revenge for my brother and for my own broken heart – than about protecting the people who now only have me to look up to. I dismiss the thought. My brother and I completed each other precisely because we were different: I'm emotional where he was rational; I still believe in everything I was raised to believe in, where he could never be bothered with the sealing ceremonies; he never believed in vengeance, and although I used to think I didn't either, it turns out that I do.
My brother's student's voice cuts through my thoughts.
"Tommy?" He asks. "You don't think…?"
Tommy… he's not Tommy. Tomisaburo is just as dead as the Hard Master, and the monster he's become has no right to my affection.
"Who else could shoot with such precision?" I ask bitterly. "Who else would have access to his arrows? The Young Master's guilt would be obvious even if we hadn't seen him running away. Bring him to me, alive or not. The rest of the clan will receive the same instructions."