Author's Notes

I really should be working on the last chapter of Apprentices, but there you have it... another one shot. Sorry. I suddenly had the urge to write this today and I couldn't resist it. At least that's only one day additional delay for my other stories, right?

Seriously though, I hope you do enjoy this one. Please read and review, because feedback makes writers happy. :)


In an apartment located just above a little convenience store in Little Harlem, New York, the Soft Master lay restless in his bed, his mind in turmoil and his heart aching almost as badly as it had eleven years earlier, when his brother had been murdered and he had concluded his nephew had done the deed.

He had acted then in the only way that made sense at the time; if the Young Master could kill his own uncle, nobody else in the clan was safe and just as importantly to his broken hearted younger self, the traitor had to pay. Therefore, the Soft Master had sent the rest of the clan to hunt the only living blood relative he had left; the nephew who had been, up to just a few hours earlier, his pride and joy.

Thankfully, Tomisaburo had escaped. Luck had allowed for his best friend to be the one to find him, and that friend had decided to honour the life debt he owed the Young Master by not only sparing his life but ensuring nobody else in the clan would find him.

The Soft Master had almost killed him on the spot when the young man had confessed to it. And now, eleven years later, he had finally realized that not only had his brother's apprentice's mercy been justified by his debt – that much he had realized right away, thus the young man's survival – it had saved the clan.

Tomisaburo had been innocent, of course, and had been pushed to desperately seek revenge and the chance to clear his name, enough to make him agree to work for the very client he had been so angry to be given in the first place, just to find out the identity of the real murderer.

Eventually, he had been brainwashed; turned into a mind slave, his memory wiped and replaced with lies. This had been three years ago, and Snake Eyes had been trying ever since to bring his brother back to his senses, with no success. The Soft Master had given the younger man nothing but grief and scorn for his efforts, convinced as he was that the Young Master was playing his sword brother for a fool.

Until tonight.

Snake Eyes had erupted into his apartment and roughly shoved a piece of paper at him, every line in his body, every movement, expressing that he would not be ignored. The Soft Master had rolled his eyes and read the message dispassionately before its meaning had come through. He remembered frowning after this first read through, wondering if he had read right, thinking his mind was playing tricks with him. He had read again then, more carefully. The words, written in Snake Eyes' neat hand, floated in his mind now, as clear as if they were still in front of him.

Tommy explained to me today that he had lost hope to ever free me from the Order without killing me, and tried to do just that.

He nipped me in my side, but as soon as he saw me bleed, he stopped. Dropped his sword, even fell on his knees, and said he couldn't do it. He looked devastated, disgusted with himself.

I kneeled too and I gripped his shoulder. I don't even know what I was hoping for, it was just a reflex. He cheered right up and promised not to give up on me again; I think he thought I was back to 'myself' for a moment.

The note ended there; Snake Eyes knew the older man would see the truth hidden in the small sequence of events. Tomisaburo had actually been determined enough to defeat his brother as to hurt him; the Soft Master was quite certain it was the first time since the death of the Hard Master that Tommy had managed to gain the upper hand against Snake Eyes, even temporarily. He had to have been desperate to succeed, and yet, as soon as he had landed one blow, all this determination had evaporated, leaving him completely at a loss.

The Soft Master remembered going through every scenario he could think of that would explain his nephew being so pumped full of adrenaline and so determined to kill as to actually best Snake Eyes, only to be completely undone by a bit of blood, to the point of dropping his weapon and falling to his knees. He remembered trying to fathom a way this could have been a scheme by the Young Master, but it made no sense… Tommy had HAD the advantage in this particular fight and had let it go. The scheme, if there had been one, would have been his speech before he had hurt Snake Eyes.

He remembered dragging his thoughts from one unpleasant place to another, taking a step back in his reasoning for every step forward. He remembered Snake Eyes waiting with his arms crossed, standing perfectly still because he knew it was only a matter of time, he knew all he had to do was wait.

He couldn't remember what he had said when he'd finally been done thinking it through. The words had come out in a jumble anyway; it didn't matter. What mattered was that there was absolutely no way the events described by Snake Eyes made any sense unless the younger man was right about Tommy. Beyond that, it also proved that Tommy was completely incapable of hurting his kin. The Soft Master had once thought of the boy as loyal to a fault… it seemed he had never changed after all.

The ninja master groaned and shifted under his covers, his mind spinning with what to do next, how to rescue his nephew, and how to start fixing his mistakes. Exhaustion eventually won over and he fell into an uneasy sleep.

The young man who had been the Hard Master's last apprentice deposited his burden at the Soft Master's feet and stepped back, looking more than a little nervous.

The older man felt his upper lip curl as he looked at the unconscious form. The Young Master was covered in cuts and bruises, obviously having been on the losing side of a drawn out fight against his brother.

But he was alive, while the Hard Master was not. The Soft Master wasn't conscious that he had unsheathed his sword until he heard the young shinobi talk. "You said you'd hear him out, Soft Master."

The one remaining leader of the Arashikage narrowed his eyes but sheathed his weapon again. His brother's student was right, of course. It made no sense not to let the boy explain himself; if nothing else, a confession from the murderous traitor would appease the Hard Master's widow, who was refusing to see the truth.

"Wake him up," he ordered.

The younger man bent down towards his former sword brother and pinched a spot on his neck. The Young Master's eyes flew open and their owner was on his feet nearly instantly, running for the door. The Soft Master tackled him and restrained him, pinning him to the ground.

The traitor, incredibly, chose to plead. "Uncle, please listen…"

"You have no right to call me that, murderer, and you will receive no mercy from me."

"No!" the pinned shinobi cried out, panic evident in his voice. "Wait, please! It wasn't me! I'm sorry I didn't catch the arrow, I am SO sorry, but…"

The Soft Master snarled and tightened his hold, eliciting a pained groan. "Enough lies. Admit your guilt, and I might make your death an easy one."

"Soft Master, I beg you… LISTEN! I didn't kill him! How can you even think I'd hurt one of us? If you kill me, the Hard Master will never be avenged!" The boy's pitch was rising as he edged closer and closer to complete panic.

"You used to know better than to fear death so much," the Soft Master growled. "Another sign that you are not the same boy we raised, or that you are faking. One last chance, Young Master. If you force me to do this without admitting your guilt, you will tear what is left of the clan apart. It's clear you couldn't care less, but rest assured that I will make you pay for it dearly."

"Master…" the Hard Master's apprentice started.

"Who thinks I'm innocent?" the Young Master interrupted. Much to the Soft Master's satisfaction, he was dropping the fearful act already.

"The very woman you made a widow will most certainly be the most vocal opponent to your execution," the Soft Master spat. "Don't think it will save you. Grief has blinded her; she cannot face more loss than that of her husband. Now TALK." He tightened his hold a bit more. The younger ninja groaned in pain; the hold was among the most painful ones taught and used by the clan.

"Master…!" Tommy's former friend started again.

"Shut up," the Young Master suddenly snarled at his sword brother. "This is YOUR fault! You just had to have a family of your own again, didn't you? Enough to steal mine! Well, congratulations, you win! Keep them!" he spat towards his former friend then, twisting his head to do so. "You can thank the Hard Master; he saved your life with his chameleon's mantle. YOU were meant to die, not HIM! Your life was mine ever since I saved it, it was mine to take back when I wished!"

The blond ninja stepped back, eyes wide. The Soft Master had heard enough. True to his words, he made it quick, snapping the murderer's neck and letting the body fall limply on the floor.

The Soft Master woke up with a start and lay shivering for a long time.

"Just a dream …"

The voice startled him. Realizing it was his own, he sighed and got up; he didn't think he could sleep anymore, and he didn't think he wanted to.

It had indeed been just a dream, but the accuracy was disturbing; if Snake Eyes had brought Tommy back, the Soft Master was fairly certain that things would have played out exactly the way his subconscious had imagined.

Tommy would not have come without a fight because he was desperate to avenge the Hard Master and clear his name, and he would have known that once he was brought in, his chances of survival were slim to none. He would have also assumed that once he was dead, the Hard Master would never be avenged, everyone in the clan believing that they had done just that by killing his nephew.

And once he'd had him, the Soft Master would not have been able to actually believe a word Tomisaburo said to claim his innocence. He would have demanded what he thought was the truth, and if Tommy had found out at any point that Obake Obaasan believed he was innocent, he would have at least known that he was not the only one to know the Hard Master's death was not avenged by his own.

So, once Tommy knew his uncle would be avenged, and once he realized he was absolutely not going to convince his other uncle of his innocence and was therefore going to die, if he was told that a confession would prevent trouble within the clan AND at least save him from a particularly painful death, what would he do?

The only thing that made sense: confess. And while he was at it, make a good show of it so his friend would be convinced too. And then, die at his uncle's hand knowing that his aunt's opinion would not change in the least and assuming that she would take over the vendetta from there.

The Soft Master shivered again. His wandering feet had taken him to the kitchen; he poured himself a glass of water, sat at the table and drank slowly, absently.

Luck. Luck was all that had saved Tommy from his uncle's stupidity. Luck that Snake Eyes had been the one to find him, and luck that his friend had been able to use his life debt to talk himself into not only letting him live but doing his best to make sure nobody else killed him, either.

Luck could only help so much, however… Tommy was alive, but what was really left of him? The Soft Master had to free him from Cobra; this whole situation was in good part his fault, the least he could do was fix it.

And he would do precisely that if it was the last thing he did.