Skin & Bones

Skin & Bones

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto; all characters contained herein are above the legal age of eighteen.

A/N: Bribed by Cella with PeinSaku.

O O O

He watched a fly crawl up the window.

It wasn't raining at all, which was unusual.

One of the many Akatsuki compounds located in neutral territory—not like they'd ever been ones to follow rules, anyway—was where Tobi now took his residence, staying within the stone walls dripping with moisture, staying on the cold floor that froze in the winter, staying in a place of residence that held every memory he could conjure up.

Because when it came down to it, Tobi was a creature of habit. There wasn't much that he could remember, and that meant that he didn't know where to go. He craved stability and familiar settings, and that was why he stayed. It didn't matter that the Akatsuki was long gone, fighting a losing battle against Konohagakure, against two of the three legendary sannin, that Konan had been blown clear out of the water and that Pein had followed shortly after, their skills and capabilities astounding and staggering but not quite enough. It didn't matter that he'd been the only one to survive, some gut instinct telling him to escape while he could, some force in his legs dragging him to run as fast as he could.

But perhaps he could live like this forever, he mused, eyes trained once more on the fly. He'd abandoned the mask in the first year of his solitary confinement, tossing it to the floor, stomping on it, picking it up and bashing it against the wall, and his hands had bled but he hadn't cared. Because this blood wasn't for anybody or any cause anymore.

He liked taking care of things. He liked being taken care of, to an extent.

Maybe that was why he missed the organization that treated him like a dog. He may have been a pet, but he was still a member of the family. They may have only given him table scraps, but he refused to bite the hand that fed.

Madara stirred inside of him, and that familiar tingle of his insides was back, rising from his gut to his chest and then up along his spine before it settled like a thick, wet blanket over his skull. It wasn't as though the entity or ghost or whatever within him completely took control of him; oh, no, Tobi probably didn't seem like it, but he was impeccably strong, both physically and mentally. He could stave off the "demon" if he really, really wanted to—though, admittedly, for a short amount of time—but he was usually more than willing to let Madara…guide him.

Madara, Tobi had decided early on, was a militaristic genius. He was orderly and functional and strict beyond reason, instructing Tobi to say this, walk here, jump there, make sure to follow up with this appointed action. He had no idea why this Madara had chosen to invade his being nor how to get rid of him or even who he was, really, besides someone with a giant statue over in the Valley of the End.

That didn't, however, mean that Tobi wanted him gone.

Madara kept Tobi's physical body alive.

Tobi kept Madara's mental state alive.

It was a give-and-take relationship, a symbiotic coexistence, a classic example of a parasite and its host. Everything was there: the leeching, the codependence, the clinging, the utter brevity invested in each other.

In short, Tobi didn't know how to live without Madara anymore. He'd been an ever-looming presence for so long that he'd forgotten even the simplest of things necessary to thrive. He may have been an amazing shinobi and missing-nin before, all of his personality quirks and odd mannerisms aside, but now he was completely reliant upon the being inside of him. Every kick and punch and flip was the very appreciated courtesy of Madara, a mastermind wrapped up in what was now the shell of a brilliant ninja.

Really, Tobi was nothing but a vessel anymore.

And he accepted it.

Footsteps broke his reverie abruptly, and Madara stirred again within him, anxious, waiting, wanting. Intangible entity though he was, he was still a very influential individual. And now he was saying Go. Go, see what it is. Go, find them! Intruder!

Except he couldn't talk. He could only influence.

So Tobi went.

And so the monster came.

O O O

She'd heard rumors about the old Akatsuki building.

Set in the boonies of the passage of neutral territories between Sound and Lightning Country, it hadn't been the main place of operation, but a steady, important base nonetheless. It was large, about 40,000 square feet or so, with, a huge backyard probably used for training and several concrete walls surrounding the property that went on forever. It had more than ten rooms, two kitchens—one upstairs and one downstairs, five bathrooms, three dens, and an extra shack the size of a small apartment used for a variety of ambiguous objects and weapons. In the days when the Akatsuki had been around, it had been guarded on all sides for miles and miles by wards, those brainwashed, mindless sentinels, seals, and traps. It was virtually impregnable, and nobody had ever even taken the road that supposedly led to it. Which it didn't, Sakura had soon learned. It had led in a wide loop, and once upon a time, it had probably been riddled with deadly obstacles.

Those, as she had learned, as she had studied, as she had seen firsthand, were the facts.

And the rumors she had gathered from the not-too-nearby villagers were thus:

The Akatsuki were still thriving, though underneath this complex.

A great monster that had developed from the hatred and utter evil that was the members of said organization now lived in there, feeding off the souls that departed for their afterlife and happened to get too close.

Pranksters that had vandalized much of the inside angered the dead souls of the organization, provoking the wrath of their ghosts and killing said pranksters.

The ghost of the leader, Pein, "God," still haunts the upper floor, and sometimes, if you get close enough to the first outer concrete wall, you can hear rain falling even if it's perfectly sunny out.

A local rival gang, name withheld, was staving off unwanted visitors to the complex as they worked on reviving the interior and eventually the exterior for their own usage.

And finally, the rumor that seemed most plausible to Sakura and therefore scared her out of her mind, a final, surviving Akatsuki member still kept himself holed up in there, coming out only when the blanket of darkness was thick and hunting or stealing food from the vendor.

She'd gathered eye-witness accounts of this case, and what she found had all pointed her to the logical conclusion that maybe, just maybe, someone had survived.

"I only see him in the nighttime," a trembling village-woman and wife of the local shopkeeper had muttered, wringing her hands. "He never bothers a soul; he just comes to get food and water and carries it all back in a sack."

"God knows I seen 'im!" an older man had cried, throwing his hands up for emphasis, voice dripping with accent. "Tried to steal my sheep, 'e did! But don't you worry; I got 'im good! Won't be coming 'round my town no more."

"I've seen him once, miss," a little boy in passing had said, eyes wide and staring. "I was lost and he came to help me."

And Sakura had been quite intrigued at this. "How did he help you?"

The little boy turned and pointed the thick fringe of the woods, dark and imposing, looming over the village and the outer road like the shadow of a cloud. "I went to find better streams for water, but I got lost when it got dark. He came out, and he didn't hurt me none, miss. He only told me to follow him, and when I did, I was in back of the village."

"You didn't see him after that?"

"No, miss. He's a twitchy bugger, though."

And thus had begun her search for physical details. She wanted to know what she was getting into.

"Oh, well…" the shopkeeper's wife had said behind a slight reddening of her cheeks, "he's quite young, if memory recalls… And he's very tall: about five-foot-ten or six foot, maybe. He has dark hair, as well and dark eyes."

"The demon? Well over six feet tall! 'S got glowing eyes and dark, grimy 'air, 'e does! And muscles as big as those fence posts you see over there!"

"It was dark, miss, so I don't remember much, but I think he had brown or black hair. I never saw his eyes. But he was very, very tall."

"What did he sound like?" The small boy was the only one who had heard him speak, supposedly.

"Deep, miss. But kind." The boy smiled a little then. "He was very kind, miss. I hope you don't plan on hurting him none."

So all in all, Sakura figured, closing that huge door of the Akatsuki complex behind her, she had almost nothing. From what she'd heard of two out of three villagers, he was largely harmless when unprovoked. He had dark hair and dark eyes, which apparently narrowed it down to…six possible Akatsuki out of ten. She wasn't sure who was or wasn't dead these days.

Fighting against her first inclination to slink along the walls and pull out a kunai for defense, she tucked the blue raincoat tighter around her. She'd heard no rain on this slightly cloudy day upon entering, she'd seen no ghostly apparition in the upper floors through the dusty windows, she'd heard no inhuman wail of a monster, she'd seen no dwelling, wrathful ghosts of the organization that once was, nor any gang members lurking around the corners and crevices of the courtyard.

And before she could even think to mention to herself the lack of surviving Akatsuki, she heard the creak of floorboards overhead.

Her first instinct was to dodge out of the way of the dust that fell from the upstairs movement, and she darted silently across the room, just a blur for half a second before she was again solid and static, leaning lightly against the opposite wall.

She listened for a while, aware that the back of her coat was probably filthy. She could tell that nobody had dusted or cleaned this hellhole in any sense of the word for quite a long time.

It had been five or so years since the fall of the grand Akatsuki…so…five years of dust collecting on her favorite jacket?

Fun.

The footsteps didn't continue, so she peeled herself away from the window, automatically masking her chakra. "You need a vacation," Tsunade had said. "No shinobi work here. Just go and observe the village for a week. That's. It. Are you hearing me?"

Of course, it wasn't her fault that she'd figured this entire thing out. There was virtually nothing to do in the village save write in her log or sing to herself, so she'd decided to take a nice stroll around the thinner parts of the woods. She'd found a trail that looked a bit beaten and worn, and, true to the old saying, she took the road less traveled.

And she had most definitely seen why it was the road less traveled. It looped and curved and dropped her back off at familiar places endless times before she finally found and memorized the right route to wherever it led to. And by that time, it was getting late and she was dead tired.

So she'd backtracked to the village and done some sleuth-work, asking a few villagers, poking around their dinky little library. She'd eventually come up with the evidence that had brought her here now: An old Akatsuki base lay somewhere deep within the confines of the forest, long abandoned and long forgotten. The traps, wards, and seals were all deactivated, but that didn't take away the bleak, grim, creepy-crawly feel just under her skin and settling on her fingertips.

She glanced up at the staircase wryly. Maybe Tsunade was right. She was here for a vacation, more or less, and shouldn't she treat it as such? She only had a few kunai on her, anyway, and what if she really did run into a remaining Akatsuki member? Or even more?

She'd be dead if she managed to run into Itachi and Kisame.

Then again, were it Itachi and Kisame or even one of them alone who occupied Akatsuki Castle, as she decided to so fondly refer to it, they would have taken more care in preventing any unwanted visitors. It had been fairly easy to make it where she was now.

Taking a silent, deep breath, she began to ascend the stairs, one hand on the railing. She couldn't stop from making noise, though she wished she could just dart up there like she normally would.

She finally reached the top of the staircase, and the upstairs greeted her with an even thicker layer of dust and several pieces of tattered, broken furniture draped with cobwebs and the occasional off-white sheet. It wasn't grand or special by any means; it was actually quite…efficient, for lack of a better word. There were a few tables and chairs in the upstairs den, but not much more.

A creak to her left had her hopping quickly out of the way, dropping beneath the far-overhanging banister with her chakra-sticky feet.

O O O

A visitor.

It was a visitor—a girl, no less, who thought that she would remain unseen beneath the banister.

Pink-haired girl, tales of immense strength and agility and wit and the ability to crush him with just a flick of her finger.

Pink-haired girl, medic-nin, chakra control, Deidara, tales of Sasori and Grandma Chiyo and puppets and dancing, like it was no big deal at all, like she wasn't having a hard time with the de facto master of poison and manipulation, like she was unstoppable—

Memories, memories, painful memories that weren't even his. Deidara's demise: The explosion on the mass scale, the small boy that rode on snakes and had an expression like the coldest winter, Uchiha, like Madara was, Uchiha, like Tobi wasn't, Uchiha, like his eyes appeared to be. Madara's eyes. The Sharingan.

Panicking and painfully self-aware of one of his most prominent bodily features—thanks in its entirety to Madara—Tobi searched desperately for something to cover himself with. He had to speak with her, of course, because he couldn't avoid a confrontation in this event, but he wanted to keep his identity a secret if at all possible.

He wished very, very badly that he hadn't smashed his mask, then.

But she'd probably recognize him if he still had it.

Alibi, Tobi! Get an alibi! Who are you? What are you doing here?

A bum, miss. Just a poor tramp with nowhere else to go. Is it too much to ask for a bit of shelter?

Just as he saw her hand come up to haul her back up over the banister, he grabbed a filthy sheet and wrapped it around his head like a hood, where it obscured his eyes and darkened his face in what was already a dark citadel, of sorts.

He backed into the opposite wall, keeping the sheet clenched tightly at his throat.

The girl—woman, she was a woman, she looked in her mid twenties, like him—approached him cautiously, and she apparently unmasked her chakra. And then he felt it and it was wonderful and terrible all at the same time—a breath of clean air and a bucket of ice water dumped into his lungs simultaneously. He hadn't felt the chakra of another person, especially not another shinobi with levels that were on par with his, in such a long time. It must have been years.

"…Who are you?" she asked. Stern. Commanding. Domineering.

He'd forgotten a name.

What was his name?

He trembled.

"Who are you?" she asked again, this time with more force.

"Tobi," he answered on what might have been a squeak, and he cursed himself. He never was particularly good in high-pressure situations.

He watched the war of expressions that flitted across her face: the surprise, the confusion, the awe.

"Tobi of the Akatsuki," she breathed, taking a short step back.

He nodded faintly.

"Tobi with…the Sharingan. D—Deidara's partner."

Another nod.

He wasn't expecting her to faint dead away.

O O O

He wasn't sure what prompted him to—maybe it was his innate gentlemanly tendencies, or perhaps it was something that Madara was plotting—but Tobi ended up picking the girl up and setting her in his own bed, which was where he now sat.

He played with his hands nervously, finger rubbing against finger, smoothing over his cool nails and then tracing each knuckle. He waited patiently, because he wanted to be there when she woke up. It wasn't so much that he wanted to make sure she didn't do anything underhanded, though that was there to, as it was he wanted her to see him first thing.

And he didn't quite…know why.

Perhaps he'd just been alone for far too long.

Eventually, she did stir, though it was only to curl the blankets tighter over her shoulders. And Tobi took this as a request for more blankets, so he left the room to fetch another. She was still blissfully asleep and unaware when he returned, so he spread it over her and tucked it around her body as gently as he could.

He waited for another hour or so, yet she stayed sleeping. He never made any moves to rouse her, though Madara's influence most certainly tempted him to do so. He merely sat in the chair at the bedside, trying to ignore the rain, hoping she'd at least turn over so that he could see her face.

She did this not moments later, expression calm and peaceful and everything that Tobi had craved in the past five years or so. She breathed calmly, chest rising and falling and rising and then falling, so rhythmic that Tobi could almost sing to it.

And…he did.

"Hush, little baby," he began, surprised at how much his voice cracked and withered when he speak in such a low tone, "don't say a word. Papa's gonna buy you a mockingbird."

He waited for any evidence of her moving at all, and when she didn't show any indication of said movement, he continued.

"If that mockingbird don't sing, Papa's gonna buy you a diamond ring." It was really the only song he knew. He had such bad memory from any date falling before his late teens that he was surprised even this stuck. One of his parents or maybe a sitter or a sibling used to sing to him when he was sick. "If that diamond ring turns to brass, Papa's gonna buy you a looking glass."

Come to think of it, he could remember being sick quite a lot. "If that looking glass gets broke, Papa's gonna buy you a Billy goat." Someone had even told him that he wouldn't live very long. He was weak, and that was that. There was no getting over a genetic tendency toward illness.

"If that Billy goat gets bony, Papa's gonna buy you a Shetland pony." He remembered now. One of his doctor's had sang to him one night, maybe when his fever had been particularly bad. And from then on, he'd engraved the song into his mind. The verses probably weren't even right.

"If that Shetland pony runs away, Papa's gonna buy you a cart of hay." A bit of the memory flooded back to him, and he placed his hand—he realized how big his hands were in comparison to the girl's entire stature—upon her forehead, pushing the hair from her face. He brushed it back once, twice, three times, and then developed a soothing rhythm. "If that cart of hay turns over, Papa's gonna buy you a dog named Rover."

His fingers gradually slipped through each strand of hair, pulling out knots gently when he found one or two. He laid his head down on the same pillow she did, still singing, though it was more of a whisper now.

"If that dog named Rover won't bark, Papa's gonna buy you a horse and cart." The stroking evolved to massaging, presently, slipping down once or twice to brush a casual thumb across her cheekbone. "And if that horse and cart falls down, you'll still be the—"

"Get your hand off of me. Now."

He pulled away like he'd been burned.

She sat straight up in bed, blankets falling around her waist, and immediately sprang to her feet before him.

He stood up from the chair and ended up toppling it, throwing up two defensive hands. "I'm sorry! Tobi's sorry!"

A look of realization dawned on her face, and she scowled. "Don't you ever touch me."

He swallowed and whispered a soft, "I'm sorry."

They both entertained a staring contest for a few minutes, and he noticed that she was breathing rather heavily. She was scared, something told him. So very, very scared, so it was time for him to take advantage of this.

He was lonely. Correct?

Madara resided within him. Correct?

And Madara was excellent with genjutsu. Correct?

Yes.

"Would you like to stay here for the night?" he offered, stepping aside and gesturing toward the bed.

"Hell no!"

He winced. He should have expected that. "I won't hurt you. And it's dark outside already. And raining."

He didn't want to put her under genjutsu, though his eyelids suddenly grew heavy and his fingertips buzzed with chakra at the thought—Madara's doing. Genjutsu would cause her to simply fall unconscious or freeze completely, and he didn't want that. What good was just a body, anyway?

It was good for quite a few explicit things that Tobi didn't even want to think about.

So he settled for the next best thing: bluffing. "There's a seal around the compound."

"What kind of seal?" she snapped back, almost snarling.

He didn't wince this time. "It lets intruders in, but not out."

"Then what about you? How do you manage to get out?"

"I'm not an intruder," he answered calmly. "It recognizes Tobi's chakra signature."

She turned visibly red. "How does that accomplish anything?"

"It relieves suspicion," he answered, turning the chair upright again and sitting himself down, "by being completely defenseless except for the deactivated traps surrounding it. But if the illusion fails, then at least whoever gets in can't get out and tell about its location."

He watched her clench and unclench her fists.

"Deactivate it."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"I don't know how."

She set her jaw tight before giving an exasperated, utterly frustrated cry. She wrenched herself around, facing the opposite wall and with her back to him. "Damn it!"

"I'm sorry."

"The hell you are!" she yelled, her shoulders shaking. "Then show me!" She whirled back around. "Show me where the seal begins!"

He swallowed thickly.

Genjutsu, something sweet and excited whispered. Genjutsu was the only way, now. Only for a moment. Only to make her think she was touching a wall of acid rain.

Genjutsu was the final option. Genjutsu or solitude again; what was Tobi to choose?

He stood up obediently and offered a hand, which she obstinately refused.

He nodded and strode out the door, which she followed. Down the hall, down the stairs, through the living room, and to the front door, where rain fell in heavy sheets once he opened it.

She stared at it incredulously, and then reached out a hand.

"Don't," Tobi said. "It'll burn you." He tried his best to will her to look him in the eye. The Sharingan began to spin, Madara's essence filled him to the tip of his toes, and it was almost arousing, this complete loss of control.

She did as he'd hoped, turning to look him dead in the eye.

And then she froze completely.

Madara kept the illusion going for as long as he deemed necessary. They—he and Tobi, that is—watched Sakura in her unaware genjutsu, watched her scowl at him and then stick a hand through the door, where the rain immediately seared an angry burn across the top of her hand.

She withdrew on a pained gasp, clutching the injured appendage to her chest.

Madara smoothly stopped the genjutsu.

Sakura fell to her knees.

And on the way to the upstairs bedroom, Tobi regretfully burned the top of an unconscious Sakura's hand with a candle, apologizing until his voice turned raspy and then quiet.

O O O

She slept for another seven hours, she figured, and she could only have an inkling of a clue at this by judging from what she could see out of the bedroom window.

Tobi was sitting on the chair beside her patiently, hands resting in his lap and eyes trained on her. It would have been creepy if he hadn't looked about ready to drop off to sleep.

Well, it was creepy, actually. But more in the sense of her life being in danger than horror movie creepy.

And that wasn't to say that Tobi himself was particularly threatening. Now that he'd switched on a light or two, she could actually see some features of his face. Lips drooping down just as his eyelids were, dark brown hair that covered most of his forehead and extended over the tips of his ears, and long, thick eyelashes. All in all, his countenance wasn't that of what she'd expected of the Akatsuki's last surviving member.

Then again, judging by Sasori, Itachi, and Deidara's appearances…well, she taught herself not to be shocked any more.

She shifted a little bit, tugging the blanket tighter around her, and she saw his eyes snap open and up to rest on her face.

Wide, dark crimson in color, with those pinwheels set defiantly in the center. Sharingan eyes that reminded her far too much of longer, darker hair and too many cold shoulders.

He stared at her, apparently waiting for her to speak.

And all she could think of was, "You'll go blind that way."

He blinked once, dropped his mouth open halfway, and then smiled on a soft huff. "The Sharingan? Oh, well."

Sensing that there was virtually no threat coming from this man, Sakura sat up slowly, glancing at her surroundings. The room was rather large, but empty and cold. It was almost as if there was no central heating at all.

Despite all this, it was well-lit, and a few pieces of miscellaneous furniture lay scattered about. In one corner sat a vanity that looked as if it hadn't been used in years, and in the other was a dusty, empty bookcase. There were also a few half-broken vases filled with long scrolls of corroded, yellowing paper.

It looked like a modern-day vampire lair, which was terribly cliché but also very fitting for the man sitting before her.

Speaking of which, he stood, wringing the ends of his shirt in tight fists. "Miss? Tobi's so sorry. I—I tried to warn you about the rain, but you—"

She glanced down at her hand, the top burnt. Without thinking much on the type of burn it was in relation to the type of burn it should have been, she healed it with a quick glow of green.

Tobi looked on curiously. When she pulled away, he swallowed and wrung his shirt again.

"Tobi," Sakura said, punctuating each of the two syllables.

He met her gaze, though hesitantly.

And she didn't have much else to say to him.

So he spoke for her. "I want to help you, miss. I want to, but I can't."

She nodded and looked away. "I understand. I suppose it was my fault for nosing around here anyway."

And then he was kneeling at her bedside, taking her once-injured hand in both of his. "No, no, no! It's not miss's fault, it's Tobi's fault. It's all Tobi's fault."

She stared at him, but didn't make any move to pull away. "How is it all Tobi's fault?" she asked cautiously, untrustingly.

He shook his head and pressed his forehead against the top of her hand. "I don't know. It just is."

Her gaze almost softened. Almost.

"Tobi will let you go soon," he muttered against her hand. "Tobi will find a way."

She pulled her hand away and hid it beneath the blankets.

He dragged himself to stand, hovering over her like a phantom. He was as pale as a ghost, and the dark circles under his eyes gave him a sullen, sickly look.

"What is your name, miss?" he asked, taking a few steps backwards to allow her to rise from her bed.

"Sakura," she said, straightening out the clothes that had managed to twist around her in her sleep. "Haruno Sakura."

He bowed. "My name is Tobi."

"I know. You told me." Several times.

He nodded and looked around the room, anxious about something. He was about as jittery as a little finch. "Would you like some tea? Or water?"

"Water would be nice," she admitted, standing up and glancing about the room. "Very, very nice."

O O O

If he really wanted to, Tobi could probably admit that some small, selfish part of him—a part that was in no way affiliated with Madara—wished for Sakura to stay forever. It had only taken her a few weeks of adjusting, a few weeks of adapting, a few weeks of aligning herself with the rhythm of his "lair," to actually fall into a set pattern that he could identify.

She cleaned to keep herself busy. To keep her mind off the obvious, maybe.

She cooked, as well, as often as she could. Tobi tried as hard as possible to steal ingredients for her, but sometimes his conscience would weigh on him like a sack of bricks, and sometimes the villagers were just too rambunctious at night. The two of them were no strangers to sleeping without dinner first or living off of just packaged ramen for four days at a time.

And so maybe, if Tobi really, really wanted to, he could probably admit that while a large portion of his actions relied heavily upon what Madara wanted him to do, a significant piece of that was also his own.

She slept in the room that had been his, dominating his blankets and sheets, soon claiming the very essence of the room with her…well…everything. Her smell, which was changing into something more natural over time with the absence of beauty products, her little touches, which was slowly turning the room a little brighter, and her aura. He felt at ease and possibly just a little giddy whenever he walked in.

So, in reality, Tobi was being quite selfish. But he wasn't harming anyone by creeping into her room at night and just watching her from the doorway. He wasn't touching her or making any plans to molest her in her sleep or anything, so his little midnight escapades were perfectly alright. As long as she didn't find out, that is.

…Well…

That was what he liked to tell himself, anyway.

Sometimes when he crept into her doorway, he'd feel a tug at his gut and his feet, something telling him to walk toward her. Madara, precisely. Madara was telling him without words or force that he wanted him to advance upon Haruno Sakura.

And he'd never been one to deny the spirit.

So he had, and every night thereafter, sometimes skipping a night or two, he'd inch ever closer. Until eventually he was right up against the bed, knees brushing against the mattress, able to make out the basic shapes of her face and shoulders in whatever moonlight was available.

He felt creepy, sure, but he assured himself that this was just Madara bringing out the worst in him. He'd always had obsessive tendencies. And why shouldn't he? He'd lost his memory once; what was he to do if he lost it again? He didn't think he'd be able to function if he caught another rather detrimental case of amnesia.

There were certain things, of course, that he'd be all too happy to forget, like Deidara's death. Like the fall of the Akatsuki. Like that day when he left his comrades behind to die with just the flick of a 150-year-old being's non-existent wrist.

And then there were things he wouldn't want to forget for the world. The experience had certainly smartened him up, and Sakura…

…Sakura was there. And that was all that really mattered, in the end.

So he pressed a cool, bony hand to her left cheek, index finger dragging a burning inferno down to her jaw.

She'd been waiting for a long time for a search party to come after her, but it was impossible for them to find her. She might as well have disappeared off the face of the Earth. Tobi was only seen when he wanted to be seen, and if he wanted to be elusive, then you could be damn certain that he would become invisible.

A thumb replaced the index finger, and he sat on a chair at her bedside.

There were people looking for her. Dozens of them, in fact, and he'd seen them himself. Scouting, searching, bedraggled and weary from their efforts. He'd made sure to keep her as far away from the main door as possible in the first week, because after that, the search parties slowly dwindled to about two.

Naruto and a select teammate, obviously. Tobi may have been naïve at times, but he wasn't completely stupid.

She was just another shinobi fallen in the line of duty, after all. It happened all the time, and this shouldn't have been any different. Naruto would give up within the month, and he'd have her all to himself.

That was right, she'd be his. Her hair, her eyes, her lips, her fingertips, her everything. He'd never be lonely again, and he'd marry her under his own ordinance. In fact, he didn't even have to marry her. They could just be together until the end of their days, making a family, having child after child, naming them after historical figures with their dark hair and swirling Sharingan eyes. And the Uchiha clan would—

He drew away his hand as if he'd been burned.

Madara. It was Madara speaking.

Tobi was still an innocent in all of this.

He clenched his hands into fists, biting down hard on his bottom lip, and stood to leave.

Tobi was still a good boy.

O O O

She would have been a fool to not notice him.

She was almost insulted that he actually thought she wasn't aware of his appearances in her room, watching from the doorway and then physically touching her, but she told that part of her to shut up. Tobi was harmless, really. She'd established this quite early on. He could touch her cheek and her hand all he wanted; there was no foul play in that.

However…it was when the touches starting getting a little more insistent, placing a finger on her collarbone and dragging it down to the tip of her breasts, brushing thumbs over her lips and occasionally she could swear she felt the tickle of his hair against her nose, that she started to get nervous. Not a bad sort of nervous, but an anxious nervous, a trembling nervous, an anticipating nervous.

She'd been waiting for the plunge all along. And it couldn't have come soon enough.

Ten minutes and thirty-four seconds after he'd come in her room, Sakura was already shivering, and it couldn't have had less to do with the temperature.

He followed his usual process of pulling a chair up almost noiselessly and setting himself down, and then eventually pressing a hand to the curve of her ear or the bottom edges of her lips. But this time was a bit different, because he leaned in, hovering over her like a particularly shy disease.

And then his hands moved from her lips and her face to her wrists, pinning them above her head. There was a weight that settled over her hips, and his mouth was pressing to hers, lips warm and soft, but thin, brushing over hers and slipping in between like he'd been waiting for this all his life. And maybe, she speculated, he had.

So she responded, maybe to his surprise and maybe not, by touching his bottom lip with the tip of her tongue. And he took her in—all of her—and the kiss became a little deeper, a little more fevered, a little more like he never wanted to give her up.

And she loved it, though she felt guilty. She was more satisfied here with this man who was once a stranger and once an enemy and once Akatsuki, for God's sake, than she had ever been with her old life. This one felt more exciting, more fulfilling. She never wanted it to end.

His hands, cold at the fingertips and warm at the palms, slid from her wrists to her neck and then to her bra, where he started slipping the straps off of her shoulders.

She shifted, and he tensed. And when she lifted her hips up—just slightly—in an experimental manner, she felt his mouth open into a gasp or a silent cry against hers.

She lifted her hips again, rocking in an inappropriate, decidedly sexual motion, eliciting a throaty, rasping pant from him this time. And it shocked her so much that she took a sharp breath of her own, reveling in this purely learning experience.

But then he pulled away abruptly, trying to choke back a whimper and failing, wherein he uttered a fast, whispered apology and fled out her open door.

She thought about running after him, but the sudden fatigue won the battle, and she fell asleep again, mind thoughtfully full.

O O O

Breakfast the next day was a complete disaster. An inner disaster, actually.

See, the important thing with Madara, or, rather, Madara's spirit, was that he was actively passive. If he wanted Tobi to do something, then he let him know subtly or gave him a push in the right direction. He'd never done anything to contradict this knowledge that Tobi had gathered, and he'd never tried to completely overtake Tobi. And that was why Tobi had allowed Madara free reign over his body and everything that came with it.

But Madara was defying that thick pillar of trust they'd had for so long, now, chipping away at the foundation with every jerky, outrageous inclination he threw around in Tobi's delicate head. Touch her, he said, making the muscles in Tobi's fingers tighten around his chopsticks. Have her. Right now. You need her. We need her.

But not "I need her," Tobi noticed. Never anything with "I." It was either "you" or "we," and he suspected this had something to do with his pride. The hubris of this Madara being knew no boundaries, and it was starting to frighten him sometimes.

And that was just breakfast, where they sat at complete opposite ends of the table and ate their ramen in silence. The rest of the day only got worse.

She'd asked to train with him. She was getting rusty, she'd said, and she felt she needed to get outside anyway. So he'd led her cautiously into the courtyard, where she continued to practice solitary things like proper stances, techniques, or a small exercise in chakra control.

He was satisfied—and so was Madara, thankfully—to just watch, admiring her form from afar and feeling unwarrantedly proud.

"Tobi!" she called, panting and huffing and resting her hands on her knees. "Come train with me!"

Do it, Madara insisted. Go. She wants you. Give her what she wants and you'll get what you want.

And so he did. And it was the biggest mistake of his life.

Because halfway through the training session he found himself touching her in the most inappropriate of places, passing it off like it was an accident, catching glimpses when her shirt flew up, just itching to touch her more, put his hands on her hips, just under her ribs, maybe push her to the ground and—

Yes, Madara goaded.

—push up her skirt, push her panties aside, taste her and slide his tongue up to—

Yes.

—her—

Tobi.

—and just—

Tobi!

—but she would—

"Tobi!"

The exclamations hadn't been coming from Madara, actually, but Sakura, who was struggling under hands that belonged to him and that were pinning both wrists up over her head. He was panting, breathing hard, mouth half open, his eyelids heavy and his thoughts swimming in his head lazily.

He realized fearfully, anxiously, angrily, that Madara had taken over his body for a moment. It hadn't been very long—maybe a few seconds, at best, but that was all it took for him to have the only friend he'd had in a long, long time run out on him.

Just like all the others.

He jumped away from her like she was some deadly form of poison and walked swiftly into the house. He heard her calling after him, but he didn't stop, and he slammed the door behind him, heading toward his room. Which Sakura was using.

Once inside, he slapped a seal over the door and dropped onto the bed, rolling his nose into her sheets and pillows. He felt dirty and vile, but he needed this, and it had absolutely nothing to do with Madara. The spirit had retreated so far beneath the storm clouds of his subconscious that he might has well have not been there at all.

He didn't take off his pants completely but unbuckled them and slid them down to just a little below his hips. That feeling of grime never left him, but he touched himself to it anyway, aware that Sakura's footsteps were just outside the door. And then when she stopped outside the door and knocked quietly, he touched himself to that, too, and when the knocking was replaced with her soft voice, her "Tobi, are you alright?" he arched sideways and closed his eyes tight, the smell of her skin and her hair everywhere, all around him, gentle and warm and sweet.

For a second, just a second, just a bitter, bright second, he felt like nothing and everything at the same time, because there was an immense release at the same time that he groaned on a particularly vulgar curse word.

He heard her, felt her, as she tried to configure the seal. It was simple, so he didn't have much time.

Still breathing heavy, heart still pounding against his ribcage, he fastened his pants and stood, tearing the sheets from the bed and bundling them into a ball in his arms.

She was fiddling with the last remnants of the seal, and he was still panicking. Still.

In a desperate attempt, he kicked out the window and tossed the sheets out of it, down into the courtyard below. The "acid rain" illusion would still be up for Sakura, though it was merely overcast outside.

Wind swept through the room and erased any inklings of her smell that stayed.

She finally pried the door open, and she stopped when she stumbled inside, staring at the broken window, the stripped bed, and a panting, weary Tobi.

And then she slowly walked out, closing the door behind her.

O O O

Sakura was never allowed into that room again. It had been boarded up, nailed shut, and so many seals painted its front that it looked like it was holding a demon within its depths. And maybe it was. She'd never quite gathered the courage or nerve to ask Tobi what exactly had happened in there.

But he most certainly acted different around her lately. After her new living arrangements had been ordered, her taking the room he used to sleep in and him taking a different room, one clear across the entire house, he'd carried through the days almost mechanically. Like he was trying within his utmost abilities not to act human in any way, shape, or form.

Another month passed before the second incident.

This incident involved Tobi snapping out of his trance when she brushed past him in the hall, purposely skimming her fingers over the top of his hand. He'd whirled around right there and pressed his lips against hers, tongue running languidly over her bottom lip and his hands fisting her hair behind her head.

It was so quick and unexpected that she barely had time to react, but when she did, he immediately pulled away, and both of his eyes were a brilliant, Sharingan red.

When he blinked, they faded to a demure shade of crimson.

She watched him clench his jaw and walk quickly away.

O O O

After the first five incidents in less than two months, Sakura started actually referring to them as The Incidents.

Incident Six happened while she was cooking them dinner somewhere in late November or early December. It was cold, so Tobi had lent her one of his sweatshirts. It was baggy on her, but it was also baggy on him, so she didn't get that delicious, feminine feeling of being drowned in the opposite sex's scent. Not that he had a particular scent, anyway. He smelled more or less like the rest of the house: musty and old, but in a pleasant, nostalgic sort of way. Tobi smelled of cobwebs and creaky floorboards, of mirrors with sheets over them and dusty pictures hanging on the wall.

She'd never admit to herself that she loved it, though.

So as she cooked dinner, playing over and over again the events of the past month or so, she heard him approach her from behind, and it was surprising, to say the least. He normally took to avoiding her if at all possible, and never initiating any physical contact. Except when he did.

"What are you cooking?" he asked, and she turned around to smile at him.

"Ah…just ramen. And potatoes. Nothing special." She wasn't the best cook in the world, but it sufficed.

She turned back around to continue her duties, and he didn't leave. She could feel him watching her, every movement she made, ever flick of the wrist and murmur under her breath.

The presence of his hands on her hips was the last thing she would have expected from him. The traditional wooden spoon dropped from her hand and fell into the pot of potatoes—that's what she got for using a pot that was way too damn big, she supposed—and she actually stuttered. "T—Tobi?"

She felt his lips feathering the exposed crook of her neck, the place where the collar of the sweatshirt had dipped. He wasn't speaking, it didn't even seem like he was breathing, but his actions spoke louder than any of his words ever could.

His hands slipped under the wool sweatshirt, under her standard shirt under that, and his fingertips were cold against her skin. She leaned back into him, where he apparently took this as a bid to continue. His mouth moved farther up her neck, just below her ear. Then a tongue was involved, and eventually teeth, and she was suddenly awfully aware of how hard she was breathing.

He grabbed her by the waist and pressed her tighter into him, rolling his hips into her lower back. At the contact, Sakura jumped, but that only seemed to exacerbate things, as he gasped softly against the wet, warm, tingling skin of her neck.

"Tobi, I don't understand what you want—"

"You," he said, and it didn't sound much like Tobi at all.

She jerked away from him without saying a word or even glancing in his direction, and in a few breathless, silent seconds, he left.

She stuck her hand inside the scalding water of the pot to pull out the forgotten spoon, thankful for the pain. She needed something to anchor her to reality, at least.

But something told her that she needed to not let there be an Incident Seven, Eight, or Nine, so she finished boiling the potatoes, peeled them, mashed them, stalled a little longer by stirring in some minced garlic, and then sighed.

Time to face the demon.

Tobi's room was at the far end of the complex, nestled between several other empty rooms. The place was more of a run-down mansion than anything, with cliché end-tables and fancy candelabras and even the occasional decorative tapestry.

She must have opened about four rooms only to find them completely empty, partly destroyed, or packed with boxes and crates before she found the room Tobi was currently residing in.

He was lying sideways on the bed, facing away from the open door. Sakura couldn't tell whether he was sleeping or not, but she tiptoed inside, noting the lack of sheets on the bed, the lack of overall cleanliness in the room, and the lack of…well…spirit. Everything was almost painfully dull, and a prominent layer of dust covered every nook and cranny, the bed being the only exception.

When she came around to the front of him, near the headboard, she could clearly see that he was sleeping. But he was sweating despite the cold air, and he looked like he was in pain.

Not forgetting her medic-nin background, she laid a hand on his forehead and soothed whatever was ailing him, which seemed to be a mild headache. He shuddered into a relaxed position.

Not so much of a demon now, she figured.

His eyes snapped open suddenly, so suddenly that she drew her hand away and took a step back.

He grabbed her by the wrist before she could walk away, and when she looked at him, his face had twisted into something a little more sinister, a little more…dark. His eyes were the vibrant red again, black strokes running through his pupils like a very painful memory.

She tried to tug away again, much like she'd done in the kitchen, but he held tight. And when she tugged one more time, harder than the last, his grip tightened.

What had she gotten herself into?

He sat up in the bed, pulling his legs over the edge, never breaking the eye contact he held with her. "Sakura."

There was that voice again. It sounded nothing like Tobi's. It was frightening and unfriendly, and she just wanted to get as far away from it as possible.

"S—" His voice abruptly broke, and he squeezed her wrist tight, shutting his eyes and gritting his teeth. "Sa—"

He released her so that he could clutch his head, curling up into a ball on the bed.

A few stunning, breathless moments passed in which Sakura could only stare at Tobi's torment. When he finally stilled, he looked up at her slowly, realization dawning over the eyes that were back to their normal state.

Sakura swallowed. "Tobi… Are you alright?"

"I'm so sorry, Sakura. So sorry. Tobi is so, so, so sorry."

The fear disappeared from her features and, subsequently, her entire body. He was back to normal—more normal than he'd been in the past couple of months.

And she was relieved that she threw her arms around his neck, tackling him back down to the bed, face buried in his shoulder.

She didn't blame him for anything. It wasn't his fault that she'd been lured to the complex; it wasn't his fault that the rain trap had sprung; it certainly wasn't his fault that she had been so foolish.

She realized, quite belatedly and yet quite suddenly at the same time, that she'd slowly but surely developed feelings for this man. They weren't simple affectionate urges or a fuzzy, cuddly sort of attraction. She felt like she loved someone for the first time in a while. And it had been far too long since she'd had those feelings.

He looked utterly abashed, blinking at her with wide eyes and his mouth half open. Before he could say anything, she pressed her lips to his. Though it wasn't their first kiss, it certainly was the first kiss that actually made her heart stutter and her body grow warm.

It was innocent and short, and when she pulled away, Tobi said her name quietly, softly. "Sakura?"

"For once," she said, grinning even though she was practically straddling him, happy even though she was trapped in this dusty hellhole of a haunted house, "I'm glad that I'm stuck here."

She felt him tremble beneath her, though she wasn't sure from what.

"Tobi is…"

She kissed his neck, much like he'd done to her, though she was far gentler, far softer.

"…so grateful."

He lifted his chin, rolling his head to the side, groaning on a half-whisper.

She pressed her mouth to his throat, kissing to the curve of his jaw and moving to the corner of his lips. He held her by her waist and then her hips, sounding like he was doing everything in his power not to make any noise. As if he might scare her away forever.

She settled over his hips, dragging her hands down his chest and then under his shirt.

He complied without a second thought, pulling it up over his head, propping himself up by his elbows.

"Tobi," she said on a smile, "you don't have to be afraid that I'll run away. I'm not going to leave you behind."

He didn't say another word, but as soon as she took off the sweater he pulled her to him, unzipping her shirt as he did so. When he was himself—just Tobi and nothing more or less—he was a sloppy kisser, like he didn't know how or had simply forgotten. His tongue was in her mouth as soon as his lips were on hers, frantic and rash despite his demure display earlier.

"You won't leave me?" he finally asked, when Sakura was unbuckling his pants and he was clutching the mattress for all he was worth. "Promise Tobi?"

"Of course I won't leave," she said, laughing under her breath. "I can't leave, anyway." She pulled his pants off, leaving just some standard-issue black briefs. They were thin, and she could clearly see the outline of his very…suddenly…intimidating erection. Not that it was too big, but it was kind of soon, and maybe she was moving a little too fast.

"You don't have to," Tobi said, and his face was flushed a bright, healthy reddish color. "Tobi is…Tobi will be fine."

Swallowing whatever anxiety she may have harbored from sleeping with this man—not like it was her first time, anyway—she licked the tip through the cloth slowly and delighted in the way he jerked.

"Tobi will be fine if Sakura stays, too," she said, pulling away his briefs and trying her best not to giggle.

He nodded fervently, watching her with half-lidded eyes and certain wonderment.

She put her hand around the base and her mouth around the head, slicking her tongue along the underside before taking as much of him in as possible. And with whatever wouldn't fit, she used her hand and fingers, slick with saliva and a bit of pre-cum.

He was making noises that he couldn't muffle anymore, little pants and groans and sometimes her name or a curse word.

Maybe she was so intent on what she was doing—so intent on eliciting more noises from him and making him virtually helpless—that she didn't notice when he started asking her to stop. And when she didn't listen, he started imploring her, and then finally, out of an act that probably took more discipline than Sakura could imagine, he pulled away from her.

She looked up at him in question, but it was all answered with one glance at his face. He was blushing from his cheeks down to his chest, panting hard, with slim traces of sweat in the creases of his neck and his temples.

"You—I was—we should… It just didn't seem fair."

And then she was surprised at how incredibly domineering Tobi could be when he wanted to.

He pushed her to the bed, holding her wrists together above her head with one hand. The other busied itself with first brushing across a nipple, tweaking it, and then pulling off her medic-skirt. What his hand started his mouth aimed to finish when he closed his lips around the same nipple, tongue flicking out to tease and circle it.

Her skirt and shorts were gone faster than she could remember, and he released her wrists to clutch the bed near her head, using his other hand to slip his thumb down to a certain receptive, sensitive spot of her sex.

She bit down on her lip, closing her eyes.

He rubbed his thumb over it again, pressing harder each time, but not past the point of comfort. And when her head was thrown back and she was all but bucking underneath him, he pushed one finger inside of her and then the other.

She gasped, panted, rocked.

He was breathing just as heavy as she, apparently enjoying it all the same. And he continued on this tangent for a while, bringing her to the brink and then backing off, repeating the process until she wanted to kick his face in or finish, damn it.

He didn't ask permission—not that he needed to—when he withdrew his fingers and replaced them with his length, pausing for only a moment before he was completely filling her, completely inside her, completely everything that she'd been waiting for.

She didn't know who would climax first, because they were both teetering at the edge at this point, threatening to tumble over any minute. And as he was pushing and puling out and she was rocking into him, she happened to glance out the window in a daze.

What she saw took a second to process, especially since she was just about to come and the little white dots were already dancing at the edges of her vision. But then she willed herself to forget about the window and instead focus on what it was that Tobi was giving her, looking up at him. His features were alternating between being regular, sweet Tobi and the Tobi that had plagued and frightened her for the past couple months.

But, once again, before she could think more on it, the tightly wound coil in her lower gut tightened more and then released, making her arch and whine, closing her eyes and riding the spiral of pleasure until soft aftershocks rocked her back to Earth.

She didn't even notice Tobi's climax, though she felt him shudder and then still inside of her, bury his face in the crook of her neck and pant against her skin. She was so delirious and sated that she could only lay back and try to catch her breath as Tobi did the same, whispering things she couldn't understand.

When the few moments of bliss ebbed and she had regained her thoughts, she glanced once again to the window.

And there was no acid rain. In fact, it was a sunny day.

Suddenly, fearfully, angrily, disbelievingly, it all fit together. Tobi's split personalities, the "acid rain," the seals over the bedroom, why he never let her near the front door… It all came together in a morbid, perfect puzzle, and rage and hurt burned through her like streams of fire.

Tobi was just pulling his pants on when she spoke, clutching her shirt to her chest.

"You…" she whispered, shaking her head as her voice, likewise, trembled. "You lied to me."

His eyes grew wide and then he blinked. "What?"

"You lied to me, Tobi!" she said, this time louder, squeezing her hands into fists. She wanted nothing more than to kick his ass until he admitted to it, but instead she just stared at him, through him. "How could you—?"

"I didn't—what? What are you talking about?" He looked genuinely confused, but she wasn't buying it.

In a huff, she pulled on her shirt and shorts, then her medic skirt.

Tobi watched her, gaping, unsure of what to say, or maybe knowing he was busted. Sakura didn't know for certain.

"I can't believe you," Sakura said as she zipped up her shirt, keeping surprisingly calm. "I trusted you."

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said, taking a step toward her, trying to take her hands in his. But she jerked away from him.

"Don't play stupid! The acid rain joke was a genjutsu all along. A good one, but it was an illusion. I wanted to go home, Tobi." All the anger festered and boiled down to sadness, betrayal, and she sniffled. "I thought you cared about me."

"I do!" he said, this time successfully taking her hands and holding her there. "Tobi does! You're Tobi's one and only; he doesn't—I don't love anyone else but Sakura."

"Bullshit!" she snapped, pulling away from him. "If you loved me, you would have let me go! If you loved me as much as you say you do, you would have told me the truth! Tobi, you don't fucking love me! You're deluding yourself!"

She was taken aback to see that he was…crying? Not sobbing or weeping, but just a silent tear from each eye, running paths down his cheeks and dripping from his chin to the floor.

He looked incredibly frustrated with his fists clenched and hit teeth gritted. So maybe they were angry tears.

"That wasn't my choice!" he shouted, his voice breaking. "I didn't do it! I didn't want to hurt you like that!" He kicked over a nightstand with a yell and threaded his hands into his hair, tugging at it as he sneered. "I wanted to let you go from day one. It was—!"

She stared at him like he was insane. Which she thought he was. He had to have been, and what had she done?

He tore his hands from his head and shouted for the first time since Sakura had been there. "Fine! Then go! Leave me! Just…break your promise, you…you stupid bitch!"

She gasped at his insult. He'd never said anything like that to her before, and it hurt more than it should.

When she looked at him closely, she could see that he was still shedding those awful tears, and when she shook her head without any form of valediction and stalked out the bedroom door and down the hallway, she heard a sob being wrenched from him.

She should have felt happier as she bolted out the door and down the winding forest path, but all she could feel was a blinding pain in her chest.

Tobi's cries were all she could hear as she made her trip home.

O O O

And now Tobi sat in the center of an empty house, the furniture and tapestries and rugs and dishes and lamps thrown into the courtyard. There was nothing left, just the floorboards and the walls and the ceilings, and occasionally a fly would buzz past him.

He sat curled in a ball, knees drawn to his chest and face buried in his hands.

Madara was rumbling inside of him, angry, frustrated that Tobi let her go.

You'll never have her now. She hates you.

He knew that.

You'll die here, alone.

He knew that, too.

You have nothing to live for.

And he knew that most of all.

"I hate you!" he shouted, standing up and panting. "I hate you!" He tore at his face, scratching angry, bloody lesions down his cheeks and neck. "Get out, get out, get out! Leave me alone, Madara!"

But Madara said nothing.

He threw himself against a wall, making the chandelier above him tremble and plaster fall from the ceiling. "Leave me alone! Get out!"

He pounded against it with his shoulder this time, and the chandelier once more shook, pulling wires out as it hung lopsided. "Look what you've done!"

He pounded again. "She hates me now! Why can't you let me be happy?"

And once more. The chandelier hung by only one wire, and it creaked threateningly.

"Why are you doing this to me?" he whined, throwing himself against the wall for the last time.

The chandelier came down, and the shinobi senses that he had once held dear were nowhere to be found.

When the glass shattered against the floor, so too did Tobi.

O O O

Sakura had been gone for almost a half a year. So when she returned to Konoha, she supposed it wouldn't be too conceited to expect a warm welcome back. She would have liked to have her friends running up to her and hugging her, people shaking her hand, Tsunade expressing her relief that her apprentice was back.

Instead, she was met with a village that was exactly the same as she had left it. Her apartment was the same, if not dusty and stinky from the rotting food in the fridge. Plus it was dark and cold on account of her utilities not being on, but still…

So maybe expecting a warm welcome home was a bit much.

She wondered, as she first left a note at her landlady's house and then walked toward the Hokage tower, whether she should tell Tsunade—or anyone, for that matter—about Tobi.

He'd betrayed her, yes. He'd kept her there for months and had presumably taken advantage of her, but…

Shaking her head, she made up her mind. If the tears were any proof, he'd suffered enough. She'd let him be. And she was certain that he wouldn't come looking for her.

She explained to Tsunade exactly what happened, and the Hokage was none too surprised.

"Sidetracked? By what?"

"I was kidnapped."

"By who?"

"Rogue shinobi. They didn't have headbands."

"What did they want?"

"They robbed me and then attempted to rape me."

"But you're all right."

"Of course."

Things like this happened often, after all.

She picked up her paycheck, which was enough to get the electric and gas turned on. The landlady paid for the water and garbage fees, so she didn't have to worry about that, but she did have to explain to her in person what had happened. Hopefully she would take pity and wouldn't decide to evict her.

When she returned to her apartment, drinking some water because she was broke after this little adventure, she took the second out of two doses of the emergency contraception. A small, round, white pill that would prevent the unwanted. She thanked whoever was watching over her up there that these things had been invented.

She sat in the lonely, dark, smelly apartment for hours, pretending that she was wondering when her electric was going to come back on.

But the only thing in her head was a man with a pair of soft brown eyes, a goofy demeanor, and an apparent split personality.

O O O

When Tobi awoke, the chandelier was still crushing his ribs and his head was still throbbing. His fingers and toes were slightly numb, as well, and he wondered if this had anything to do with the head injury.

He pushed the mass of broken glass and gnarled metal off of him, groaning from the effort. It clattered to the floor beside him and he hauled himself to his feet.

As soon as he did, an overwhelming, dizzying wave of nausea overtook him, and he retched. The force of the sickness doubled him over and he emptied whatever was in his stomach onto the wooden floorboards. And again. And after coughing and gagging on nothing, he did it once more.

He managed to grope along the walls toward the kitchen, where he immediately splashed cold water over his face. But it didn't help, and he bent over once more, dry heaves rocking his body.

He damned Madara and he damned the Akatsuki and he damned Sakura and he damned himself most of all. It was his fault for being weak, for being too trusting, for allowing Madara to feed off of him for so long. The spirit was like a tumor now, he realized, gripping onto him with all his might and refusing to let go. He could feel his presence slinking up his spine and tapping the back of his skull, pervading his senses and veiling his thoughts.

And he hated it.

There was one last dry heave before Tobi righted himself, holding onto the kitchen sink so that he didn't fall. When his legs stopped threatening to give out on him, he told his legs to carry him, damn it, before he broke every bone in them, to the front door. He threw it open and took a step outside, maneuvering through the porch, the courtyard, and finally the forest path.

He could still see Sakura's footprints in the damp soil, but even as he started to follow them, feeling more every second like he was going to collapse, snowflakes began to fall.

He felt Madara stir inside of him, and then it felt as though someone had grabbed his spine and threatened to string it through his navel. He leaned heavily against a tree trunk for support, gasping and clutching at his stomach.

He threw up again, though this time it was nothing but water. Just when he thought it was safe to start walking, the feeling was there, worse than last time, and blood and tissue from the depths of his stomach littered the dirt before his feet.

He almost fell into it, but he clutched the tree before his knees could hit the ground. He squinted ahead, looking past the dying foliage and light flurry of snowflakes toward where Sakura's footprints were leading. And he could almost see her running, escaping him and the demon inside of him, taking off to her homeland.

He couldn't follow her footsteps all the way there, but damn it, he'd try. He had nothing else to live for anymore.

And so he moved from tree to tree, occasionally vomiting more blood and his own saliva—something he knew was unhealthy—until the snow was too thick on the ground for him to see anything.

He cursed on a long exhale of breath, only half aware of the steam coming from his mouth and nose. He was sweating despite the cold air, hands and legs trembling, his vision blurring even as he continued on in the same general direction.

It was ten second later that he collapsed, falling sideways into the soft blanket of snow. It felt cool against his bare neck and arms, and he thought about falling asleep in it. But then the though of Sakura—losing her forever, never seeing her again, and she was gone—made him want to keep going.

He crawled on his stomach for a while, clutching at snow-covered rocks and tree roots sticking out of the ground for leverage, until his arms gave out.

It seemed that the only things in his body that seemed to be working were his lungs and heart, and even they were close to giving in.

He rolled onto his back, snowflakes fluttering onto his eyelashes and cheeks, sticking gently in his hair and melting on his lips, and then the shadow of someone hauntingly familiar shaded his face.

He closed his eyes.

O O O

It was the next day before everything truly returned to normal for Haruno Sakura.

Things had been sorted out with her landlady, Tsunade had brushed off the incident like it was nothing, her utilities had come back on, her fridge was cleaned out and stocked, and her apartment looked its messy self.

She'd even gotten things right with Naruto and Ino, who'd been searching for her since the first week she'd been overdue. The three of them had gone out to the ramen bar, where she talked about her time in captivity. She'd had to make up a whole story about it, of course, but when she'd finished, Naruto had vowed to kill the bastards—yeah, right—and Ino had scoffed with a snooty, "You should have kicked them in the nuts, Sakura. Always works."

She sunk comfortably into the couch, taking a drink of the newly bought soda. Everything was back to normal. She just hoped Tobi was alright.

It was almost scary, really. The complex wasn't too far from that small, backwater village, and the village wasn't far from Konohagakure at all.

A knock on the door startled her out of her thoughts.

Her heart beat faster than it should have. It wasn't Tobi, of course. He wouldn't have been let into the village.

Still, she answered the door warily, relieved when it turned out to be a simple messenger.

"Good evening, Miss Haruno," he said, tipping his hat.

Sakura was charmed.

"I have a message for you," he said, producing a scroll and handing it to her. "It's from a rural village to the east."

"Thank you," she said, and he left as she closed the door.

She set the scroll on the coffee table and sat on the couch in front of it.

She must have stared at the thing for an hour before she finally opened it.

It was simple, really, scrawled hastily in a child-like, grammatically incorrect type of print.

Come to the village. There is a man here that wants to see you. He needs you, it read, though in far less eloquent terms.

Please come. This man is sick. We think he's dying.

Sakura didn't even think twice. She just put on her coat and left.

O O O

He thought he'd died. Died, gone to heaven, maybe, but then…heaven would have Sakura, or at least the chance to forget about her. Here was a place where she was still fresh in his mind, her smell, her skin, the feel of her, everything. And it was a horrible torture.

He tried to sit up, but someone or something pushed him back down. So he settled for opening his eyes instead, and all of the sensations came back to him. He was lying on the ground with a heavy, warm, wool blanket covering him from toe to shoulder. The distant smell of some beef stew was drifting lazily around the room, and he could see about three or more pairs of eyes peering down at him.

"It's the beast," someone whispered from the far back of the room. "Be careful! He could be dangerous."

The person directly in front of him—a small boy, the same small boy he'd seen such a long, long time ago and had helped out of the forest—shushed the woman behind him. "He is no such thing. He is just a man." This was the boy who had repaid his debt by saving Tobi. He remembered his shadow vividly now, and the worried look on his face when he'd loomed over him.

Another person hovering around recognized that he'd woken, and she smiled. "We've given you medicine and water, and we've changed your clothes. The clothes we found you in are hanging to dry."

He stared at her blankly. For some reason, he felt odd. Empty. Not emotionally empty, but as if someone had hollowed out his insides.

"And we've sent for a medic-nin," another said. "The closest one is a girl from Konohagakure. She's nice; I'm sure she'll come."

His stomach growled as he sat up, this time without someone trying to force him back down.

"Have some stew," the girl said, and he greedily partook in it. He was on his second bowl by the time the little boy began to question him.

"So you live in that mansion?"

He nodded.

"All by yourself?"

He shrugged.

"Didn't you get lonely?"

A nod.

"I'm sorry."

Another shrug.

He finished the stew in record time and opted for lying back down, urging his stomach to settle. It was vibrating threateningly again, but not at all like last time.

An old woman pushed her way through the crowd and knelt in front of him. "You have a broken rib, young man. Perhaps that is why you became sick. We will know when the medic arrives."

Tobi rolled his eyes to look at the apex of the pointed hut's ceiling, furrowing his brow. "I'm sorry."

"…For what?" the old woman asked, and the little boy beside her began shooing visitors out of the hut with faux warnings of a sickness.

"For stealing food sometimes," he admitted, and he waited for the reprimanding. Maybe they'd let him off easy and just toss him out in the snow.

But, surprisingly, the woman just laughed. "You don't have to be sorry. You are, after all, as much a part of this village as anyone else."

He watched her dip a washcloth in a bowl of warm water and laid it on his forehead. It felt cool and nice, and she moved it from his forehead to his neck presently. "You have quite the fever. You should think twice next time before you decide to take a nap in the snow, young man."

Having successfully emptied the hut, the little boy scrambled back to his side, excitement alight in his eyes. "So what's your name, sir?"

"Tobi," Tobi croaked, and he began to shake.

The woman removed the washcloth. "The medic will be here soon, Tobi," she assured. "Our messenger called for her hours ago."

"She was very nice," the boy remarked, sitting back on his haunches. "She left her name with us when she visited some time ago in case we needed her."

And sure enough, the door of the hut was creaked open as a figure wrapped in a large, oversized coat bumbled through, slamming it behind them. Wind swirled around for a moment, upsetting the old woman's hair and making the young boy cower, and it died abruptly as it had come.

Tobi's breath hitched in his throat painfully. But he attributed this to his broken rib.

The figure huffed and pulled the hood from their head. And there it was: a head of pink hair, a flushed, pretty face, and green eyes that looked anywhere but at him.

Likewise, Tobi averted his attention to the opposite wall.

"I received your message," Sakura said, bowing to the old woman. "Is this the patient?"

The woman moved aside, and Sakura knelt before Tobi, first feeling his forehead and then pulling the blanket back from his body.

He felt a familiar, unwanted sting of desire deep in his gut at even the feel of her hands on his chest, his neck, his collarbone, but it didn't have the urgent, jagged edge that it normally had. This time it was warm and light, though that didn't stop a light red from dusting across his cheeks.

She assessed him immediately, figuring out his problem even before the woman told her. And thus she set to her job, mending bones and tissue and causing a bit of pain for Tobi.

…Okay, it as a lot of pain. Even the comforting green glow of her chakra couldn't soothe him, and he tensed, grit his teeth, and choked back a grunt.

After a few moments of her glancing up at him and then back to his rib, she finally spoke.

"Could you possibly leave us alone for a moment?" she asked the woman, and the boy caught the hint and left.

The old woman nodded on her way out. "If you need anything, please do not hesitate to ask."

"I won't."

As soon as the door shut, Sakura glared daggers at Tobi.

Tobi swallowed. "I—"

"What did you do?" she hissed, eyes narrowing further.

He gaped for a second. "I—what? I didn't—it just—"

"Did you do this on purpose?" she demanded, motioning with her free hand to his ribcage. "You stupid, stupid man."

Despite her insults, he could see that she on the verge of crying. Maybe not hysterically sobbing, but the tears were there, collecting in the corners of her eyes.

"N—no, of course I didn't," he defended. He fisted his hands in the sheets; the desire to touch her—to confirm that yes, she was here, and no, he wasn't dreaming—was almost overwhelming, but he didn't think he could bear further rejection. He'd hurt her enough as it was. "Why would I do that?" he added quietly as an afterthought.

She huffed and shook her head, mumbling, "Why do you do anything that you do?" under her breath.

His thumbs rubbed over the cottony fabric beneath him, and he tried to pull his mind off both the pain of her healing his broken bone and the pain that she was here, that this was probably the last time he was going to see her, and how much he wanted her to stay. Or maybe he could go with her. Either way, he didn't want to be alone again. He didn't want her to leave him.

Less than ten minutes, in which Tobi refrained alternately from grunting in pain and reaching out to take her hand, she was finished, and her chakra left him like a cool breeze.

She stood up, then, pretty, narrowed green eyes staring a hole through him. And with a shake of her head, she pulled her hood up over her head, wrapped the coat tighter around her, and left.

A jolt of panic lanced through Tobi, and he sat up, practically throwing the blanket from him. He was wearing nothing but pants and a thin layer of bandages over a particularly deep laceration on the left side of his lower stomach, but it didn't quite matter to him at the moment. What did matter was that Sakura was leaving him again, taking all he held dear and all he had left with her on the way out the door.

Rib fully healed and feeling more revitalized than he had felt in about a week, he stumbled through the snow, shielding his eyes and shivering as he searched for any sign of her. She'd probably ran as fast as she could home, he realized sadly. He knew she lived in Konohagakure—that much he was able to gather, but it was no great feat to do so, anyway—but that was about all. And he doubted that Konohagakure would even let him inside the gates.

Still, he took off in the general direction of that hidden village, tripping once over a rock hidden by snow.

He passed by an awning, barely glancing at the people underneath him.

And then whatever had him by his arm managed to trip him, and he fell face-first in the snow.

Groaning at the cold and the bloody nose he could feel coming on, he got to his knees and then his feet, glancing back at who had grabbed him. He couldn't quite see, though, so he started to take off in that direction again.

"Tobi!"

Once again, that thing that had him by the arm stopped him. He didn't trip this time, though.

He blinked and looked at his captor. A gloved hand holding his arm, a thick, fluffy coat, and a hood partly obscuring bright pink hair.

Then those green eyes, glaring at him in equal parts confusion and disbelief.

"Where do you think you're going?" Sakura asked, pulling him under the awning with her.

He blinked a few more times, staggering over his words a few times in a weak stutter. "I was—you were—but Konohagakure—"

"What about Konohagakure?" Sakura asked, shaking her head and furrowing her brow. "What are you talking about?"

"Tobi was—he—I was looking for you!" he finally relented, throwing his hands out in frustration. "You left first and then I got sick and the chandelier fell and I didn't mean to but then I thought I saw you again but I didn't and someone took me to this village and you're here again but then you wanted to leave and Tobi can't let you leave again!"

He stood panting in the snow, shoulders heaving and shivering at the same time.

Sakura shrugged her coat off, tsk-tsking him all the way. She wrapped it around his shoulders, still dressed rather warmly.

"Come on," she said, smiling ruefully. "I came back for you, didn't I? It's obvious I'd made up my mind."

"I can—you don't—the acid rain, it wasn't my fault—"

Sakura shook her head and motioned for him to duck under the awning, which he did.

"Look," she said, talking so quietly that no other villagers could hear. "I understand what you did. I…well, I thought about it a lot, and I can sympathize. You lived in that base for years all alone. I can't imagine how it must have affected you."

He felt tears starting to well up, and he tried to swallow them angrily. One fell and he inwardly cursed it, moving to brush it away before Sakura could notice. He hoped.

Of course, she did notice it. And then she began crying herself.

"I did an awful thing to you, Tobi, but I was so angry," she admitted, pulling him into a hug. And he relented gratefully, wrapping his arms around her shoulders as she clutched to his chest. "Still, you'd think that by living with you for almost half a year I'd learn to forgive more easily."

"You don't have to," he said, pressing his nose into her hair. She smelled like chimney smoke. "You don't have to forgive Tobi."

She pulled away from him and grinned. "No, I don't have to… But I will."

He expected Madara to surface just then, and a thin sheen of dread filmed over his insides. But there was no insistent tug at the back of his mind, no unnerving tickle running up his spine. There was just a flutter in his chest and his stomach doing crazy little somersaults.

Either Madara was gone or he was just sleeping, and Tobi sincerely hoped it was the former. Tobi was in love with Sakura but so was Madara, and Madara's intentions were apparently far more malevolent than Tobi could ever even imagine.

Sakura and Tobi bid farewell to the villagers, thanked them, offered to pay them, and instead ended up taking some stew in a canteen with them. Tobi had no idea where they were going; he only knew that Sakura had told him to come along.

And really, what were his other options? Go back to the deserted, broken complex? Not likely. Live in that village for the rest of his life? Well, that sounded okay, but a life there meant a life without Sakura, and he wasn't quite sure he was ready for that.

She led him through the snow-covered forest, and he could smell the civilization even before he saw the tiptop of the Konohagakure gates. There was chimney smoke—the same he smelled on Sakura—and a particular scent of spice.

He started walking slowly, gazing up at the gates in the distance. He turned around to face Sakura. "Is this—?"

He was cut off when she pushed him against a tree and pressed her mouth to his, lips moving frantically over his own, slipping in between, her tongue occasionally making a very appreciated appearance.

He was confused, but he went along with it, holding her by her hands as she pushed her hips flush against his own.

She only pulled away long enough to put her cheek to his, her breath brushing over his ear in a way that made him blush all the way down into his coat. Well, her coat, technically. He hoped she just attributed this to the cold, because seeing a grown man blush was probably a bit of a turn-off.

"Tobi," she said on a sigh, all warm breath and soft words. "I don't know how, but you made me love you."

And there he was, confused again. "I—I'm sorry." He was stuttering, but at least he wasn't doing the whole third person spiel. It was more of a nervous habit than anything; whenever he was anxious or his mind felt muddled, he'd refer to himself in the third person. The Akatsuki had hated it and he'd seen the annoyance on Sakura's face before, but there wasn't much he could do to help it. Maybe he'd get over it later on in life.

Her lips moving over the shell of his ear abruptly dragged him out of thoughts, and he held his breath, stiff and restless all at the same time.

"I—" he began, but failed to finish the sentence. So he tried again. "I—I—I—I—"

She laughed, and it was amazing.

"B—but you made me love you, too," he said, his fingers clenching into her shirt when she pulled away in order to kiss his jaw.

She smiled against his skin. "Good. Now I want this to last."

He wasn't sure if she met their inevitable relationship or the sex that she was heavily implying by pulling open the coat he wore, but he figured he could find a way to work both of them out.

O O O

It wasn't, she reasoned, that she'd wanted so desperately to have sex with Tobi at that very moment in time. Sure, it was nice—always was nice as long as she was with him—but she hadn't simply done it because her hormones had been raging.

She'd done it because she was uncertain. She didn't know whether or not Tsunade would allow Tobi to enter as a citizen. She was uncertain whether the village would recognize him as Akatsuki or not.

And in that vein, it was definitely a lucky thing that Tobi had worn that orange mask for all of the time he spent with the Akatsuki. No one had seen his face, and therefore, nobody could recognize.

And he, consequently, was all too happy to pretend that the Akatsuki hadn't existed, that he hadn't once been a criminal.

Thankfully, Tsunade had allowed him citizenship. Sakura's vouching for him was good enough for the Hokage, it seemed, and she could feel the excitement in Tobi when they both left the office.

As soon as they were out on the street, she shrieked with joy and tackled him, arms around his neck and laughing into him.

"Tobi can stay?" he asked excitedly.

"Yes, yes," she replied, "Tobi can stay!"

He picked her up and threw her over his shoulder, where she squealed and laughed and pounded on his back with her fists. But he just marched triumphantly toward wherever the first food establishment might have been.

"Tobi!" she laughed, pushing on his shoulders. "What are you doing?"

"Date?" he asked, nuzzling into her thigh. "I never took you on one. Sakura deserves it!"

She wasn't quite sure where this newfound giddiness in either of them came from, but she guessed it stemmed form the relief. Now things were back to normal, because without Tobi, something would always feel amiss. He'd become a staple in her life whether he liked it or not.

Giving up, she rested draped over his shoulder, instead taking the opportunity to stare at his behind. "Very cute," she muttered nonchalantly, and he delighted at the rather ambiguous comment.

He dragged her into the ramen bar, and people stared. But people were always going to stare, because here she was hauling a stranger into her otherwise lonely life. And people talked, but people were always going to talk, because she'd started with Sasuke and then Naruto and now this guy? And people laughed and laughed and laughed at them, but that was okay, because people would laugh at her either way.

She'd introduce him to Naruto and Ino, eventually, and then to some of her other friends, and she hoped against all things that it would work out between her and Tobi. She was quite certain it would, but even if it didn't, that was alright, too. She would be happy as long as he was happy, though it was too bad that it took her almost a month to realize it.

O O O

There wasn't much that Tobi could say anymore. He was happy with Sakura, and he dearly hoped she was happy with him, as well. It wasn't awkward living with her in her little apartment at all, and it wasn't awkward being the new guy in the neighborhood. On the contrary, he rather enjoyed the privacy, the fact that no one knew who he was.

And despite all the pain and suffering that Madara had put him through, despite the fuss that he'd thrown with the vomiting and the fever when the spirit had decided to leave Tobi for good, he hoped that the old ghost was happy wherever he was, too. It was a three-way relationship from the beginning, and even though one member had been cast off, it seemed only fair that that member receive some kind of redemption.

"Just don't come back any time soon," Tobi mumbled to no one in particular, pulling the blankets over his shoulder.

Sakura turned to him from her side of the bed. "Huh?"

Tobi shook his head. "Nothing." He thumbed Sakura's nose gently, at which she scowled prettily. "I was just talking to myself."