Author's Note: This would be the product of my weekend's work. It is an experimental piece blown way out of proportion to how mucheffort I wanted to put into it, written in a style I normally don't use, working with characters I only have a vague understanding of. This one-shot deals with Naruto characters that so far have only been seen in the manga, so if you are a Naruto fan who only follows the anime, this fic will probably be largely incomprehensible to you. This does have manga spoilers, but the main thrust of this story is based solely on a theory that has been circulating the internet for the few months and will most likely be eventually proven wrong. Enjoy.
The first thing he noticed when he woke up was that his body felt weird. Like it was supposed to hurt a lot, but only did in a distant sort of way. He wondered if that meant it would hurt more later.
The voice came from his left. He opened his eyes and tried to see who it was, but when he rotated his neck, it did hurt, and for some reason all he could see out of his left eye was black.
"Who's there?" It hurt to talk, too. And his voice… it sounded wrong, but he couldn't remember what the difference was between before and now.
The voice to his left paused before replying. "We are Zetsu." There was another pause. "Who are you?"
He thought about it. The surface he was lying on felt soft. It still hurt to move. "I don't know." He should know, but why that was, he didn't know either. "Do you know, Zetsu-san?"
The voice that was Zetsu took even longer to respond this time. "It isn't important."
He blinked. The darkness in his left eye wasn't going away, but the panic in his chest receded slightly. If it didn't matter who he was, then it didn't matter that he didn't remember. This was comforting. But… it would still be nice to be somebody, even if it wasn't himself. "Can you tell me who I'm going to be, Zetsu-san?"
A hand touched him on the forehead. It was cool. He hadn't realized until then how hot it was. The cold felt nice against his skin. "We will call you Tobi."
Tobi. That sounded… almost right. Close enough.
It was nice to have a name.
Tobi closed his eyes. "Thank you, Zetsu-san."
"You're welcome, Tobi."
The first time Tobi saw Zetsu, he wasn't startled, though Zetsu acted as though he should be.
"What do you think of us now, Tobi?"
Sitting cross-legged on the edge of his bed, Tobi blinked. "I don't think anything different of you than I did before, Zetsu-san."
Zetsu didn't blink, though his large golden eyes widened slightly. "You aren't surprised?"
Tobi thought about it. "I guess it's because I didn't think you'd look like anything but yourself. And you do. So I'm not surprised."
A hand, as black as the darkness in Tobi's left eye, reached out and ruffled Tobi's hair. "You're a good kid, Tobi."
Tobi smiled. The hand running through his hair felt nice. The compliment felt even nicer. Tobi's cheeks warmed, even though a fire wasn't lit. "Thank you, Zetsu-san."
"You're welcome, Tobi."
The first time Tobi saw himself, it was entirely by accident. Zetsu had taken him outside for the first time since he had stopped hurting, and the sun had been shining and all the colors had been bright, and Tobi hadn't been able to stop grinning at how much there was to see. He almost hadn't noticed the stream as they walked past, a narrow brook that was too shallow to see your reflection in, but Tobi had followed it for no good reason other than he liked the sound of water, Zetsu watching, disinterested, from a distance. The stream ended in a pool a just a few dozen yards away, one that wasn't particularly large, but very deep for its size. Tobi had wondered if the pool had fish.
The first time Tobi saw himself, he nearly screamed aloud. His face… his eye… while half of his face was smooth and unmarked, the right side was ugly, his cheekbone broken inwards and there were so many scars… and where there should have been his left eye, there wasn't… anything. Anything at all. Just a gaping black hole where it looked like someone had dug out the tissue with a knife.
Tobi wanted to look away, but he couldn't do anything but stare at the face in the water. He was hideous. Nothing like what he had expected (though he couldn't remember what it was he had thought he'd see), nothing like Zetsu's pleasing symmetry. Just… ugly.
Tobi's gaze was still riveted upon the pool when Zetsu walked up to him from behind and waited patiently for him to speak. After a few minutes, Tobi did. "Why didn't you say something, Zetsu-san?"
Zetsu's low, two-toned voice which Tobi normally found comforting, didn't hesitate this time. "What would you have had us say, Tobi?"
Tobi closed his eyes. No, that wasn't right. His eye. The darkness Tobi had thought he'd seen with his left eye wasn't darkness at all. It was just nothing. "That I'm ugly." He was unable to keep the misery out of his voice, or the tears from running down his cheek.
Zetsu placed a pale, carefully manicured hand on Tobi's shoulder while Tobi scrubbed viciously at his face. He shouldn't be crying. How much of a baby was he? "Do you want to know what we see when we look at you, Tobi?"
Tobi didn't, really, but his curiosity won out in the end, like it always did. "What?"
"We see you. Exactly what we expected to see, because this was how we found you. So we aren't surprised. And we find it hard to believe that we will ever find Tobi ugly."
Despite the fact that he could still feel tears threatening to spill over, Tobi smiled, ridiculously pleased to have his own words thrown back at him at such a way. "Thank you, Zetsu-san."
"You're welcome, Tobi."
It was a while before Tobi thought to wonder what it was that Zetsu did for a living. Zetsu often disappeared for long periods of time, leaving Tobi alone. Though Zetsu left him plenty of food and books to read (often ones with strange diagrams and instructions in them that Tobi was afraid to try), Tobi was still lonely. So one day after Zetsu returned from a week's absence, Tobi asked, "What do you do when you leave, Zetsu-san?"
In the midst of cleaning the headband he always wore while away, Zetsu looked up at Tobi with his unblinking golden eyes. "Why do you care, Tobi?"
Tobi didn't bother to try and come up with a better reason for his question. Zetsu always knew when he was lying, anyway. "Because I don't like to be alone. And if you told me what you did, maybe I could help."
Zetsu's gaze, focused beyond anything Tobi could muster at the best of times, intensified to a level Tobi wasn't used to. "Do you really mean that, Tobi?"
Tobi nodded, though he wondered what he was agreeing to that made Zetsu look at him so.
Zetsu's eyes didn't waver from Tobi's one when he pronounced evenly, "We are a shinobi, Tobi."
Tobi looked at Zetsu blankly. The word meant nothing to him. "What's a shinobi, Zetsu-san?"
It was then that Zetsu blinked, slowly, as if he wasn't sure he had heard Tobi right. No one else would have been able to tell, but Tobi knew Zetsu's body language, better than he knew his own. "A shinobi is a mercenary, Tobi. They get paid to do things for others."
Tobi slumped slightly. From the way Zetsu's eyes had narrowed earlier, Tobi had thought that the job description would be a little more… glamorous. "What, like errands?"
"Like killing people. We assassinated a man last week who was planning to betray his family for money."
Tobi tilted his head sideways as he looked up at Zetsu, trying to tell if this meant Zetsu was someone that he didn't really know. "You killed someone last week?"
As far as Tobi could tell, Zetsu didn't look any different than he had the week before. "Have you killed a lot of people?"
"Yes." Zetsu moved a hand towards Tobi. Tobi didn't move. "Does that frighten you, Tobi?"
Tobi shook his head. "You're still Zetsu-san. Knowing this new thing about you doesn't change anything. Though, Zetsu-san…" And Tobi didn't quite manage to avoid looking away, "If I help you, do I have to kill people?"
Almost imperceptibly, Zetsu relaxed, and with his outstretched hand he turned Tobi's chin until Tobi yet again was looking him the eye. "Not for a few years, Tobi. You don't know enough. We will have to train you first."
"So you will let me help you?"
"If you want to, we will let you help."
Tobi grinned. To be able to help Zetsu… to not be alone anymore. It sounded wonderful. "Thank you, Zetsu-san."
"You're welcome, Tobi."
The first time Tobi killed someone, it happened a lot sooner than he had expected it would. Zetsu had ordered him to look on from a distance while he completed one of the assignments he was given (who exactly gave him these jobs, Tobi didn't know, and something in Zetsu's eyes when Tobi got the courage to speak up told Tobi that it wasn't smart to ask). Careful as always to follow instructions, Tobi was perched in a tree almost out of visual range as he watched one of the carnivorous trees Zetsu liked to summon consume a man clad in a dark green vest. Zetsu was standing quietly by as the tree finished eating, relaxed as he only was a scant few minutes after completing an assignment.
It was for this reason that Tobi was the only one to notice the weird shimmering of the air right behind Zetsu. It startled Tobi; the air wasn't moving, exactly, but he couldn't get a very good look from where he was, but Tobi had promised Zetsu that he wouldn't move, so he just leaned in and squinted, because he wanted to see… and where there had been moving-air-that-wasn't, there was now a man, dressed in a vest identical to the one worn by the man Zetsu had just killed. And he was holding a very heavy-looking ax.
"Zetsu-san!" Tobi tried to scream. He did, but ever since he had woken up and Zetsu had named him Tobi, he had never been able to speak very loudly without it hurting, so neither Zetsu nor the man with the ax heard him. So Tobi did the next best thing; he grabbed three of the knives (kunai, they were called kunai, these were nothing like the knives Tobi used to make dinner with) Zetsu had given him off their position strapped to his belt and threw them at the man carrying the ax.
Tobi hadn't expected them to hit. His aim may have improved some from when Zetsu had first started instructing him with weapons, but he had never done so well with the targets more than twenty or so yards away. The man currently intent on killing Zetsu was at least three times as far as that. But in the split second between positioning the three kunai in his hand and hurling them as hard as he could at the man with the ax, something in his head that hadn't been there before clicked into place and Tobi's target suddenly seemed a lot closer than he had just a few seconds before.
The first kunai the man blocked with his ax's handle, his senses have caught the approaching projectiles moments before their arrival. The second kunai glanced off the reflected first and straight into the middle of the man's forehead, right between the eyes. The third kunai missed its target entirely, sticking into the ground a few feet to the left of where Tobi had intended it to go, but that was alright, because the man was dead before the third kunai touched down. It was barely difficult at all.
Zetsu turned just in time to see his would-be killer's body hit the ground. A few seconds later, Tobi came barreling through the underbrush. "Zetsu-san! I'm sorry, I know I wasn't supposed to interfere, but you didn't see him and I did and I didn't-"
Tobi quieted and looked up into his mentor's eyes. "Yes, Zetsu-san?"
Zetsu handed him a small mirror, one Tobi hadn't known Zetsu carried. "Look into this, Tobi."
So Tobi looked. And for a while, he couldn't think of anything to say. "Why is my eye red, Zetsu-san?"
"You're asking the wrong question, Tobi."
So Tobi thought about it. "Could I see the man when you couldn't because my eye turned red, Zetsu-san?"
"That is correct, Tobi." Zetsu stared down at Tobi for several seconds, making Tobi squirm uncomfortably. "I think it's time we stepped up your training."
This wasn't what Tobi expected. "Why?"
"You're kekkei genkai has been activated. You will learn much more quickly, now."
This almost sounded like a compliment, but for some reason, Tobi knew it wasn't. So he watched in silence as Zetsu took apart the corpse of the man Tobi had killed, and only wondered later why he didn't feel like throwing up afterwards. Zetsu never did tell him what a kekkei genkai was, and Tobi never asked.
The next time Tobi killed someone, he got rid of the remains himself, and did so without a single mistake. Zetsu never said commented on Tobi's flawless performance. Tobi didn't expect him to. The arrival of his kekkei genkai had changed something. It made Zetsu expect more. Tobi did his best not to disappoint, even though it never felt like enough.
In the end, it was the small stuff that made things return to normal. Zetsu didn't cook- hadn't even maintained a kitchen, before Tobi had arrived- so Tobi made all their meals. One evening, Tobi tried sushi.
Tobi looked up from his examination of his chopsticks. "Yes, Zetsu-san?"
"This is very good."
It had been weeks since Zetsu had praised him, even about something as trivial as dinner. Tobi was unable to meet Zetsu's eyes as he replied, instead keeping his gaze focused on the tabletop. His hands shook, out of Zetsu's line of sight. "Thank you, Zetsu-san."
"You're welcome, Tobi."
That night, Tobi slept as he hadn't in over a fortnight. The next day, the rift Tobi's kekkei genkai had created between them was gone. Tobi knew better than to question why.
Even though Zetsu was kind to him most of the time, there was a part of Zetsu who didn't like Tobi at all. Tobi hadn't known that another side to Zetsu even existed until the first time he was allowed along on a mission and he watched Zetsu's eyes go dark and his voice become deep and angry. It was the part of Zetsu that allowed him to tear his enemies apart with his bare teeth, that allowed him to push Tobi out of the way whenever Tobi grew to be too much of a hindrance. After the first time, Tobi only assisted when he was confident he would be a help instead of an impediment to Zetsu's missions. He wasn't afraid of Zetsu hurting him- his mentor never hit hard enough for the sting to last more than a few minutes anyway- but he was afraid that one day Zetsu would grow sick of his clumsiness and leave forever. So Tobi did his best to make sure that he never became an obstruction while Zetsu worked, though the feeling in the back of his mind that it was only a matter of time wouldn't recede.
It was only afterwards, when the light came back into Zetsu's eyes and he apologized in low tones if he had hit Tobi harder than usual that day, when Tobi started the fire and made dinner and Zetsu watched him over the flames, that Tobi knew that no matter how much the other side of Zetsu disliked him, it would never be enough for this side to ever consider sending him away.
Sometimes, Tobi dreamed. Most of the time, his dreams were incoherent- maybe a flash of color, words that Tobi couldn't make out in a voice Tobi didn't recognize- but once in a while, things almost seemed to make sense. His understanding always faded upon awakening, but there were only so many times Tobi could see a face before he started to remember it in the morning.
"Did I know someone with grey hair, Zetsu-san? Before, I mean."
Zetsu didn't look away from his inspection of the forest glen. "Why do you ask, Tobi?"
Tobi was far too used to Zetsu answering his questions in kind to be put off. "I see someone with grey hair in my dreams sometimes. He's not old, though." Tobi didn't know why he knew that most people with grey hair were old. He just did.
"Do you want to remember him, Tobi?"
So Tobi thought about it, what he remembered from his dreams. Screaming. Shouting. Cold, dark eyes. And pain. A lot of pain.
But there was also something else. "I don't know, Zetsu-san."
Zetsu's gaze never shifted from the forest. "If you don't know, then wait until you do before asking again."
Tobi nodded. Even if Zetsu wasn't looking, Tobi knew that his mentor would still see.
He didn't tell Zetsu about the girl with brown hair, and eyes that shone like the sun. That even in his dreams, he was afraid to say anything when she was there, for fear his secrets would come spilling out. He didn't mention that the boy with grey hair called him friend as he tore out Tobi's eye, leaving him floating in nothingness, watching with his not-sight as the grey-haired boy took the girl away, leaving Tobi alone as he died. All Tobi told Zetsu about were his dreams. He didn't tell Zetsu about his nightmares. Those he knew he didn't want to recall.
But even though Tobi wasn't sure about the dreams, and didn't want the nightmares, they still came to him in his sleep. And sometimes, he couldn't help remembering, no matter how he tried to forget.
Tobi didn't often go out among other people, but occasionally it couldn't be avoided. Sometimes they ran out of groceries and Zetsu wasn't available to get more, so Tobi had to go to town himself. The first time, he had been excited. He couldn't remember what people were supposed to look like and only possessed a vague recollection of how to buy things, but he could tell when people were lying and was too wary to be caught by a thief, so he walked into town with a great deal more confidence than he was probably due.
Then the stares had started. At first, they had been covert. Quick looks over the shoulder and glances out of the corners of their eyes that had hardly bothered Tobi at all, what with the way he was staring at absolutely everything with no shame to speak of. But the closer he had gotten to the center of town where the market resided, the more obvious the stares had become, and soon they were accompanied by whispers that bordered on the threshold of Tobi's hearing.
The older women had been the most kind.
"Would you look at that child? What do you think happened to him?"
"Accident I would expect. Looks like something fell on him. Poor boy."
The younger people weren't so gentle. The girls' comments were often accompanied by giggles that were nothing like the laugh of the girl in his dreams.
"See him? Isn't he awful?"
"Revolting! I can barely look at him."
Despite their comments, they looked anyway. Tobi felt his fingernails bite into his palms and resisted the urge to reach for the kunai secreted in the pouch strapped to his waist. Instead, he ran the rest of the way to the marketplace and bought the needed supplies as quickly as possible, not bothering to haggle about the prices. Even the market vendors could hardly meet his gaze.
Zetsu had found him a few hours later sitting on the edge of the stream where Tobi had first seen his own face, tossing stones into the water, the groceries lying in a pile beside him. "Tobi, what are you doing here?"
"You lied to me."
This tired statement startled Zetsu enough that even with his back to his mentor, Tobi could sense the way Zetsu stiffened. "What do you think we lied to you about?"
"You said I wasn't ugly."
Considering it had been over a year since that particular discussion, it was a credit to Zetsu's memory that he responded so promptly. "We said that we didn't find you ugly. We didn't say that others would perceive you the same way."
It was only Zetsu's extraordinary eyesight, equal to Tobi's in strength though different in its application, that allowed him to see the rearrangement in Tobi's facial muscles that signified a petulant scowl. "Then you should have said something."
"We couldn't predict how the townspeople would react to you. We don't go near them. We normally get our groceries elsewhere."
The next stone Tobi threw hit with some force, resulting in a small tidal wave that soaked Tobi's sandals and the hem of his pants. "I hate people."
Zetsu nodded. "They do tend to lack much in the way of redeemable qualities."
It was then that Tobi finally turned to Zetsu, allowing the elder shinobi to catch sight of his student's face. Zetsu blinked at the tears in Tobi's one eye. When Tobi cried, it was usually obvious in his tone no matter how Tobi tried to hide it, but this time, Zetsu hadn't noticed at all. "Will I have to go into town again, Zetsu-san?"
"Eventually." Tobi's face fell. "However, we can get a mask for you, if you wish. That way you will not have to hide your weapons, since no one will recognize you, and it is customary for shinobi to hide their identities."
Tobi blinked, surprised out of his misery. "Am I a shinobi then, Zetsu-san?"
Tobi smiled, cheered at the thought of anonymity. To be able to see, without being seen. "Thank you, Zetsu-san."
"You're welcome, Tobi."
The mask Zetsu gave to him fully covered his face, the only hole giving room for Tobi to see. It proved to be a little awkward, blocking his eyesight at unfortunate moments unless Tobi activated his kekkei genkai, which he avoided doing as much as possible, knowing how distant it made Zetsu act around him. But Tobi still got into the habit of wearing it whenever there was a chance of someone other than Zetsu being around. He was still stared at, but now he could stare back, and eventually they would notice and look away. With Zetsu, he didn't bother. Zetsu knew what he looked like, anyway, and with his own special eyes, Zetsu could see Tobi's face, even when the mask went on. Zetsu was the only one who ever really saw him. It didn't take Tobi long to decide that he didn't mind that at all.
Even though Tobi really didn't like people much, he couldn't deny that they were interesting. Some of the things they did seemed to be for no good reason, but Tobi always made sure to watch from a distance, and it never occurred to him to ask. But still, he had learned to read lips a long time ago, and could sometimes figure out why people did what they were doing by what they said before and after. Over the course of a few months, one trend that particularly interested Tobi (though more because of why they did it rather than what it was) showed up several times, enough so Tobi's eye could get a good gist of the technique, even from so far away. It took him even longer to get up the courage to try out what he had learned, but the enjoyment people displayed when they did the strange thing eventually convinced Tobi that the risk was worth the possible gain.
It was on a snowy winter's morning that Tobi approached Zetsu, who was huddled in the corner of the room nearest to the fire with a heavy blanket, trying to block out the cold that bothered him so much more than it bothered Tobi. "Zetsu-san?"
"What is it, Tobi?"
Before his bravado could desert him, Tobi leaned in and pressed his lips to those of his mentor's. He had watched too many people go through the courting ritual of 'kissing' to allow himself the amateur mistake of bumping noses, but as he withdrew and caught sight of the shocked look in Zetsu's eyes, Tobi couldn't help but feel that he had still managed to do something wrong.
"Are you alright, Zetsu-san?"
Zetsu, who was currently in the process of pressing a hand to his lips, startled as if brought out of a trance. "Why did you kiss us, Tobi?"
Tobi felt warm creep across his cheeks. "When the people in town cared about somebody, they, um… well, they did that. I mean, mostly boys only kissed girls, but I don't care about any girls. The only person I care about is you, and I thought… you know…" It was obvious by Zetsu's blank gaze that he didn't know, so Tobi gamely pushed on through the rest of what he wanted to say. "That it might be nice to kiss you. I thought it was." It was only then that doubt began to creep up in Tobi's mind. He had liked it, but if Zetsu hadn't… "Did you dislike it, Zetsu-san? Because if you did, I promise, I won't ever do it again, and I'm really sorry, it was a stupid idea-"
Tobi stopped mid-sentence. "Yes, Zetsu-san?"
"We… we did like it, Tobi. We just have never been kissed before."
Tobi nodded vigorously. "Oh, that's alright. I've never kissed anyone before. I liked it, though."
"Just warn us next time, Tobi."
The mere implication that there would be a next time was enough to make it impossible to restrain the wide grin that took over his face. "Of course."
"Thank you, Tobi."
"You're welcome, Zetsu-san."
One day, things changed. Tobi wasn't surprised. He had been expecting it for months, with the way Zetsu's eyes now narrowed every time he was assigned a mission, with the way Zetsu could go missing for days and return only with a thoughtful look on his face instead of with his kunai and hands covered in blood. One day, Tobi returned home after spending a few hours practicing with his kekkei genkai(though Tobi had heard Zetsu also call his strange red eye a bloodline limit, he preferred the initial term), watching the way energy moved through animals until he could pinpoint the disparities between different species just by the way their muscles moved beneath their skin. What he found upon his arrival was the smoldering remains of what had once been Zetsu's small cabin. For a moment, all Tobi could do was stare at the dying flames.
Tobi whirled around, so relieved that his mentor had survived the attack upon their home that he almost threw himself onto the elder shinobi before he finally noticed the change in Zetsu's attire and bewilderment kept his feet planted where they were. "Zetsu-san, someone burned our house-"
"We did. The hunter-nin will be here soon. It is best they find nothing they can use to track us."
"Hunter-nin?" Tobi only had a vague understanding of the term. Shinobi that hunted down shinobi from their own village. But why would they be after… Tobi took a second look at the black coat Zetsu was wearing and suddenly the switch in clothing preferences began to make more sense. Tobi had seen someone wearing a coat identical to Zetsu's speaking to his mentor just a few weeks before. "Zetsu-san… are you leaving your village?"
Zetsu nodded. "Our beliefs no longer coincide with those of Grass Village. It is time we moved on. However, our own bloodline limit is highly coveted. It is likely we will be pursued."
"Oh." Tobi wondered what this meant for him. He wasn't a shinobi of Grass Village, but Zetsu had been training him… "What will I be doing then, Zetsu-san?"
"You will be coming with us."
The factual way Zetsu said this, as if there had never been any other recourse for Tobi after Zetsu had left his home village behind forever… it was far more reassuring than Tobi knew it should have been, but Zetsu was the only person Tobi really knew. If Zetsu had wanted them to part ways, Tobi didn't know what he would have done.
He didn't want to be alone.
"Thank you, Zetsu-san."
"You're welcome, Tobi."
Despite having burned their cabin to the ground, the hunter-nin still managed to find them. If Zetsu had been alone, numbers alone might have made the hunter-nin too much for the former Grass-nin to handle, but beyond a small note on Zetsu's file that indicated the shinobi had an apprentice that occasionally assisted him on missions, the ninja following Zetsu knew next to nothing about Tobi. If it hadn't been for the recent evolution of Tobi's kekkei genkai, which now allowed him not only to see the way chakra shifted throughout his opponents' bodies but their movements several seconds in advance, it probably wouldn't have mattered, but by the time the corpse of the last hunter-nin collapsed into a heap, a ring of blood and Grass-nins' bodies surrounded not only Zetsu, but his student as well.
When Tobi crouched to pull one of his kunai out from its position lodged in the throat of a hunter-nin he had killed, a hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Forget it, Tobi. We don't have time to waste. There will be plenty of weapons for you to use where we're going."
Tobi nodded and pushed himself to his feet. The kunai he was leaving in the bodies of his opponents was the first set of throwing knives Zetsu had ever given him, but his mentor was right. They couldn't afford to wait around.
It was a few days later that they arrived at their destination. It was, as far as Tobi could tell, a cave with a large, impressive rock blocking the entrance. A cave he couldn't see inside, no matter how he strained to peer through the walls. Tobi was puzzled. Usually stone was no problem to bypass with his unusual sight, but this time… "Zetsu-san, my kekkei genkai is being blocked."
Zetsu nodded. "We were told to expect this. This cave is guarded by very advanced seals. We shall just have to wait until our presence is noticed."
It didn't take long. Tobi didn't even have time to become bored before the rock door started to glow in an eerie way and melted into the ground. Zetsu didn't hesitate to enter the cave as soon as the opening presented itself, so Tobi masked his own worry. Though in his own way, he could see in the dark, lack of light still made him nervous. It reminded him too much of the worst of his nightmares, the one that combined his achluophobia (1) and athazagoraphobia (2) all into one unpleasant package. But soon, the darkness gave way to light, and Tobi relaxed.
His ease didn't last long.
"And what do we have here?" The words that came from Tobi's left didn't startle him- he had noticed the man's presence as soon as they had entered the cave- but the voice did. Deep and amused in a completely different way from how Zetsu sounded in one of his rare, lighter moments. The man sounded like he wanted to eat him. Why this managed to unnerve Tobi, who was accustomed to living with someone who actually did eat people, the young shinobi didn't know. But the man's voice still scared him.
Tobi was pretty sure the man, whose eyes were as golden as Zetsu's, though not nearly as comforting (Tobi was used to strange eyes, but he'd never seen a human with pupils that were slitted like a snake's), couldn't see his expression. After all, Tobi had worn his mask nonstop ever since they had left Grass Village and hadn't taken it off when they entered the cave, but somehow this new person still knew that Tobi was frightened. "What an interesting little toy you brought with you, Zetsu."
"Tobi is our apprentice." Zetsu's voice, unlike that of the man with the slitted eyes, wasn't amused. "And we will ask you to leave him alone."
"Yes, please do that, Orochimaru." It was then that the man standing in the back of the cave stepped forward. The shadows played across his face, making it difficult to make out his expression. "I don't want you alienating our newest member on his first day." Orochimaru smiled in acquiescence and backed away, though the look in his eyes was anything but subservient. It was then that the shinobi whose face Tobi couldn't see turned to Zetsu. "However, you might have mentioned that you planned to bring someone else along, Zetsu. We don't trust the location of our bases to just anyone."
"Exactly." Something situated in the darkest corner of the cave that Tobi, for some reason, had failed to make note of earlier, shifted its weight. "How do we know we can trust an outsider?"
If Zetsu had anything to say to that, he didn't respond promptly. Though Tobi also wasn't able to come up with very good answer to the figure's question, having lived for years in the company of someone who could spot a lie at a glance, he had long fallen into the habit of saying the first thing that came to mind. "Who are you to talk? You aren't even real. That body you're wearing now is just a shell."
Silence followed Tobi's announcement. Then… "Astute, aren't you." The thing that Tobi was fairly sure wasn't human didn't sound pleased.
Tobi blinked, though through the mask, he doubted anyone but Zetsu noticed. "Not really. It's obvious."
"Astute, but hopelessly impulsive. We've been working on that." Tobi had never been happier about the arrival what he privately termed Zetsu's 'shinobi mind.' It might mean that he was angry at Tobi for being so blunt, but it also meant that he wasn't likely to allow anyone to do anything that he didn't approve of, no matter how powerful they were. "Tobi is not an outsider. We've been training him for over three years. There is no one else he could be loyal to but me."
The shadowed man again interrupted in his even, quiet tones. "Are you willing to stake your life on that, Zetsu?"
Zetsu met the shadowed man's gaze evenly. Unlike most people who looked into Zetsu's eyes, the shadowed man did not look away, but waited patiently for the former Grass-nin's response. "Yes."
The shadowed man nodded. A smile might have flitted across his face, but it was impossible to tell. "Good. Welcome to the Akatsuki, Zetsu."
That pretty much resolved the issue, though when Tobi turned around to follow Zetsu out of the cave, he could still feel the stare of the man with slitted pupils burrowing into his back.
Years passed. Eventually, the shinobi called Orochimaru left the Akatsuki organization to pursue interests of his own. Tobi didn't care what those interests were. He was just glad to see the man go. A few months later, a shinobi from Stone Village replaced him as the partner of the shell-man (whom Tobi had eventually found out was named Sasori, and the box thing surrounding him wasn't a shell at all, but a puppet. Not that Tobi could tell the difference. He had never found the unique fighting styles of Sand-nin to be very interesting).
Deidara didn't turn out to be much of an improvement on Orochimaru. One or two years younger than Tobi himself, the former Stone-nin was pushy, violent, and had no patience to speak of. While Tobi had never had many aspirations towards joining the Akatsuki, seeing someone whom he knew he could best in battle be placed on the same level as Zetsu set Tobi's teeth on edge. If the shadowed man had ever considered forcing Zetsu to put up with a partner, Tobi would have likely challenged for a position in the Akatsuki right then and there, but the situation never came up, and what with Zetsu mostly working in the field as a scout, Tobi didn't see much of the other Akatsuki members, Deidara included. He and Zetsu weren't even in the country when a partnership of the original Akatsuki Nine died on a mission gone sour and two new missing-nin were quickly found to replace them. It didn't bother Tobi much- he didn't want a stranger as a partner anyway- but the eyes of one of the newcomers were impossible to ignore.
"Zetsu-san, have you seen Itachi-san's eyes?"
Focused on something in the distance too far away for Tobi to see, Zetsu nodded. "What of them?"
"They're just like my eye when my kekkei genkai is activated. Does that mean we're part of the same clan?"
Uchiha Itachi was young, by far the youngest shinobi ever to be granted membership of the Akatsuki organization, but he was far more mature than Deidara would ever be. It helped that Tobi also found it difficult to remember the boy's age on the few occasions they ran across each other, so he wasn't bothered by Itachi's presence half as much as he was bothered by Deidara's. In truth, Tobi couldn't care less about how many years Uchiha Itachi had seen. For him, it was the eyes and the eyes alone that mattered.
Slowly, Zetsu's barely visible pupils dilated and sharpened, and he returned his gaze to his former student. "It does. However, we doubt you share more than a few drops of blood. Uchiha Itachi murdered all of his close family when he left his home village."
"But I wasn't there," Tobi couldn't help but point out.
Zetsu stared at him in silence until Tobi had to look away. "The person you used to be is dead. Once, you told us you didn't know if you wanted to remember. Do you want to remember now?"
Tobi thought about the grey-haired boy in his dreams. The one who had called him friend and left him alone in the darkness. "Not really."
"Until you say yes, then Uchiha Itachi is of no relation to you." A faint smile crossed Zetsu's lips. "Even when you do decide to remember, we advise you to never acknowledge the shared blood. All you would be doing is giving him license to kill you, and we do not want to lose Tobi just yet."
If Tobi had still been a child, it was likely that Zetsu would have then reached over and ruffled Tobi's hair, but Tobi had bypassed adolescence years ago. Tobi could only count himself fortunate that no one else was around for miles, so for once his mask was knotted to his belt instead of wrapped around his face. The mask always made it difficult to kiss Zetsu on impulse, though no matter how quickly Tobi leaned in and pressed his lips against his former mentor's, he not once had made the mistake of bumping noses. He may have been slightly clumsy, but his kekkei genkai ensured that a lesson learned once was never forgotten, even if it had taken a few tries to get the tongue thing right.
Three days after Sasori died, the bruises around Tobi's neck still hadn't faded.
"I don't know why you wouldn't just let me hit him back, Zetsu-san."
Zetsu didn't bother to look away from his inspection of the oak tree. "You were baiting Deidara on purpose, Tobi. With his chakra depleted, it would prejudice a fight unevenly in your favor. If you want to join the Akatsuki, you will do so through the proper channels, and not by killing one of the organization's members while he is still injured." It was only then that Zetsu leveled a stare at the younger shinobi. "No matter how irritating said member is."
Tobi frowned and rubbed at the largest bruise Deidara's attempt at choking him had left behind. "If I do as you suggest, Zetsu-san, all Leader-sama will do is place me with Deidara." His frown deepened. "Even if it would be an honor to be a part of the same association as Zetsu-san, I would prefer to do so after Deidara blows himself up."
Zetsu's lip quirked, amused despite himself. "We presume that was why you were searching for him in pieces."
Tobi grinned, his prior frustration already forgotten. "Hope springs eternal, Zetsu-san."
The day Zetsu died, over five years had passed since Tobi had dreamt about the girl with eyes that shone like the sun and the grey-haired boy who had taken her away. The morning of the day Zetsu died, Tobi was officially established as a member of the Akatsuki, Deidara having been torn apart the week before by the Kazekage whom he had defeated in single combat a year previous. When Zetsu's opponent struck the killing blow, Tobi wasn't even there, and arrived only in time to hold Zetsu in his arms and watch as his former mentor's heart stopped beating. It was thanks to Tobi's kekkei genkai that the newest member of the Akatsuki was able to pinpoint down to the second the time of death of the man who was going to be his partner.
"Zetsu…san." Tobi did his best to wipe away his tears, not even noticing the man who had been Zetsu's killer, standing less than ten yards away. The mask got in the way, as it so often did, so Tobi ripped it off without ceremony and let it fall to the ground. He didn't need it anymore, anyway. The only person whose opinion he cared about was Zetsu's, and Zetsu was dead. He ignored the gasp of the shinobi who had driven a fist through Zetsu's chest as he caught sight of Tobi's face, ignored the whisper of a name that Tobi just barely remembered. "Zetsu-san, I'm sorry… I should have been here… I should have been able to help…"
The masked Leaf-nin wasn't going away. "Obito?" The Konoha shinobi one step towards Tobi, then another. "Obito… is it really you?" It was almost imperceptible, the way the man's voice shook, but Tobi was incapable of not noticing after so many years at Zetsu's side. "You were dead…"
It was only then that Tobi laid Zetsu's body gently on the ground and took his gaze away from the former Grass-nin who had been his teacher and sole friend for over seventeen years. "Don't worry, Zetsu-san. I'm a good kid. I won't forget to burn your remains. I know you don't want Grass Village to have possession of your clan's secrets." He pushed himself to his feet, and turned to face his mentor's killer. "I just have to take care of something first."
The Leaf-nin's aura was empty of the killing intent that had been so prevalent five minutes before. He was no longer contorting his body into a combat position, but instead stood with his hands dangling loosely by his sides. His eyes, one dark and the other as red as Tobi's own, were filled with confusion. "Obito… don't you remember me? I'm your friend… Kakashi. Hatake Kakashi."
The Leaf-nin's hair was grey, though he was not old. He had the audacity to call Tobi friend minutes after he had stolen away the one person Tobi cared about. His eye was not just similar to Tobi's, but a mirror.
He was not the child of Tobi's dreams. That child was long since dead. But Tobi's scars remained.
Tobi did remember. The pain. The darkness. The family name he did not deserve and had never really wanted. The girl with brown hair and shining eyes whom he had loved, who had left him behind and had never returned. The boy who called him friend as he tore Tobi's sight in two, leaving him half blind and broken. Camaraderie and trust that left him with nothing, not even his memories.
Tobi did remember. But in the end, he knew it was all best left forgotten. The grey-haired child of his past was all grown up, and he had returned to destroy Tobi's life.
When Tobi finally spoke, his voice was flat and strained. Nothing like the voice of young chuunin Kakashi recalled from so long ago. Nothing like the young chuunin at all. "Uchiha Obito is dead. You left his corpse behind in a pit. My name is Tobi. I am a member of the Akatsuki. You just murdered my partner," my mentor. My friend. My only precious person in the world. "And I promise you, I will not rest until you join him in hell." Then maybe my memories can be left behind at last.
And Uchiha Obito's vision went red.
(1) Fear of darkness
(2) Fear of being forgotten