Author's Notes:

This chapter contains spoilers if you haven't read Arashikage – can't be helped, the events are directly linked. Now that you've been warned… this mostly takes place between chapters 31 and 32 of Arashikage, at a time where Tommy is temporarily clinically dead. Although Snake Eyes running him through was not what killed him, he has been unconscious since and so, is unaware of that.

Chapter 5: Tough Love

Tommy woke up in his old bed, in the house he had shared many years with his father in the Arashikage compound.

Since he'd last been on a battlefield in the Eastern US, this was already a bit of a clue that something beyond the everyday was going on. The fact he felt no pain despite knowing he'd just been run through was also a rather strong hint.

The real deal-sealer, however, was that he was looking at both his parents sitting by his bed, smiling down at him.

His very much dead parents.

He found himself hugging them without being quite conscious of having moved, but he could think of nothing to say, his brains unable to settle on what to make of it all. He was relieved, elated even, at finally being free again. His happiness, however, was seriously tainted with worry; his brother had killed him with that sword strike, possibly without fully intending to since he was desperately defending his girlfriend at the time. Snake Eyes would almost certainly be crippled with guilt; the man tended to be crippled with guilt for the smallest things. And yet, the concern for his brother was but an echoing note against that for his uncle; he had now officially failed to avenge the Hard Master, despite everything he'd done.

The thought helped to steer his emotions firmly in one direction: he had failed, despite everything. The failure was bad enough, but it was the 'everything' that really stung; he had dishonoured himself and his clan, and he'd never be able to make any kind of amends, to restore any of that honour. In all likelihood, he had made things worse for his uncle and possibly for every last one of his ancestors. On the other hand, he was finally done making things worse.

"Why so quiet, boy?" his father asked with a snicker. "Don't tell me you're still trying to figure this out. Honestly, your mother and I should be a dead giveaway."

Tommy didn't have time to come up with an answer to the horrible pun; twin disgusted groans came from the other side of his bed, behind him. Again without being fully aware of actually moving, he found himself facing in that direction, startled there was anybody there at all and in disbelief as to who it appeared to be.

The Hard Master was scowling at his youngest brother across the bed, a fact which did not quell the Insane Master's snickering in the slightest. The Soft Master was looking at Tommy with the same regretful expression he'd had the last time he had seen him alive and free of the Arashikage mindset he had been in at the time of his death.

"You do realize where you are, don't you?" he asked. "You just don't know how to react."

Tommy nodded absently, his eyes fixed on the Hard Master who finally stopped glaring at the Fearless Master and looked back. His scowl deepened and without warning, he slapped his nephew.

"Foolish boy!"

Neither the slap nor the insult registered much, drowned as they were in a powerful surge of relief.

"You're… you're okay!" Tommy stammered.

"Yes!" his uncle snapped. "As you can plainly see, I'm just fine! I absolutely did not need my bone head of a nephew to avenge me!"

"Brother…" the Soft Master started.

"Yes," the Fearless Master interrupted, addressing his son but glaring at the Hard Master. "He's his usual adorable cuddly self, as you can see."

"Can you blame him?" Tommy flared up. "I made a complete mess of everything!"

"You had good intentions," the Soft Master interceded. "You just didn't know…"

The Hard Master cut him off. "He would have if he'd ever LISTENED."

"Can't disagree on this one," the Fearless Master said. "We did try to tell you, Tommy. Remember after that first time you had to kill some soldiers so you and the Cobra Commander could escape? What's the point of calling out to me if you're not going to listen to a thing I say?"

Tommy's eyes widened and he stared blankly at his father, at a loss as to what to say. He remembered the incident very clearly, but as you would expect when addressing a spirit, he had felt more than heard the answer. He could guess now that he had misinterpreted.

"You asked me to help your mind stay strong," his father needlessly reminded him.

"Yes, I know, I…"

"Because you knew you were shaming yourself and the clan, and you wanted to stop, but you were convinced doing so would condemn your uncle to an eternity as a vengeful ghost," the Soft Master interceded.

Ayame bit her lips. She had agreed to let the brothers handle the conversation, and had agreed to their intent on being less than tender. The plan was rough, having been decided on in mere seconds, but it was also very simple and should be easy to follow. Yet the Soft Master had already faltered completely, Tomisaburo was struggling to keep on course… the last thing they needed was for her to get involved and take Tommy's side. They couldn't be gentle, they needed to make a strong impression if they had any hope Tommy's subconscious would retain anything at all. They assumed his conscious mind wouldn't: people nearly always forgot everything when they went back, in some cases going so far as spending the rest of their lives convinced there was no after life.

Of course, all this assumed that the GI Joe medical staff would manage to bring Tommy back and that he would not remain dead. None of them wanted to think of the actual odds, and besides, it didn't really matter: if Tommy stayed dead, they would have eternity to calm him back down from the frenzy he would no doubt be in by the time they were done with him now. Her son's voice brought her mind back to the present.

"Wait," he said, frowning. "I didn't say any of that. How…"

"Do you honestly think we need actual sound waves to hit our ears to hear you?" the Hard Master asked. "Would that be the ashes of our physical ears, or these immaterial ones?" he continued in a mocking tone, pointing at his real looking, but indeed strictly spiritual, ears. "Your 'surface' thoughts were audible to us from the moment you set your mind to talking to us."

"And I very clearly told you to stop, that your uncle was fine, and that you were being an idiot!" the Fearless Master cried out, throwing his arms wide. Ayame had to lean back to avoid being hit by her husband's flailing limbs. She pushed the offending harm out of her way to straighten back up.

"Besides," she said with a smirk, reasoning that a bit of humour would make the conversation more believable for Tommy, "if the Hard Master really had needed you to avenge him, if everything you were doing really had been necessary, what you thought your father was telling you would have been reasonable. Didn't that make you suspicious?"

The Fearless Master pouted at his wife. "I can too say reasonable things."

The Hard Master clenched his teeth. Things were getting off track even quicker than he had feared; he had expected the other three not to be harsh enough for long, but to have already veered into pleasant banter was ridiculous; the boy would not retain any of it. At least Tommy did not seem to be relaxing: he turned to him, looking ready for a tongue lashing.

The Hard Master did not intend to disappoint. He deepened his scowl and forced his voice into a snarling growl. "Speaking of that very occasion, and many others since, would you care to explain how you figured killing for payment was supposed to serve my interests? Ten generations since we decided we were better than trained attack dogs! And YOU ruined it!"

His brothers and sister in law wisely stayed quiet. Even the Fearless Master bit his lips, although he looked like he would have a few choice words to say once Tommy was back in the land of the living. Or once they established he wasn't going back, as the case may be.

The Young Master, however, appeared divided between shame and anger, his brow trembling and his jaw set. Anger quickly won out. "I did what I thought I had to! I put your eternal peace above my honour!"

"You turned your back on everything we taught you and you dishonoured the whole clan! So I ask again, how did you figure this was going to bring me peace? You've just been using this as an excuse to go after the payback YOU wanted! And don't bother claiming you actually hated it and would have stopped long ago if it had been up to you. I don't care if you believe it yourself, it's still a lie! You rationalized your actions with a comfortable illusion of having the moral high ground!"

Thankfully out of Tommy's line of sight, Ayame was now having to physically restrain her husband. How long he'd let her was anybody's guess.

For his part, the son of the Fearless Master was snarling and looking nearly as savage as his father. "You're the one hiding behind a comfortable illusion, Hard Master. You want zero responsibility in what I did, so you convinced yourself you had nothing to do with it! Well you don't need to! It WAS all my fault! And it was FOR you, not because of you! I just didn't want you to end up like Aunt Misao!"

The Hard Master had been, in life, the second scariest person in the clan to the students; second only to his wife, the Goblin Granny. Part of his reputation was due to the swiftness with which he could make you wonder how your various body parts could hurt so much without being broken or otherwise permanently damaged, but the other part was that he could make his voice grow so cold and menacing that you found yourself begging him to just kill you quickly.

Death had not dulled that particular edge at all. "And does it seem to you now like your mission of vengeance was at all necessary for my peace of mind?" he asked, eyes narrowed.

Tommy felt a skin that was not there to hear the icy tone crawl anyway. Despite his current lack of saliva – or throat - he gulped. "I thought you did," he replied lamely.

"You were wrong." The eyes were still narrowed, the tone still chilling. The Hard Master had decided that reason was, as usual, not going to work on his nephew. Given that their time was probably very limited, he couldn't afford to waste any more time on it.

The Young Master attempted a reply. "I…"

"You have wasted your life," the Hard Master cut him off.

"You were our future," the Soft Master added, getting back on what little script they had managed to agree on when they had realized they would be able to talk to Tommy for what they hoped would be a short time. "And now you've ruined everything we've ever worked for. The Arashikage is gone, and it died in shame."

Tommy winced. The words hurt, and the fact they were correct hurt even more.

"This wouldn't be nearly as bad if you hadn't gone and got yourself killed," the Fearless Master remarked. "Corpses suck at reclaiming one's honour."

Tommy's eyes widened. "What about ghosts?" he asked. "If I could…"

The Hard Master's eyebrows shot up and he could have sworn his absent heart skipped a beat. How had he failed to predict the Young Master would, as ever, jump to the worst possible conclusion?

"You know better than that," Ayame scolded, cutting her son off. "If you were a ghost, you'd fixate on something, just like your aunt, and would accomplish nothing for all eternity. Just like your aunt! Listen to yourself," she continued angrily, "you actually got the easy way out; You DIED and now no one can make you fix your mess! And yet you're STILL trying to get out of trouble by accepting some token punishment!"

"To be fair, there's just nothing else he CAN do at this point," her husband pointed out. "And may I say that you're really turning me on right now, dear?" he added, waggling his eyebrows at her. "I love it when you're lecturing."

Three glares from his brothers and his wife brought his mind back to the task at hand. He cleared his throat and turned back to his son. "Your mother is right. You can't fix this and you can't make it better."

"You have cost us and our ancestors any peace of mind we may have ever enjoyed in this eternal life," Ayame added.

"And by failing to perpetuate the clan, you even made absolutely sure that nobody else would redeem you," the Hard Master said with a snarl. "Unless you think Snake Eyes will? You know his first duty is not to us."

Tommy was hugging his knees by this point, clearly miserable. Even better, he was ever so slightly fading. The Soft Master decided it was time to end the conversation on the planned hopeful note.

"He appears to be going back," he said, addressing the others.

Tommy's head shot up. "I'm what?"

Ayame, right on cue, pounced on him. "Looks like you're not getting off easy after all," she said quickly. "Don't you waste this chance, Tomisaburo. Clean your mess."

Tommy's face fell. "How am I supposed to do that? There's too much…"

The Hard Master slapped him again, with as much strength as he ever had in life, giving him the impression that his head should have flown off from the blow.

"Since when is giving up an option?" he thundered.

"At least try. You'll achieve a good deal more that way than if you don't," the Soft Master said. This bit of wisdom was practically gospel when teaching: it got repeated to students time and time again.

"And it's not in your blood to fail," the Fearless Master added, buffing his nails.

Ayame gripped her son's shoulder tighter: it was fading faster now. "You have a chance to make amends. Take it. Just do your best."

"Exactly. I broke the Soft Master's arm, once," the Insane Master mused, "right before he was supposed to teach an advanced sword technique to his apprentice."

The Soft Master scowled at him. "Yes, and you thought the best way to make up for it was to break HIS arm, too."

"It was!" his younger brother insisted. "Point is, I did my best to repair my mistake."

The Hard Master palmed his forehead, distantly marvelling at the fact that even here, Tomisaburo senior could give him a headache.

He turned to yell at Tommy some more, to help impress upon him that his only hope was to live so that the boy would not opt for a ritual suicide – he WAS Ayame's son and had inherited her taste for the dramatic, making it entirely possible that he would indeed decide to wash his dishonour with seppuku like a bloody samurai.

He didn't get the chance: Tommy was gone, back to the realm of the living thanks to the GI Joe's medics. Hopefully, they had managed to make enough of an impression already.

"…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," Tommy told the GI Joe General. They were flying back from Antarctica, where Tommy had helped apprehend the Cobra Commander and Hawk was asking the ninja what his intentions were for the future.

"I intend to follow the same advice now:" Tommy continued. "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."

The Soft Master sighed in relief. Next to him, the Fearless Master was giving his wife a high-five. The Hard Master actually smiled.

"I'm the one who told him corpses suck at making amends," Tommy's father said proudly, buffing his nails. "My boy listens when I talk. Did you hear that? He's obviously going to try and stay alive for as long as he can."

"Tommy would be even less sane than he is if he had ever been in the habit of listening to you, Brother," the Hard Master replied.

Tomisaburo Senior cocked his head, considering, before shrugging. "Yeah, probably. Still, I'm not imagining things, right? He's going to be okay?"

Ayame nodded. "Guilt as a reason to live may not be ideal, but it's far better than guilt as a reason to die."

A thought suddenly struck the Soft Master, who lost his smile and hurriedly turned to his older brother. "You don't think he'll…" he trailed off, unwilling to even voice his concern.

The Hard Master scoffed. "Become a ghost like he suggested while he was dead? No."

"Weren't you listening?" Ayame piped in, smiling. "He said he'd devote the rest of his LIFE."

"And that by doing so, he will have done all he could," the Hard Master added.

The Insane Master positioned himself right in front of the Soft Master, eyes narrowed. "And that's very lucky for you," he said.

The Soft Master frowned right back at his brother. "I've spent every minute since we've seen him back in Mindbender's machine by his side, trying to help. I can't tell how much difference I made, but you know very well that I did my best."

"You didn't break anyone's arm," the Fearless Master pointed out.

The Soft Master's eyes widened, but his little brother didn't quite manage to keep a straight face, thankfully indicating that this particular bit of nonsense was intended as such. "I could go break a few Akai arms," he offered.

The Insane Master's face lit up. "Now you're talking. Let's go, I'm coming with. Now that Tommy's fine, these two can start working on Misao and they'll do that better without me around." And with that, he vanished. The Soft Master blinked, shrugged, and followed; his brother was right, the other two would think better without distractions.

Author's Notes

Thanks for reading!

The incident Fearless Master refers to when he says Tommy asked for help but then failed to listen to him, is depicted in First Blood.

The conversation between Hawk and Storm Shadow is in the last chapter of Arashikage.