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To The New Me

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He wakes up in a blurred haze of tunnelled sight. It clears quickly, the edges bright and solid, vivid in his eye. He’s staring at a… something. A ceiling. Maybe. He isn’t entirely sure. He tries to move his right arm and fails, curses. Then the left. It lifts from the hard mattress beneath him and flops uselessly back down. He makes a face. He isn’t sure what face he makes, but he makes it.

With a steadying breath, he cranes his neck to glance around the room. A dull pain buzzes along his nerves but it feels distant, far-off, and is easily ignored. The world around him looks like the inside of a cave. He doesn’t like caves—doesn’t know why , but doesn’t like them. There’s a clenching in his chest, a tight constricting of… something , and suddenly he wants to be anywhere but here.

Wherever ‘here’ is.

An old man with silver hair is standing over him, red eye cutting through the darkness like the haunting glow of… of another something. Words are failing him, it seems, and he isn’t sure whether it’s a symptom of his injuries or not. That old, wrinkled face watches him carefully, unnervingly. He tries to sit up but can’t, ends up flailing in place uselessly, and the action pulls at the threads of nerves on his right side.

“I wouldn’t,” the old man mutters, turning away. “If you move around, you’ll bleed to death.”

Oh. Okay. He decidedly does not try that again. He looks, though, at the unresponsive right half of his body. There’s something covering his right arm, something wrapped around his body, and he blinks. The arm beneath it won’t really move, but it’s there. He thinks it’s there. And if it’s not…

If it’s not, he can’t bring himself to care.

He’s quickly coming to realize that he doesn’t care about anything, really. No strong feelings come over him, and a deep delve into his thoughts brings up nothing. Maybe he should be concerned about that, but he’s not. He’s not a lot of things. A blank slate, maybe. And maybe that’s okay.

At the very least, he doesn’t want to die. It’s not much, but it’s something to latch onto.

“Who are you?” he asks, watching the old man skulk slowly across the stone floor.

“Madara Uchiha,” comes the easy answer. Soon, old man Madara is seated in a chair looking something like a throne, a bit pretentious for his taste, but that’s okay.

He opens his mouth again and hesitates. This man… must know him, right? That’s his reasoning when he asks, “My name?”

The old man closes his eye and leans his head against the back of the chair. “I’ll ask you if you last long enough.”

Oh. So this man… doesn’t know him, then. He lets out a shuddering breath and raises a wobbly left hand to his head, wincing. It hurts. Everything does, now that his nerves are waking up, now that the world is registering a bit more clearly. He’s been injured, but somehow he is still alive. Madara doesn’t seem to think it’s a guarantee he’ll stay that way, but he remains strangely optimistic.

He doesn’t remember anything. And that’s okay. He feels that if it’s so easy to forget then it may not be worth remembering. A name would be nice, though. Something to call himself. Something to be called by others.

Evidently, the only ‘other’ he sees is Madara. That’s… okay.

At least he’s not alone.


 

Grandpa Madara is a miserable, grumpy old man. And that is okay. He gets used to the constant, senile ramblings of a man long past his prime and becomes practiced at ignoring them. He smiles, testing his legs, bending his knees. Walking has gotten easier with rehabilitation. His right arm is still, well… It’s a bit useless. Just a bit. It moves now, which is a plus, and he’s decided to count that as progress.

The creatures in Madara’s company are a strange bunch. He doesn’t know their names, or if they have any, but he’s taken to calling the annoying one Swirly. It has a strange, distinct pattern across its body that justifies the nickname, and it sticks.

He grins, bouncing on his weak leg, running and jumping and showing off to his small audience of two. He’s proud of his progress, even if he has a long way to go, and he places his hands on his hips, chin up as Swirly claps and cheers.

“Look at you, look at you!”

“Not too bad, eh?”

Suddenly there are white arms around him in a bone-crushing hug. He feels himself flush, embarrassed and flailing and trying to get the weird creature off of him, but he doesn’t hate it. The recognition is strangely nice. He doesn’t get it from Grandpa Madara, and not so enthusiastically from the other artificial human… thing. But Swirly is weirdly supportive.

Even if he asks crude, uncomfortable questions every now and then.

When finally free, he gasps for air—Swirly’s skin is suffocating —and moves away, pouting at the man-creature. Swirly is unperturbed. As always.

Exercising his arm is a task and a half, because honestly, the weird cells grafted onto him are a bit… weak. Pathetically weak. But the entrance is blocked and there’s not much else to do around there. He doesn’t have to eat, and it makes him wonder if he’s actually just… another one of those guys. Another fake human. He hasn’t seen himself yet, doesn’t know what he looks like. But his right arm is white and so is his chest. The rest of him, from what he sees, is more similar to Grandpa Madara. Human. Well, if Grandpa Madara really is human and not a Death God. Sometimes he wonders.

He trains because there’s nothing better to do. From what he’s gathered from Grandpa’s regular tangents, Grandpa wants him to fulfill a dream. It’s a dream of world peace, or something like that. It’s a dream to make the perfect world, and it feels like a heavy weight on his shoulders. He’s willing to carry that weight, though—for Grandpa. For an old man with little time left, so that he doesn’t die with regret.

At the same time, he doesn’t know what’s so wrong with the world that it needs that level of fixing. He hasn’t seen much and doesn’t remember the world beyond the cave, but what he knows is positive and bright. He has the support of the strange pair guiding his rehabilitation, and he has the ever-miserable, somewhat-terrible old man for company. So, he doesn’t know what’s out there or what Grandpa wants to fix so badly, but he does know that he’ll find out one day. He’s not looking forward to that day.

Aware or not, he likes to think that Grandpa’s dream is a good one—that he wants nothing more than to make people happy. That feels like a good dream.

Grandpa is sleeping. Grandpa’s always sleeping. And that… that’s okay. Grandpa needs that rest. He doesn’t have long.

That’s okay. It is. It has to be .


 

He realizes he’s curled up on the bed with his knees to his chest, staring vacantly at the wall, and pouts. Lately, he’s been doing a lot of ruminating, which is weird for him. He’s not the type to dwell, or he doesn’t think that he is.

Suddenly, Swirly’s face pops into view, taking up the full field of his vision. He sputters and scrabbles back, cursing as his arm melts against the weight of his body, and then he’s left glaring at the puddle of no-good-useless-piece-of-crap arm on the bed sheets. Then he turns his glare on Swirly.

“Don’t do that!”

Swirly’s head cocks to the side, looking between the boy and the puddle. “What’d I do?”

“You—” He narrows his eye and sighs, carding his left hand through his hair. “Nevermind. Forget it.”

“You’re so sad, sad, sad. Why is that?”

“I’m not sad ,” he insists, averting his eye to hide his pout. “I’m just… thinking.”

Swirly nods. “Ah, yes. Thinking. I think a lot, too, sometimes.”

“About what?”

“Human defecation,” he says, completely serious as he brings a hand up to his—chin? Chin—and hums. “I have many questions.”

He makes a face and leans away because this is not a conversation he wants to have again. “You’re disgusting, you know that?”

“You?”

“Hm?”

“What do you think about?”

“Oh.” He blinks, tilts his head and pokes at the puddle of arm goo pooled next to him. It feels gross, and even more gross when he remembers that this is his arm , and he wipes his finger on his shorts. “I was… thinking about names.”

Swirly tilts his head. “Names?”

“Do you have one?” he asks quickly, eyes snapping up to the faceless white… er, face . As he awaits an answer, he starts to feel strangely embarrassed and stares down into his lap, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’ve been calling you Swirly all this time, I never thought to ask… I don’t have one, I don’t think. A name. I was trying to think one up, but I don’t have any, er… points of reference? Except Grandpa Madara.”

Swirly stares at him long and hard and he hates it when swirly does that. There is no face watching at him, no eyes or mouth or—or anything and it's like being silently judged by a mask. That feels mildly insulting. Somehow.

He inches away, back pressed against the edge of the bed. “Just—forget I asked, okay? Jeez.”

“Tobi.”

“Huh?”

“Tobi!” Swirly’s arms shoot up into the air with a happy cheer, all flailing and excited. Then, suddenly, those arms are around him and he struggles and sputters but his efforts are futile. “You can be Tobi, and I’ll keep Swirly! How’s that?”

He blinks and his struggles cease. He stares at the weird artificial human hanging off of him and feels something bubbling in his stomach. Tobi… that’s Swirly’s real name? And he’s just… giving it up? “You sure?”

“Very sure! Totally sure!”

Huh. He would give up his name, just like that? Like it meant nothing…

Why did that make him feel cozy and warm?


 

What is this feeling?

He stares down at the motionless corpse of a withered old man and everything feels cold. His breaths come out in frantic pants and a haze clouds the edges of his vision. Grandpa looked fine, up until a moment ago, up until those white things detached from the Gedo Statue. There was a speech at the end, too. Grandpa always has to get in a good monologue about peace.

There’s nothing now. No breath, no heartbeat. Madara is cold and motionless in his throne, the zetsu all gathered around.

Tobi can’t dwell. He has a dream to see to. He knows that. He knows that, but he can’t pry himself away. It hurts and it shouldn’t. His wounds are healed. The foreign cells that make up the right half of his body are strong and practiced. There’s no reason to feel pain.

There’s no reason, but he does.

Grandpa Madara was not a good man. Tobi knows this. He understands, but as he stares down at the shell of the man who saved him, all he can feel is lonely.

He feels Swirly come up beside him but doesn’t look. Breathe , Tobi tells himself, because he seems to have forgotten. He scrubs at the tears falling from his eye. “What—” He swallows. “What do we do with him?”

“Ah?”

He asks, because he doesn’t know. “What do people usually do when someone dies?”

“Hmmm…” Swirly cocks his head to the side, staring blankly at the body. “Who knows?”

“We could eat him?” Zetsu offers.

Tobi glares. It’s a hard glare, one that conveys what he thinks of that .

“We could leave him,” Swirly offers next.

“That seems…” Cold, he wants to say, but he’s not sure what else they would do.

It takes Tobi a while to compose himself well enough to move Grandpa. He takes the body carefully in his arms, carries it over to the bed, and pulls the covers up to his shoulders. Like that, Grandpa just looks like he’s sleeping. It’s the only comfort he can find.

“Hey,” he calls, and the creatures he’s come to consider friends turn to him, “could you watch over him for a while?”

Swirly gasps. “You’re leaving?”

He nods.

“But why? Why-why-why?”

“Because,” he breathes, looking down at his hands, one so very discoloured, so similar to the zetsu that Grandpa made, “I can’t stay here. I feel like I’ll go crazy if I do.”

“Oh. Okay!”

Tobi lets out a soft snort and shakes his head. Of course Swirly would be so easy to convince. The other zetsu don’t protest as he steps over to the boulder sealing the entrance. He sucks in a breath, steadies himself, and slams his fist into the rock. A web of cracks spread out from the impact and the pieces crumble to the ground. He winces, recoils as a blinding light hits his eye. The world has never looked so bright.

He steps out into the world and feels the wind on his cheeks. The scent of rain calms his trembling body and he shivers. Clothes have never been something he’s needed. Beyond his shorts, he’s gone without ever clothing since he woke up. He’s starting to wonder if maybe he should find some, and he knows Grandpa probably has some inside, but he decides against it.

Going back inside is not an option. Tobi won’t look back. Looking back will make him hesitate.

He steps forward. His foot hits the grass, and the world becomes real.


 

Tobi will return home eventually. He’s decided that much. He doesn’t know when, but he will. He’ll need to go back to tell Grandpa Madara that his dream’s been met, after all. And he knows that, as annoying as they can sometimes be, he’ll miss Swirly and the zetsu immensely. They’ve been… friends. His only friends, the only ones he’s ever known. They mean the world to him.

So Tobi will return, but first, he wants to see what it’s like outside Grandpa’s little protective bubble.

Reality is cold and harsh. His first hint of that is when he looks at himself in a stream. Tobi doesn’t need to eat, not anymore. The foreign cells that make up a good chunk of his torso see to that. But he finds that he gets thirsty out in the real world, if only because his throat becomes parched. He goes to take a drink and finds something scary staring back at him.

Tobi has never seen his face before. He knows that one of his eyes is missing, that there are scars on his face. But there’s a very big difference between knowing and seeing . He takes in the empty, sunken eye socket and the bumps and ridges of his skin and he hates it . It feels… weird. Wrong. This isn’t what he’s supposed to look like, no, he looks—

Looks like what, exactly?

Tobi is a practical person, he thinks. He’s not a creative person. He’s not, but he tries, and he thinks that what he comes up with is not too bad considering he hasn’t fully honed the fine motor skills of his right hand.

The mask he carves is crude and rudimentary, but it’ll do. He dawns it proudly, knowing what it’ll help him to hide away. He’s not ashamed of how he looks. Injury happens. Scars happen.

But he wishes he had an eye, at the very least, to make him feel whole again.


 

Tobi is proud to note that the new mask he bought—well, stole —from a stall in the market of his last village visit is a marked improvement from the crappy wooden one he carved in the forest when he first set out. It’s white and blank with a few black markings on the front, but he doesn’t really care what it looks like. What draws him to it is its singular eye hole on the right side. No other masks he’s seen have ever had only one. He isn’t sure why they would , because most people have two damn eyes. But that’s what he likes about it. It feels like it’s made for him.

As it turns out, the world isn’t as dark and miserable as Grandpa Madara boasted it to be. At the start, it was terrifying, sure. Tobi was thrust into a world of sights and sounds that he could only dream of, to realizations like the scars on his face that only made him hate himself. But time heals all, he’s coming to find, because the more time that passes, the easier it is to live with. He wanders villages and looks around at the smiling faces of civilians. He smells the sweet aroma of hot foods he’s never tried and takes in sights too vivid for his mind to ever conjure on its own.

The world is not terrible. It’s not perfect, but it’s not as bad as Grandpa said. Tobi is convinced of that.

He wanders his way out of town and back into the forest. Tobi has no money, and jobs are a concept he doesn’t fully understand, so most of what he owns—which, to be fair, is very little—comes from unrepentant theft. He’s procured a map, though he doesn’t really know how to read it. One of the people he asked in town told him that they were in Fire Country, though, which puts him somewhere in the middle of the map.

Now if only he could find out where in Fire Country he was, he’d be all set.


 

Tobi doesn’t like conflict. He watches from the trees as a bunch of men surround a small boy—a child perhaps around his own age. The boy backs into a cliff face, kunai in hand, braced for whatever the men are going to throw at him. But his body is bloodied and weak, and he’s one to their many. He’s a boy, a child, fighting a losing battle. It’s hard to watch.

So hard, in fact, that when the boy goes down, Tobi goes along with him.

Tobi swoops across the field in a flurry of black robes—because he’s proud to note that he has clothes now, too—and his eye gleans red. The moment he activates his sharingan, the world becomes just a little clearer. He can see everything of the enemy, predict their movements from the slight tells of their bodies, and it’s amazing. Tobi hasn’t fought. He’s sparred with the zetsu, with Swirly, but hasn’t fought.

He realizes how fast he’s gotten while watching their bodies crumple at his feet.

They’re unconscious, not dead. He’s not sure Grandpa Madara would approve if he killed anyone. Then again, Grandpa Madara was a bit of a trash bag, so anything is possible. But Tobi would have been disappointed in himself, would have felt like a hypocrite if he tried to create a perfect world after taking lives, and that is enough.

He releases a heavy breath and spins around, taking a knee next to the prone figure of the boy. There’s an eye watching him, dark and vast like an endless pit, and he’s surprised to note that the kid’s still awake.

“You okay?” he asks, words muffled by the mask, and he realizes belatedly that no, no this kid isn’t. The boy’s bleeding, leg twisted and contorted in a way that no leg should ever be. Tobi looks at this stranger and sees himself.

It’s hard not to be sympathetic.

With a trembling hand, the boy raises the kunai in warning. His hold is unsteady, though, and it comes off as little more than an empty threat.

Tobi arches a brow, not that the kid is able to see from beyond the mask. “I’m not gonna hurt you, jeez.” He gestures vaguely to the mess of bodies around them. “You see this? You should be thanking me.”

The boy’s eye narrows. Suspicion is clearly a thing this guy knows well. “Wh-who are you?”

“Tobi,” he answers simply, reaching out as he judges the best angle to lift the kid up. He stops when he sees the flinch, pouting. “Put the weapon down, Stupid. I’m trying to help.”

The boy’s eye darts around his body, searching for, er… something . Tobi isn’t quite able to work out what that ‘something’ is.

“What’s your affiliation?”

“Huh?” It’s then that he notices the symbol on the metal headband the kid’s sporting and something clicks. He looks around at the bodies to see that they, too, have headbands like those. But theirs have a different symbol. Headbands, kunai, and he saw shuriken earlier… “Oh. Um. I’m not a ninja.”

The boy twitches. “No?”

“I don’t think?” he tries, reaching for some sort of answer. As far as he knows, he isn’t associated with any ninja villages. He only knows about them in passing, through word of mouth in the towns that he visited. “Look—just shut up and stop moving, Idiot. You’re bleedin’ all over the place.”

Tobi’s surprised when the kid actually allows himself to be picked up. Soon Tobi’s on his feet, balancing himself with a heavy weight in his arms. Something feels weirdly nostalgic about all of this, oddly right , but he isn’t sure what. But that feeling is there, a warm rush through his body as he adjusts his burden and heads off the battlefield.

He feels a strange sort of pride in bringing that boy to safety, and he doesn’t know why.


 

Tobi isn’t so good at the whole ‘survival’ thing, he admits. In his defense, he doesn’t need to eat and any damage done to the right side of his body can just be reformed because the cells that make him up are convenient like that. So when it comes to gathering food and treating wounds, he’s pretty useless. And, well, that’s okay. Everyone has their weaknesses, right?

He feels an eye on him as he digs around in the ninja’s medical kit. It’s watching, and it’s judging, and he thinks that the pressure placed upon him is cruel and unusual.

The boy sighs, his head thumping back against the tree that he’s propped up against. “You need to disinfect first,” he mutters, closing his eye. “The big bottle with the blue label.”

Tobi snatches it up with a little “A-ha!” and presents it proudly to the ninja.

There’s another sigh, this one long-suffering. “Fantastic.”

“Now what?”

“You need to apply it.”

“And…” He waits, then frowns. “How do I do that, exactly?”

The boy opens a dark eye, glaring dully at him. “You’ve no idea what you’re doing, do you?”

“Not a clue!”

The third sigh is one of pain. Pure, bone-crushing pain. Pain of the soul, Tobi would think, and he finds it incredibly insulting.

There is a long, painful half hour of treating the ninja’s wounds. Tobi listens to every instruction with incredible care, if he says so himself, and he’s never had to do anything like this before but he’s happy to note that the gauze looks wrapped well, nice and snug and secure. The bleeding stops, or it looks like it stops, and he’s satisfied with that. But they haven’t addressed the leg yet, and if he’s honest, he’s been trying not to look at it.

Tobi sucks in a breath and braces himself. He allows his eye to scroll down and winces. Tobi’s seen a lot in his short existence. After all, he’s missing his own freakin’ arm and a good chunk of his torso. But it’s different on someone else. He sees the leg that’s bent and twisted and crushed and feels completely, utterly helpless. No bandage is going to fix that. Disinfectant is not going to make that leg look any more like a leg.

“Don’t bother,” the boy mutters, quiet and resigned. Tobi looks up to see a dark eye staring vacantly back. “There’s nothing you can do.”

He was afraid of that.

A part of him wonders how long it would take to make the trip home. If he takes the boy there, surely the zetsu can patch him up like they did Tobi, right?

Except that it wasn’t the zetsu that fixed his body. It was Grandpa. And Grandpa is…

Tobi releases a breath and hefts himself up, swaying on his feet. He takes another long look at the boy and considers. Well, the kid is stable. That is more than they could say an hour ago, so he considers it progress. “You eat, right?”

The ninja gives him a look . “What kind of question is that?”

He rolls his eye dramatically and doesn't answer. “I'll find you food. Just stay here and try not to bleed everywhere, okay?” He gestures to himself, his dark robes stained even darker with blood. “Because it's already everywhere .”

“I'm sorry, I'll try to be more considerate the next time I get stabbed.”

They narrow their eyes at one another and say nothing.

Tobi spins around and stomps away, huffing his insults as his search begins. He does his best to look so incredibly put-out by the whole thing, like this is such a burden, but there’s a weird part of him deep down that’s… happy, a bit. Relieved. That boy’s leg… there’s no telling what will happen with it. Despite that, though, his condition is stable and he has the energy to talk back. He’s going to be okay.

Tobi is weirdly grateful for that.


 

He drops his bag onto the ground beside the boy. “Here,” he says, turning away almost immediately. Night’s approaching fast and Tobi, unfortunately, hasn’t quite figured out fires yet. He’s been fine sleeping in the dark, but he doesn’t want the other kid subjected to it, too. Not with injuries like those, not with the risk of his condition turning south and the need for further first-aid as active fears in his mind.

He can do it. It can’t be that hard, right?

Tobi quickly notices the eye on him but doesn’t remark as he starts widdling. He has no doubt the jerk is judging him for this, too. Well, he’s trying! Then he hears rustling from behind. He’s relieved. The jerk is eating. That’s… good. That’s very, very good.

Half an hour in, Tobi gives up. He lets out an annoyed groan and rocks back on his haunches, glaring at the pile of wood with the intensity of a thousand suns. That eye is still on him, still watching, and he turns a narrowed eye on his ‘patient.’

“I tried, okay?!”

The boy looks calm, relaxed in a way that he never did before. He brings his hands together and winces at the pull of the stitches in his abdomen. That is… a hand seal. Maybe.

Suddenly, fire shoots out of the kid's mouth and how did he do that ?!

Within moments, the logs are burning with an easy crackle and pop and all's right with the world.

Tobi's head snaps from the ninja to the fire and back again, and even if his face is hidden, he's pretty sure he gets across the sheer what-the-fuck that he's feeling. No, he knows he does, because the lines around the ninja's eye are soft and fond.

“Ninjutsu,” the boy supplies easily. “It's more convenient than… whatever you were trying to do.”

“But—” His eye narrows. Something doesn't add up. There’s a piece of cloth that covers the lower half of the boy's face. “...But how did you do that without burning your mask?”

The boy shrugs. “Instead of kneading the chakra in my stomach, I—” He stares at Tobi a second and sighs. “It just works.”

Tobi feels mildly insulted and endlessly disappointed.

“You…” The boy shifts back, resting fully against the tree. He hisses as his body settles in place. “You really aren't a shinobi?”

Tobi raised a brow. “I barely know what that is. So no.”

The boy hums. “You fight like one,” he observes simply. “Like a shinobi would.”

“Oh.” Tobi really isn't sure if he should feel complimented or not, so he chooses to ignore the comment altogether. “Hey, Stupid. What's your name, anyway?”

The boy opens his eye and settles it on Tobi with unsaid warnings.

“Hey, I gave away mine!”

“No last name, though.”

“Well, maybe I don't have one!”

The boy rolls his eye dramatically before muttering out a simple, hesitant, “Kakashi.”

Tobi feels something then. It reminds him of the warm, fuzzy feeling he got when Swirly offered up his name, the kind of comfort that settles easily in the pit of his stomach.

He smiles, even though Kakashi can't see.


 

Tobi stands proudly over his charge, arms crossed and chest out, as he makes his bold declaration: “I'm getting you home!”

Kakashi looks skeptical. Kakashi always looks skeptical. “How?”

“I'll carry you,” he says dismissively, dropping down to sit cross-legged before the ninja. “Duh.”

“...Right.” Kakashi heaves his umpteenth sigh and rests back against the tree. He's eaten, slept, and there’s a little more colour to his cheeks. But with his leg so screwed up, he's going nowhere fast. “Do you even know where I'm from?”

“I'm sure you'll tell me.” But Kakashi doesn't take the hint, so Tobi rolls his eye dramatically and lets out a groan. Alright, he can figure it out. He's smart. He looks to Kakashi's headband and traces the engraving with his eye. “It's a leaf. I'm assuming your village is in a forest. And if you're from Fire Country, well. This is the forest.”

Kakashi considers him a moment longer before nodding. “It's a two-day travel.”

Tobi twitches. “Why couldn't you just say that?!”

“Do you really think you can carry me for that long?”

Tobi stiffens. His back slouches as he ducks his head, rubbing at the back of his neck. His right arm isn't perfect. He hasn't yet finished training it for endurance, and if it breaks off now then there's no one there to fix it for him. The zetsu could, but they're back home. And home is a long way off.

But Kakashi is there, and Kakashi has no chance of ever making it back on his own. He can't walk. He can't even get away if he's attacked again.

Tobi can. Sure there are risks, but Tobi still has a chance .

He shifts, turning his back to the ninja, and waves. “Damn straight I can! So hurry the hell up.”

There's silence followed by shifting and a soft, amused snort. He feels arms around his neck and reaches blindly until he manages to latch onto Kakashi's legs, hooking them around his hips, and rises. The weight is familiar, even if last time he was carrying Kakashi in his arms, and it reaffirms his confidence. He can do this. Two days of this is nothing .

Tobi is feeling all sorts of proud of himself. He likes to think that Grandpa would be proud, too. Even if he knows it's not true.

With an exclamation of triumph, he moves through the forest at a moderate pace. Leaves and grass crunch beneath his boots and forest winds carry with them a dew-covered musk. Kakashi's chin is on his shoulder, resting there comfortably, and he's honestly surprised that Kakashi went along with it so easily. He thought that the brat had too much pride.

I stand corrected.

“Hey.”

“Hm?”

He feels the weight on his back shift and twist, and he looks over his shoulder but can't quite make out Kakashi's face. “Why are you going out of your way for me like this?”

“What?”

“It's weird,” Kakashi states bluntly. “We're not even affiliated.”

Tobi huffs and raises his eye heavenward. “I'm not a ninja; that stuff doesn't matter to me.” There's a prodding silence. Kakashi is not satisfied with that. Of course he isn't. He's never satisfied. “I just wanna, okay? I got nowhere to be, and what kind of person leaves someone to die out in the middle of nowhere?”

“A ninja.”

Oh.

Tobi swallows and quicken his pace. This time he doesn't try looking at the boy on his back.


 

Tobi is tired. He doesn't expect to be so completely, utterly exhausted by sunset, but he is. They've been making their way up a merciless hill and he starts to wonder if this is hell. This could actually, really, seriously be hell. Maybe Grandpa Madara really was a Death God. Maybe he's been in hell this whole time.

He tries to hide his relief when the burden is free of his back, resting against a large rock, but he’s pretty sure Kakashi sees right through him. The burn of his shoulders is like some new form of torture and his left arm feels shaky, muscles spasming against painful overuse. With a groan, he slides down the rock next to his companion and closes his eye. Well, at least his right arm doesn’t hurt. The foreign cells have no nerves.

There’s a nudge to his shoulder and he pouts behind his mask. It takes a while for his head to lull to the side, to meet the eye staring back at him.

“Don’t push yourself too hard,” Kakashi says, and it sounds awkward, like this is the first time he’s ever tried being considerate of someone else.

“I’m fine ,” he insists. To push his point, Tobi drops his bag off his shoulder and rummages through it. He pulls out a handful of wildberries and shoves them at Kakashi. “Now shut up and eat, okay?”

Kakashi stares.

He twitches, then shoves them right against his face. “ Eat , Idiot. I know it’s not much… ugh, shit. Okay, just—just give me a few and I’ll try to… hunt, or something. I mean, it can’t be that hard,  right?”

Kakashi pushes the hand—and partially squashed berries—away from his mask and stares hard. He gently leads the hand back to Tobi with silent urges. Concern. “ You eat,” he insists. “You haven’t yet, and you need to keep up your strength.”

Oh. Kakashi’s worried. Tobi doesn’t know how to react to that. He leans away and draws his knees up to his chest, wrapping arms around them, and averts his attention to the grass at their feet. It feels… weird, to be worried about. To be fussed over. Weird and foreign, because Madara certainly never worried about him. Swirly… Swirly didn’t worry so much as flail. This was the first time.

He wants to assure Kakashi that he is fine, that he doesn’t need to eat. Hell, he’s done little more than drink water since first waking up and is still alive and kicking. But there’s a part of him that doesn’t want to confess to it—to let this near stranger know that he doesn’t require food to keep up his energy. That’s weird, isn’t it? That he doesn’t have to eat. Would Kakashi believe him? Would there be questions? Oh, yes, there would definitely be questions. Questions that he wouldn’t be able to answer.

He doesn’t want to. It’s… personal, or something. As personal as the scars on his face.

“I’m fine,” he insists and hopes the grin he’s wearing shows through his voice. “I ate when I gathered them. Before I came back.”

Kakashi twitches. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat now.” He presses the berries up against Tobi’s mask. “Take that stupid thing off and eat .”

Tobi scrabbles back. The thought of one of the berries rupturing and staining his pretty white mask makes him unnecessarily anxious. To him, that mask may as well be his face. He’d look pretty stupid, walking around with purple-red splotches on it. And this mask, like his first, is made of wood and not porcelain.

And now he is internally monologuing about masks. Wow. He’s turning into a less convicted version of Grandpa Madara. What a scary thought.

“I’m fine ,” he says again, inching a bit further away when he sees Kakashi settle him beneath a look . Kakashi can’t move with that bum leg of his, can’t chase Tobi down, and Tobi may be an asshole for feeling triumphant in knowing that. “Honest. I am.”

Kakashi looks dissatisfied but Tobi doesn’t really care. He hops to his feet with newfound energy and jumps back, swaying as he walks.

“I’ll—hunt. Like I said. So, er… Rest. And eat , you idiot. Before you make yourself sick.”

He doesn’t wait for Kakashi’s reply. The moment the last word leaves his mouth, Tobi is in the air and then the trees. He stares down at their little campsite a moment longer, watches, just to see. There’s relief when Kakashi does finally eat. Relief and curiosity.

Kakashi’s finger curls around the hem of his mask and Tobi leans in. He’s never been all that curious what Kakashi looks like beneath the mask, but now that the opportunity is presenting itself, he starts to wonder.

Tobi is a hypocrite. Tobi knows this. And because he knows this, he forces his prying eye away before the fabric is lowered. Kakashi’s only eaten when Tobi’s back is turned. He gets the feeling that Kakashi doesn’t want to be seen.

Tobi can relate.

With a few muttered curses and some self-addressed scorn, Tobi’s hunt begins.


 

Hunting is stupid and unnecessary. And no , he’s not saying that because he’s spent the past three hours running around like a flailing, crazed lunatic in the middle of the Fire Country forest at the sight of every four-legged creature he’s come across.

At some point, he wrangled a rabbit. Tobi was immensely proud of himself. So proud and so happy, and then it looked at him, with those big round eyes, looking like it was going to cry , and he’s pretty sure rabbits can’t cry but he wasn’t really thinking in the moment. The thought of breaking its tiny, little neck or cutting it open—which, he’d stolen a kunai from Kakashi, so he by all means could have —made his stomach knot.

He let the damn thing go. Now Kakashi is going to starve and die and it is all his fault for being such a bleeding heart. He really is a no-good, horrible, terrible person.

Fish are harder to sympathize with, which is good. Their big-eyed gazes don’t have the same oomph that mammals do, and he thinks he can kill one if given the chance. The problem, then, is catching one.

He can’t. For the life of him, he can’t .

Tobi sits in a shallow stream with water up to his shoulders, his hands digging into the silt that makes up the stream floor, and he stares at the sky. A school of fish swims past mockingly, but he doesn’t bother to try. Not again. No more. He is a broken human. Broken and useless.

Grandpa Madara , he thinks, as though the dearly departed, senile old bastard can hear him, why couldn’t your monologues be about more practical things?

Not that world peace and dissolving all of the sadness in the world isn’t great, and he doesn’t mean to undermine Grandpa’s dream, but it would have been nice to be set free into the world with some basic survival skills.

By the fourth hour, he wrangles a fish. It is not a shining moment and he is not proud. He trudges through the sunset hues of fire-lit trees covered in dirty water and mud, and all he feels is shame. Absently, he wonders if Kakashi’s survived the past four hours. He wonders if his dear friend was eaten by a bear. He doesn’t even know if there are bears in Fire Country, but with his luck and Kakashi’s, he wouldn’t be surprised.

Kakashi is not dead when he returns. Somehow, despite barely being able to move, Kakashi’s managed to start a fire where there was previously no wood and is currently seeing to his leg. The pant leg was hiked up, then cut off; Tobi suspects that, after assessing the damage underneath, he decided that the fabric was only a hinderance. The bones are set, so the leg looks more like a leg now, and it’s amazing to think that he managed to do all of that by himself. And there’s a splint now. It’s makeshift and rudimentary, but it’s holding everything in place well enough, so it’s better than nothing.

But the skin is swollen and red and Tobi is so scared that there’s an infection, or that there’s something else going on, because Kakashi’s leg is discoloured and nothing is okay and—

Kakashi sizes him up and lets out a soft snort as he snaps the med-kit shut. “You look like hell.”

Tobi collects himself. With those three, short words, he builds up his confidence and puffs out his chest. “Same to you.” He holds the fish at length by the tail. “Got dinner.”

He waits. Kakashi arches a brow.

Tobi is glad for his mask. It helps him keep his pride when he feels his face flush. “...Um. What do I do now?”

Kakashi rolls his eye dramatically and gestures Tobi over. He snatches the fish away and, without a moment’s hesitation, cuts through the belly of it. Nasty bits of gross, sea-creature innards are carved out and tossed aside with the practice motions of a kunai, like Kakashi’s done this a thousand times before. Like he’s always done it, always known how. Like this is his normal. And maybe it is. “You’re pretty useless, you know.”

“Hey—”

“How do you survive on your own?”

Tobi twitches and looks away, arms crossed over his chest as he plops down in front of the fire. He thinks that a lot of his survival has to do with the immortal cells that make up half of his body. And the fact that he doesn’t have to eat. And that he steals most of his supplies when he wanders into a new town. And, well… he’s spent a long time living under the care of Grandpa Madara and the zetsu. He doesn’t know how long. He thinks years, but he has no real point of reference to argue that, doesn’t even know his own age. Maybe it was only months. With most of his time being spent in Grandpa’s protective bubble, surviving didn’t feel like such a hard thing to do.

Even now, out on his own for—months? Maybe months—he hasn’t had much trouble.

Taking care of Kakashi, on the other hand, is like taking care of a child. Except, the child knows how to start fires and perform first-aid and gut fish. And splint a broken leg. And fight.

If Kakashi’s a child, Tobi’s a toddler. He takes it all back.

Kakashi is staring at him cautiously, like he’s a raving lunatic about to snap. “Don’t stare. It’s rude.”

Tobi blinks. He hadn’t even realized he’d been staring. And Kakashi had, somehow, despite the mask in place.

Tobi clears his throat and rubs the back of his neck to try to shift away the awkward tension as Kakashi sets the fish over the fire to cook. “I, uh. Manage. Somehow.”

Kakashi hums and it comes off as patronizing.

“It’s just—” Tobi stops, collects his thoughts. “Taking care of someone else is… hard,” he decides, “because if I mess up, it’s not my life on the line. It’s yours.”

Kakashi is watching him now, through the firelight.

He isn’t watching back, though. He has his eye on his hands, clasped together in front of him, beige skin against white. It takes a lot of effort to keep his mind from falling too deeply into thoughts of Madara, of the cold, boneless body hunkered over a forgotten throne. It takes a lot to pull himself out of spiralling thoughts, of remembering what death looks like. Grandpa Madara was not a good man. But he was still Grandpa.

Tobi doesn’t ever want death to feel so real again.

He manages to pull himself out of his mental hole before Kakashi needs to do it for him. He smiles, even if his companion can’t see it. “So don’t die, Bakashi. I’ll never forgive you if you do.”

The stick Kakashi’s using to stoke the fire slips from his fingers and clatters into the dirt. His eye is wide, shaking, locked desperately onto Tobi’s mask. “...Obito?”

Tobi blinks, cocking his head to the side. The name sounds familiar, and it takes him a moment to realize that it’s an anagram of his own name. Well, with an extra ‘o’ added. That explains the familiarity, but nothing else, really, and he’s left confused.  “Tobi,” he corrects, scooting a bit closer to the ninja. “Hey, you okay? You’re looking kinda pale.”

“I—” Kakashi leans away as Tobi leans in. He sucks in a breath, braces himself, and shoves at the mask—and at Tobi, evidently. “I’m fine ,” he breaths, but doesn’t sound it. “I just—it’s nothing. Forget it.”

Tobi allows himself to be pushed away and pouts. He doesn’t prod because he doesn’t think Kakashi will tell him any more. But he’s worried.

Kakashi looks like he just looked Death in the face. But Grandpa Madara is a long way from here. Tobi wonders if he should be worried.


 

“Stay with me, okay?” He hisses against the burn of his legs as he forces them faster, forces his eyes open against the spattering rain, and sidesteps trees that make themselves obstacles in his path. Kakashi is not well. Kakashi is not well and nothing is okay and they are not fine but there are walls in the distance, the towering walls that he hopes signal Konoha, and he just needs to push himself a little further . “C’mon, Bakashi. Don’t go to sleep. Um, um—your village. Uh. What’s… what’s it like there?”

“Mm?” He feels shifting on his back, a weak acknowledgement from a half-there mind. Kakashi has a fever. It’s bad. This whole thing is bad. Tobi doesn’t really know if it’s an infection, or if something else is going on. Maybe there’s an internal injury they don’t know about that’s gone untreated. Maybe it has to do with his leg. Maybe a lot of things. But Tobi doesn’t know how serious this is, if it’s deadly or just inconvenient. He doesn’t remember being sick before. So, he’s panicking. And maybe Kakashi would join him in panicking, were it not for the haze of fever. “Oh, it’s…”

“It’s what?” he prods, trying to level his breathing. He’s running, though, so it’s hard to do. Every muscle in his body is screaming at him to stop because he’s been at this for hours. His arms are shaking and he’s scared—scared that if he doesn’t hurry, his right arm won’t last the trip. And if it doesn’t, he won’t have the strength to get Kakashi home. “K—Konoha, yeah? Am I sayin’ that right?”

“Ah,” Kakashi grunts, letting out a sigh. “It’s… lively, I guess. Annoying, sometimes. Um…”

“Annoying?” Tobi snorts, sliding down the slick mudded hillside towards the wall. He’s only half paying attention to the other boy’s words, only enough to keep Kakashi talking, because his mind is a mess off runrunrun

“It’s home,” Kakashi mutters. He sounds so young, so much younger than he usually does. Soft and barely there. “Have lotsa memories there. I… go by his place sometimes. Sometimes it feels like he’s just… running late. And needs me to wake him up.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s that?” Tobi asks. He’s losing strength in his right arm, feels his fingers tremble beneath Kakashi’s weight. Shit shit shit

Kakashi pauses and it terrifies Tobi, but a sharp jostle is enough to feel movement. Breath on his neck. Kakashi shudders. “He’s not there, though. And he never will be. And that’s… my fault.”

Tobi’s eye widens when, through the trees, he makes out what look like gates. There’s a large, towering opening with a booth off to the side. He can see people wearing—something. The colours remind him of the outfit Kakashi’s wearing and he’s hopeful—so, so hopeful. He laughs, because this is freaking great , and he feels the muscles tear in his legs as he forces himself faster.

“Tobi.”

“Y—” He coughs as air burns his lungs and rain burns his eyes and everything hurts but Kakashi’s going to be okay and that’s all he cares about. “Yeah?”

Kakashi’s head is pressed against his shoulder, radiating heat through the chill of the storm. “You…” There’s quiet then, and Tobi’s heart leaps in his chest. “Your arm…”

Fuck.

Tobi makes it to the gates, left a panting, heaving mess. He stumbles forward and there are guards by his side in a moment, kunai held up in warning.

The material of his arm snaps off and Kakashi falls off his back. Tobi doesn’t have the strength to keep himself up. He slips on the slick mud and falls face-first into the earth, cursing himself. Through the narrowed vision of his mask, he turns his head to make out the puddle of white goo that was once his arm.

Aw, shit.

Then there’s someone crouching over him, small hands nudging his shoulder. He blinks up, staring at a half-covered face and a deep, soul searching eye. He wants to get up. He wants to, but now that he’s stopped moving, his body won’t let him. His only attempt leaves him twitching and resigning himself to it, and he closes his eye. Rain patters down against his back like bullets, his every limb feels like it’s on fire.

Tobi closes his eye. Just for a moment.