"Tomoe?"

"Tomoe!"

I flinched. Beads of condensation dripped down the outside of the glass and stained my napkin, while inside bubbles rose to the top, popped soundlessly, and disappeared. Engrossed in the scene, and a little out of it from the pain medication I'd choked down before meeting up with him, I hadn't heard Shisui call my name.

I blinked and met his eyes.

"Sorry, what?" I mumbled.

He looked a little puzzled. "I asked if you'd talked to Itachi at all lately."

"Oh." Condensation dripped. Bubbles popped. "No, can't say I have."

Shisui frowned, looking a little concerned, and leaned forward. He put his hand on mine. "You okay? You look tired."

That's because I was. Incredibly so. I'd just about managed to cover up the worst of the dark circles under my eyes with foundation, along with whatever bruises showed above the collar of my shirt. I guess the fatigue still showed in my demeanor.

I'd gotten back from a 'mission' late last night. I had been a tough one.

As far as anyone knew, I wasn't on the active roster at the moment, so it was sometimes difficult to make excuses for why I wasn't around. Usually, the pretense of working in my lab was sufficient—everyone knew I worked on sensitive stuff in there and didn't like to be bothered. Right now, I actually was working on something, in partnership with the hospital, but it didn't take up as much of my time as I'd led everyone to believe.

Well, by everyone, I really just meant Shisui. He was the only one I saw consistently enough to bother with any kind of excuse. Itachi, I rarely saw, due to how busy he was managing clan affairs. Kakashi, I ran into every so often, but there was just no occasion to meet up. Saya never dropped in unannounced, and naively bought whatever halfhearted excuse I gave for not wanting to hang out. That made Shisui my only problem.

It felt like my world was constricting, converging around two states of being—out on a 'mission,' or out on a 'date' with Shisui. It was an endless cycle, with sleepless nights, long days, anxiety eating away at me, paranoid that he find out somehow—that he'd see through the façade and ask me questions I couldn't answer.

I didn't know how long I could keep this up.

My side twinged. The hidden cut—amateurishly sewed up by Obito, deeper than it should have been if I hadn't been so careless—throbbed. I silently decided that this iteration of the anesthetic was a dud. Too many side effects (I could barely think straight), not effective enough. Back to the lab I went.

I silently prayed the cut wouldn't bleed through my shirt.

Shisui was talking again. I forced the scattered threads of my attention back together. I blinked a few times and took a sip of my ice coffee to try and focus, despite the fact that the medicine was making me progressively more and more nauseated. The throbbing in my side was getting worse. I definitely needed to refine the medicine some more. Low duration, at that. What a dud. I started feeling vaguely ashamed of myself. I was better than this. I knew I was.

I was just so tired.

Maybe I should develop a stimulant. That'd be easy. Yeah. I should do that. Leave the anesthetic to the hospital folk. I'd developed the base, and they had more leeway to test it anyway, what with it being a hospital and all. Bigger sample population. I'd been rather free-handed with dosing myself, but even that had a limit.

Yes, a stimulant . . . base chemical would be . . .

"Tomoe!"

Shisui was waving his hand in front of my face. I inhaled sharply.

His frown had deepened. "Seriously, if you're not feeling well, you should rest up. Do you have a fever?"

His hand moved to rest on my forehead. It felt dry and warm, and for just a moment, took the edge of pain away.

"Uhm. Guess not."

I shook my head. "It's fine. Just a sleepless night. Nothing coffee won't fix." I took a deeper swig of my drink.

Shisui seemed appeased.

The café was quiet at this time of day. The warmth of the late fall sun came streaming in through the window, and a slight breeze blew sparse fallen leaves on the road outside. Konoha was, as usual, a little disjointed in terms of climate. Summer lingered on well past its welcome.

That was alright for now.

Shisui shifted, linked his fingers together, and took a deep breath.

"Actually, there's something I wanted to tell you."

I motioned for him to go on.

"Remember that post Hokage-sama offered me? With the new police force?"

I snapped to attention. "You took it!"

He grinned and gave me a thumbs up.

"That's . . . that's great!" I stumbled a bit over my words, surprised as I was.

He nodded. "Yeah, it's been a while, but I think I'm ready now. Gotta get to work! There's so much to do, and they could really use the help. That means . . ." His gaze turned apologetic. He rubbed the back of his neck. "I'll be pretty busy from now on."

"Oh . . ."

"That doesn't mean we can't see each other," he added hastily. "Just . . ."

"No, I got it. I'm busy, you're busy. We'll make it work." I forced a smile.

Shisui returned it, with more warmth than I deserved. All I felt was relief, guilt for feeling relief, and a vague, encroaching sense of loneliness.

"Thanks, Tomoe. I couldn't have done it without you."

He placed his hand over mine and gave it a squeeze. My side throbbed. I suppressed a wave of nausea.

From now on, at least I wouldn't have to pretend so much.


Sometime later, after the leaves had finally, briefly, turned a vivid, scarlet red and fallen completely, and the chill of early winter had set in, Rin woke up.

I received the message and immediately set off for the hospital. Forgetting my coat, I ran across the roofs of Konoha in nothing by a t-shirt and leggings, and by the time I had arrived I was soaked in sweat. My ankle, sprained in my last mission, throbbed painfully. I'd forgotten to take my medicine. This iteration was much better, thanks to the hospital running clinical trials.

Kakashi was already there. He sat by her side, hand holding hers in a hospital room that was bright with sunlight and flowers in all colors. She was small and emaciated, long brown hair rough like straw, but her eyes were alive. They settled on me as I came in, and she smiled. It took all I had not to break down in tears.

I wanted to apologize for what happened all those years ago. I wanted to say, this wasn't what I wanted, wasn't what I had in mind, but the words didn't come out. She beckoned me forward with a thin hand and I sat on the opposite side of the bed from Kakashi. His head was bowed down, and his face mostly covered up as always, but I thought I saw a tear glistening, not yet shed.

Rin asked me how I'd been. I said I'd been alright. I said I was alright.

She smiled warmly and said, "I'm so glad."

I gulped down the sudden wave of guilt and shame. My leg hurt. A few other wounds were mostly healed, but still itched and ached. The scars remained, made worse by poor treatment.

I repeated to myself that this was all for the best. Hadn't it worked out in the end? Rin was alive, Obito was alive, Saya was alive, Itachi was alive, Shisui was alive . . . Kakashi looked at Rin as she spoke to me, his visible eye full of reverence and hope.


I spoke to Kakashi in the hall before I left. He was going to be taking care of Rin for the foreseeable future. She may have woken up, but she wasn't out of the woods yet. Aside from continuing issues stemming from the Sanbi kidnapping incident, a decade of slumber had wrecked her body. She'd be needing care, physical therapy, and a good deal of time before she was well again. Kakashi would be there for all of it.

I clapped him on the shoulder. I couldn't help but notice that it was easy to reach now. It was only yesterday that I'd been tiny and he'd been so tall.

Where had the time gone?

"Good for you. If you're there, she'll be right as rain in no time at all. I'll drop by whenever I can. Don't be a stranger, 'kay?" I said cheerfully.

He nodded and glanced back to the room. I could tell he was anxious to get back to her side.

"Take care!" I grinned.

He nodded at me. "You too, Tomoe. Take care of yourself."

And with that, I left. Once outside, the wind and the sweat that still soaked my clothes sent a chill through me. I wondered where Obito was. Nearby, no doubt. I wondered how he felt—if anything he'd been working on for the past few years had meant anything at all in the end. The Akatsuki was still being formed, that much I knew. What it would be for, aside from a mercenary organization, I didn't know.

But I doubted Madara's plan would come to fruition. I had no interest in it anymore. That, also, was a relief.

I returned, slowly this time, limping a little bit on my sprained ankle. It was chilly, but the sky was unbelievable blue.

Everyone was alright. Everything was going to be alright.


I ran my sword through my target's chest, placed my foot on his sternum and kicked him off my blade. He slid off with a thick, wet sound, like silk ripping. Red bloomed everywhere. I rummaged through his belongings for the scroll I needed to retrieve. It wasn't there. I sighed in frustration, crouched in the mud, and pulled harshly at my hair. Not him, either. I'd already been out here longer than I ever had before. If I kept dawdling, someone would notice I was missing. I had to hurry and find that damn scroll.

It took me another day to track the man's associates down and kill them off one by one, until I finally found what I'd been sent to retrieve. By the time I made my way back to the village, exhausted, covered in dirt, sweat, and blood, it had been three days since I'd slept or eaten.

I expected a message or two waiting for me on my windowsill, from Shisui at least, maybe from Kushina, but there was nothing. I knew his new post would keep him busy, but I'd underestimated how much. Itachi was busy with the clan. Saya was helping out at the hospital. Kakashi was taking care of Rin. Minato and his family were dealing with the remaining fallout from the war.

Most likely, no one had noticed I was gone.

I took a shower first. Grime and dried blood washed off me, and then, something unexpectedly bright red. I looked down. There was a cut on my thigh. I hadn't even noticed it.

I bandaged it. As I exited the bathroom, a cold wind made me shiver. The window was open. On the windowsill, a message. I read it, and burned it. My bed sat to the side, inviting.

For a moment it felt like my body was melting, disintegrating, leaving behind strained nerves and weary bones. My head swam. The room blurred.

I was just so tired.

For a moment I leaned against the wall.

Just for a moment.

I geared up and, on my way out, stopped by my lab. I opened one of many drawers and pulled out something I'd been working on the past few months. Small, white pills, inoffensive and unmarked. I tipped my head back and swallowed them dry.

My energy mounted as I crossed Konoha's wall and rushed out into the forest. Higher and higher, until I was almost giddy, until everything was too sharp and my heat beat too fast, alert and awake and ready for anything.

The crash came later, once I was done with my mission. I collapsed on the way back, my thigh burning, my chest painfully tight—I was so dizzy I couldn't see straight. I vomited bile. I didn't even have the energy to push myself up.

And then I faintly made out the outline of Obito's mask. He picked me up, and the next thing I knew I was in my own bed. He was still there, sitting at my bedside with his hands clasped under his chin. He stared straight at me, and said,

"Don't do that again."


I did it again.

I adjusted the formula of the pills so the side effects weren't so bad, but I couldn't stop them from becoming a crutch.

Obito was still around, funnily enough. I actually saw more of him than I ever had before. He took to fetching me after a mission, when I was too tired or too injured or too both to drag myself back to the village.

Whenever I had a reprieve, I worked. I needed to show some form of result to the hospital, or I was afraid someone would get suspicious. The anesthetic was coming along, more due to their work than mine.

One day, I just received some samples to review. I stared at the little vials of liquid, no more than 10 ml each, clear like water. I read the lab notes sent over by the researchers. By coincidence, I'd been working on refining my stimulant. I cross-checked a few things, did a few mental calculations. I looked at the powder set to be pressed into pills. And back at the liquid in the vials.

I could work something out.

I went on a date with Shisui. The first thing he did when we met up at the park was to wrap a fluffy scarf around me. It almost swallowed me whole, soft and warm.

His face flushed and he grinned, cupping my cheeks. His eyes were soft with fondness, his grin a little dopey. He'd grown his hair out somewhat since I last saw him—it went all over the place, fluffy and curly like lamb's wool.

"You're cold. Want me to warm you up?"

I flushed despite myself. He snickered and put his arm around my shoulders. I wasn't dressed very warmly—I'd sort of forgotten I owned clothes that weren't for going on missions.

"Here," Shisui said. He pulled out a pair of gloves, put one on, and gave me the other. I put it on, a little perplexed, but then he took my bare hand in his and did a double-take. He raised it up to eye level.

"Have you lost weight?" he asked.

"Oh. I might have. Busy night, and all."

He clicked his tongue. "Hey now, are you skipping meals? You shouldn't. Promise me you'll eat?" There he went again with the puppy dog eyes.

I pulled the corners of my lips into a smile and said, "I'll be careful."

He kissed the back of my bony hand and said, "Good. Let's go!"

Shisui happily dragged me along. The streets were lively with people and the smell of street foods.

I wasn't hungry, but he kept on buying things. Yakisoba. Cotton candy. Candy apple. Taiyaki. He handed it all to me with a smile, and I swallowed every bite. It felt like I was chewing paste and forcing it down my throat.

The medicine had worn off.

We walked along hand in hand for a few hours, until the sun started to set and the temperature dropped to below freezing. My breath misted in the air as he walked me home. When we got to my front door, he smiled tenderly and wrapped his arms around me. It was so sudden I didn't have time to flinch.

I muffled a scream as he squeezed me tight.

It hurts

The cut on my back throbbed, like a hot iron was being jabbed into it. He kept squeezing, unknowing, and caressed my hair. It felt like he was wrenching the life out of me. Tears welled up in my eyes.

"I really missed you," he said.

". . . I missed you too," I replied. Muffled by my scarf and his coat, he didn't catch how strangled my voice was.

It hurts

He hugged me harder.

"I'm sorry I've been busy . . . give me a few more months?"

He sounded like a puppy, whining pitifully. I bit my lip to keep from screaming. I pictured his face as a child. Mischievous, toothy grin . . . Shaggy hair, his arm around me . . . Every time he had the chance, he'd put his arms around me. . . I always protested but I never hated it . . .

It hurts

'Tomoe-chan!'

The heat-haze of summer, the three of us training . . . Him calling my name, over and over . . .

It hurts

Blood on the streets, black in the moonlight, people who died before they could scream, Fukaku's smile as his head went flying . . .

'You love, and for love you will sink deep into darkness.'

"I love you, I really do," Shisui said as he stroked my hair, over and over. I felt blood seep into my shirt. He felt so far away.

'I love you too,' I mouthed the words but didn't speak them. Tears beaded in the corner of my eyes. Distantly, I thought I saw snow, softly illuminated by the streetlights.

I truly meant it. With every fiber of my being, with every stab of pain cutting me from the inside, I meant it.


The date was over.

I stumbled into my room and collapsed on the floor. My breath came in faster and faster as I writhed in pain. I gasped like I was drowning. My hair spilled out from its tie and spread out onto the floor like discarded silk threads.

As usual, Obito was there, silent, judging. I glared up at him, venomously, a silent warning, but he reached his hand out to me anyway.

I couldn't understand why. After everything, why was he still here? Just to mock me?

I slapped his hand away.

"Don't touch me," I wanted to yell, but my voice was a mere, faint wheeze.

He looked down at me, silently.

I clutched at the wall and hauled myself up, doubled-over from the pain. Blood had soaked my shirt, down my pants, made a puddle on the floor where I'd been squirming like a worm.

". . . You think I'm pathetic don't you?" I hissed.

He was always there. It drove me mad. At the end of every mission, every time I needed medical care, every time I couldn't bear to pull myself to my feet, he was just there, silent, judging, looking down on me.

And I just couldn't understand.

"I don't need you," I growled. "You're a waste of my time. Leave me be! Go see Rin! She's the one who needs you." I snickered. "Oh wait, you can't."

I stumbled towards him. He stood completely still as I clawed at the collar of his shirt.

"Does it feel good? Don't you want to say 'I told you so?' Don't you love seeing me like this? I'm the one who ruined you. I'm the reason you can't see Rin. I'm the reason you're stuck wearing that mask and you can never come home!"

I choked back a laugh.

"Guess it's funny to you, watching me break myself, watching me be a slave to Danzo. Must be funny. Must be hilarious. Misery loves company right? I know you hate me. God, this must be soooo satisfying for you."

I glared up at him with rage made all the more vicious by how impotent it was. If I could, I would have killed him where he stood, stabbed my sword through his neck and watched him drown in his own blood. But I was too weak to do anything. My vision was already turning white around the edges, and my hands shook uncontrollably. The way I clutched at him served less to hurt him and more to keep myself standing. If I let go, I'd fall to the floor, maybe bleed out completely, who knew? Maybe I'd bleed to death, even.

"Get out of here. Never show your face to me again, or I'll kill you," I snarled. "I mean it. I'll rip you to pieces. Fuck the plan, fuck Madara, fuck the Akatsuki. Do whatever you want, but never come to me again, you hear me? I'm done."

I stumbled away from him and towards the bathroom. He didn't follow.

With the last vestiges of strength I had left in me, I tended to my wound. It was a crude job, but it served me well enough. I swallowed a double dose of painkiller.

When I emerged, Obito was gone. I was well and truly alone.

Unable to think any longer, I collapsed into a deep, dreamless sleep.


I ran through the forest at top speed. I held my hand in a vice-like grip over my upper arm to try and stem the blood overflowing thickly down to the forest floor. I was still clutching my sword, fingers numb but by pure instinct tight as a vice. If I lost it, I would die. My equipment was gone. All I had were a few kunai and a few vials left in my pouch. My breath fogged up behind my mask. My lungs burned like I'd breathed in acid.

It was pouring rain. I was drenched from head to toe.

My pursuers weren't far behind. Ten of them.

They caught up to me in a clearing. I was quickly surrounded. My eyes flitted across the clearing, trying to take in their positions, their weapons, an escape route, anything. I dug my feet into the mud and widened my stance to keep my knees from buckling. The adrenaline rush had long since passed. I had nothing left in me.

It was like the war. I could easily die here. But unlike the war, there was nobody coming to help.

Silently, I prayed. Surely someone would come.

Kakashi?

My pursuers converged on me. I dove out of the way of a downward sword strike from one, and just barely deflected a kunai slash from another.

I'd been gone for so long, surely someone would notice . . .

Itachi? Shisui?

A blow from a club hit me full on the side. Something crunched, and I went flying like a rag doll.

. . . Minato?

I just barely managed to hang onto my sword. I vomited blood. One of the people snickered—they were taking their time. I was too messed up to get angry about how they were looking down on me.

. . . . . . Obito?

Anyone?

My ears rang. I didn't have the strength to get up. Everything hurt. I thought I heard Obito's voice, somewhere, but I couldn't focus. Surely it was a mirage. I'd told him to never show himself in front of me again. And why would he do otherwise?

Why would anybody come? Why would anybody help? I was well and truly alone.

I'm so tired.

I saw the glint of metal out of the corner of my eye. Panic seized me. I started hyperventilating.

I'm alone.

No one's coming.

I'm going to die.

What would happen if I died?

Oddly enough, the only one I could think about, faintly, distantly, was Saya.

I can't die here.

I had only one last resort, and nothing left to lose. I fumbled with my pouch and extracted one syringe. I popped the cap and, with the last of my strength, drove the needle into my own thigh.

I barely had time to do it before one man kicked me in the stomach. I was sent rolling in the mud.

Using my sword as a crutch, I dragged myself to my feet. I reared back, my breath coming in faster and faster. I ripped my mask off and swallowed fresh night air.

The drug shot through me like fire. My heart pounded like a drum. Heat rushed to my face, to the tips of my fingers and toes, like my blood was lava.

And then, the pain stopped.

It was euphoric.

The total lack of pain was the most intoxicating sensation I'd ever experienced in my life. The rush was enough to make my eyes roll back. I breathed out, breathed in, deeply.

A wild, lopsided grin crawled its way up my face.

I was alive.

I was awake.

And nothing hurt.

I could do this. I could fight.

I flexed my fingers, drew up my sword with newfound vigor and threw myself my opponents.

I didn't bother parrying. I swung my sword, limp as a puppet, languid as a snake. I felt boneless, my moves swerving wide with uncontrolled momentum, my body so relaxed it swayed and wavered like a streamer in the wind. I didn't feel the sharp edges cutting into me, the blows coming my way, I just moved faster than I ever had, maniacally swerving back and forth among living bodies, cleaving through flesh and bone like a butcher. I jumped, turned on my heels, slashed and hacked and twisted round and round, my ears ringing and my vision blurry with sweat, rain, and blood.

Somewhere along the line, I started to laugh. It felt so good. I hadn't realized how much the constant pain and fatigue had worn me down, cut me down, dragged me down, until I was finally free.

I cut and cut and slashed and slashed, happier than I'd ever been, euphorically high. I was flying high, leaping like my feet had wings.

I can do this, I thought.

I don't feel any pain anymore!

No matter what it is, I can do it!

I can do it all alone!

Everything

I can protect them

Laughter bubbled out of me, higher and higher, as I mindlessly hacked away at lifeless bodies.

Over.

And over.

And over.


I stood in the clearing, surrounded by mud, blood, and the pouring rain. There was nothing recognizable as a human body anywhere in sight.

The drug was running its course. The life it had given me was fading away, with nothing but a bone-deep weariness crawling at its heels. The pain wasn't back yet—only an odd sensation of numbness, like my body had dissolved into mist. It felt like I was disembodied, cut off from this earth. I couldn't hear anything. Looking up into the night sky, the vague shadows of the trees hovered above, like gods looking down on me. Their branches wavered in the wind, in a staccato rhythm, like a stop-motion movie.

A hand whirled me around and I was met with Obito's face.

He looked around, horror on his wrinkled face, then focused on me.

I heard his voice, muffled as if the air was cotton. "What have you done?" he growled. He looked me up and down and the horror grew. "Spider, what have you done to yourself?!"

I stared back at him, blankly. I didn't care what he was saying. I think, in that moment, that I didn't care what happened to me now—if I lived or died.

'Spider! Can you hear me?'

'Spider!'

'Tomoe!'

I felt my consciousness slip away. Obito's mouth moved, forming words I couldn't hear . . .

All that was running through my mind were those words . . .

The words I had said to Obito, all those years ago, when I'd brainwashed him into following Madara's plan—into being my accomplice . . . when I'd ruined him, what had I said?

What were the words I had used, back then?

'All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.'

Ah.

This must be it.

This world where everyone had been saved, where everyone was safe and happy, was the best of all possible worlds.

This world where I was tortured everyday, where my sanity was slowly disintegrating, was the best of all possible worlds.

The absolute best of all possible worlds.

And I could only be grateful to have reached it.


AN/ It's been a little over two years, I think. The last time I posted, I mentioned that it had been a tough year - well, I think I can safely say things haven't been going super well for a lot of people, and that includes me.

I can't promise regular updates, but I'm doing my best to get back into writing. I actually just published my original work on Kindle. It's something I've been working on for many years, and I finally got my act together enough to send it out into the world. Links will be on my profile if anybody wants to check it out.

If you're still reading this, thank you so much. I still have every intention of finishing this story, and your continued support makes it worthwhile.

Peace out.