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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.

Chapter Text

The world smells like the bottle of disinfectant they used to treat Kakashi’s wounds. Tobi scrunches up his nose and reaches blindly with his left hand to cover it, to block out the smell, but his mask is in the way. Right. That. He almost forgot about that.

Tobi’s whole body feels like one big, achy piece of shit and he’s left wondering if a normal person’s body would be that torn up over a few short days of running. Would a normal person’s arm fall off from overuse? He doesn’t think so, but normal people are a bit of an enigma to him, so the jury’s still out.

Sound comes to him next. There’s a persistent, nagging beeping by his head that is the absolute worst . It’s not helping his headache. There are voices, muffled and far away, and there’s shifting next to him. He groans, covers his mask with his hand—one hand, because his other one just fell off like the useless piece of garbage that it is—and braces himself for the outside world.

Tobi opens his eye. The room is white and bland and he finds it somehow comforting, how empty it feels. Grandpa Madara’s place was just as terrible. Maybe he’s developing a soft spot for uncomfortable beds, or something. He thinks he should try sitting up but can’t bring himself to. Every part of his body is throbbing and begging him to just stay down , and he’s inclined to listen.

He feels a bit ashamed of himself. He thought he’d trained up his arm well enough to, well, act like an arm. But overuse is still an issue, and he’ll have to work harder when he goes back to the zetsu to get his body repaired.

Man, not having two arms sucks .

“Finally up?”

Tobi leans his head to the right and his chest tightens at the sight of a very bandaged, very alive Kakashi. Kakashi’s leg is fully wrapped and propped up, he’s connected to… machine… things. Tobi doesn’t know what they are, but he assumes they’re doing something good, so good on them!

His eye stings and he goes to scrub away the tears only for his arm to hit his mask and damn the mask and damn his crying.

Kakashi lets out a soft snort and leans back. There’s a pillow propped up for him to rest against, and it looks like he’s been there a while. “You’re crying?”

“Shut up! I’m not!” Now his pride is on the line. He forces himself up, much to the dismay of his screaming muscles, and twists away. The mask is pulled off his face when his back is to Kakashi and he scrubs away the stupid no-good childish tears that are hell-bent and determined to embarrass him in front of his cool ninja buddy. But then he peeks over his shoulder—just a bit, just enough to catch the edge of Kakashi’s face, and the tears start up again full-force. “Damn it, Bakashi! I thought you were dead!”

Kakashi arches a brow and leans in, as though trying to catch a glimpse of Tobi’s face. It’s a teasing gesture, one that Tobi knows is just done to make fun of him, but he pulls the mask back into place all the same. “Why would I be dead?”

“I don’t know!” he snaps, spinning back around to glare through a bloodshot eye. “It’s—you were acting weird, and saying weird shit, and I’m thinking ‘oh no, the kid’s gonna die because I don’t know what the heck’s wrong with him and it’s all my fault’ and then you start falling asleep and I’m worried you won’t wake up again ‘cause Grandpa didn’t wake up again and—”

“Breathe.”

He breathes. Twice, even. It calms him down like some weird, ancient magic, and he decides that breathing is maybe a good thing, so he keeps doing it.

“Thank you.”

Tobi blinks and the tears stop. Kakashi isn’t looking at him, but that’s okay. That’s enough.

It feels nice to help someone.

He grins and gives Kakashi a thumbs-up because he’s learning not to trust his voice. And, well, the breathing thing.

Now that he’s calm, Tobi takes a chance to look around. The whole room is bland and white and smells like disinfectant, which is gross but also probably a good thing. A hospital? Oh, right. They would be in a hospital, wouldn’t they? Kakashi needs all the help he can get. In a lot of ways.

And, well, Tobi probably needs a new arm, not that he expects anyone there will be able to give him one.

“One of the sannin is looking into your arm.” Tobi blinks and dramatically turns to the stump of his shoulder. He realizes then that his shirt is gone, his chest fully exposed, and it feels… weird. He knows Kakashi’s been looking at the seam where the white of foreign cells meets natural flesh. “She was willing to come back to Konoha especially for you. I hear it’s because of a bet, though.”

“What’s a sannin?”

Kakashi sighs. “You’re definitely not a shinobi.”

“I told you that,” he huffs and moves to cross his arms, but there’s only one arm. The whole thing comes off as awkward and he’s embarrassed for himself. He waits for an explanation that doesn’t come, but by now he’s used to that.

Then it’s quiet and awkward and Tobi is all sorts of fidgety. He hates these types of situations the most because he can feel questions in the air that aren’t being broached and knows that they’re inevitabilities. He’s not sure he wants to talk about it, doesn’t know what kind of explanation he could give, but he thinks that, because it’s Kakashi, it may be okay.

Even if Kakashi is an idiot and an asshole.

Kakashi slumps forward, arms resting in his lap, and watches out of the corner of his eye. “Can I ask?”

“...Yeah. Go ahead.”

Kakashi nods to him, to the white skin of his torso. “What is that?”

Tobi laughs, and he probably shouldn’t, but it’s a knee-jerk reaction. There’s no humour to it, but he does find it funny. The only person who could answer that is dead. Well, maybe the zetsu could. Maybe. Probably. “I don’t really know?” he tries, but the skeptical look he’s getting has him trying to look deep, to think a little more, try to druge up a better explanation. “They’re… artificial cells, or something. I dunno. My grandpa grafted them onto me ‘cause I was dying. To save me. But they’re not, uh…”

He reaches for a word that he can’t find and pouts.

“They don’t hold up well under strain. I guess. I think I need to train my arm more.”

“Ah.” Kakashi nods. It’s easy to see that he has more questions, that Tobi’s explanation tells him nothing , but he’s not pressing further. “It doesn’t… hurt?”

“Huh?” He looks between the boy and his stump and laughs, waving off the worries. “Nah, nah. I can’t really feel much with it even when it is working.”

Kakashi nods again, leaning back against the pillow. He seems relieved, which is a nice thought. The jerk has feelings, too.

When quiet falls, Tobi decides it’s best to let himself rest. He lowers himself back down and it’s a painful, terrible thing, but soon he’s resting with his head on a pillow and his eye closed, and sleep feels like the next best thing.


 

Granny Tsunade is a pain in the ass. She’s a sour old woman with a nasty personality, alcohol on her breath and pride on her shoulders. She pokes and prods and samples his artificial cells— without asking , which feels like it should be a crime—and uses him like her little lab rat. When he yells, she yells louder. When he backtalks, she’s right there with a counter. She’s miserable and terrible and it’s kinda nice, having someone around who reminds him vaguely of Grandpa.

Tobi realizes that there’s something very wrong with this line of thought, but he can’t bring himself to care.

Today, he’s not upset with the poking and prodding. She acquired a sample of his cells yesterday, so that’s in the past. No, today there’s a tray at his bedside and he’s going through the motions, nose in the air and stubborn pride in his gut.

“I don’t need to eat,” he insists matter-of-factly, shoving away the bowl that’s being offered. Eating means taking off his mask. In front of Granny and Kakashi and the nurse.

Tsunade’s lip curls, her brows furrow, and she shoves it right back in his face. “You are going to eat, young man. You’re too valuable to die.”

Ah, right. Valuable, because she’s interested in the weird mush that makes up a large percentage of his body. She’s such a lovely woman.

Tobi rolls his eye heavenward. “I won’t die . Kakashi—” He whips his head around to the neutral third party reading in the bed next to his. “I haven’t eaten once since I picked you up, right? Tell her. Tell her that I haven’t.”

Kakashi looks between Tobi and Tsunade, his eye slightly wide, unsteady, and—he’s actually very uncomfortable with being dragged into this, isn’t he?

Slowly, Kakashi brings the book up in front of his face and says nothing.

“Traitor.”

There’s a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of insisting that he does not need to eat, and eventually he feels triumph as Tsunade storms out of the room with angry words and sharp-tongued threats. He wins, but… he doesn’t feel good about it.

Tobi is aware that the only reason the mask was still in place when he woke up was because Kakashi insisted that the nurses leave it on. He knows, and he’s grateful. And a little embarrassed, because he knows that he shouldn’t be so reluctant to show his damn face . It’s not that bad. The missing eye is a little hard to get past, but…

He steals a glance at Kakashi. Kakashi’s headband—er, hitai-ate, or whatever—is slanted over his left eye. Kakashi’s hiding something, too, and Tobi thinks that maybe they’re the same. If that’s the case, then what is there to be afraid of? And even if it’s not, Kakashi doesn’t seem the type to care , really. This is a ninja village. Everyone’s probably seen a hell of a lot worse.

The soup Tsunade left is still sitting on the tray beside him. It smells nice. He’s never tried eating before and wonders what it feels like. Slowly, his fingers trace the rim of his mask, slip beneath, and—

There’s a knock at the door and his hand goes down, heart racing in his chest, eye wide and fixed on the two figures standing there. Well, damn. There go his plans to find out what eating is like.

In the doorway stands a smiling blond, a friendly, soft face. He looks kind in a way no one Tobi’s met has ever looked before. There’s reassurance in his smile, safety in his eyes, and his presence alone is enough to ease the lingering tension in the room.

Over his shoulder is a woman with bright red hair, stark against pale skin and dark eyes. She’s comfortably close to the man, an easy grin on her lips.

“Sensei,” Kakashi calls. Tobi snaps around to look at him. The book is forgotten in Kakashi’s lap, which is amazing because Tobi hasn’t gotten the jerk to look at him once since the Tsunade incident.

Sensei, huh?

The woman strides in, bypassing Tobi’s bed in favour of Kakashi’s, and proudly holds up a basket. It’s filled with fruit— lots of fruit. An entire marketplace of variety. She places it on the table by the bed. “Here,” she says, “for a fast recovery.”

Kakashi’s shoulders slump and he stares reverently at the basket. Tobi didn’t know that he could make that face. “...Thank you, Kushina. Minato-sensei.”

Suddenly, that Kushina lady’s ruffling his hair and he’s ducking beneath her hand, looking years younger than he is. “Now don’t scare us like that, Brat. I’ll kick your ass if you do that to us again.”

“Sorry.”

Minato, the blond guy, is watching from the doorway with a fond smile. He stays there, even as Kushina chats on and on to a silent and submissive Kakashi, looking like he’s content where he is. Then his eyes find Tobi and everything feels just a bit awkward. Tobi doesn’t know this man, isn’t entirely sure that he wants to know this man, and his face feels hot beneath the mask.

“So, you’re awake now.”

Tobi stiffens, nods, and wonders what that’s supposed to mean. He hears that Kushina’s rambling has cut out.

Minato enters, dragging one of the chairs propped up against the wall across the floor with the hissing screech of metal against tile. He places it at Tobi’s bedside, takes a seat, makes himself comfortable.

Well, good. At least one of them is comfortable.

The talking starts up again. He dares to look at Kushina and their eyes meet briefly before she turns away, back to Kakashi. But she smiles at him. She smiles at him as though it’s reassurance.

Ah. She’s there to distract Kakashi. So this Minato guy can talk to him.

Why?

Tobi hesitates before turning back to face Minato. Minato is still there with that picture perfect smile, patient and waiting with his arms folded over one another and a strange, knowing look in his eye.

“You’re Tobi, then?”

Tobi nods.

“I want to thank you for bringing Kakashi home,” Minato says. “He’s my student. Someone important to me.”

Tobi finds that he can’t keep eye contact any longer and decides the sheets over his legs are mighty interesting. “I-I see.”

Then there’s a hand on his head and he tenses, feeling fingers ruffle his hair, and he ducks his head. Strands dance before the hole of his mask and he brushes them aside. He wonders if he should maybe cut his hair, but he's never done it before. And Grandpa Madara’s hair was so long, he didn’t think the old bastard ever did, either. But those thoughts are just distractions from the weird, soothing hypnotism of that touch. He feels proud but shy, like he’s getting all the praise in the world when he isn’t entirely sure that he deserves it.

It feels nostalgic.

Then the hand is gone, the moment is over, and Tobi’s glad that Minato can’t see his pout.

“I’m the acting Hokage of Konoha, Minato Namikaze,” he says. Smiles. Always smiles. “I’d like to repay you for everything you’ve done for us.”

And now that feeling is back and it’s gross and weird and he isn’t sure if he loves or hates it. “I didn’t do anything,” he insists in a mutter, like a pouting child.

Minato arches a brow, amused. “Oh? I disagree.” He nods to the other bed, where Kushina is going on her umpteenth lecture about safety and missions. “If you weren’t there, I’m not entirely sure Kakashi would have made it back home.”

“Well,” he huffs, puffing out his chest, “when you put it like that …”

He sees Kakashi glaring at him out of the corner of his eye and that makes the false bravado worth it.

Minato laughs. It’s a strangely soothing sound that makes it feel like everything is alright. “I want to ask you to stay.”

“I—”

“For a while,” he continues, hand raised in pause. “Lady Tsunade is studying the material that your arm is made of. She’s confident that she’ll be able to fix the damage, if you give her time.”

“O-oh.” Oh.

Oh.

Oh, well, that’s just what he needs. Grandpa’s place is a long ways back, a good few weeks of travel, and he’s not entirely sure he’s ready to end his journey yet. There’s still so much more to see, so many places to visit, and he still hasn’t figured out how to make Grandpa’s dream come true.

“Then…” He blinks, considers. It’s weird, thinking about just… staying in one place for a while. Not moving. Settling in and hanging around a ninja village. It’s weird, but maybe it could be good. Maybe he can learn more about the world that Grandpa told him of. Maybe he can understand Grandpa more, figure out what there is to fix.

In hindsight, he’s not sure Grandpa even liked him. But he liked Grandpa. For some reason.

He likes Kakashi, too, he thinks. And maybe he’ll learn to like these two along the way.

“Yeah, okay. Deal.”

Suddenly there’s an arm hooked around his neck, bringing him in close, and his vision is a sea of red hair. He sputters, flails, tries to break free, but Kushina’s hold is rock solid. “Good answer, kid!”


 

When Kakashi offers to let Tobi room with him, Tobi feels that he's not the only one in shock. He thinks that Kakashi's shocked, too; the words sound like they're pulled out of him by force. Kakashi is a prideful man. He does not like relying on others and he doesn't like feeling a burden. Tobi can understand this. Kakashi's quiet, especially now that he's not trying to distract himself from his agonizing pain, and sharp-tongued when he wants to be. Most of the time he doesn't, though. He rather lose himself in a good book.

Tobi somehow did not expect Kakashi to be the reading type. Tobi did not expect Kakashi to be a lot of things. For instance, Tobi did not expect Kakashi to be able to walk. Apparently, Granny Tsunade isn't a sannin just for show—and he still doesn't even know what the hell a sannin is , but it's probably important. She’s spent the past week doing regular work on Kakashi's leg, and it's thanks to her medical ninjutsu that Kakashi can make a recovery at all.

Of course, this medical ninjutsu crap isn't the stuff of miracles, and Kakashi has a long road of recovery ahead of him. Even after the injuries heal, there will be rehabilitation.

Tobi knows firsthand just what that's like. He'll be cheering Kakashi on the whole way.

Kakashi is supposed to be on crutches, at least for the first month. One month isn't long, considering that without Tsunade it was estimated at three. And technically, Kakashi was supposed to start off in a wheelchair. His mobility is, again, thanks entirely to Tsunade. So really, how bad is that? Problem is, his dingy little apartment is not the most accommodating thing for an injured leg. Tobi is unsurprised to find it up a flight of stairs. With narrow halls. Little floor space. What a garbage situation.

Tobi would offer to carry him around because Tobi is a good, wholesome human being. But Tobi is kinda-sorta short an arm, which makes things difficult.

Between the two of them, they make up a person and a half. Fantastic.

They're standing at the base of the stairs outside the apartment complex with Kakashi leaning on crutches and Tobi twitching, assessing the seventeen steps up, imagining traversing them day in and day out with his injured companion. His shoulders already hurt.

“...Let's go stay with Minato-sensei,” Tobi suggests. He wonders if it’s too late to decline Kakashi's offer. He also wonders if Kakashi made the offer just to con his way into getting a helper while his leg heals.

Kakashi rolls his eye heavenward and sighs. “Sensei has a full house at the moment.” With reluctance, he places the tip of one of the crutches on the first step and tests the angle.

Tobi groans and curses himself and wonders why he's such a damn nice person as he hooks his arm around Kakashi in an automatic offer of support.

“Careful, Bakashi. Don't need you falling.”

“As though I would.”

“Yeah. You would. So watch it.”

They exchange dull glares behind their masks in place of further bickering. Then the journey up the stairs begins. Tobi finds himself correcting Kakashi’s balance more than once. It’s clear that Kakashi doesn’t have previous experience with crutches. Tobi doesn’t, either. He thinks that they may have been useful in the early stages of his recovery, to help ease him into rehabilitation, but. Well. Grandpa Madara didn’t like to take the easy road.

Grandpa Madara was a bit of a jerk. A senile, lovable old jerk.

By the time they reach the landing, the boys are out of breath and refuse to acknowledge it. Tobi’s not used to carrying another person’s weight, and he’s grown quite accustomed to using two arms, and Kakashi’s a damn ninja . Now, Tobi doesn’t know much about ninja, but he’s pretty sure they’re used to dealing with conditions a hell of a lot worse than this. Yet there they are, tired after helping Kakashi up one set of stairs.

It will get easier with practice. He tells himself this as he snatches Kakashi’s key up—because the idiot is trying to balance the crutches while unlocking the door and it’s painful to watch—and leads the way inside.

It’s about as tiny as he expects. Actually, it was Kushina who pulled Tobi aside to ask him to take care of Kakashi, Kushina who cautioned him of all of the little annoyances Kakashi would be facing while his leg healed. Well, that’s fine. He doesn’t mind helping out a friend. And Kakashi is a friend, even if all they ever seem to do is throw sharp words at one another.

Kakashi nudges him aside to enter first, making painfully slow strides into the living area. He doesn’t bother to show Tobi around, doesn’t even acknowledge Tobi’s there, and maneuvers himself awkwardly to sit down on a chair. Soon the crutches are propped up against the armrest and Kakashi is releasing a heavy breath.

Tobi pouts behind his mask and lets himself in. Right of the entrance is a hall. He assumes that to be where the bedrooms and bathroom are. To the left is the living room and connected kitchen. Seeing as his host is, for lack of a better term, currently incapacitated, Tobi decides to snoop. He feels an eye on him as he wanders around but there are no protests, so Kakashi can’t be all too bothered.

The apartment is mostly empty—not as empty as Grandpa’s place, but empty enough. Like the hospital. He spends a lot of time in the kitchen because, really, that’s his first time in a kitchen, and marvels at all of the strange things within. The fridge is… well, to be honest, it’s mostly empty. There’s a faintly bad smell coming from it and he wonders if that’s normal. Then again, Kakashi’s been off on a mission for who knows how long; Tobi doesn’t know much, but he’s pretty sure most things rot. There’s other food, though, outside of the fridge—things like rice and—

Well, mostly rice, honestly. Tobi makes a face, scratching at the skin that runs along the edge of his mask.

“Hey, Bakashi,” he calls over his shoulder, eyes fixed on the container sitting tucked away at the back of the counter. “How d’you make this stuff?”

Kakashi looks wholly judgemental as he watches from the living room. “Rice?”

“Yeah,” he nods, hand on his hip as he spins around to face his host, grinning. “I’ll make you some! Since you’re, um. Useless? Kinda useless.”

“Oh,” Kakashi starts, tone flat, “ I’m useless?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

There are unspoken words between them, none of them nice.

“Boil water. Two parts water to one part rice.”

“Right-o!” Tobi does a one-handed salute and spins back to face the counter. A detailed search through the cupboards turns up a few measuring cups, and as he retrieves a pot everything just clicks. Ah, right. He’s made rice before. He doesn’t remember when, but he has. It’s a weird comfort, a tingle along the back of his skull that he barely realizes is there. Like a switch, his movements becoming practiced and easy as he measures out the water he’ll need and turns on the stove. Then he’s left standing there, half-dazed with thought.

He tries to follow the threads of nostalgia deeper into memory, tries to pull up just where this familiarity is coming from. Knowing that he hasn’t eaten since his accident, it has to have come from before then. It's a glimpse into a part of himself that he doesn't know, and it's scary and unnerving but such a weird comfort.

Kakashi is still watching, a book half opened in his lap. It’s there but not being read, acting more as a prop as Kakashi instead considers the masked boy trying to figure out how to make lunch.

“You've never eaten?”

Tobi plops down onto one of the chairs at the kitchen table as he waits for the water to boil. “Mmm… nope. Not since Grandpa patched me up.”

“And before?”

“Well, yeah. I assume so.” Tobi rests his chin in his palm, eyes on the pot atop the stove. He holds onto that nostalgic buzz, to the practiced instincts that are telling him what to do when the water boils, or what he can use in place of a standard topping to give the rice more flavour. “I mean, normal people do. I was probably normal.”

“You don't remember?”

“Nah. Not really.”

“Ah.”

And it's just left like that. Tobi expects follow-up questions, questions that he doesn't have the answers to, but there's nothing. And really, he should know better; Kakashi isn't one to pry. Kakashi is the one who insisted that Tobi's mask go untouched in the hospital.

“Will you try?”

“Eating?”

Kakashi nods.

“I dunno. Maybe.”

Tobi isn’t sure what all the fuss is about eating. Food seems like such a pain in the ass. People eat how many times a day? Tobi has been granted the gift of avoiding all of that hassle, so why go out of his way to eat?”

He is curious, though.


 

Tobi finds himself in the kitchen at the break of dawn in a fevered rush. He's cooking. He doesn't know what he's cooking, but he's doing it. It came to him while tossing and turning on the futon in the spare bedroom—a recipe, perhaps something from a previous life. Er, well, his previous life.

So, he starts cooking. Kakashi doesn't have much in the fridge, and even less that's viable, so Tobi does a lot of improvising. A lot of improvising. The further along he gets, the more he decides that it's something of a soup. This, he decides, isn't that hard to cook, especially with the impression of a phantom memory guiding him along. He’s starting to think that he cooked a lot before the accident, wonders if it was for himself or his family.

He never thinks about family. If he does, he gets sad. Tobi knows that if he doesn't start to remember, he may never see them again. But he isn't sure he has a family, either. No one has come looking for him. The only person there to treat his wounds was dear old Grandpa Madara and the zetsu.

This train of thought is painful and sad and he cuts it off there.

Tobi pours a bowl once it's finished cooking and sets it on the table. He sits down before it, removing his mask, allowing the steam to roll across his skin, carrying with it a nostalgic scent. Miso , his mind supplies, as though it's the most obvious thing in the world.

He hesitates. It smells amazing but he isn't so sure that will carry over to taste. It's something he's eaten before, though. Long, long ago.

There's shuffling down the hall and his first instinct is to slide his mask back into place. Kakashi is anything but stealthy when lugging those crutches around, and maybe it's a sad thing for a ninja to be so damn obvious as he moves. Poor Kakashi hasn't had a single good thing happen to him all week. Tobi thinks that he should maybe get his friend a fruit basket.

Oh, wait. Kushina beat him to it.

Soon, there’s a head of silver hair poking out from around the corner. A lazy dark eye settles on the miso and Tobi feels unnecessary embarrassment.

Stupid emotions.

Tobi scrambles up from the chair and pushes the bowl across the table, towards his host. “I made you breakfast!” he states proudly, and he isn't sure why.

Kakashi sees straight through him and rolls his eye heavenward. He takes a seat anyway, then shoves the bowl right back. “Shut up and eat.”

“I made it for—”

“Oh, look,” Kakashi drolls, nodding to the pot on the stove, “leftovers. I’ll never be able to eat it all by myself. I suppose you’ll need to help me.”

His tone is so flat and dead that Tobi second-guesses the sarcasm. He didn't know Kakashi could be so… like that. Huh.

Tobi clears his throat. “Guess I have no choice, then.”

He spins around to face the stove and pours a second bowl before meekly returning to his seat. There's a stretch of awkward silence that neither of them are brave enough to break because this is their first meal together. This is Tobi's first meal with anyone . It’s… a strange sort of feeling.

They lock eyes. It's a stand-off, and eventually one of them is going to have to remove their mask first. He isn't sure Kakashi holds the same reserves that he does, but he's yet to see the ninja's face, so there's a chance.

Kakashi sighs, closes an eye, and hooks a finger around the hem of his mask. The fabric slides down, settling around his neck. He starts to eat.

Something buzzes in the back of Tobi's mind. It flashes and spreads before being snuffed out like a flame. There's nothing surprising about Kakashi's face, no grotesque disfigurement. Tobi's disappointed. The tail end of a scar peeks out from beneath the hitai-ate still covering Kakashi's eye, sharp and thin like a mark left from a blade. A battle wound, undoubtedly.

Kakashi eats. It’s calming, reassuring. Tobi may be hiding a lot more than Kakashi behind his mask, but maybe it won't matter. Maybe he's just being melodramatic.

The mask slides up off his face and is set down on the table and he grins, breathing in the sweet aroma wafting in front of his face. He drums his fingers along the table top and his mind fills with all the possibilities for how this will taste.

A clink breaks the silence as the bowl slips from Kakashi's hands and thunks against the table. It rolls on its rim before settling and the noise makes Tobi flinch. Oh. Oh no, what’s wrong? Is it the empty socket? It is kinda hard to look at the first time around.

His eye flutters up and settles on Kakashi.

Kakashi is pale. His eye is wide and dark and shaking, searching . A hand goes up to cover his mouth. He stays like that for a long, long time.

“Obi—” There's a choking noise. Tobi never thought Kakashi could make a noise like that. Then, eventually, the hand goes down. Trembling fingers grip tightly to the edge of the table, and he breathes. “...Tobi.”

Tobi kinda sorta wants to crawl back into Grandpa's cave. There was no light and nothing around but the zetsu and yet, in face of this kind of confrontation, that cave looks shockingly cozy.

Tobi doesn't like drawing attention to himself like this. He smiles, and it's fake, and rubs the back of his neck. “Is it that bad?”

“No—” The word is caught in Kakashi's throat. He breathes some more—good to note that Kakashi takes his own advice—and when he speaks next, he sounds a lot calmer. A lot faker, too. “No. Sorry.”

“It's fine,” he mutters, not entirely sure he believes himself. He huffs to diffuse tension and nods to Kakashi's bowl. “Eat, Bakashi. Do you know how hard it was to do all of this with one freaking arm? Do you ?!”

Kakashi releases a shuddering breath and take the bowl in his hands, lifting the rim to his lips. He takes his first taste and Tobi waits, eyes him carefully. He uses Kakashi to gage how braced he should be for this endeavour.

Kakashi's eye is soft and wrong and there are so many things about this that don't feel right.

“It's good,” he assures, voice quiet and soft—two things that Kakashi should never be.

Tobi doesn't believe it for a second. Tobi is pretty sure Kakashi is lying but he doesn't know why, and asking doesn't seem right, and damn it all, why are things so weird now?

None of that matters, he decides, and he takes a sip of the concoction he brewed in a fever of half-remembered thoughts at four in the morning. His eye widens as flavour bursts across his tongue and he remembers these flavours, remembers what it means to taste salty and sweet and bitter. Oh. Oh no, he likes this. He takes another mouthful, then another, until he sees the bottom of the bowl and pouts.

There's something in his mind, a little room in a two-story home. Blankets wrapped cozy and tight around his shoulders. A bowl balanced precariously in his lap. Across the room rests a picture frame. He can't quite make it out through the haze of half-memories but, despite that, he's staring at it intently. He can feel his face flush with heat below the surface but doesn't know why, can feel the swell of something warm and jittery in the pit of his stomach.

Then there's a presence at the window. He shudders, cold rushing through him, and snaps his head to the side to face the stupid jerk who—

It's over. Tobi is staring across the table at Kakashi who is staring back, resting his chin in his hand.

Tobi's eye widens. There's something wet and hot running down his cheeks and he scrubs away the tears. “Sh-shut up!” he exclaims, scrubbing more furiously now. He doesn't know why he says it. Kakashi hasn't said anything, but it feels like he might. Better to cut it off before it becomes reality, or something.

Crybaby ninja.

Where has he heard that before?

“You okay?” Kakashi asks. There’s no teasing or insults. It feels wrong. Kakashi should be making fun of him for crying, like last time. “Tobi?”

Tobi laughs. It sounds broken and wet and he doesn’t know why, and he’s scrubbing at the tears. They slow down, then stop altogether. Not soon enough to save him from the embarrassment, though. He sniffs, nods, and slides his mask back into place.

Kakashi lets out a long-suffering sigh. It’s strangely comforting. “You’re hiding under your mask?”

“Shut up,” he mutters, watery echoes escaping the mask. He’s dried his tears but his voice is still wavering and his eye is still bloodshot and he’s looking all sorts of stupid in front of his cool ninja buddy.

Kakashi rolls his eye. Oh, good. Normalcy. Tobi was scared they’d be stuck in that awkward state forever. “You don’t need that stupid thing.”

“Then you don’t need yours.”

There are matching glares, but Tobi’s comes off weak on the account of being hidden. He’s pretty sure the intent is conveyed, though.

“Thank you, Tobi.”

Tobi blinks, eyes Kakashi, wonders what sarcastic comment is going to follow. He braces himself.

Kakashi’s eye scrolls downward to the two empty bowls. The cloth is pulled back over his mouth and nose. “You did… well.”

Tobi wonders who this imposter is and what they did with his eternally judgemental friend.


 

Konoha is different than he expects. When he thinks ‘ninja village,’ he thinks of the monochrome illustrations he's seen for sale in other towns of these super secretive, super ruthless assassins. He thinks of a village of cold-blooded killers and secret societies. It's hard to fit a bustling marketplace into that narrative. So, the real-world bustling marketplace comes as a bit of a surprise. It's loud and—and, well, lively, just like Kakashi described it on their journey here.

Tobi is tasked with grocery shopping. Or, well, he begged for the job, really. There's been something off ever since this morning and the apartment air is stifling . The moment that Kakashi mentioned stocking the fridge, Tobi was there with a raised, flailing hand of volunteer.

He's thinking he made the right choice.

The mask draws attention here like it does anywhere else he goes, no surprise there. But the passing attention onlookers give him now is nothing compared to the occasional cringes he was met with the few times he wandered a town with his scars on display. Normally they don’t ask. Sometimes they do.

If he ever again gets someone asking why he's missing his left eye when all of his scars are on the right, he's going to throw them in the nearest river and hope they drown.

Admittedly, he wonders that, too.

Tobi has an armful of grocery bags. He can't pull out the instructions that Kakashi gave him unless he wants to put everything down and Tobi is far too stubborn for that. But he's starting to feel dizzy in the crowds and disoriented in the noise. His feet stop. He's left just standing there, staring at nothing.

Tobi is not lost. Tobi is exactly where he needs to be.

“Need help?”

His head snaps left, toward the voice. There's a girl there, with brown hair and soft eyes and pale skin. Her fingers and hands are all bandaged up, like she just got back from a nasty mission. Tobi blinks, considering her. “Nope,” he says.

“You sure?” She arches a brow and tilts her head and a part of him doesn’t like how amused she looks. “Sure look like you do.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

The girl is grinning now, wandering closer. He feels himself back away, wary. “It means that you're standing stiff as a board in the middle of the street, looking like the sun just went out.”

Oh. Okay. That’s fair.

“What is it?” she asks, hiding her hands behind her back. “I'm a local. I can help you if you need to find something.”

Tobi considers her a moment longer. She’s dressed in a Leaf shinobi uniform, looking very similar to the one that Kakashi was wearing when they first met. She’s a ninja. Something about that sets him at ease. He doesn’t know why it sets him at ease; for all intents and purposes, ninja aren’t the most honest of people. Tobi suspects that there’s a lot of deceit and dirty work that goes along with the job. But there’s honour there, too, somewhere. Honour and pride.

His mind supplies him with an image of Kakashi and all his grumpy glory. He rolls his eye.

Tobi lowers his head, nodding to one of the pockets of his pants. “Can you grab out the paper in my pocket for me, then? My arms—” He glares at the stump of his shoulder and corrects,”— arm is full.”

The girl looks amused but nods, slipping her fingers within the fabric. When she pulls away, there’s a tiny, folded-up square of paper in her grasp. She opens it, smoothing it out between her hands, and studies the crudely-drawn, inked out map on the one side. The other side, the one facing Tobi, is of an itemized grocery list.

“The place that’s circled?”

He nods. “It’s busier than I expected. I got a little… turned around.”

The girl hums in thought, carefully taking in street names and following a path with her eyes before returning her attention to him. She’s grinning, wide and bright, and something about that grin reminds him of the little he saw of Kushina. Kushina visited them daily in the hospital, even when Minato was busy with Hokage duties, so Tobi saw a lot of her over the past week. She was loud and energetic, and he found himself bickering with her more than once, if only out of stubbornness. This girl isn’t bombastic like Kushina, but there’s something about her that feels very… familiar.

“I know this place,” she says finally. Her hands settle on her hips and she nods right, down one of the veering paths off the main road. “I can take you there, if you want?”

“Oh.” He blinks, then nods. When she starts walking, he falls easily in step. The crowds break apart with time and they dip down alleyways—paths that he’s pretty sure aren’t outlined on the map—to deserted parts of the village. He starts to wonder if she’s leading him someplace sketchy, if maybe ninja are not to be trusted, but just as that worry gains bearing in his head, they turn onto a street that he recognizes.

She’s walking ahead of him still, her hands folded behind her back. He smiles.

Grandpa Madara taught him that people are flawed, selfish things. Witnessing the kindness of strangers, it’s hard to agree.


 

“How do you know Kakashi?”

“Huh?”

Tobi stops midstep, twisting around to face the girl. He’s standing at the base of the stairway of Kakashi’s apartment complex, studying her closely, wondering how in hell she managed to figure that one out.

She’s smiling easily, not a care in the world as she dangles the creased note before his face. “His handwriting,” she supplies matter-of-factly. “We’re teammates. Sort of.”

There’s a moment of dawning realization where Tobi is left gaping at her. He switches his attention from her to the second floor of the apartment and back again. “How do you put up with him?”

She laughs. It’s an easy sound, melodic to his ears, and he decides that he likes it. He likes her , for all that she’s a bit of a smart-mouth. Maybe that’s something she’s picked up from Kakashi, them being teammates and all. That means that she is—or at least was —one of Minato’s students. If he heard correctly, most ninja operate on three-man teams. He wonders if he’ll get to meet the last of the trio before he packs up and leaves.

Her laughter dies out. This time, her smile holds weight to it, but it’s not the kind that Tobi likes. It’s a heavy, burdened weight. “Kakashi tries,” she says, and there’s something more to her words that he’s just not getting. “He’s getting better. Even if it sometimes sounds like his people skills are being pulled out by force.”

“Aha!” He points an accusing finger at her, almost dropping the bags. There’s a lot of flailing to correct the impulsive move, a lot of overbalancing, and she looks endlessly amused. “I’m not the only one who noticed!”

She grins. “Kakashi’s people skills are pretty infamous. Sorry if he’s been a bother.”

Tobi rapidly shakes his head. Suddenly, it feels like he’s meeting his friend’s parent for the first time, like he needs to make a good impression. “No, he’s—he’s stupid and rude but he’s not, like… I mean, I don’t…” Tobi isn’t sure what he’s trying to say. His voice fades out, his eye goes down, and he’s left staring at their feet.

The girl seems to understand what he’s trying to say even when he doesn’t. She dips down until her face is falling within his line of sight, giving him a mysterious, knowing look. “I’m Rin, by the way.”

He doesn’t know why he feels a swell warmth at the sound of her name but doesn’t question it. It feels safe, assuring, and he just wants to wrap himself in that name and never let go.

“Tobi,” he breaths, smiling behind his mask.

When she decides to follow him up the stairs, he doesn’t protest. He quite likes it, in fact, and he’s sure that Kakashi will appreciate the company of someone so warm and sunshine-bright, too. For all that Kakashi is a quiet, distanced, professional ninja, he’s human, too. Somewhere. Somewhere deep down in his core.

Tobi kicks the door open and winces when it bounces hard against the doorstop with a loud, singsongy chime of, “I’m home!” He marches right on in, leaving Rin behind as she neatly takes off her shoes and organizes them on the mat at the front entrance, and dips his head into the living room. Lo and behold, Kakashi is sprawled across the couch with three pillows propped up against his back and a book in his lap. “Did’ya miss me?”

Kakashi doesn’t look up as he turns the page, his eye scrolling across it unperturbed as he lets out a non-committal hum. “Got lost?”

Tobi is very thankful for the mask. It hides behind it all of his insecurities. “ No ,” he spits, stomping over to the kitchen table to put down the bags with unnecessary fervor. Kakashi is a jerk, but the fact that there’s nothing said more cutting than a half-hearted tease is progress in and of itself. “Mission complete, Boss. What do you want for dinner?”

“Sukiyaki,” comes the simple answer.

Tobi pauses. Somewhere, deep in his subconscious memory, he’s able to retrieve something. It’s worn and vague, but he’s able to scrounge up enough information to feel certain that he can make it. He double checks the groceries as he puts them away—and throws out the few things that are smelling in the fridge—and assures that they have everything that they need. “Gotcha,” he affirms, grinning. He thinks that he likes cooking. He’s not entirely sure , doesn’t think he can be unless he gets some context to those memories, but thinks that it’s entirely possible.

Everything is away and organized and Tobi nods. He wonders if Kakashi wants tea, or… something. Or if Rin does. And he hasn’t tried tea, but maybe that’ll be a good excuse. He spins around, the offer hanging on his tongue—

“You need to be more careful ,” Rin hisses, voice raised and echoing through the mostly empty apartment. Kakashi doesn’t flinch, but his eye meets Tobi’s momentarily before averting. Which is weird, because Kakashi doesn’t avoid like that. Or didn’t. Not before. Tobi realizes that they’ve been talking for a while, that they’re halfway through a conversation that he’s oblivious to because he’s been too wrapped up in his own thoughts, and suddenly it feels like he’s being very intrusive. “What if you couldn’t get back?”

Kakashi’s eye is back on his book, but he’s not reading. “It doesn’t matter,” he says simply, “because I did.”

Rin looms over him with a scrunched up face and wavering eyes. “Kakashi,” she calls, low with warning, “that’s not how it works. Look how bad off you are. What if Lady Tsunade hadn’t returned? What if he ,” she throws a finger over her shoulder, “wasn’t there to bring you back?”

Kakashi’s eye narrows, just slightly, but he still doesn’t seem phased by what she’s saying. “I’m fine, Rin.”

Every line of Rin’s body sags at those words as she realizes that her own worry isn’t enough to sink beneath Kakashi’s skin. She sways in place before dropping down, taking a seat on the edge of a couch cushion. Her fingers interlock, elbows on her knees, and she stares at nothing. Sees nothing. “The war is over,” she says softly, somberly. “You don’t need to break your body anymore. So don’t. Please .”

Tobi is left standing alone in the kitchen, looking over the half-wall into the living room. The sun from the floor-to-ceiling window casts a haunting glow through the white curtains, making the whole room look dull and bright and endlessly surreal. Tobi watches the prone figures on the couch and feels something ache in his gut.

The quiet of the room feels so wrong, but he’s not brave enough to chase it away.


 

Rin sits on the stairs leading to the landing of the apartment. Tobi watches her from the railing, shifting and squirming as he tries to druge up ideas on what to say, how to cheer her up, because it feels so wrong to see her like that. But he doesn’t know her well enough to know what will work, has only just met her, and his confidence in making a difference is fading fast.

Tobi doesn’t know much about the complicated intricacies of close bonds, be they familial or friendship. The zetsu are simple, easy creatures. Grandpa is the closest Tobi ever got to one of those complicated relationships. He’s come to accept the fact that he really does care for Grandpa Madara, even if Grandpa is terrible and dead and terribly dead. He’s left wanting to fulfill Grandpa’s dream but with no real connection to it after seeing the world for himself. That’s the most complicated, difficult experience he’s ever had, but that and this are two very different things.

Eventually, he finds himself seated beside Rin. He doesn’t look, but can tell from the shifting and sniffling that she’s crying, wiping tears on the back of her sleeve before he can see. That’s okay. Tobi can relate to that. He doesn’t bring it up, just sits there rubbing the back of his neck and trying to come across as indifferent. Something about her crying knots his stomach, though, and he just wants to go back inside and beat Kakashi bloody for making her feel like this.

But, if he did, Tobi would feel endlessly guilty. Emotions are complicated and gross and he’s just awaiting that arm replacement so he can go back to his nice, uncomplicated life wandering around the whole of Fire Country without a care in the world.

Rin releases a shuddering breath. She’s composed now, sitting a little taller, eyes front and centre on the evening sun as it casts a golden wash across the world. “Our team fought in the war,” she says softly, takes a moment to gather up the will. “We had an important mission to carry out. It was Kakashi’s first jonin mission and one of us didn’t make it back. Sometimes, I’m… scared. That Kakashi will be the next person I lose.”

“Oh,” he nods, looking down at his hand, turning it over. There isn’t a third teammate, then.

“Minato-sensei is Hokage now,” she continues, “so Kakashi and I are the only ones left. We’re not really the same squad anymore. I’m a medic-nin, so I go on a lot of missions as a fill-in for different teams. And that’s fine. I don’t mind it. I’m pretty good, you know.”

Tobi glances over to look at her. He’s met with a bright-eyed grin and smiles behind his mask. That’s better, he thinks, releasing a breath he doesn’t know he’s holding. “Oh yeah? Maybe I should have you take a look at me, then.”

He waves his stump around. It makes her laugh, and for that laugh, any amount of self-deprecation is worth it.

“Regrowing limbs is a bit challenging,” she teases, winking, “but I’ll see what I can do.”

“What about eyes?” he continues, the threads of a joke on his tongue as he taps the side of his mask. “Because, lemme tell you, I’ve heard stories about depth perception and I am interested .”

She’s laughing more now and Tobi feels proud, so much prouder than when he’s with Kakashi. Now all he needs to do is keep her from finding out his endless personal shortcomings—all the things Kakashi saw on their journey together—and maybe he’ll feel good about himself.

“I have experience with transplants,” she says simply as the laughter dies down, tilting her head consideringly. Oh, wait, she’s actually considering it. He’s never thought that getting a replacement eye was a thing that he could do, and suddenly his interest is genuine and he leans in. “We might be able to find a donor. I would have to assess the area first, though, to be sure it’s viable.”

Tobi nods enthusiastically. “You really think you could—”

“If the nerves are able to be repaired,” she cautions. There’s a moment where her brows knit together and she looks left then right, studying his mask at different angles. “Can I see?”

Tobi pouts. He’s been losing his mask too much for his liking. But this… well. This is… He wants an eye. He definitely, certainly wants a second eye. Even if it doesn’t have the sharingan. Even if it’s someone else’s. “You sure? It’s pretty bad.”

Rin glares dully at him, arms crossed over her chest. “Tobi,” she sighs, “I’m a medic-nin .”

“Oh. Right.”

“Wounds don’t bother me,” she assures. “Scars don’t, either. I’m the one who transplanted Kakashi’s eye, you know. And that was a fresh wound.”

The topic at hand falls from thought and Tobi is left with the epiphany that Kakashi does, in fact, have an eye behind his hitai-ate. Beyond the momentary jealousy, Tobi wonders why it is still being hidden.

“Well?”

“Huh?”

Rin reaches over and taps the mask.

Right. They were discussing that. He doesn’t make to move, but Rin does. The fingers of her hand curl around the rim of his mask, brow arched in question.

He thinks about it. “‘Kay,” he mutters out, and it sounds a little shier than he would have liked.

She sighs, her face fond and soft. “Relax,” she urges.

He nods. It comes off stiffer than he would have liked.

The mask slides up slowly. He feels the edge run up along his chin and—

“Rival!”

Tobi jerks and grabs her wrist, lightly pulling it away as his head snaps to the side. Someone’s approaching, a stranger wearing the most absurd green monstrosity that Tobi has ever seen, running like there are demons on his heels. He skids to a halt at the gate to the complex and jumps over in one swift, fluid leap. Then he stops, his eyes finding Rin. There’s so much concern on his face that it’s almost pitiful.

“Rin!” he acknowledges, releasing a breath. His eyes are wavering and hopeful and all sorts of other contradictions wrapped up into one. “Is Kakashi okay? I heard—”

“He’s fine , Guy,” she assures, an exasperated smile on her lips. “Lady Tsunade guarantees he’ll make a full recovery if he doesn’t exacerbate his injuries.”

There are tears in the stranger’s eyes. Big, full-blown, unbridled tears. Oh dear. This kid is worse than Tobi.

“How fortunate!” he exclaims. “I feared that the Springtime of our Youth had met an untimely end!”

Rin laughs, light and easy, and rests her chin on her palm. Tobi’s mask is forgotten as she watches Guy’s wailing with fondness and amusement, and Tobi doesn’t know what to think. They don’t even seem to notice that he’s there anymore. But that’s okay. He listens, eases up, and supposes that there will be plenty of other chances to see to his eye.

“Thank you,” Rin says at the end of one of Guy’s tangents about budding youth and friendship. “For worrying. He needs more people like you in his life.”

Guy smiles. The tears are gone now, replaced with fierce optimism. He gives her a dramatic, over-the-top thumbs-up. “Kakashi is my Eternal Rival! I will be there for him whenever he is in need, no matter the cost!”

Rin grins. “How hip and cool of you.”

Tobi listens to their exchange with a swell of something in his chest. He’s envious, a bit, of Kakashi’s support. For a guy with such a terrible, horrible, no-good attitude and people skills on par with a sentient rock, Kakashi has a lot of people around him who care.

Tobi stares at his hand and considers it. He wonders if he’s included in that category now, too.


 

The fusing of his new arm feels stranger than usual. The cells pull together in the same way that they always do, but the new arm is stiff and rigid as he gives it the usual experimental flex. It’s stiff, but it’s better than nothing. The fingers all move individually, and he chalks up the difficulty to being without an arm for a good two weeks. Compared to his initial rehab after the accident, this is nothing.

Tsunade crosses her arms beneath her breasts and shifts her weight, smiling down at him. “So?” she prods, “how’s it feel? Good as new, right?”

Tobi realizes he’s grinning only when he sees Granny looking at him. His face tints red and he forces the grin down and away as he wiggles his fingers experimentally. “It’s okay ,” he corrects. “My other arm moved better.”

Tsunade flicks his forehead and he rubs it with his new arm, pouting.

“You need to adjust to it first, brat. Don’t expect it to be functioning at one hundred percent when you haven’t trained with it.”

“Yeah, yeah…” He knows that already. And even if it doesn’t get easier to move, which he’s pretty sure that it will , he’s still happy knowing that he won’t have to cook or get changed with just one arm anymore.

Tsunade snaps her fingers impatiently. “Now, come on. Mask off.”

Tobi immediately secures his mask with both hands and narrows an eye at her. “Why?”

“Rin told me,” she sighs. “You’re looking for a new eye, right? Well, let me assess the area. I’ll see if it’s viable.”

Oh. Right. They never did get around to the assessment. He sees Rin pretty frequently—she come over to berate Kakashi a lot, which is fun—but neither of them brought up the topic again. Tobi honestly forgot all about it until now, but the longer he thinks, the more he realizes that it really is something that he wants. It’s what he hates most about his battle scars.

Giving the old woman one last, lingering look, the mask slides off. He tosses it onto the hospital bed beside him and awaits the telltale flinch, the scrunched up face, but Tsunade instead leans in closer and assesses his scars with a critical eye. Her hand goes up, emitting a soft, green glow that acts as a comfort, and he feels his whole body slouch in relaxation.

Tsunade hums as she examines his nerves. “Well,” she huffs, “at the very least, your eyelids weren’t sealed shut.”

Tobi makes a face. “That sounds horribly disgusting and that is not okay.”

She rolls her eyes. “Yes, well. It’s what happens to a lot of shinobi in battle who can’t get access to a transplant. The muscles don’t contract properly without the eye, which leaves the socket as one gaping hole just waiting for infection. Whoever treated you must have thought that you would get a new eye eventually, and that it was worth the risk.”

Huh. He wonders if Grandpa Madara intended to find him an eye. Somehow, he doubts it.

“It can’t be done so long after the injury,” she continues.

Tobi feels his hope shrivel up and die and casts his eye to the floor. “Oh,” he says, and it’s the most dejected noise he’s ever made.

Unless ,” Tsunade winks, “you have Tsunade of the Sannin looking after you.”

He blinks, lifting his head to see Granny’s smile. “...Y’mean it?”

Tsunade’s hand pulls back, the glow of her chakra fizzles out, and she ruffles his hair. Her hand is warm and comforting, bringing with it so much good that Tobi is momentarily embarrassed. “Your nerves are in relatively good shape, despite everything. Now, it all depends on whether or not you’re willing to wait around for a donor.”

Tobi lifts a hand to run along his scars as he thinks it over. He intends to leave tomorrow, or maybe the next day, now that his arm is back. But if he wants an eye, he’ll have to push back his travels further. It could be a few days, it could be a few months. He isn’t sure how long he’s willing to wait.

Admittedly, though, living in a village isn’t the worst thing ever. Kakashi’s been weirdly quiet during their week together, but he’s also been, er… nice? Or has been trying to be nice? Rin is definitely nice, almost too nice, too good for someone like Kakashi for a teammate. And though Tobi hasn’t seen much of Minato and Kushina, he thinks… well. He’s not sure why, but they make him feel safe.

Grandpa Madara’s wish needs to be fulfilled, though. Tobi made a promise.

Tsunade sees his conflict and sighs, leaning against the wall. “It’s all up to you, kid. I can’t make that choice for you. This is a hidden village, so we have shinobi coming back daily with fatal injuries. We could have someone with a viable eye come in as soon as tomorrow, or as late as next May. And I don’t exactly…”

“What?”

She frowns, casting her attention to the floor. “I don’t plan on sticking around for very long. I left Konoha long ago. I never wanted to come back. But that damned fool Jiraiya—” She stops, reconsiders, and shakes her head. “That friend of yours, Rin. She wants me to teach her how to work on old injuries. I intend to do so. When the time comes, I’m confident that she’ll have the skills to give you your eye.”

Tobi thinks back to Rin, to the confidence exuding from her being, and smiles. Tobi believes those words, believes them wholeheartedly. Rin is amazing and Rin can do anything. He isn’t sure where that feeling comes from, feels like it’s rising up from a long-buried portion of his heart. It feels right , so right that he thinks that if it’s her, it’s worth the wait.

But Grandpa Madara is long dead, and Grandpa Madara’s wish needs fulfilling.

“I’ll think about it.”


 

He returns home to find the apartment unsurprisingly quiet. It’s always quiet, and if Kakashi weren’t partially immobile, Tobi’s pretty sure he’d never be home. He closes the door--with his shiny new arm, of course--and kicks off his shoes uncaringly, spinning around the dividing wall and peeking into the living room. Sure enough, Kakashi’s there, dark eye waiting for him. Tobi glares back, but it comes off a bit weak and he rolls his eyes.

“I’m home, Bakashi.” Tobi moves into the room and holds up his artificial arm, flexing his fingers in show of their mobility. “Pretty cool, huh?”

Kakashi lowers his attention back to his book and flips the page. His crutches lean against the armrest by his head, and he’s already gotten a lot better at moving around on his own with them. As expected of a prodigy. Tobi doesn’t know that Kakashi’s a prodigy, no one’s ever said so, but some things are pretty obvious with a little observation. “Must be nice, not having to wait for your body to heal.”

Tobi rolls his eye and counters, “Must be nice, being able to feel.”

Kakashi flinches. Tobi doesn’t expect him to flinch. Kakashi’s been a bit of a strange mess over the past week, even if they’ve both been trying to regain some sense of normalcy. Tobi hasn’t eaten with Kakashi again, for fear that history will repeat itself.

And now everything is awkward again.

Tobi drops down into the armchair across from the couch and melts into it, groaning as he weighs Granny Tsunade’s words in his head. He thinks he’s made his decision, but he needs to talk to Kakashi about it.

“You’re leaving, then,” Kakashi says. It’s a statement, not a question. Kakashi’s fixating on his book as though the world means nothing to him, but Obito’s starting to see past that facade. “Tomorrow.”

Tobi hums, closing his eye as he tests the waters, “I wanted to talk to you about that…”

“Mm?”

Tobi shoots back up and stares hard at Kakashi. Kakashi stares back. Tobi’s resolve falters, his eye averts to the empty wall by Kakashi’s head. A bleached white arm goes up to rub at the base of his neck as he tries lamely to grasp at his words. “I, uh… I was wondering if I could stay.”

He’s not looking, doesn’t see Kakashi’s face, but the silence is more than a little intimidating.

“Just ‘til they can get a donor for my eye!” he assures, flailing desperately for something to latch onto. Without Kakashi, Tobi has nowhere in the village to stay. He could ask Minato, or maybe Rin, but doesn’t want to impose. “I just--Granny’s gonna show Rin how to transplant on old injuries and, y’know, it’d be good practice for Rin… I mean, I want the eye, too, but um…”

Quiet, and Kakashi is often quiet, but not this quiet.

Tobi squeezes his eye shut tight. “Please just say something...”

“You can have mine,” Kakashi says, simple and cool. He presses a hand to the hitai-ate slanted across his forehead, touches the cloth above where his eye should be.

Tobi makes a face and leans in, scrutinizing his host openly. “The hell would I want your eye for, Bakashi? Are the painkillers getting to your head?”

Kakashi’s answer comes not in the form of words but action. He lifts the hitai-ate level on his forehead to reveal the spinning red glow of a sharingan eye beneath. Tobi scoots closer, gaping at the very familiar eye, and--and where did Kakashi get that? He couldn’t have been born with it.

Tobi grins and slips off his mask, activating his own sharingan. It cuts through the dusky shadows of the room. Everything looks crisp and clear and focused in a way that it normally does not, and he can feel the vaguest of pulls at what he assumes are his chakra reserves. Then, a noise of childish excitement escapes him.

“Hey, hey, Bakashi,” he calls with a voice a few octaves higher in excitement, “we match, look!”

Kakashi snorts and shakes his head, looking like someone just stabbed him in the gut. “Who’s fault is that?” he murmurs.

Tobi arches a brow. “What?”

“You can have it,” Kakashi states simply, bringing a hand up to touch the skin of his bottom eyelid. “This sharingan.”

Tobi frowns. “No. Why would I take your eye from you, Stupid?”

“So that you have two eyes,” Kakashi deadpans.

“I’m not taking one from someone who needs it,” he huffs. “I’ll take it from someone who can’t use it anymore. How’d you get that, anyway?”

Kakashi automatically closes the sharingan eye and sighs, sitting up fully. He places the book on the coffee table, closed, and the page isn’t marked. Tobi wonders if he was reading it at all. Kakashi makes to lean his weight on his legs but winces when the action disturbs his injuries and reconsiders. “A friend gave it to me,” he says, focused entirely on Tobi. “It’s a perfect match to yours, Tobi.”

“Then if—” He rises from his seat. Tobi isn’t good at sitting still. “If it’s a gift, why would you ever give it away? It was your teammate’s, right? Rin told me.”

Kakashi nods.

“Then have a little more respect for him, Bakashi!” he says, loudly , hands on his hips. He tries to put himself in the mind of that teammate, in the mind of someone so close to death that they know there’s no hope--focusing on Kakashi, on that cold, above-it-all asshole, wondering what they can give as a parting gift. Choosing to give away their precious eye, choosing to live in darkness in the last moments of their life—

He can’t see, his world gone dark long before his body finally gives itself away. The world rumbles around him, a warning to something soon to come, but he can’t bring himself to care. All of the pain is enough, he’s tired and sore and everything around him is cold and empty. The sound of shifting rocks is his second warning and he smiles. He’s so happy that he got to do something in the end, give him the gift that he deserves, because that jerk’ll no doubt put it to better use than he ever could. It’s bittersweet, though. He wishes he had more time with them. With everyone. He wishes he could see them again, one last time, despite the blindness the world has left him with.

The rocks drop down like a landslide and Tobi’s in the living room again, trying to settle his heavy breathing.

Tobi swallows back his panic and tries to hide it away. “He gave it to you for a reason. Don’t disrespect him for that.”

“Tobi,” Kakashi calls, sounding so much older, so much more tired than he ever has before. “Tobi, it’s a perfect match.”

“That’s great and all, but—”

Oh.

Oh.

It hits him like a rush of cold water and he doesn’t know what to say. He watches as Kakashi opens up the sharingan eye one more time and it looks painfully familiar. Tobi covers his mouth with his hand in a true look of horror as he scans Kakashi’s face for some sign that this is a joke, or that he’s assuming something entirely ridiculous, but there’s nothing. There’s nothing, and Kakashi is no liar.

He never has been.

Tobi swallows, reaching up to touch the line of his empty socket. “...You’re saying,” he breathes, “that’s… that’s mine .”

“It’s yours.”

“I—” He taps his chest almost frantically. “ I’m the teammate.”

“Yes.”

“The--the dead —”

Not dead.”

“Well, no, obviously not dead, but I--Rin, she—”

Breathe .”

Tobi knows that Kakashi’s advice worked wonders last time, so he breathes. Again, and again, working his way through the reeling thoughts and too-fast implications in his head, he breathes.

Boulders--crushing boulders, crushing him , falling rocks. He plays the hero, pushes someone--Kakashi, it had to have been--out of the way. Falling rocks, falling on him, body cold and breath watery. His whole right side, gone. Panicked, frantic faces looking down on him. Kakashi. Kakashi, frantic and worried and wanting this to be nothing more than some sick, twisted dream. Kakashi and Rin, the last faces he sees. His eye is gone and he is smiling. Bittersweet regret. But Kakashi will protect Rin, and they’ll see the world together.

They will see the world together .

Tobi realizes too soon that he’s not breathing again and hurries to correct that. It takes time, but the longer that passes, the easier it is to work through. He nods. It comes off a little manic, but he nods. He doesn’t remember more than that one horrifying moment, but it is enough. He understands.

Kakashi is watching him with soft, fond eyes. “Crybaby ninja.”

Tobi scrubs at his face when he feels the wet-hot tears falling down his cheeks and utters demands that his former teammate shut the hell up because he’s not crying , he’s got sand in his eye. Or something.

It’s only after he’s collected himself that he glares at Kakashi. Tobi marches over and pokes Kakashi’s chest with a finger. “What the hell , Bakashi?!” The ninja watches him with wide eyes as he pulls at the front of Kakashi’s shirt, bringing the rather limp body closer to glare at. “Now you’re trying to pawn off my sharingan?!”

Kakashi blinks. “I—”

“And after all the trouble Rin went through to transplant it?” he continues, narrowing his eye. “ After I died to give it to you ?!”

Kakashi swallows and can’t maintain eye contact any longer. “...You’re not dead.”

“No,” Tobi acknowledges, “I’m not. But you’re gonna be, if you even try to suggest that one more time.”

“It’s yours,” Kakashi whispers. “You deserve to have it back.”

Tobi jerks Kakashi in show of what he thinks of that . “I gave it to you .”

“But you want—”

“I thought my eye got crushed ,” he hisses and releases hold of Kakashi’s shirt. Tobi stands tall and firm, trying to counteract how small he feels. His mind is still going a mile a minute and the whole thing is making him feel dizzy. “I didn’t know I… gave it to a friend. If it means taking it back, I don’t need an eye.”

Kakashi slumps back on the couch cushion and says nothing. He looks so uncharacteristically small that it takes Tobi back a moment. There’s something so hard-edged and tired in his weary eyes, something so broken, and Tobi is… worried. He wonders what happened to Kakashi in the aftermath of his death.

There are questions, so many questions, but he doesn’t ask. Now isn’t the time, and both of them are more than a little emotionally affronted. They don’t need to shoulder more burden right now. That can come later-- much later.

Tobi sits down next to Kakashi and stares at his feet. Kakashi joins him in staring. The silence isn’t awkward, though, just… tired. Heavy, but also relieved. He nods to himself. “When I took off my mask. That’s why you were acting weird.”

Kakashi’s hands tangle together and he nods. “I thought it was a mistake. But those scars…”

“They matched where the rocks hit me,” he surmises. He chuckles, he can’t help it, even when he feels Kakashi watching him. “You’re a bad actor, y’know that, Bakashi? You’ve been so obvious about it.”

“Maa,” Kakashi hums, “at least I managed to keep a level head. I didn’t go running off to the market every morning after breakfast.”

Tobi twitches. “I was getting us food ,” he states matter-of-factly.

“You don’t need to eat.”

“I don’t , but I like to!”

“Oh?” There’s a smile behind Kakashi’s stupid face mask that feels a bit more patronizing, and a bit less unnerving. Natural. “You sure change your tune fast, Tobi.”

“Shut up, Bakashi!” Tobi rises to his feet and tries to repress his grin. He can’t, though, so he decides not to look back at Kakashi. He doesn’t want to give the jerk the satisfaction of seeing it. “Tea?”

“Ah,” Kakashi nods. He shifts, grabs the crutches, and follows Tobi to the kitchen.

The kettle is set to boil, the boys are seated across from one another at the table, and for the first time all week, things feel right.

They’re going to be okay.

Chapter Text

Tobi holds the picture frame delicately in one bleached white hand, the fingers of his other smoothing over the glass. He’s seated on Kakashi’s bed, the boy in question hovering over him—and though Kakashi appears calm, there’s something anxious beneath the surface. Artificial light casts across the picture, painting it in a tinge of false gold. Four faces stare back at him. Rin is a little smaller than she is now. Minato is looking the same as ever, a face unchanged in time. Kakashi’s face is hard, eyes steely, reminding Tobi so much of the day they met when a kunai was held up by shaking hands. There was something so cold about Kakashi that day, something that he couldn’t place before. The last face is the one that he focuses on, though.

Tobi pouts. “I used to be such a pretty boy.”

Kakashi rolls his eye. “You weren’t.”

“I was! Look—” He points to his pale, unmarred skin. He does his best not to cry. “Perfect skin. Smouldering eyes. Smouldering, Kakashi!”

Kakashi covers his face with his hands and his sigh is longsuffering.

Tobi pouts down at his old photo and raises one hand to his overgrown hair. He can see himself in the reflection of the glass, sees it and compares it to the grumpy face in the photo. Admittedly, he looks like a bit of a disaster right now, between the scars, the artificial limbs, untamed hair and empty eye socket. Now he’s getting jealous of a picture, which is utterly ridiculous and he knows it, but he’s jealous anyway.

“What was my old name, anyway?” he asks offhandedly. He isn’t sure he’ll use it, not yet, not when he’s still getting used to the idea that he actually has a background, but maybe one day. Then again, to throw away the name that Swirly gave him seems like a horrible thing to do.

“Obito,” Kakashi provides easily, adjusting his crutches to lower himself down on the bed as well. “Obito Uchiha.”

“A last name, too, huh? Fancy.” He snorts and looks up from the photo. “Does anyone else know?”

Kakashi shakes his head. “I thought it would make you uncomfortable. You don’t remember, and it’s not fair to push you back into your old life against your will.”

A slow grin curls across his face and he nudges the ninja. “You’re not half-bad. I’m speechless.”

The glare he receives is worth it.

Tobi places the picture frame back on the nightstand with the utmost care and gives Kakashi’s room a cursory glance. No personal effects in here, either. Kakashi is one bland, empty human being. Not that Tobi has any room to talk; back at Grandpa Madara’s place, he didn’t own a single damn thing. “Thanks. Really. I appreciate it.”

Kakashi averts his eye, because emotional confrontation is not something that he does, and lets out a noncommittal noise.

“Let’s wait to say anything. I wanna get used to the idea first.”

“Okay.”

Tobi grins and leans over to ruffle Kakashi’s hair. “What a good ninja.” He expects it when his hand is slapped away. He also expects the glare.

Worth it.

He shifts and crosses his legs atop the mattress. It’s been a good few hours. Things have settled enough that it feels safe to start with the questions. Just a few, just to sate his curiosities. “What was I like?” is the first thing to escape his mouth. He knows he’ll probably regret it, but it’s been nagging at him consistently and he needs some answers now, before he gets too antsy.

Kakashi is quiet. Then he closes his eye and hums. “Louder,” he says finally. “Less calm. Quick to anger.”

Tobi pouts. He expected fond, rose-coloured words of praise. If he twists the words around just right, though, it almost sounds like Kakashi’s complimenting the current him.

“You were infatuated with Rin.”

“Really?”

“Ah,” he nods. “You got jealous whenever her attention was on me. A big show-off with little to back up your words. Always late, and you always had the same, stupid excuses…”

Tobi twitches. “Making me sound like a real hero there, Bakashi.”

“You were, though.”

He blinks.

Kakashi is still looking away, hasn’t dared to make eye contact once in the several minutes that make up their conversation. It looks like the words are being pulled out of him by force, which is so stupid and so familiar and so stupidly familiar that Tobi just has to sigh and accept it. Kakashi’s just like that. “Maa, you’re the reason Rin and I are still here.”

Tobi’s mind is brought back to the crushing weight of boulders. He remembers something—the flash of an enemy hitai-ate scattered across his fragmented memories. Rin was… something happened with Rin. He doesn’t know what, but there’s a lingering feeling of dread that he just can’t stamp down.

He doesn’t remember much, but he knows well enough that Kakashi has changed. Kakashi is trying to change. And that…

That means something.

 


 

Tobi is nervous. Tobi is always nervous, apparently, now that he knows that they know him. Not that they realize it, of course. And he's endlessly thankful to Kakashi for that, for keeping his word and not saying anything.

Even if the look in Kakashi's single showing eye is one of unbridled amusement.

Tobi sits on a red sofa with his back painfully straight and attention firmly on the wall. He feels the glances of the people milling about the room but doesn't address them. His mask is doing well to hide the unsteady look in his eye and the anxiety on his face, but it does little for the body language that is speaking volumes of the same.

Minato and Kushina's place is a hell of a lot bigger than Kakashi's dingy little apartment. There's a full kitchen and a separate dining room, and he can smell something heavenly waft into the living room from whatever his former sensei is preparing, something exquisit. The pink apron is a nice touch.

He’s not sure what he did to get invited to dinner or why he deserves to be treated by the head of the village. They don’t know who he is—Kakashi promises that they don’t know—and all he’s done is carry Kakashi on his back to Konoha which, while more adventure than he’s seen in a lifetime, doesn’t amount to much. When he was invited, he didn’t really want to come. Rin pouted at him and tried to coerce him into it with offerings of a free meal, but Tobi was perfectly content mooching off of Tsunade’s one-legged patient.

Then Kakashi gave him a look and he caved.

Now, he’s sitting across from Rin and Kushina who are yammering on about a new shop that opened up in the Eastern District. Kakashi is, as per the norm, off brooding in a corner of the room. Then, as the girls’ chat devolves into something meaningful, Kakashi politely excuses himself to assist Minato in the kitchen.

Tobi is abandoned. Tobi does not like being abandoned. Tobi is going to burn Kakashi’s breakfast tomorrow morning.

A long breath escapes Kushina as she sinks back into the sofa, her arms hanging across the back as she closes her eyes. There’s something so serene about her pale skin, broken by strands of vibrant, cascading red. She’s smiling, and it’s pleasant to see. “It’s so quiet these days.”

Rin twists around to stare at the pictures on the wall—half a dozen framed and neatly organized into a visible representation of the couple’s affections. Team Minato is there, centrefold—the same photograph that Tobi saw in Kakashi’s bedroom. There’s another next to it—the day Minato became Hokage. He’s wearing a stupid-looking hat and he’s smiling, Kushina’s arms wrapped around him in the tightest bone-crushing hug that she can manage. Kakashi stands next to them, face as impassive as ever, sharingan hidden from the world, and Rin is grinning wide and bright, as she always should be.

Rin is smiling now, too. It isn’t as bright, or as warm. “Well,” she says softly, “Obito was a bit of a loudmouth.”

Tobi does his best not to flinch.

Kushina laughs, loud and hearty as her head dips back and she faces the ceiling. “Understatement. I swear the deaf could hear that kid.”

Tobi’s not entirely sure he wants to sit here and be mocked. He gets enough of that with Bakashi.

“I miss it.”

Rin nods, fiddling with the fabric of her sleeve. “Hard not to.”

Oh, well now he just feels bad.

Kushina shoots forward and claps her hands together, resting her weight on her knees as she grins at Tobi. Whatever somber mood they built up is now gone, the sad memories of a fallen comrade cast to the wayside, and Tobi couldn’t be more grateful. “So. Tobi. Tell me a bit about yourself.”

Tobi is entirely, wholeheartedly, unsure of what the hell he should say. “Um.”

“C’mon,” Kushina urges, reaching out a hand to poke the artificial skin of his right arm. There’s something devious in her eyes that he’s not sure he should trust. “Stuff like, where you’re from, your family—stuff like that, y’know?”

He reaches behind to rub the back of his neck and shifts as he thinks. “I’m from, um,” he looks around. Here , technically, but he’s not ready to commit to the implications of saying that. He thinks back to that dark, empty cavern where he first opened his eye, Grandpa’s face staring down at his. “I dunno. Grandpa found me. After the accident, I guess.”

The redhead takes one long, lingering look at him, settling her eyes on his pale arm, and decides to leave it there. Tobi is immensely grateful that she doesn’t prod further because he’s not sure what he’ll say.

Rin casts a glance into the kitchen. From this angle, they can just make out Kakashi sitting at the small table there, expertly mincing vegetables. Huh. So the brooding bastard can cook, too. Tobi should have expected as much. “Mmm, what about… How did you meet Kakashi?”

“Oh, um…” This feels like a test that he didn’t study for. He thinks back to the field of bodies left behind, the weight secure in his arms, a dark eye glaring at him as they put some distance between the unconscious enemy and themselves. “He was being attacked. And he was not winning.” He grins behind the mask and puffs out his chest. “So I, valiant hero that I am, swoop down and—”

“He beat up some Kiri-nin and carried me into the middle of nowhere,” Kakashi’s voice carries from the kitchen, contained within a very clear warning not to embellish. When they look up, they see Kakashi leaning back as far as he can in his chair to glare at Tobi, unimpressed.

Tobi huffs and crosses his arms. “Such a romantic.”

“Overuse of my sharingan left me near chakra exhaustion,” he continues. “I was outnumbered and my teammates were dead.”

Oh. Tobi didn’t realize that Kakashi had anyone with him. Now he feels worse because they left some of Kakashi’s comrades behind. If he had known

Honestly, nothing could have been done. There is no way that he could have carried the dead weight of corpses on top of Kakashi’s own.

Kakashi points violently his way, and it tears him from unnecessary rumination. “I had to walk him through first-aid procedures. Forget the fact that I’d experienced substantial blood loss and chakra exhaustion left me all but unable to move. In summary: he's useless.”

Harsh…

Rin shares with him sympathies from across the table while Kushina laughs, boisterous and amused.

“Sounds like you two had quite the adventure. I wanna hear all about it.” There's a sound from the kitchen, something like a bell. “ Later .”

Kushina's to her feet in a flourish and disappears behind the kitchen wall, leaving Tobi in the solitary company of Rin. He's okay with that. He likes Rin. He won’t go so far as to say he’s infatuated with Rin the way that Kakashi claims that he used to be, but she’s good company. A good medic-nin. An amazing person.

Okay, he really likes Rin. But not in that way.

“You’re getting picked on a lot lately,” she teases with warm eyes as she arches a brow. “Are you going to let him talk about you like that?”

Tobi rubs the back of his neck and looks anywhere but her. “Well, I mean,” he clears his throat, “he’s not wrong…”

Rin hides a laugh behind her sleeve. She looks to be endlessly enjoying this. “Well, you’re honest. That has to count for something.” She nods to his latest model of artificial cells. “How’s the arm?”

Just to reconfirm, Tobi flexes and rolls his wrist. He touches the pad of each finger to his thumb in quick succession and feels a delay that’s become his norm recently. “Getting there,” he decides with a sigh. “Not half as good as the last one, but not bad.”

“And your eye?”

Immediately, his hand goes up to the left half of his mask and he thinks back to Tsunade’s offer. He shuffles through memories of his time in Kakashi’s apartment, to their heated conversation just two days ago, and grins. “I’m gonna wait for a donor,” he decides. “You better take good care of me when we find one.”

Rin raises her arm in a mock salute. “You got it, Boss.”

He laughs. He’s not sure why, but he laughs.

Kakashi isn’t the only one who’s changed. He doesn’t remember what Rin was like before, but there’s something different about the way she carries herself, the confidence that she exudes. It’s brilliant .

They're called to dinner half an hour later. A meal fit for the Hokage—fitting, as the Hokage made it—is spread out across the table, looking finer than anything Tobi's managed to put together over the past few weeks. The aroma soaking up the air is positively heavenly and Tobi can't wait to tear into it and taste everything for himself, but—

The mask. He can't.

There's no real reason that Tobi is holding off on saying anything to the rest of them other than knowing just how intense an interaction it could be. He remembers the look of abject horror on Kakashi's face the day that Kakashi made the connection of who he was and the day they had their talk. This doesn't seem the time or place for another confrontation. So, when everyone else starts filling their plates, Tobi remains still.

Minato arches a brow at him. “You're not having any, Tobi?”

Suddenly, Kushina's eyes are on him, ready to go in for the kill.

“I ate before we left?” he tries. It doesn't sound convincing, even to him. “I'm fine, really.”

Kushina disagrees. She stomps around to his side of the table and starts packing his plate with every dish they have. Soon, it's so full that the white of the plate is no longer visible. He feels sick just looking at it all. “Oh no you don't,” she hisses, her face scrunched up in several layers of disapproval. “You are not skipping meals, Mister. Look how scrawny you are! You're skin and bones. A strong breeze could knock you over.”

Tobi doesn't appreciate the poke to the ribs. Or the several others that follow. He huffs and crossed his arms, sticking up his nose. “I'm fine . I was strong enough to carry Kakashi all the way here, wasn't I?”

“Oh, so now you're using Kakashi as back-up?” She lets out a loud snort, hands on her hips. “This little shit's no better than you are, Punk. Ever since he joined AN—” She frowns, cuts herself off. “Lately, he seems to think food pills are the be all, end all.”

Kakashi, in an act of rebellion, closes his eye and sips his tea. His mask is still on, pushed down a little lower to show his lips. They all know his face, apparently. And here Tobi was, thinking he was special.

The hell are food pills, anyhow?

Tobi is getting distracted. He looks past Kushina to the freaking Hokage for assistance, but all he gets is a sympathetic smile. Tobi knows, then, that he's picking a fight with the wrong person. Not even Minato is willing to help?

“I ate before I came,” he repeats in a stutter, sounding even more pathetic than the last.

Kushina smiles. It is not a kind smile. “Oh yeah, tough guy?” She leans in close and suddenly she's all that Tobi can see. “Look me in the eyes and say that.”

Tobi can't. He's a horrible liar, and it's taking everything for him not to look away as is. Kushina is a scary lady. But he's always one for a challenge. He swallows and faces forward as best he can. “I already ate!”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah!”

“Then why don't I believe you?”

“...Shut up!”

A heaved sigh breaks them of their venomous back-and-forth and they face the source. Kakashi is there, gathering Tobi's plate and his own. He rises from his seat and nods to the entranceway of the living room.

Tobi blinks. “Kakashi?”

“Come on, Tobi. It's too noisy over here.”

He doesn't wait. He's gone before Tobi can reply, and Tobi blinks back at the rest of them questioningly.

Minato and Kushina exchange unspoken words.

“He's not normally like that,” Rin explains, picking at her food. “He usually likes eating with everyone. Even if he doesn't say it.”

Oh. Kakashi is doing this for Tobi, giving him an out. He grins, not that anyone can see. But now they're worried about Kakashi, and it's Tobi's fault, and he's starting to have an intimate understanding of guilt.

Minato smiles, though, even when the others do not. “Well,” he breathes, leaning forward to rest his arms on the back of his wife's chair, “it’s been a long time since dinner was this lively. It might be bringing back some old memories.”

Kushina hangs her head.

“He'll be fine,” Minato assures, smoothing circles into Kushina's back. “Let's give him some space.”

She reaches up, tangling his fingers within her own, and sighs. “Yeah,” she says. “Okay.”

There's a strange mix of tension and calm in the air and Tobi is a coward. He excuses himself with a polite bow—Kakashi is teaching him manners because manners are important—and makes his escape into the living room. Kakashi is there, mask down, seated cross-legged on the sofa, taking small, controlled bites of his food. Their eyes meet. Kakashi nods him over.

Tobi's mask goes up and he takes his place next to his roommate, wasting no time in devouring the food Kushina piled onto his plate. It’s amazing and heavenly and everything he hoped it would be. He's not crying. There's sand in his eyes.

He's not crying, and Kakashi's not smiling.

“Is it good?” Kakashi asks, leaning back in his seat.

Tobi nods furiously and pulls off the mask to scrub at his eyes.

“Crybaby ninja.”

“Shut up, Bakashi! I’m not a ninja,” he cries, though he realizes that he used to be, and isn’t that just the strangest thing?

Kakashi doesn’t protest, his eyes falling to the picture of their team on the wall. Their team. And isn’t that the strangest, most beautiful thing?

Theirs.

“You always fought with Kushina,” he says softly. “But you liked her food more than anyone.”

Tobi sniffs and clears the last of his plate, and he’s full, so, so full, but wants more anyway. “It’s really good.”

Kakashi arched an amused brow. “Minato-sensei made that.”

Tobi blinked, looking down at the remnants on his empty plate. “Then… hers is even better? How’s that possible?!”

Kakashi shrugs and slaps away Tobi’s hand before he can steal any food.

The room is calm and peaceful as Kakashi cleans off the last of his meal, too, but Tobi is certain that the same can’t be said for those in the kitchen and that guilt is still following him like a lead weight. “They’re worried about you.”

“Ah,” Kakashi nods, wiping his mouth. “I know.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be.” He looks up, tapping his cheek. “It would have been a bad time for this to come off.”

Tobi stares at his roommate with big eyes, watching the soft, eased lines of Kakashi’s face. He wonders what Obito ever did to deserve a friend like that. He wonders how he deserves that friend now, when he’s done nothing but freeload and leech off Kakashi for the past few weeks. And he wonders what he can do to make it up to Kakashi.

“Soon,” he resolves, swallowing back uncertainty.

Kakashi searches his face and smiles. “Soon.”

 


 

Tobi isn’t sure why he has to attend a team training session. Sure, he’s technically a part of the team. Or was. At some point in his life. Before Grandpa Madara, the crazy old bastard who lived in a cave with a horde of plant people, picked him up and sewed him back together with gross white goo. Put like that, his entire backstory sounds absurd and he’s pretty sure Obito, at least, comes from a world that makes sense. The only one who knows his identity is Kakashi, though, so the fact that he’s Obito is a moot point.

This is team training for a team that doesn’t exist anymore: Obito is dead; Kakashi is, apparently, in this thing called ANBU or something; Rin is a medic-nin that team hops; and Minato is the freakin’ Hokage. There’s nothing left of Team Minato but remnants of the past. It’s sad, and perhaps a little sweet, seeing them get together like that despite the many roads life’s taken them down. Even if they can’t actually be a team anymore, they still are. Always will be.

Tobi doesn’t honestly know what any of that means, though, because he can’t say that he has a single damn memory of working with the lot. Oh well.

Kakashi is forced to sit this session out. His leg is healing, but he’s stuck on crutches. He sits on the edge of the training ground monument—the memorial stone—and Tobi joins him there, watching Minato dodge the torrents of water sent his way. Rin is his opponent, standing tall and firm on the field with her hands pressed together in one of those weird signs. Out of nowhere, Minato’s body just—just vanishes , just like that, and then he’s behind Rin and it’s so amazing and cool and where can Tobi learn to do that?!

His face flushes and he clears his throat when he notices Kakashi watching him. “N-not bad,” he says decisively, crossing his arms. “I-I could do that.”

Kakashi is amused, even if it doesn’t ring true through his voice. “Ah. You can.”

“Seriously?!”

“All of us can,” Kakashi shrugs. “It’s a low level technique. Any shinobi can do it; it’s how you utilize it that’s important.”

“That so?” Tobi goes back to watching the fight, leaning forward. Kunai shoot through the air and hit Rin in the stomach—and then she just vanishes, as though she was never there in the first place. Like magic. They claim to be ninjas, but Tobi is pretty sure that’s just code for ‘wizards’ by this point. It’s stunning to see, though, like a well-choreographed dance. But with more sharp, pointy objects. And occasionally, bullets of water. Or blades of wind. Or, well, uncontrollable fire . He can’t take his eye off of it.

“Do you want to learn?” Kakashi asks quietly.

“Hm?”

“Ninjutsu.”

“Oh.” He cocks his head to the side and thinks. “Mmm… maybe… It’s cool an’ stuff. But I’m not really a ninja. I don’t like hurting people.”

“You saved me, though.”

Tobi shrugs helplessly, fiddling with his sleeve. He’s wearing Kakashi’s clothes because he only has one set of his own. They feel tight, a bit constricting in comparison to the loose, breathable materials he often fancies. “You needed help.”

Kakashi sighs, but leaves it there. Tobi is grateful.

When he looks back up, Rin is on the ground with a kunai to her throat, holding up her hands in defeat. Minato smiles and helps her up, then turns his attention back to the pair seated at the monument stone, brow raised with some uncharacteristically cocky look in his eyes. Normally, Minato is a soft, kind, sensible man. Overconfidence is his wife’s department, something that Tobi is coming to know intimately well. Maybe he just wants to show off for the new addition to their team.

There’s that word again. Theirs. As though Tobi has any place on that team. It’s weird, this feeling of want that comes with that word, this desire for it to be affirmed. That little family is growing on him, he hates to admit.

Tobi realizes belatedly that it’s him who Minato’s focusing on. His eye widens and he points to himself, questioning that look.

Minato nods. “Come on, Tobi. You want to give it a try?”

“Me?”

“Well,” Minato’s grin widens, “I don’t see Kakashi up and moving anytime soon. C’mon. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Tobi hunches his back and tries to appear small, as though that would make his sensei forget that he’s there. It lasts all of five seconds before he’s sputtering, being pulled to his feet by an eager Rin, and he doesn’t have the heart to fight against her encouragement. She’s smiling at him in that warm, pleasant way that she does, with a look that says ‘I believe in you.’ How the heck is he supposed to say ‘no’ to that?

“Just try, Tobi!” She grins, “Minato-sensei will go easy on you. He knows you’re not a fighter.”

Soon, he’s standing before the rather intimidating figure of the head of the village, feeling all sorts of small. Minato’s maintaining that friendly look of his, though, cocking his head to the side. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

Rin blinks. “But he’s not a ninja.”

“Perhaps not,” Minato hums, watching Tobi curiously. “But you don’t have to be a ninja to be strong. Isn’t that right, Tobi?”

Tobi pouts. This feels like another test. “How would I know, Sensei?”

Minato laughs and ruffles his hair, giving time for Rin to retreat to the sidelines. He takes a few steps back and places his hands on his hips. “Start whenever your ready.”

Tobi shuffles awkwardly on his feet. How the heck does a spar start, anyway? Is just just—does he just throw a punch, or something? Kick Minato in the shin and run away? Tobi is very, very confused. Minato is waiting there patiently, but all he can think to do is—

His body moves before his brain does and he leaps into the air, flipping back and around. He narrowly avoids a spray of shuriken and traces their trail with his sharingan eye to the memorial stone. There Kakashi sits, looking every bit smug even with three quarters of his face hidden by cloth. Kakashi’s eye arches into a pleased smile and he waves. Patronizingly.

“What the hell , Bakashi?!”

“Oh look,” Kakashi shouts back, “you dodged. Fancy that.”

“Why you—”

Tobi blinks, his feet hitting the ground with a heavy thud. Huh. He did dodge. Muscle memory? Is that what this is? He grins and damn, for all that Kakashi pisses him off, he’s sure as hell grateful right now. Maybe he can look a little cool in front of his ninja buddies before he gets his ass handed to him.

Tobi launches forward and instinct kicks in straight away. He reaches for shuriken—except that he doesn’t have shuriken and curses. He has no weapons at all.

Rin must see him groping around because she cups her mouth and shouts, “Taijutsu, Tobi!”

What the hell is a taijutsu and how does he get one?!

Suddenly, he’s right before his sensei. It’s now or never. With a beautiful myriad of horrible words buzzing through his mind like a foul-mouthed song, Tobi leaps into the air and shoots downward with a drop-kick that’s easily blocked by Minato’s forearm. Minato smiles that pleasant, teacherly smile right before he takes one swing and sends Tobi flying into a tree.

Shit shit shit—

He twists in the air and bends his knees and lands along the side of the tree trunk, releasing an easy breath. Safe . Except that he isn’t safe; he’s standing on the side of a tree . The moment he realizes, he yelps and flails and his feet come unstuck, sending him dropping to the ground in a heap of limbs. Tobi groans, makes to rub his head, but the damn mask is in the way. His face feels hot beneath it, moist from his breathing, and a part of him just wants the stupid hunk of wood off .

Minato whistles from across the field. “That’s some pretty decent chakra control, for a civilian. Good job.”

Tobi pouts. He’s pretty sure that’s supposed to be encouraging, but it sounds somewhat patronizing. His eyes fall downwards, though, catching on the reflective light bouncing off of a shuriken in the grass. “Chakra what-now?”

“Chakra control,” Minato repeats. “You see, there’s a system—”

But Tobi is not about to wait around for a lecture. He’s launching himself again, arm reeled back, and sends the shuriken forward. Minato avoids it; no surprise there. But the moment Minato turns back to him, Tobi sends his fist forward with a triumphant grin. It lands, and he’s about to sing victory when the body vanishes in a puff of smoke.

“What the hell , Sensei?!”

Rin laughs. “Shadow clone, Tobi. Keep trying! You can do it!”

Tobi feels his face heat up and pouts as he lands back on solid ground. At this rate, he’s never going to hear the end of it from Kakashi. He needs to land at least one hit if he doesn’t want to be teased for the duration of his stay.

But now, he doesn’t even know where Minato is.

“Sensei,” he whines. “I don’t think this is very fair! I don’t know how to do all of that weird ninja crap!”

“Sorry.” Tobi nearly jumps out of his skin when he hears the voice from above and stumbles back, staring wide-eyed up at the tree branch that Minato is crouched on, smiling. Minato looks a bit embarrassed, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’ll try to go easier on you.”

When put like that, it makes Tobi feel just as embarrassed as Minato looks.

Minato jumps down and closes the distance between them. He sends his first punch forward but Tobi levers himself over his arm and vaults off to put some distance between them. Somehow, he doesn’t think a kid his age is going to have any advantage over a full-grown adult, let alone the Hokage. As he skids to a halt, his hands twitch. He thinks back to a ball of fire shooting across an unlit campfire, recalls the way that he marvelled at the sight. If he had something like that, maybe he would stand a chance. If he could use that cool fire thing, maybe he’d shock Minato into letting down his guard.

What were the hand signs for it, exactly?

Minato runs at him and he grins, feeling something pool in his gut as he shifts from one sign to the next. With one big, deep breath, he sucks in all the air that he can and then releases. Flames shoot forth and Minato’s eyes widen.

Minato leaps away, just beyond their reach, but the path they take is paved with destruction. By the time they fizzle out, there’s a line of charred earth stretching between the two opponents. Okay, so Tobi didn’t get him with it. But that was probably the coolest thing ever and he bets that everyone is super impressed—

His mask is on fire. It’s wooden. Oh dear.

Tobi throws off the mask. It lands in the dirt and the flames are snuffed out by the dew of the grass, but he doesn’t care about that. His goal still stands: he needs to land one blow on Sensei. Just one. One, and he’ll be satisfied. With determination coursing through his veins, Tobi cracks his knuckles and grins. He runs and brings his hands together in the same seal and breathes out another torrent of fire. Minato almost doesn’t dodge this time. Minato’s eyes are wide and unfocused, his jaw slack. Then he’s leaping over the flames and turning in the air, landing behind Tobi.

Minato doesn’t attack. Well, good news for Tobi, then, right? He twists around and slides, foot jutting out, and manages to get Minato in the shin. There’s a wince, but Minato doesn’t seem to care.

Tobi pants and breaks out into the widest of grins as triumphant words fall to the tip of his tongue, but they’re stuck. They’re stuck, because something is not right and Minato is looking at him strangely.

“...What’s wrong?”

His smile is gone now. All he feels is this horrible, crippling sense of foreboding. He twists around to get a look at Rin, searching for some sort of explanation. Her eyes are blown wide, hands covering her mouth, and everything feels so wrong that Tobi can’t help but take a step back.

“...Why are you crying? Rin?”

Then he sees Kakashi. Kakashi is calm, his gaze level. He’s the one constant that Tobi can latch onto, the only one that he can rely on for some sort of explanation. Kakashi is holding Rin by the shoulders, keeping her there as he nods to the grass. Tobi follows the motion, and—

Oh. The mask.

A shaky hand comes up to feel the scars on his face and for a moment, he’s pretty sure his heart stops.

“Um.” He looks between them, taking another step back, unsure of how he should tackle this situation. There's a ghost of a smile on his face. He braces himself for questions. He doesn’t have answers, doesn't know how to respond, but knows they're coming anyway.

Rin wrenches herself free and tackles him, arms spread wide. He stumbles back but manages to balance, the girl wrapped tightly around him. Quiet, shaking sobs rise up by his ear and he shivers, slowly returning her embrace.

“H-hey,” he stutters, “c'mon, why the tears?”

“Shut up!” He winces. Now his ear is ringing. “Just—just shut up, Obito. Just sh-shut up for a sec…”

“Tobi,” he corrects in a whisper, and if she doesn't hear him then that's okay. Past her head, he can see Minato's face finally settling. There's no smile, no tears, but something fond and warm in the lines of his eyes. He approaches. Soon he's towering over them, his shadow blocking out the sun, and then he crouches down.

Tobi's never had two people hugging him before. It feels weird and gross and amazing and wonderful. He can't help it if his face flushes.

Now Rin's crying even harder. Oh dear. He cranes his neck around the two bodies to Kakashi with silent pleads for help. Kakashi shakes his head, crosses his arms, leans back against the memorial stone and gets comfortable.

Kakashi's going to be eating charcoal for a week .

Minato is the first to pull back, his calloused hands cupping Tobi's cheeks, turning Tobi’s head this way and that, and he lets out a small, broken laugh. “Look at you,” he breathes. “You're so big now. What happened?”

Tobi manages to detangle one of his arms from Rin's hold to rub the back of his neck. “Um. Time, I guess? I don't…” He pleads with Kakashi again to no avail. How does he tackle this? Head-on. Rip off the bandage, get it over with. “I don’t remember nothin’. For the record. Kakashi filled me in. Um. Sorry.”

Minato nods. There's no shock, no sorrow, just calm understanding. Rin holds on tighter, if that's possible. “I assumed.”

“Huh?”

His sensei grins, sunshine bright and looking uncharacteristically smug. “Your voice. Your mannerisms, even. And Kakashi took to you awfully quickly, don’t you think? I had a hunch.”

Oh. Huh. That… that's good. That's great. That makes things so much easier .

But a hunch is one thing. Seeing it come to life is another. Tobi can see the tremble of Minato's fingers, even when Minato's voice is level and calm. He's incredibly grateful. He breathes in, deep and full, and smiles.

Rin finally pulls her face from his chest and big, watery eyes stare up at him. She sucks in a hitching breath, scrubs at her tears, and searches his face for—for something . Recognition. She doesn’t find it, but she doesn't seem to care, either. “You're—Obito? You're really…”

“Tobi,” he corrects again, but he doesn't mind all that much. She can call him Obito if she wants. Anything for Rin.

A pale hand comes up, runs through his hair, and she laughs. “L-look at you. When was the last time you cut your hair?”

Tobi closes his eye and hums, as though he needs to think on it. He doesn't, but it's worth it for her eyeroll. “When I was last in the village, probably.”

She laughs again and her hand falls back around him, her forehead resting on his shoulder. “ Sage, I've missed you. You big idiot.” She lingers there for a passing moment before shooting back up, waving Kakashi over. “Kakashi! It's Obito! It's really him!”

Kakashi gives her his best poker face and an accompanying thumbs-up. The bastard.

Tobi puffs out his chest and points an accusatory finger his roommate's way. “Yeah, Bakashi! Obito's back! Where're you're tears, huh? You heartless bastard!”

The look he gets promises death nine different ways and it's entirely worth it.

 


 

Kushina is the scariest person to tell. There are no words and no tears, no half-baked explanations or demands for where Tobi’s been and why he never came back. Kushina’s judgement is a silent one. She gathers Tobi in her arms like something precious and holds him there, tightly, and just breathes. Tobi’s there for so long that time no longer feels relevant. He doesn’t mind it, really, even if he’s spent the least time with Kushina out of the lot of them. Even if she’s more than a little intimidating, and even if he’s most worried about what she’s going to say once the questions start. He lets her keep him there for as long as she needs to, and yes, it’s awkward. Yes, he’s nervous. But he’s feeling so many other things at once, too, and it’s… kind of nice. A bit.

Not that he would ever say that.

Kushina only pulls away when her strength starts to fail her. She falls back, crouched before him, looking up with starlight eyes and a motherly smile. Tobi doesn’t know what a mother should be, what they do or how they act, but he thinks that whatever it is, Kushina is it. She brushes overgrown strands of hair from his face. The pad of her thumb traces over the bumps and ridges of his scarred cheek. She isn’t bothered by those scars. She looks them over with complete understanding, with an acceptance that Tobi’s never seen before, and doesn’t shy away. “Welcome home.”

Tobi is all sorts of shy and he doesn’t know why, but he can’t look at her directly.

When the moment reaches its close, Kushina pushes to her feet, ruffles his hair, and grins. “Well,” she sighs, “you promised to come back in one piece , but I’ll let you off the hook this time, alright, tough guy?”

Tobi swallows. Whatever promise she’s talking about, he hasn’t a clue.

“I’m grateful that you came back at all,” she says, so uncharacteristically soft that it doesn’t sound like Kushina. Then she claps her hands, the moment ends, and her eyes alight with mischief. “You better damn-well eat dinner, Tobi. Get comfy, because your ass isn’t getting out of that chair until you’ve cleaned your plate.”

Kushina still calls him Tobi. He doesn’t deserve it, but she does it anyway. And as the cheerful noise of light conversation drowns out the silence, as the scraping of cutlery against plates beats a steady rhythm across the table, Tobi looks at these people with stinging eyes and clenched fists. He’s not crying. It’s the onions. Kushina cooked onions. He’s not crying, Kakashi’s not rolling his eyes and Rin’s not teasing him about it.

This is a good family, he thinks. This is his family, and it’s one of the strangest, most beautiful things that he’s ever seen.

 


 

Tobi isn’t good at sitting still, especially with Rin staring very intently at him. He shifts and fidgets and huffs at her scoldings, sticks up his nose at her lectures. It’s not his fault that she’s looking at him with such intensity. It’s not his fault that he can’t help but stare back.

Rin rolls her eyes and moves around the chair, directly behind him. She sections off his hair and combs through it gently, getting out the nasty tangles that have been his norm ever since sometime after Grandpa died. His hair is a bit of a disaster. He knows this because he lives with it. It’s uneven and wild. He doesn’t bother to tie it back because, well, effort , and cutting it never crossed his mind.

“You ready?”

Tobi pouts at her. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

The sound of scissors cutting through the first lock of hair sends shivers up his spine. He shudders, watching loose strands clump atop the towel on the floor. Then it happens again, and again, and the more it does, the less it bothers him. He passes the time by watching his roommate. Kakashi is lounging on the sofa with one of his books in hand, looking every bit peaceful as his eye scrolls from one page to the next.

“Hey,” Tobi calls, meeting Kakashi’s stare levelly. “What do you want for dinner?”

“Udon,” Kakashi answers simply. His eye is back to reading, and that distraction from boredom lasted a whole two damn seconds.

Again ?” He sighs. He doesn’t actually mind; he just wants conversation to help carry him through the painfully awkward silence. “That’s the second time this week. Hey, Rin? What do you want?”

When he makes to look at her, he finds two firm hands keeping his head still.

“Don’t move,” she chastises.

“But Rin …”

“Do you want me to mess up? What if it’s uneven?”

Tobi raises his eye heavenward. “Hell if I care.”

“Oh,” she says flatly. “In that case, I may as well shave your head bald.”

“Please don’t.”

Rin doesn’t quite laugh, but he can tell that she wants to.

With his every movement ending in reprimand, Tobi eventually just closes his eye and tries to relax. He might be sulking. Just a bit. The motions of Rin’s hands are calming, though. He finds himself ready to fall asleep, which is bad, because if he doesn’t keep his head up he’s pretty sure this haircut will end in disaster. Even still, his head falls back. The motion jerks him awake and he opens his eye to find Rin smiling down at him.

His face is tomato-red and he looks away. “Aw, shit! Sorry!”

Rin shakes her head, pressing their foreheads together, and Tobi is pretty sure he’s about to have a heart attack.

“You’re a bit of a disaster. You know that, Obito?”

He clears his throat and glances to Kakashi for help. Kakashi is doing his best to pretend that he’s the only one there. Apparently, the first two days of overcooked breakfast wasn’t passive-aggressive enough for him. Tobi will fix that.

“Tobi,” he corrects again, and if his voice squeaks then Rin doesn’t say anything.

“Tobi,” she hums. She’s been trying to get used to that name, but it’s been hard. “It’s good to have you back.”

Tobi is not emotionally or mentally prepared for whatever the hell this is. He shuts down. She laughs at him. The whole thing is awkward and they agree never to speak of it again. Well, he agrees. She just smiles.

She’s starting to look like Kushina with smiles like those.

Rin pulls away and grins. She lifts the mirror off of the kitchen table and twirls around to the front of the chair, holding it up to him with pride. “Not too bad, eh?”

Tobi’s reflection leaves him wide-eyed, and he’s brought back to an old photograph in an equally old wooden frame, to the grumpy pale face of a goggled brat. Oh , he realizes, that’s me . It’s one thing to know and another to understand. Rin’s done a good job of copying Obito’s hairstyle. It feels weird and foreign. His head is light with less deadweight dragging down on it and he can feel the air on the back of his neck. He doesn’t… hate it, but it’s strange.

Now if only he had a left eye, he’d be back to his old self, scars aside. He’s not sure how he feels about that.

“What do you think?”

Tobi grabs the mirror by the handle and tilts his head right then left, brow arched. “...Kinda cool. But weird .” He twists around to face his roommate. “Well? Smouldering yet?”

Kakashi raises his eye heavenward and sighs. “Not in the least.”

“You’re just jealous.”

“Of you? Never.”

Tobi huffs. The mirror’s left forgotten on the table, the stray hairs are brushed from his shoulder, and he hops to his feet. Between the loss of his mask and his haircut, Tobi’s field of vision has increased significantly. He marches over to the couch where his roommate sits, arms crossed and grin smug. The dull glare sent his way goes ignored.

The book snaps shut and Kakashi twists around. “What?”

“Rin tells me you’re seven months younger than I am.”

He sighs. “And?”

“Nothin’,” he grins. “It’s just so satisfying .”

Kakashi smiles. It’s a smile that says ‘I want to pull your bones right out of your skin and shove them down your throat.’

What a cute kid.

 


 

Hokage Rock is a monument that means nothing to Tobi. He and Rin sit atop Minato’s head—which is as funny as it is absurd—and take in the warm glow of the dipping sun. The wind is harsh and unrelenting so high up, but the cliffside acts as a small buffer. He’s grateful for that; Rin just showed him how to walk up vertical surfaces and he is terrified of falling off. Man is not meant to defy the laws of physics like this. Someday, somehow, this is going to kill him. He just knows it.

“What were you like?” Rin draws her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them. “You’re… softer now, I guess. Timid? Maybe, just a little? Before, you were so… loud.

Tobi twitches. “So I’m told.”

“You couldn’t throw a shuriken straight,” she grins. “You were a clumsy, boastful little half-pint with no skills to backup your words. When it came to Kakashi, you had a short fuse. Really short. Always talking about how you were going to surpass him… but Kakashi had better technical skill.”

Unbelievable. No matter who he asks, he always ends up insulted. He tries not to take it to heart and distracts himself with a thought that’s been nagging him for the better half of a week now. “Did we hate each other? Me an’ Kashi.”

Rin stretches her arms and hums. “It felt like it. Sometimes.”

He makes a face. As infuriating as that high-and-mighty ninja prodigy can be, Tobi’s never hated him. Kakashi is… well, Kakashi. He’s a brooding brat with a lot of arrogance and no people skills. He’s good at everything he does and knows it, has no qualms about rubbing it in Tobi’s face . But that’s just Kakashi. That’s how he is. As infuriating as it is sometimes… it’s never felt malicious.

“But I don’t think you did.”

Oh.

Rin laughs at his face. He rolls his eye. “Kakashi would get you from home on mission days—so that you wouldn’t be late. And you fought a lot, but that just made you try harder. You were rivals.”

Rivals, huh? He likes the sound of that.

His whole body tenses when Rin leans against his shoulder. Her weight presses into him like a warm bundle of security, and after a while, he eases up.

“You were a bit terrible,” she teases. “But you were my best friend, Tobi. And you still are.”

“Even if I don’t remember you?”

“Even if you never remember,” she corrects matter-of-factly.

Tobi isn’t sure he deserves everything she’s offering him right now, but he can’t bring himself to deny it.

Rin is amazing. Has he told her that yet?

 


 

The worst thing about Kakashi’s apartment is just how bland everything is. Perhaps Tobi’s spoiled, though; they’ve been spending every day over the past week outside of the house. Oftentimes, Kushina drags their asses back to her and Sensei’s place for dinner. Their house is vibrant and full of light and warmth, pictures of their precious people lovingly displayed on the walls and shelves of their living room, a centrepiece of flowers on the coffee table. But Minato is the Hokage, Kushina is—well, he’s not sure what Kushina is, but she’s something—and it’s unfair to compare their rose-coloured home to Kakashi’s dingy little hole-in-the-wall, especially when Tobi’s pretty sure that he’s the reason Kakashi’s spending so much time at home. Even Kakashi’s looking a bit stir-crazy.

It’s thoughts like those that distract him from dark hole his mind is falling down.

Tobi stares up at the slate-white ceiling with a contemplative frown. The room is too hot, the moonlight too bright. He can feel the fabric of the blankets in painful clarity as they shift across his skin with each inhale, every rise and fall of his chest. His days have been a clutter of people and sounds and noise and do you remember—

No. He doesn’t. And he feels guilty enough on his own without it getting rubbed in his face by the plastic smiles of relics of the past.

Tobi covers his face with his hands and groans. No, he thinks, it’s not their fault. He’s on edge. Tsunade’s words from his last visitation sent a bone-chilling reality down to his core, and he’s scared.

“Just wait ‘til you hear this, Kid.”

He squeezes his eye shut tight and bites his lip.

“We’ve got a donor.”

He thought he had more time.

Tobi knows that he could always just… stay, even after they transplant his new eye. But he can’t. He can’t because he made a promise. Tobi doesn’t break his promises.

He’s coming to think that Obito doesn’t, either.

“You promised to come back in one piece.”

He winces. That one. That one he broke.

It’s thoughts like these that keep him up that night. He lies atop the futon in Kakashi’s spare room, staring up at the ceiling, watching moonlight stretch further and further across the bleached white void above him until the warm glow of sunlight peeks in through the window. Dawn seems all too early to wake up, not that he was ever actually asleep . He contemplates closing his eye and trying to get at least a bit of rest before he has to be at the hospital for the transplant—he’s told the sooner, the better—but it feels like worthless effort.

He told Kakashi last night. About the eye. Rin probably knows, too, and if Rin knows then so does Sensei’s family. There’s no one left to tell. That’s a relief, but it also cements how real this is.

Tobi is a selfish grandson. He’s actually thinking of abandoning Grandpa Madara’s last wish to stay with the super cool ninja friends he’s made. He won’t, though. He made a promise.

Groaning, Tobi sways himself into an upright position like a half-dead zombie. He doesn’t want to know how red his eye is or how pale his skin; his imagination is supplying him with ideas very easily. He drags his broken body to the door and out into the hall, yawning and feeling the pull of exhaustion pulse throughout his muscles. He feels weak. And miserable. And weakly miserable.

A scent hits his nose the moment he’s in the hall and all of that is cast aside as his mind tries to place it. It smells… not bad , but off, and it’s coming from the kitchen. Tobi follows his nose to see Kakashi standing over the stove, a pan sizzling atop the burner. His crutches have been cast to the wayside, and he’s moving around the small space with little more than a limp. If he notices Tobi gawking, he doesn’t say.

Tobi swallows. This is the first time he’s seen Kakashi so… not broken . He’s not sure what to think of it. “Um.” He clears his throat. “You okay to be doing that?”

“Maa, I can’t baby it if I want it to heal properly.” He looks over then, a dark eye finding Tobi. “Plates.”

“Oh. Right.” Tobi shuffles over, rummages through one of the cupboards and pulls out a pair of plates. He sets them on the counter by the stove and watches with interest as Kakashi clears the pan and displays his meal. Fish. So that was the smell. Strange, kinda bad, but also… Also…

He doesn’t know what dish this is, but he’s pretty sure he’s had it before. He’s feeling that distinctive tug at the back of his mind that he’s coming to associate with nostalgia.

Before long, they’re seated across from one another at the small kitchen table with a humble meal set before them. Kakashi’s mask goes down and he wastes no time in taking his first bite.

Tobi stares down at his plate. This is nothing like the fish they shared on their journey home; these fish are seasoned and glazed and looking like a world-class meal. Damn it all, Kakashi is better at cooking, too. That’s okay. This is one skill that Tobi can definitely appreciate.

There’s a comfortable silence while they eat. He’s coming to understand that this silence is a distinctly Tobi thing; Obito was a loudmouth who talked through meals, mouth running a mile a minute. But Tobi has trouble thinking of enough things to say to fill a conversation. And Kakashi’s quiet; Kakashi appreciates quiet. And Tobi appreciates Kakashi.

“Will you come back?”

Tobi stills. He stops, chopsticks midway to his mouth, and looks up. Kakashi won’t face him, but even still there’s something hard-lined about his face then, even retaining that dull-eyed stare. “Huh?”

Kakashi’s eye narrows. It looks like the words are being forced out—like he doesn’t want to say them but feels that he needs to. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?”

“Oh. Um. Yeah. I guess…” He shifts. “Guess I am.”

“I see.”

Oh. Oh . It clicks, then, and a slow-forming grin stretches across his face. He’s leaving, and Kakashi doesn’t want him to. Kakashi’s going to miss him . Oh, this is brilliant. Beautiful.

Tobi leans forward, chin in his palm, probably looking as smug as he feels. “ Adorab—

A shriek of terror escapes him as a shuriken flies past his eye, embedding itself in the wall. He… he probably deserves that. He most definitely does.

“Hey!” Tobi hisses, “You tryin’ to take out my other eye, too, Bakashi?!”

Kakashi leans back in his chair, arms folded, eye looking anywhere but Tobi. “Maa, it’d be a good look on you.”

“What a rude little brat!”

“You’re only seven months older .”

“Seven months is more than enough!”

They both stick up their noses with matching grunts of annoyance before Tobi laughs, loud and obnoxious and uncontrollable. Kakashi stares wide-eyed at him, but he just can’t bring himself to stop. Soon there are tears in his eyes, his lungs burn for air, and he isn’t even sure what he finds so funny in the first place.

He catches his breath and leans across the table, hooking an arm around Kakashi’s neck and pulling him in. “I’ll be back,” he decides then, quiet and breathless and feeling like that night’s worth of sleep he lost just wasn’t worth it. “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

Kakashi closes his eye and hums. “Pity.”

 


 

The smell of the hospital brings forth a bubbling unease. He tries to force it down. It works, for the most part, until Rin walks in, uniform-clad with a covered face. She’s smiling—he can tell—and if it’s supposed to be reassurance, it’s not doing all that good a job of it. Her hands guide him down to lie flat on the bed and he closes his eye against the blinding overhead light. The other medic-nin follow Rin in. He hears the clatter of metal and the ring of tools sliding along a tray and this suddenly feels like a very bad idea.

There’s a hand in his and he squeezes it.

“You scared, Tobi?”

“No.”

“Liar.” The hand squeezes back. Tobi’s heart rate evens out and he’s able to breathe a little easier with her there. “It’ll be just like last time.”

“Yeah. I know. That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Tobi has memories of that day. They’re scattered and spotty but they’re there, ever-present since the moment he walked through those doors. Obito wasn’t scared, no. Obito felt accomplished—felt satisfied with the way things had ended. He accepted darkness in the last moments of his life knowing that he’d found a friend in the shinobi carrying his eye. Even if it was too late. Even if he wished that he had more time.

Tobi remembers the darkness more than anything right now. It’s stupid, he knows—he’s getting an eye, not giving —but he can’t help it anyway.

They hook him up to machines. He doesn’t ask. He’s not sure he wants to know. One starts beeping in time to his heartbeat, though, and he decides that he hates it because now a whole room of medic-nin can hear how nervous he is. They’re polite about it, at least, and don’t say anything.

Absent conversation amidst the ladies dies out and he knows this means bad things to come.

“Um.” They’re looking at him. “I change my mind?”

Rin looks at him. “Tobi.”

He flinches.

Relax .”

“Right. Yeah. Okay.”

“You’re such a baby. Honestly.”

He is. He knows Obito wasn’t, not about this, which is a bit of a jab to the gut. It won’t be like last time, he tells himself. He won’t feel it now the way that he did then. He won’t be so intimately aware of everything that’s going on. This is a hospital, not the cave. It’s a planned procedure. They’re not on the battlefield with no time to spare. They’re not making hasty decisions that will impact the rest of their lives.

Tobi closes his eye and breaths. He focuses on the sounds of his breath as he feels the warm glow of medical ninjutsu washing across his skin and allows himself to rest.

 


 

The first thing to come to him is sound as he rouses from rest into wakefulness. Voices breach the fog of sleep slowly dissipating from his thoughts. They bring with them comfort in the form of familiarity. A woman’s voice, strong and firm. A man’s, soft and kind. For a while, he thinks that he’s okay with just letting them talk, using their voices as background noise to help him fade back into sleep.

They notice he’s awake. He knows this because he feels a persistent, mildly annoying poke to his shoulder and groans. When it doesn’t stop, he submits to the fact that it’s only ever going to go away if he opens his damn eyes. Alright, fine. Tobi is too weak to keep playing this game. His eyes flutter open to Kushina’s smug face and he sighs.

“Mornin’,” he slurs.

“Why, good morning, Princess,” Kushina grins. She pulls back, out of his face, and Tobi can see Minato standing behind her, his sympathies showing through the crest of his smile. “How you feeling there, kiddo?”

“Tired,” he complains with a pout. “Thirsty…” He coughs and it’s only then that he realizes how disgusting his mouth feels—dry like cotton and bitter with something else. His head hurts, he’s vaguely aware of that.

Minato helps him sit up, eases a cup of water to his lips, and the cool, wet relief as it trails down his throat is immense. Soon, the cup is empty and he’s still thirsty, but it’s enough to help him register just what else is going on. He’s in the hospital. He’s there because…

His eye.

Tobi’s flesh hand goes up to touch the skin of his eyelid and he doesn’t know what to think when he sees his own fingers enter his line of sight. His field of vision is wider, and something about it all feels slightly… different . He’s not sure how it’s different, but it is. What does he look like now, with this new eye? What colour is it?

“Where’re Kashi and Rin?” He asks before he even realizes what he’s saying. They said they would be there, said they would wait for him to wake up, and he’s a little disappointed when they’re nowhere to be seen. Not that he’s disappointed in Kushina or Minato or anything—honest! But he feels a little bad, having someone as busy and important as the Hokage waiting there for him. And Kushina, well… He’s not entirely sure what Kushina’s job is. She’s probably a ninja or something, though, so she’s taking time out of work for him, too. And now he just feels like a burden. Damn it all.

Kushina rolls her eyes dramatically and flicks his forehead, earning a wince. “Getting food, per our request, you little dork. Getting them to leave was a task and a half, but they need food. Especially Kakashi, if he wants that damn leg of his to heal.”

“Oh.” He’s relieved, relaxing into the bed, knowing that they’re there, somewhere. The cafeteria, probably. A slow-forming grin crosses his face as he turns from Kushina to his sensei. The world seems so much… bigger . The glaring blindspot on his left side is filled in by the new eye. Everything seems just a little bigger, a little more there . “How’s it look?”

Minato arches a brow and takes a seat on the side of his bed, drumming fingers against the stiff bed sheets. “How it feels is more important, I think.”

“Are you saying it’s bad?”

“No,” Minato laughs. “It looks fine , Tobi. But it’s how it affects you that’s most important.”

“How it affects me, huh?” Tobi looks down at his hands and marvels at the fact that the people at his bedside are still within his line of sight. It isn’t the remarkable change that he expects it to be—the boost to his depth perception, so far, hasn’t made all that much of a difference, and it isn’t like he can see clearer—but it’s there. It’s something. And he’s happy to have gone through with it.

He feels whole, for the first time since he woke up with Grandpa Madara looming over him. He feels whole and complete, like this is what he’s meant to be. It feels good .

A knock at the entrance pulls his eyes up, to Rin’s smiling face, Kakashi brooding behind her in that angsty fashion he always does.

“Rin,” he greets with a smile, and then the smile falls to a pout when it settles on his other teammate, the one being aversive and disconnected in the background. “Bakashi.”

Rin holds up a paper bag, and dangles it in front of her face. “You hungry?”

Tobi opens his mouth to say no, he’s never hungry, he just eats because he can, but there’s a distinct turn in his stomach at the mention of food that he’s never had before. He places a hand over his gut and makes a face. “...No,” he admits begrudgingly. “Not at all.”

Rin nods. She enters the room and places the bag on the side table. She’s not surprised, meaning she expected as much. What he’s feeling, maybe it’s normal after surgery.

“You’ve got dinner for later, then,” she says matter-of-factly as she leans over him, watching him with starlight eyes and thinly contained glee. “It’s perfect .”

Tobi’s face heats up and suddenly the bedsheets look very interesting.

“Isn’t it perfect, Kakashi?” she asks, looking over her shoulder at the ninja still dragging his feet. “Not one new scar. Not a bad job, don’t you think?”

Kakashi shrugs vaguely, retreating to a corner of the room because he’s Kakashi and being anything other than distant is a task and a half for him. He really should sit, though—he’s still limping, still struggling to work his leg normally, and over-exertion is only going to make it worse.

Kushina agrees, apparently. She drags his moody ass over to them and forces Kakashi down onto her previous chair. Kakashi decidedly does not face any of them.

“Ugh,” Kushina grunts, looking impossibly put-out, “stop tryin’a act macho and remember that your leg was in pieces a few weeks ago . Sage-damn, kid. You’re as bad as Obito ever was.”

Tobi isn’t sure whether he should take offense to that. He does, for the record, if only because she glances at him when she says it.

Kakashi releases a sigh but doesn’t protest.

Minato rises up off the bed and spins to face his students. He reaches out, patting their heads, acting like they’re the same eleven-year-olds that they were when their team first formed, and smiles. “Kushina and I have other things to attend to,” he states, “so we’ll be heading out first. You two.” Kakashi and Rin look up at attention. “I’m counting on you to look after him for me.”

Kakashi nods. Rin grins, salutes, her back straight and eyes bright. “Roger that.”

Kushina slides in close, jabbing at Tobi’s chest with her finger. “And you .” She narrows her eyes. “Don’t be getting any stupid ideas, alright? We’ve had more than enough of those.”

Tobi pushes the hand away, his face scrunched up and displeased. “What the hell did I do?!”

He receives a look, a wave, and a goodbye as Kushina stomps out of the room. Minato laughs. It’s a vaguely tired laugh, a laugh of sympathy, and so, so awkward. “She’s gotten a bit protective over you, hasn’t she?” Minato slips beyond the door before any more can be said, no doubt chasing after his wife.

Tobi shifts in his seat, wondering why that could be.

 


 

Tobi stands in the apartment bathroom and grins, turning his head in front of the mirror, taking in his new eye from every possible angle. It's green, so the colours don't match, but he'll choose mismatched eyes over a sunken-in socket any day.

Kakashi passes in front of the doorway, sighs, shakes his head, and continues on toward his bedroom.

Tobi pokes his head out into the hall. “What d'you think? Smouldering yet?”

“Not in the least,” Kakashi calls back from beyond the threshold of his room.

Well, Tobi thinks it's close enough to smouldering to celebrate. He takes another peek at himself, grins, and then races down the hall to the kitchen. He pries open the fridge door and rummages through, wondering what he could possibly make for dinner tonight worthy of the occasion. After all… this will be their last. For a while.

Tobi is coming back. He wants to. He's made that decision. These people are like family to him, even if their interactions are awkward, even if he's tired of the routine ‘do you remember’ and ‘what about this?’ It's the decision to return that pushes all doubts from his mind. He'll keep his promise to Grandpa Madara. Once he does, he can go home. Maybe he won't ever pick up where he left off. That's okay. He's not even sure he wants to.

All he knows is that he doesn't want to lose these precious bonds he's formed.

His eyes settle on a familiar paper bag and he smiles, snagging it out of the fridge. He peeks inside, wondering what it is that Rin got for him from the hospital cafeteria. He immediately regrets it. He's not sure what tasteless, colourless thing is sitting in the bowl at the bottom of the bag and he really doesn't want to know. Back in the fridge it goes, to be dealt with by Kakashi at a later date.

When it comes time to make dinner, Tobi finds himself observing from the chair in the living room. Kakashi moves deftly across the kitchen, practiced motions mesmerizing. For someone who's perfectly content surviving off of food pills, Kakashi knows his way around a kitchen. The spread he makes is comparable to Minato's. Tobi wonders if he picked up those skills from Sensei and Kushina, but he doubts it. Lone wolf Kakashi is more likely to teach himself those sorts of skills. They eat together at the table. It's delicious, not that Tobi says that it's delicious, and at the end of their meal they sit across from one another, empty plates and picked-clean bowls piled in the sink.

Tobi thinks that now is as good a time as any to announce his departure. He really doesn't want to. If anything, he wants to leave without a word. Goodbyes seem… hard, knowing where he comes from. He suspects the rest of the team finds them hard, too. But he won’t. Tobi is a great many things but a coward is not one of them. He sucks in a breath, opens his mouth, and—

“Have you told Rin?”

Tobi deflates. Kakashi already knows, huh? Typical genius. “I was hoping you could?” When he sees Kakashi's eye narrow, he raises placating hands. “She'll never let me leave if I tell her. You know she won't.”

Kakashi heaves a sigh and slouches back in his seat. “Tonight, then?”

“Sooner I leave, sooner I can come back.”

There’s something there, then, in the hard edges of Kakashi’s body. He flexes his hands, shifts in place. They’re minute tells, but tells all the same. It’s nice to think of Kakashi worrying over him. It’s nice to be missed.

There are people waiting for him to return, too. Or maybe ‘people’ isn’t quite the right word. Tobi remembers that all the same.

“Okay.”

Tobi grins. He leans on the table with his chin in his hands, watching his roommate with a curious glint in his eyes. “You know,” he laughs, “you’re not so bad. For a ninja.”

Kakashi cocks his head to the side, brow arched and arms crossed. “Neither are you. For a civilian.”

A civilian, huh?

That’s fair.

 


 

There are a great many things that Tobi misses about his former dwelling. No , he thinks, that’s a lie. He squeezes past the boulder at the entrance to be met with the bold, inky blackness of an overshadowed cave. The air is humid and thick, like taking a breath underwater. The ground is hard and unforgiving beneath his feet. As he steps in, he recalls his time here spent barefoot. Now, he can’t imagine that. The outside world’s left him spoiled. He’s not hungry but wants food. He’s not cold, but he could still use a blanket. The cavern is dark and stretching and could do with a few more lights. A kitchen, a bathroom. It could do with a great many things that, in the village, are seen as necessities. To Grandpa, though, nothing was ever really needed. So long as they had a place to rest their heads, it was enough.

The scent hits him first. It’s faint, a lingering odour on the breath of the cave that carries over to him from the bed, soaked up by dirty sheets and a worn mattress. Though not overpowering, he still gets the urge to cover his nose, to reel back. There’s something innately wrong with that scent.

Tobi wants to leave.

He takes an unplanned step back and braces himself for what he might see. He closes his eyes, breathes—as Kakashi always says, it’s important to breathe—and then, when his mental fortification reaches a crescendo, he—

“Tobi? Tobi !”

The moment he opens his eyes, he’s hitting the floor with a heavy force bearing down on his chest. Gangly, white arms wrap themselves around his neck, holding him steadfast. It’s those arms he has to thank for saving his skull from an unpleasant meeting with the ground; they press him against the pale, synthetic flesh of a narrow chest and keep him there. Tobi sputters, shoving at the arms as he regains his bearings, but the hold never ceases. Swirly , he thinks, hiding a smile. Over Swirly’s shoulder, Tobi can make out similarly formed white bodies crawling out from around the Gedo Statue like albino spiders on a web. The image itself makes him scrunch up his nose in distaste.

“Wah, Tobi! You’ve come back!”

“Damn straight,” he grumbles, shoving uselessly at the larger body surrounding him. “Now get off of me, you asshole.”

Swirly pulls away, holding Tobi at arm’s length. The black hole that makes up his ‘eye’ bores into Tobi like a never-ending void, unsettling and yet so positively right . It’s nostalgic. There’s a warm, fuzzy feeling in the pit of his chest, spreading warmth from his core. “We thought you would never come back!”

Tobi rolled his eyes— eyes , because he has two of them —and slaps the hands away from him. At some point, Zetsu approached and now he’s being picked at and prodded by two . “I said that I would.”

“But it’s been so long!”

“It hasn’t been been that long…” Tobi isn’t really sure how long it’s been. It feels like forever ago, even with all of the chaos and excitement in his most recent months.

When he finally manages to get to his feet again, Tobi braces himself and steps towards the bed. The closer he gets, the easier it is for his vision to cut through the darkness, to make out more than just its faint silhouette. He wishes he had a light—and just like that, one of the Zetsu lights a torch. Orange hues warm the chill of the cave with their soft glow, and the bed is unoccupied save a dark stain on the sheets.

Tobi turns on Zetsu. “Please tell me you didn’t eat him. Please .”

Zetsu considers it, the jerk. As though it’s a brilliant idea that’s never crossed his mind. “That would have been simpler,” he acknowledges. “He began to smell unpleasant, and so we disposed of him.”

A whole host of vile, graphic images sweep through Tobi’s mind and he gags at the words, covering his mouth and looking away. There are so many ways that they could have ‘disposed’ of Grandpa Madara’s corpse that Tobi doesn’t even want to consider. The outside world taught him so many things about death and saying goodbye—too many to ever need, he hopes. Too many to put to use. In Fire Country, it’s common for bodies to be cremated—which is, apparently, burning a body into ash. It’s also common to bury the dead. According to Rin, they dig holes in the ground. Once they’re really, really deep, the body is dumped inside. Or something. Then, the hole’s covered back up like nothing ever happened and the mourners go on with their lives.

He may be misinterpreting it, just a bit.

Tobi covers his face with his hands, groans, and then allows them to fall limp at his sides. Ah, he hadn’t done any of that for Grandpa, had he?

Tobi is a terrible, horrible, no-good grandchild.

He sighs when he feels the heavy weight of Swirly’s body pressing in around him— again— and pushes forward. The sheets reek something foul and horrible and disgusting, the stain is nasty and disturbing, and the world around them is dark and cold. He pulls them off the mattress to crumple into a heap at his feet. With them, he feels the return of a life with no food and no warmth, the days blending together in the darkness of a forgotten cavern, left to wilt away into nothing.

Tobi bends down, picks up the sheets by their hems, and drags his feet towards the entrance. “There’s a stream nearby, right?”

Swirly nods. “Are you going?”

“Yeah,” he snorts, stepping into the ray of sunlight slipping past the rocky walls and feeling all of the warmth of a spring day there to greet him. “To the stream. To wash the stink off this crap because you idiots couldn't be bothered. C’mon. Let’s get this place cleaned up.”

 


 

Tobi is never brave enough to ask what, exactly, happened to Madara's body. He decides that he's better off not knowing because he isn’t sure he can stomach the answer. But there's something that he can do, even without the body.

He recalls with chilling clarity the name Obito Uchiha scrawled across a smooth, polished rock at their usual training ground. He remembers running the artificial skin of his left hand along the grooves of the engraving, the feeling of the rock beneath his fingertips little more than an echo. Names were carefully carved alongside his, names of shinobi who never made it home. Names of fallen heroes, or missing friends.

Obito Uchiha.

Tobi likes to think that he does a pretty good job, for someone inexperienced in this sort of thing. The rock he uses is large, but not particularly smooth. Carving into it proves a task and a half. He gives up, at some point or other, because this isn't a skill that he’s gifted with. Instead, he scratches Grandpa’s name in chalky white across the front of the stone. He gathers flowers through the forest outside the cave and places them at the base where it stands, basking in the streams of sunlight passing through the treetops.

Tobi plops down before the rock and takes a breath, hands on his knees, staring at the crude lettering of his grandfather’s tombstone. The world is quiet. It’s not the comfortable quiet he came to know through his time living with Kakashi. There’s no warmth to this silence. It’s harsh and cold, and perhaps a little unnerving.

“Um…” He rubs the back of his neck. “Sorry for not burying you,” he continues. “I didn’t know.”

He waits, as though the rock will answer him back with words of comfort—a short ‘it is okay’ to fill his guilt-laden heart. It doesn’t, and his eyes fall to the budding spring offering neatly arranged in the dirt. “Sorry I left. I know I should have…”

Tobi’s voice fades, his lips purse and brow furrows. That’s not right. When he looks up at Madara’s name next, he steels himself. “No. I’m not sorry. I’m glad I left. I’m grateful to you, Grandpa, really I am. But…”

He lifts his eyes to the leaves, to the warm sun kissing his skin, and smiles. His world was so small when Grandpa Madara was in it. He never knew the cool touch of the breeze or the bubbling calm of the stream. Where would he be if he stayed there, in the darkness of that cave? No, he knows. He’d be right where he started. Stuck. “But there’s so much more to the world than what you told me. People are—they’re good . And maybe the world isn’t perfect, and maybe there’s a lot of fighting, but it—that doesn’t mean it’s bad .”

It feels good to get that off his chest. He grins. “I’ll grant your wish. I don’t break promises. But after that, is it okay if I leave? I want to go home.”

Tobi’s not sure he wants an answer. He’s glad when the only words he hears are Swirly’s, calling him back to the cave.

Home, he thinks, where they are. It’s comfort enough.

 


 

Grandpa Madara had plans. Tobi sits atop the clean sheets on a mattress too stiff and worn to be comfortable, a fact he only ever realizes after his time in Konoha. He tries to ignore the springs digging into his thighs as he listens intently to Zetsu’s explanation. World peace is looking like a lot of work. He figured that it would be, but having it all laid out before him is making the task look all the more daunting. His head is spinning with a vast array of new terms—tailed beast and rinnegan and jinchuuriki. Mangekyou sharingan. It dawns on him that by the time world peace is achieved, years may pass. He tries not to let that weigh on him as he listens intently to the artificial human’s explanation.

“Hey, hey,” Swirly interrupts, leaning uncomfortably close which, ironically, makes the whole situation feel natural. Tobi would be lying if he said that he didn’t miss the rubbery bastard. “Did you know? We can grab the nine-tails soon!”

Tobi arches a brow. “Oh yeah? Don’t think its jinchuuriki will take it lying down.”

“But!” Swirly’s arms go up, flailing his excitement. “But but but, the seal will be weakened! It’s the perfect chance!”

He sighs and crosses his arms, conceding to the fact these guys know more about what they’re doing than he does. From what he gathers, the tailed beasts are powerful chakra constructs. Their power is needed to bring about world peace, but each one is sealed within a human vessel. To bring them together, the bonds with their hosts will need to be severed. Tobi doubts that anyone with one of those things sealed inside them will just willingly give it away. They’ll have to take the tailed beasts by force.

His stomach knots and he hunches his back. Words of regret are already fronting his thoughts, long before the need for them arises. He doesn’t want to fight. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody, or take away something so integral to their character.

He doesn’t want to, but he will. For the greater good and all, right?

 


 

Tobi curls in on himself in the dead of night, the lumpy mattress digging painfully into his side. He shivers beneath the thin sheet drawn up to his shoulders, thundering winds whipping past the entrance of the cave. His stomach is empty and has been for several weeks now, and though he doesn’t feel hunger, he does feel something else, this void within him growing stronger by the day. When he closes his eyes, he finds himself in a warmer place, staring at the stars through the bedside windowpane. A candlelight glow caresses the walls of the room, flickering life into the dead of night. He takes a breath and soaks up the memory, warm and comfortable and right .

But the moment that he opens his eyes, the illusion is broken. He’s not in Kakashi’s apartment, he’s nowhere near Konoha. He hasn’t been in a long, long time.

Tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow, he sets out to Konoha—not to see his family, but to fulfill a promise. Tomorrow is the start of everything, the beginning of the end, one step closer to his goal.

Tomorrow, Tobi leaves that cave to set Grandpa Madara’s plans in motion.

Knowing that, how could he ever sleep?

 


 

It’s been several months since he last donned a mask. Tobi stares at the painted wooden hollow, at the two eye holes and the grass viewed beyond them. He smooths the pad of his thumb over the rim and sighs. He’s pretty sure what he’s about to do is a crime. Getting arrested would put a pretty big wrench in his plans, and this is Konoha. The risk of being recognized is all too real. But … Well. He thought he’d moved passed hiding his face. Some things never change.

Tobi takes a breath and brings the mask up, fitting it against his face, securing it to his head and pulling the hood of his cloak over his hair. Beneath the moonlight, he wonders how visible that mask really is.

He steps forward, the toes of his shoe touching the edge of the cliff and he looks down into the ravign below. Three guards stand watch, their faces hidden away beneath white animal masks, stark against the blue-grey backdrop. It’s just as Zetsu said it would be. Deep breath. Keep steady.

Tobi launches himself down. Their heads snap up, bodies twist around, hands reaching into their weapons pouches, but before they gather a single shuriken or kunai in hand, they’re falling. He catches the one nearest him, the soles of his feet firm against the water’s surface, ripples fanning out from beneath them like waves. “Sorry,” he whispers, her limp body heavy in his arms. “Just doin’ my job.”

He carries her over to dry land and sets her down, then goes back in for the other two. Soon, the guards are set down next to one another, breathing unconscious breaths. Tobi rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. He’s surprised that went as smoothly as it did; when he practiced with Swirly, he’d had a lot more trouble. “Er, I’ll… make it up to ya. Promise.” Tobi cocks his head to the side. “I mean, a headache is a small price to pay for world peace, right?”

They don’t answer. Obviously. He pouts and looks up, hands on his hips. Clearing the outside was the easy part. Now he’s going to sweat.

The jinchuuriki is having a child. Childbirth is a strain on the seals used to house tailed beasts. That’s his opportunity. That’s what all this planning, these past few months training with Zetsu and Swirly, have led up to. This is what it’s for.

Tobi is ready. He has to be, because there won’t be a second chance.

With steady strides, he walks his way up the side of the cliff and soon stands before the cavern entrance. Voices echo from deep within, reverberating against the walls. He can’t make out the words over the loud, angered screams of the jinchuuriki bellowing out like a ferocious demon. Whoever’s stuck in there with her, they have his sympathies.

The moment he lifts his foot, the air beside him shifts. He looks down at the shuriken now embedded in the ground, mere inches from the sole of his shoe, and he hums. There’s another? Tobi makes to turn his head when another flies by, narrowly missing the fluttering hood of his cloak.

“Stop,” commands a voice, calm and flat at the mouth of the cavern. “Hands up.”

“Or what?”

“Or you’ll find out what.”

He rolls his eyes. Slowly, Tobi raises his hands heavenward and holds them there. “You know,” he sighs, shaking his head. He can feel the presence behind him now, a presence masked until a moment before. “I really don’t have time for this.”

“Funny.” Something flickers behind him, a bright, pulsing blue light. It lights up the cavern walls, stretching long shadows across the rock. There’s something electric in the air, buzzing with heat and something else, something powerful and strange prickling the hairs on the back of his neck. “Neither do I.”

Steps echo behind him and he twists, forming hand signs as he moves, sucking in a breath, gathering chakra in the pit of his stomach, and the moment he’s facing his opponent all he sees is silver and white. Silver hair, a white mask. Blue-white lightning. His eyes widen, but it’s too late. Fire’s already spinning in his chest with nowhere else to go. He breathes out, sending a torrent of flame the ANBU’s way moments before the condensed lightning can connect.

The ANBU dodges to the right, but by the time he does, it’s too late. Tobi is gone, down the hall and towards the screams, his mind a flurry of racing thoughts. In that moment, that one brief, flickering second, it was his own sharingan staring back at him.

That was the moment everything went wrong.

 


 

Soft words whisper comfort into the room. They go ignored by the hissing woman in the centre of the room. Tobi watches from above. He’s not the best at masking his chakra—he only started learning that a month before setting out—but the party below is too preoccupied to notice. He tries to focus on what he’s seeing, tries to wait for that one, perfect moment, but his mind is a cluster of that was Kakashi. Kakashi is ANBU, he knows. Those guards are ANBU . It only makes sense. Still, what a terrible fate that Kakashi is one of the ANBU here tonight.

Tobi can’t let this distract him. He needs to get to work. The sooner he does, the sooner it’s over. Like ripping off a bandaid. He forces back lingering regrets, and the moment he hears a new set of cries, the small, hiccuping gasps of breath from the jinchuuriki’s child, he’s ready.

From the shadows of the entrance, he slips in. The midwife goes down without a struggle, and he slips the baby into his arms before she falls. The moment her body hits the floor, there are eyes on him.

“Lady Biwako!”

Tobi holds the child close and reaches for the paper bombs hidden in his cloak. But he stills when he looks up, at the father—the Fourth Hokage —staring back at him.

Oh. Oh no.

He knows what this means. Nausea swells in his gut as he pries his eyes away from Minato-sensei, to the long red hair cascading over the edges of the table in the centre of the room. Tired, dark eyes force themselves up to his, unsteady, filled with fear and desperation as a pale hand reaches out to him.

Kushina.

“Wait! Calm down!”

Minato’s voice sounds so far away. Tobi doesn’t register it at first. He looks down at the child, crying and wriggling against his arm, and it’s only then that Tobi realizes he’s holding the sharp edge of the kunai to the child’s tiny body. Oh, he thinks. Right. That was the plan, wasn’t it? To scare the father into putting distance between himself and the jinchuuriki.

“Naruto,” Kushina rasps out, hoarse and desperate and so, so tired. She bites her lip, tears stinging her eyes. “Give. Him. Back .”

Tobi swallows the bile in his throat and takes a step back, watching his sensei tense. He feels the paper bombs in his pouch, ready to be applied, and…

What am I doing?

The tiny body in his arm continues to wail, loud and scared and echoing. Tobi curses. He can’t.

This is for a better world, something nags at him. For Grandpa Madara.

He spins the kunai around, blade pointed away from the infant, and releases his hold. It clatters to the floor and he watches some of the tension leave Minato’s shoulders.

You don’t want to break a promise, do you?

No. I don’t. I…

But what is he doing all of this for? What happens to Kushina when the nine tails is extracted? Where would he go from there? Those were things Zetsu never told him about. That Madara never told him about. Those answers were omitted. He didn’t know.

For a better world, eh?

He laughs, broken and jaded, running a hand over the smooth surface of his mask. The Hokage flinches at the sound but is too cautious to risk moving. “What am I doing ?”

Minato relaxes his shoulders, a stern frown on his face as he scans the hooded figure with a critical eye. “Tobi.”

His breath hitches when he feels the cool rush of metal against his throat, and it’s only then that he notices the slightly breathless, very angry ANBU taking purchase behind him.

“Put him down,” Kakashi warns, tightening his grip on the kunai. “Now.”

Tobi closes his eyes and accepts his fate. “I would,” he says, “but y’know, that’s a bit hard to do with you wavin’ a kunai in my face. Sensei?”

Something flashes across Minato’s eyes as he hears the title, but he complies, crossing the room to take his son into his arms. He wraps the baby securely and holds him close, letting out an uneasy breath. It’s a strange sort of comfort, watching that, seeing Minato-sensei holding his newborn child.

Tobi wonders, what was I going to do?

The warm, fuzzy feeling that he gets when watching Minato hand off the child to Kushina is cut short when he feels the kunai digging deeper into his skin. He’s suddenly very aware of the man watching him from behind, of the deadly glare settled on the back of his head.

“Tobi,” Kakashi hisses out, his voice cracking in the middle, “what did you do ?”

He closes his eyes, takes a breath.

“I wonder.”

 


 

It turns out that there isn’t much difference between a prison and a cave. Everything is cold and damp. The walls are made of weeping stone, old and aged, and the whole room gives off an unpleasant musk. The bed is, somehow, not as bad as Madara’s. Tobi is thankful for that, at least. He’s given regular meals, too. They’re bland and sad, but it’s food, and he misses food.

When they arrested and detained him, he never put up a fight. ANBU threw him in a cell and he spent the night counting the stars through the small, barred window directly below the ceiling. A man called Ibiki came for him in the morning, took him to another cold, damp room. Tobi told him whatever he wanted to know, any and all—about Grandpa’s dream. About his plan to unseal the tailed beast. He complied. Ibiki didn’t believe much of it. That was fine.

The day after that, another man came. Inoichi, he said his name was. He was soft and pleasant, up until he entered Tobi’s mind—to ‘confirm your story’ he said. Tobi read between the lines—they didn’t believe him. That was fine. Inoichi saw firsthand.

He spends his days in solitude. He’s not sure how much time has passed, and the only indicator of day or night that he has is the small square of sky visible through the window.

A tray sits on his lap, food untouched and long cold as he presses his back against the cool stone wall and stares out the window. Tobi isn’t sure what he feels. What scares him most is that a part of him always knew that Madara was a bad person. He knew, but he didn’t care. He remembers watching Ibiki’s face go pale at the mention of that name— Madara Uchiha —and realizing then that there was more to his Grandpa than just being a senile old man.

“Your food’s getting cold.”

Tobi blinks, lulling his head to the side. Through the torchlight, he can make out the pale hair and skin of a long since nostalgic face. This is the first time Kakashi visits him. He smiles but it comes off weak, and he turns his head back to the window. The sky is on fire with oranges and pinks and the approaching dusk.

There’s shifting beyond the bars. When Tobi looks next, Kakashi is seated cross-legged on the floor, hands on his knees, fixing Tobi under a stern glare. Tobi lets out a soft snort and closes his eyes. The world fades to black, and he doesn’t have to think.

“You left the ANBU alive,” Kakashi states.

“I don’t like hurting people.”

“And Naruto?” Kakashi pauses, allowing the name to soak in. Naruto. The son of Minato and Kushina. The jinchuuriki’s child. “What about him?”

Tobi groans. His arms go up to card through his hair and his sleeves slide down, revealing the chakra suppressors sealed onto his skin. The mark of a criminal, he supposes. Fitting. “I wasn't going to…” The sound he makes next is one of pure frustration. “It was just—nevermind. It doesn't matter.”

“Tobi,” Kakashi breathes, “ please.

Tobi looks— really looks —at him then. Kakashi's eye is dark and tired, hazed with the burden of sleepless nights. His skin is paper white, sickly pallid in a way that knots Tobi’s stomach. Oh, Tobi muses. He’s worried about me. Despite the chill of the prison and the stone against his back, Tobi feels warm, fuzzy. A feeling he hasn’t felt in many long, miserable nights.

He knows, then, the gravity of what he tried to do.

His arms fall limp at his sides. “...Sorry, Kashi. Really, I am. But I didn’t want to hurt anybody.”

Kakashi fists the fabric of his pants. “You were trying to release the nine tails.”

He nods.

“You would have killed her,” he grits out behind clenched teeth.

Oh.

For world peace.

He swallows the bile in his throat and curls in on himself, drawing his knees up to his chest.

For a better world.

What a load of crap .

 


 

Kushina towers over him but he can’t bring himself to face her. His eyes are on the ground at his feet, head hanging low. When he opens his mouth, the words stick in his throat. A myriad of excuses are running through his head but he swallows them. ‘If I knew it was you’—So, what? He would have done it to someone else? Would have killed someone else?

Tobi is coming to understand why adults are so jaded. The world isn’t as black and white as it appears.

There’s nothing he can say, so he bites his lip and clenches his fists and waits.

Kushina folds her arms, one over the other. “You know how long you’ve been in here?”

He shakes his head.

“Five weeks.”

It felt longer.

“I’m trying to understand what the hell was going through your head, Obito.” He flinches at the name, at the tone—all of it. He thinks back to the warmth of her embrace, the grinning support she showed him from the first day they met. Tobi doesn’t know what a mother is, but Kushina is it. She’s the closest he’ll ever get to it. “What were you going to do?”

Obito purses his lips. No doubt, she’s heard everything from T&I. But she wants to hear it from him. So, he twists around, eyes scanning the near-empty room until stopping on his bed. He steps back, sits down on the edge, and props his elbows up on his knees.

“After the Kannabi Bridge incident, I was rescued by Madara Uchiha,” he says. “He supplemented the unsalvageable parts of my body with artificial cells. Then, he died.”

Kushina shifts on her feet. “Madara has been dead for—”

“I can only tell you what I know,” he shrugs. “He called himself Madara Uchiha. He saved me, he died. That’s what I know, okay?”

She nods, a reluctant sign to continue.

“Before he died, he kept talking about this… dream he had. For world peace. I’m indebted to him, y’know? So I thought…”

“You thought you could fulfill his dream.”

“Yeah.” He clasped his hands together, smoothing the pads of his fingers over the artificial skin of his right arm. “The zetsu told me what to do. These artificial humans he kept. Told me that if I could gather all of the tailed beasts, I could do it. I  had to try. Look at me. Where d’you think I’d be without him?”

Kushina steps forward, curling her fingers around the bars. “And for that, you—”

“I didn’t know ,” he snaps, lifting his head. “I didn’t know. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. They never told me it’d hurt you. If they did, I never would have…”

And that was why. That’s why they never told him. They knew.

Tobi is a pacifist, but the things that Tobi wants to do to the zetsu do not reflect his beliefs very well.

“I wanted to scare you so that I wouldn’t have to fight you to unseal the nine tails. They never told me anything would happen to you when I did. I don’t want you to die. I don’t want anyone to—”

Tobi sucks in a breath, levels out his voice, and steadies himself. He’s not mad; he’s frustrated with himself. He was too naive to question the stories that he was being told. He put too much trust into Madara and the zetsu, simply because they were there when he woke up. They saved him. They had to be good people.

What garbage.

Tobi’s so wrapped up in his thoughts that he doesn’t hear it when the cell door lets out an ear-splitting screech. He only realizes the door is open when he feels arms wrap around him, pulling him close. Kushina is warm. Kushina is everything that this cell is not, and it’s hard for him to keep his eyes open. He tries, but the more he fights it, the harder it gets. Kushina runs a hand through his hair, shuddering breaths passing by his ear.

“You—you need to stop scaring me like this, y’know?”

Tobi swallows and slowly, cautiously, he brings his hands up to wrap around her back. “Sorry.”

“I can’t—” Her breath hitches and she shifts, scrubbing at her eyes. Oh no. Tears. Tobi hates tears. “I can’t keep d-doing this. If something happened to Naruto—or to you —”

Tobi never knew guilt could sting this bad.

“But,” she sniffs, pulling back. Tobi mourns the loss of her heat and allows it when she stares back at him, her hands on his shoulders. “But you didn’t hurt anyone. You didn’t go through with it.”

Tobi’s not sure what to say. He’s having trouble looking at her and, honestly, he’s not sure what to do with all these emotions she’s offering him. Kakashi’s confrontation was a lot easier to deal with. Anger is easy. Frustration is easy. Sympathy muddies the waters.

“I could have,” he muses. If it wasn’t Kushina, if it wasn’t Minato, would he have gone through with it? The thought plagues his mind and when he closes his eyes, he starts to wonder. Someone would have died by his hand, all for the dream of a dead man. For that, he deserves to be locked up. Even if he didn’t go through with it, even if he stopped himself. He made the attempt.

“But you didn’t.”

As he’s brought into another hug, Tobi wonders just how Kushina can be so strong. He sits there, allowing her to dote on him however much she wants, as his eyes find the sky, inky black settling in beyond the bars. Tobi watches the stars and for a moment, he allows himself to forget the world. Just for a moment.

 


 

Tobi doesn’t know what to think when he wakes up the next morning to see a paper bag sitting inside his cell walls. He drags himself over to it and narrows his eyes. There’s a faint smell wafting across the stale air of the prison, a smell that he recognizes, and he unfolds the opening to peek inside. At the bottom of the bag rests a set of chopsticks and a styrofoam cup. He pulls it out, peels off the lid, and within lies lukewarm ramen. He arches a brow. Most of the heat has escaped it, so it must have been placed there a while ago. He looks around, peeks down the hall, but the guard must have already made his rounds because there’s no one in sight. Somehow, he doubts this is his prison food for the day. That stuff was gross and tasteless and he stopped eating it… at some point. He can’t be entirely sure how long ago it was. Keeping track of time has been hard, even with his little window acting as a guide, but he hasn’t touched a tray of food in a while.

He takes his first taste and instantly he recognizes it. Ichiraku. The first time he had it, Minato-sensei and Kushina were treating him for becoming a chunin. The old guy manning the bar acted like he and Kushina were the best of pals. Come to think of it, Kushina did always have a strange love of ramen. She even named her kid Naruto, of all things…

Tobi smiles. The cup is empty in less than four minutes, and he’s left wishing that he savoured it.

 


 

 

He’s starting to make a game out of these mysteriously arriving meals. At first, they would be there whenever he woke up. So, he decided to stave off sleep to catch them in the act—Kushina, most likely. During the two days—probably two days, it’s so hard to tell—that he stayed up, nothing arrived. Then, he stopped staring out the window just long enough to glance at the front of the cell only to find a package there, waiting. Tobi scrabbled over to it and opened it up. It was a box. Inside was a neatly stacked bento. He didn’t cry. Those weren’t tears. There was dirt in his eye—er, no dirt in the cell. Allergies. Had to be allergies.

From there on, the gifts became a little more varied. Food became books. Soon, he had a pile of twelve stacked under his bed. If the guards noticed, they didn’t say anything. At some point, a title called Icha Icha crossed his path. The contents were a little more… mature than the rest.

If anyone asks, he didn’t read it.

Tobi’s starting to wonder if it’s Kakashi bringing him all these books. Kakashi certainly reads more than Kushina, and Kushina has a baby to care for. A tiny little runt with chubby hands and blond hair, with a ridiculous pair of lungs on him.

He wonders how Naruto’s doing, wonders if the little alien is starting to look more like a human. Toby doesn’t know a thing about kids, honestly. Babies, even less so.

When the next gift arrives, Tobi eagerly tears open the bag and holds his breath. A picture of four, a grumpy goggled brat to one side, and arrogant prodigy to the other. A smiling medic-nin in the centre, an exasperated Hokage hovering above. He remembers that day, vaguely. He doesn’t know what they were fighting over, but they were always fighting. And maybe it was his fault that they were like that. Whenever Kakashi was there, Kakashi had Rin’s attention. Kakashi didn’t even want Rin’s attention, which was probably the most frustrating part. So, in order to compete, Tobi had to show off. Except, well. He had nothing to show. But he tried hard. Harder and harder, until he could do whatever he set out to do. The learning curve between himself and Kakashi was vastly different, almost laughably so, but that was exactly why he needed to prove himself. And maybe… well, maybe the frustration he felt towards Kakashi was misdirected frustration with himself.

It didn’t help that Kakashi was a cold, heartless bastard.

No, that isn’t right. Kakashi lost his father, and…

Kakashi was just trying to do what he thought was right.

Tobi realizes belatedly that he’s staring at the wall. He shakes himself free of his stupor and smiles down at the picture, sliding it between the pages of one of his books.

 


 

“You could at least pretend you want to be here.”

“Mm?” The soft thwip of sliding paper fills the silence. “Ah.”

An exasperated noise fills the room and Tobi stirs, his evening nap interrupted by a loud bunch of voices. He rubs his eyes and gathers himself up off the hard mattress, rising from the dead like a zombie. When he blinks away his bleary vision, it takes him a moment to register the two prone figures seated on the other side of the bars. Rin smiles at him sunshine-bright, as though they aren’t sitting on the hard stone floor, stewing in the dank prison air.

Tobi yawns. From down the hall, he can see one of the guards silently glaring at the children.

“Morning, Sunshine,” she greets, then gives her companion a forceful nudge to the ribs.

Kakashi is silent despite the incessant prodding of his teammate, one lazy eye tracing Tobi's movements with critical precision.

Tobi arches a brow, crossing his legs beneath him, and waits. When things continue to go unsaid, he decides to take the first step. “Stopped in for a visit?”

Kakashi’s eye falls to the ground.

“They wouldn't let us before,” Rin pouts. “Minato-sensei is trying to convince the council to put you on probation, but they're being stubborn.”

No visitors, huh?

He grins at Kakashi, who is decidedly not looking up. What a cute kid.

Rin crosses her arms over her chest in a stern, scolding gesture. It makes Tobi feel small and wilted. The last thing he needs is her judgement. “You left us a big mess to deal with, you know. The elders are still throwing a fit. They're saying this is a direct attack against Konoha’s people, and that if we let you go, it'll be a blow to the village's integrity.”

“I did attack the jinchuuriki.”

“You're not helping,” she says. “Kushina and Minato-sensei are doing everything they can to get you out of this place, you know.”

“So, what?” Tobi leans back, his weight on his palms. “Do you want me to get mad? Insist I shouldn't be here, or something?”

“Tobi—”

“The intent was there,” he says, “even if I didn't follow through. I’m not upset they're holding me accountable. You shouldn't be, either.”

That isn't what Rin wants to hear. She scrunches up her face, purses her lips and cast her attention to the bento resting beside her. Oh, he thinks, that was her.

Just how many people broke the rules to see him, he wonders?

The bento slides through the small gap between the bars and Rin is to her feet. She casts one more look his way, her eyes conveying all the unpleasant words going through her head, before she snaps around and storms off. The guard, previously glaring, steps aside to let her pass. Watching her go, Tobi can't help but smile. Seeing Rin worry over him gives him the strength to make it through the day.

“What about you?” he asks, arching a brow down at his teammate. Kakashi is still here, his back pressed against the wall of the prison, a book nestled lazily between his hands. “Am I in for another lecture?”

Thwip. Another page turns. Kakashi's cool indifference is back in place, burying beneath it whatever emotions were fighting to the surface. “Maa, I’m not the type to kick a man when he's down.”

He feels mildly insulted.

“You're beating yourself up about it enough on your own, don't you think?”

 


 

Tobi doesn’t think of himself as much of a ‘cards’ man but, by this point, he's just going to have to reconsider. It's unclear just what Kakashi was thinking when he brought the deck in—they could have fit a shogi board through the bars just fine. Then again, Tobi doesn't know the rules of shogi. He fans out the cards, getting a good look at his hand, biding his time. It takes a while for a plan to formulate in his head. Then, he plucks a card from amidst the rest and slides it atop the pile between them.

The moment his fingertips break away from the card, Kakashi’s there, making his move, foiling Tobi's plan, looking as bored as Tobi is frustrated.

“You're doing this to spite me, aren't you?”

“Is it working?”

Tobi snorts, contemplating his hand yet again. He doesn't have much hope in winning the game, but he's beyond the point of needing to. His pride allows him to take the loss with grace.

The company is enough.

“Kushina was more sympathetic.”

“Kushina's a saint,” Kakashi says, simply. “I don't have the patience.”

“That's fair,” he laughs, leaning against the cool stone wall to his side. “You didn't back then, either.”

Kakashi's eye flicks up, and he says nothing.

Another card is placed on the pile and he waits, lowering his hand into his lap. There are only two cards left in Kakashi’s hand. One wrong move, and it’s over. But that’s okay. The day is long, and there will be plenty other opportunities for Tobi to have his ass handed to him in cards.

This isn’t the first time they’ve played together. There was a mission a long time ago. C-ranked escort to Wind, or something like that. The journey there was long, void of conflict, and the nights stretched infinitely. It was Minato-sensei who waved the deck in front of them one night, and Minato-sensei who dealt their first hand. Tobi was the last one left each and every damn time, and with every round his bitterness towards Kakashi grew. Because with every round, Rin’s smile would widen. Her gushing became all the more obvious. Kakashi, the winner of just under half the rounds they played. Sensei won the rest. And Tobi— Obito —well.

To say that he never won around seriously downplayed how terribly he lost.

Kakashi takes a while to make the next move. One card remains. “They’re sending a team out to investigate the Mountains’ Graveyard.”

“The wha?”

Kakashi sighs, resting his chin in his palm. “The location Inoichi Yamanaka saw when he probed your mind.”

“Oh.” Tobi blinks, hums. Considers that. They’ll find Swirly, then. And the zetsu. There’s a part of him that doesn’t want that, that still clings to the bonds that he formed with them, but he bites it back, swallows his protests, and accepts it. He knows better than to object. “Sensei tell you that?”

“I’m on the team,” Kakashi states simply, throwing down his last card. Just like that, the game is over, that grey eye levels on Tobi, and cards no longer seem all that interesting.

So that’s it. Tobi discards his hand and folds his arms, staring at the chakra suppressors visible just beneath his sleeves. “You leaving soon?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Ah.” It gives their day of mindless card games some purpose. “It’s a long journey. You up for it?”

The dull glare Kakashi fixes him under is answer enough.

Tobi kicks off the ground and turns to his bed. He crouches down, army-crawling his way under, stretching out his arm to reach the line of books stacked in neat rows along the back wall. He snatches one between his fingers and pulls himself out, presenting it to the boy on the other side of the bars. “Then you’ll need a distraction.”

Kakashi takes the book with some hesitance. Icha Icha is scrawled across the front. He turns it over in his hand, scrutinizing the symbol on the back cover. It takes a moment for him to register just what he’s being given, and when he does, there’s the faintest show of embarrassment on the small square of visible skin on his face.

Tobi wraps his arms around his middle and laughs. All he can do is laugh.

 

 


 

A lot can happen in the outside world, even when one is left standing still. Tobi can see the changes in the people who visit him even if they, themselves, do not. He sees it when Kushina stops in, her hair tied back, a rapidly growing child in her arms, flailing and laughing, all bright-eyed and eager to see what the world has to offer. He sees it in Rin, in the practiced meals that she brings him. Each dish is a little more complex than the last, each new recipe an experiment. One day, maybe she’ll be as good as Kakashi. Maybe she’ll be as good as Kushina.

The only change in himself that Tobi sees is the lengthening of his hair. His bangs fall into his eyes and he sighs, reminded of a time that now seems so far away. The world is moving on without him and here he is, stuck repeating the same, empty routine. Day in, day out. Counting the stars and falling asleep.

There are no stars left to count.

Tobi spends much of his time wondering. He wonders about the rest of his class, the blurry faces that sometimes flit in and out of vaguely-recalled memories. He wonders if Guy every managed to beat Kakashi in a challenge. He wonders, too, what happened when Kakashi’s team made it to Madara’s hideaway, how the zetsu reacted and if Swirly is okay. How the team reacted to the zetsu.

When the Fourth Hokage pays him a visit, Tobi wonders when he never did before.

Minato’s presence is daunting in the wake of their time apart. He feels like the larger than life figure that the Hokage is always made out to be and it’s intimidating, just a bit, the way he stands there, donning his white and red robe. His blue eyes look down at Tobi. Tobi has trouble meeting them.

Then Minato smiles. It’s a pathetic, sympathetic sort of smile, filled with unspoken apologies. Then it’s gone. Minato puts on his stern ‘village head’ face. “Do you know why I’m here, Obito?”

“To see my pretty face?” Tobi gets no response, not even the faintest of grins, and feels a bit silly. “No, Sir.”

“The council has decided to pardon you,” he says.

Tobi lifts his head, the thrum of his pulse quickening beneath his skin. “Then—”

Minato holds up a hand, halting his words before he can celebrate. “Under the condition that you leave the village.”

“Oh.” Banishment, huh? Minato doesn’t say it outright, but that’s what it is—punishment to a different extreme. It’s a hollow comfort. Tobi sucks in a breath, steels himself, and nods. “I understand.”

Minato falters then, hunching his shoulders. “I’m sorry. I really did try.”

“I know.” It’s a bitter feeling, one that he buries down deep, the corner of his mouth tugging into a half-hearted smile. “Thank you, Sensei. For everything."

 


 

The send-off is a humble one, a handful of familiar faces waiting for him at the gate. It’s enough. He breathes in deep, braces himself for the beginning of the end, and puts on a grin. Tobi finds it hard to ignore the shackles on his wrists, weighing him down. The chain rattles with every step he takes as a harsh reminder of where he’s come from, and where he’s going.

Minato leads him to the gate, accompanied by one of the prison guards who looks all too happy to see him go. That’s fine. Tobi didn’t like the guy, anyway.

Kushina stands along the side of the road, Naruto dead asleep on her shoulder. She sways, rocking him absently as she greets Tobi with a nudge and silent sympathies. Tobi’s going to miss her cooking. He already misses her cooking. She walks behind him, adjusting the child in her arms to free her hands. They card through his hair, gathering it at the back of his head. She ties it back for him, a silent parting that means more to him than it probably should.

Tobi opens his mouth to say something when a sudden force slams bodily into his chest. He blinks, eyes flitting over Rin’s trembling shoulders as she hooks her arms around him and squeezes tight. Rin has more strength than he gives her credit for. He’s trying not to ruin the mood, but there’s very real concern that she’s going to fracture a bone in her crushing show of affection and he’s not willing to deal with that on the same day he’s being kicked out of Konoha.

“You idiot,” she mumbles into his ear with watery words and hiccuping breath.

Tobi arches a brow. “You cryin’?”

“Shut up,” she hisses, pulling away just enough to fix him beneath a scolding glare. And yes, she is. “You better eat properly. No skipping meals, you hear me?”

“But I don’t need t—”

“I don’t care!”

“Alright, fine!” He rolls his eyes.

“And be careful,” she continues, scrubbing at her eyes. “The war’s over, but it’s still dangerous out there.”

“Yeah, yeah…”

“Especially ninja. Steer clear of them, okay?”

“Uh-huh…”

“And don’t forget—”

“Rin,” he laughs, steadying his hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay.”

Rin doesn’t seem to agree. Still, she bites her lip and shoves a large, cumbersome book against his chest. The pages are yellowed and worn, the cover frayed at the edges. Tobi cocks his head to the side and searches the spine. Konoha Recipes.

That’s the sweetest, most embarrassing gift he’s ever been given. Not that he remembers enough gifts to back that up.

Rin finally backs away and Minato takes her place, gesturing Tobi nearer. Tobi complies, arms up, and the shackles around his wrists fall to the ground. The skin beneath is rubbed red, achy and tender, and his burden feels just a little bit lighter. Minato says nothing. He smiles, flicking Tobi’s forehead, and that is enough.

Tobi cuts his goodbyes short, like ripping off a bandaid. Casting one last glance across their faces, he smiles and steps forward, beyond the threshold of the gate.

Kakashi is there, waiting for him on the other side.

“Don’t come back.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

“Good riddance.”

“Shut up, Bakashi. You know you’ll miss me.”

The silence is enough. It’s comforting.

Tobi sets out that day with nothing but the clothes on his back and a book hugged to his chest. He walks along the dirt road until Konoha’s walls are almost out of sight, until the village is nothing but a speck along the horizon. He doesn’t allow himself to turn back. It won’t do him any good.

It’s funny, he thinks, how he wishes that he had more time. He wishes that now, just as he did in the darkness of the cave, just as Obito did with the fading of his sight.

Oh well.

His steps falter, his shoes digging uncomfortably into the balls of his feet. The sky before him bleeds orange with evening’s approach, reflecting warmth along the clouds.

It’s fine like this.

Tobi isn’t sure where to go. Grandpa’s dream is no longer something that he wants to see through and, without that, he has no direction. What comes next? He looks down at himself, at the blanched skin of his arm.

What is it that he wants?

Hokage, he thinks. I want to be Hokage.

Tobi laughs. That’s stupid. Impossible, too, now. He’s not entirely sure where the thought comes from, or why he’d ever want it in the first place.

To prove myself, he answers. To make Rin proud. And Kushina. And Sensei.

To see the look on Bakashi’s face.

All his life, he’s been walking in the shadows of others. He drowned beneath the burden of the Uchiha name and swam against the current. But, no matter how hard he tried to break free, that name dragged him back down. He could fight and struggle and scream and it wouldn’t matter. No one would hear. Overshadowed by his family, by his teammate, his companion, his friend—and that was okay. It was okay.

It’s okay, because there’s still time.

One day, he thinks. One day, he’ll prove himself. To his family, to his village, to the world. And maybe that’s a meaningless statement. Maybe it’s too vague a goal. Maybe it is, but that’s okay, too.

It’s okay because it’s his .

Obito scrubs his stinging eyes, puts on a brave face, and turns around. The village has long since faded from sight, but he stares anyway. He looks back and he has regrets, and that’s okay. He’s made mistakes. He’s only human.

He’ll pick himself up, dust himself off, and keep moving forward.