Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
Sight fluctuated between slightly blurry but easily identifiable shapes and forms, and a blinding white against darker blurs.
The Uchiha compound was caked in dust, dust that had been sitting for years; Itachi and Sasuke had had a hard time getting it to where one of them didn't cough or sneeze every time they inhaled, and it took time for Itachi to become familiar enough with his surroundings that he didn't bump into the furniture every time he moved from room to room.
"How can you read if you can barely make out the kanji?"
The voice of the girl who had been assigned to "watch" him when Sasuke wasn't around piped up at what was probably the other side of the room. It made a morbid sort of sense, Itachi mused, that the Hokage found it necessary to assign a sort of bodyguard to him while he stayed in Konoha.
She wasn't a particularly talkative girl; Itachi couldn't make out her face, but he could read, like the kanji that only showed up as blurred outlines, the tenseness in her body that indicated that she didn't really want to be there.
"I can feel the shapes with my hands." She didn't say anything to Itachi's quiet, obscure answer, but he could feel her dubiousness sending off waves from the other side of the room.
She didn't say another word, and left the moment the front door slammed and Sasuke came back.
"Who gave you that necklace?"
Tenten's voice (Itachi had recently learned her name) intruded upon his thoughts somewhat unpleasantly. Unpleasant because of the question she asked.
Sasuke was gone again; he was gone a little more than Itachi would have liked, but it was an encouraging sign to him that the village trusted his brother enough to send him on missions.
Even if Itachi could see clearly, he doubted the same would have been said of him.
The shirt she was wearing was blue; colors were still clear to him. As far as he could tell, her hair and eyes were dark, if not black.
But he wasn't looking at her. Itachi was focusing his attention on the metal necklace at his throat, fingering it with a strange, dull sort of pain that he had not felt in years.
"I was engaged."
"What happened to her?"
"I killed her."
Sasuke had asked the same question once. He had been surprised by Itachi's answer, even if he didn't show it. But this girl…she wasn't surprised at all.
And that, more than anything, made Itachi feel strangely sick.
Tenten found the Uchiha compound to be like a tomb. It was eerily quiet, all but empty, and when she wasn't looking she was sure ghosts rose up behind her and beckoned eerily.
And its two living occupants were hardly any better. Sasuke (whom Tenten was convinced she was in an obscure sort of rivalry with, though over what she had no idea) was near-silent and spent almost all of his time on missions or training; he might as well have not lived there at all. And Itachi…
She didn't know where to begin with him. For one thing, he was much…milder than she had expected a man of his fearsome reputation to be, even after the truth about the whole sorry matter had come out. She had deliberately been trying to get a reaction out of him the whole time she'd been around him, but he never seemed to take offense to anything she said.
For Itachi's dimming sight, Tenten could feel some pity. It had to be hard for a shinobi to realize that in some way his life was over, and at such a young age too. But he clearly didn't want any pity, so she didn't express it.
But where was that infuriating man?
Even when he had to walk slowly to keep from running headlong into the household furniture, Itachi was incredibly quiet when he moved. Great, I can't believe I've actually lost the Uchiha; Hokage-sama's gonna kill me.
Finally, Tenten found him. He was standing in the middle of a sunlit hallway, silent and stiff. Tenten frowned; she knew that stance, had seen it in many shinobi. She'd have to move carefully.
Then she was drawn to what he was holding in his hands. Itachi held a picture close to his face; his knuckles were white around the frame.
Tenten knew which picture; she'd passed it enough times. It was a family photo, faded and yellowing. When she'd seen it, the first thought to cross her mind was Good thing they don't take after their father. Then, Sasuke looked so cute as a kid; who'd have guessed? Finally… Figures he isn't smiling.
A second passed; Itachi clearly wasn't aware of her presence. Then, Tenten sucked in her breath disbelievingly.
A single, slow tear dribbled from the far side of his face, hitting the picture with a 'plink' that seemed resounding.
Tenten mechanically turned around, and headed out in the exact opposite direction. He could stay alone as long as he liked.
It seemed the Uchiha compound wasn't quite as dead as she had thought.
When, later that night, she heard the sounds of someone tossing and turning in their sleep, Tenten knew Itachi wouldn't want her to ask about it.
Apart from Sasuke and Tenten (the small rabble that had followed Sasuke back to Konoha kept away, almost uncomfortably), the only person who ever seemed comfortable journeying into the all-but-deserted Uchiha compound was Uzumaki Naruto.
Naruto, Itachi learned, was Sasuke's old genin teammate, which explained why Sasuke had come rushing to Naruto's rescue so many years ago. If the blond was at all uncomfortable towards Itachi, or if he harbored any ill feelings towards him at all, he didn't show it.
Quite frankly, the irony of the whole thing threatened to take Itachi's breath away.
Sasuke and Naruto were sparring on an Uchiha courtyard training ground; the third exam of the Chunin exams were coming up soon, and both were determined to pass this time.
Itachi had learned a great deal from Tenten's fellow ANBU rookie (he'd just learned that a few minutes ago). He had learned that Sasuke had behaved like an utter brat towards his teammates at first; he had the pleasure of just being able to make out a slight darkening of the skin when he shot a mock glare at his little brother. He'd learned that there was a bizarre sort of love triangle among Team 7, something that he was sure wasn't half as serious as Naruto was making it out to be.
He watched as two blurs went at each other in the hot summer sunlight; frowning in slight frustration, Itachi activated the Sharingan in order to at least get some idea of what was going on.
Naruto's violent red chakra seemed somewhat…subdued. Obviously, the Kyuubi wasn't giving him quite as much as trouble as before. The remainders of the dark chakra that had plagued Sasuke during the time in which he had borne Orochimaru's curse mark still glimmered darkly, but its influence didn't show as prominently as they had before.
Beside him, Tenten panted as she sat; she had gone against both of them earlier in the day to help them train. Itachi could still hear the metal clang of two katana blades clashing, if he listened hard enough.
Abruptly, Naruto and Sasuke both stopped, falling back and gasping heavily. Itachi felt an urge to smile, one he just barely suppressed. If they didn't both do well when the third exam came up, the he would be a very surprised man indeed.
"Can we…get some ice cream?" Naruto panted. "I think there's some in you freezer, right?"
"Ice cream would be good," Tenten agreed.
"Just make sure it isn't iced over," Itachi murmured.
Suddenly, Itachi had the feeling that there were two people giving him very strange looks. "Ice cream ices over?" Naruto asked disbelievingly.
Sasuke coughed uncomfortably. "Uh, niisan? With Naruto and Tenten, ice cream doesn't last long enough to ice over."
"I had a feeling I'd find you here."
As if he had never left, Itachi sat in the exact same place he had three days before. The cheers of the stadium roared in the distance, a dull roar contrasting with the sultry buzz of the summer day.
Itachi heard the slight brush of linen as the younger, smaller woman sat beside him. "Didn't you want to watch the third exam?" Itachi asked quietly, trying to breathe steadily; he was worried, insanely worried as only an older brother could be.
"I did," Tenten agreed; the swish of hair indicated that she was nodding. "But I figured you'd be here, and I didn't want to leave you alone."
"Because you were ordered to watch me?"
A pregnant pause fell between them. Finally, she slowly said, "No", and Itachi knew she wasn't lying. Oddly, that made him feel a little better. She was there because she wanted to be.
"You don't deserve to be left alone, all by yourself." As soon as she said it, Tenten twitched, as though she hadn't meant to say it, and Itachi flinched.
He didn't want sympathy, he told himself, but he found himself touched by that one small gesture.
Silence blanketed the area; even the roar of the arena seemed to fall away, and neither particularly wanted to break it.
"Didn't you want to watch the exam?" Tenten suddenly mimicked his question, awkwardly, uncomfortably.
Itachi didn't answer; the sudden way his muscles stiffened said it all.
Tenten caught on to his worry with an ease that indicated that she was used to dealing with people who sometimes refused to talk. "Sasuke will do fine," she assured him. "Naruto too. I've been watching the way those two fight since they were twelve years old; if they lose, I'll eat my katana, handle and all."
He wasn't reassured; Itachi knew from the start Sasuke and Naruto, whom over time he had come to care for (it wasn't hard; the boy was infectiously cheerful and compassionate), would be alright, no matter who they were set up with during the exam.
Then, Tenten said the last thing he wanted to hear. "You know, you can't stay here forever."
Itachi concentrated on the passage of white woolen clouds passing overhead, even though he couldn't discern one from the other.
"Yes, I am quite aware that people still tend to look at you sideways, but the village is practically deserted right now; everyone's watching the exam. I think it'd do you some good."
She went on. "Besides, you're probably getting tired of only eating rice and pre-packaged foods. I know some good places to get food."
Itachi had to admit, he was starting to feel the effects of so-called "cabin fever", even if it was only a slight disquiet with his unchanging surroundings. But he didn't want to deal with the unfamiliar, especially when he could barely move from room to room in his own home without help.
He stood up, silently. Tenten understood.
Konoha was indeed deserted; Itachi could hear some shop owners and the local town gossips chatting amiably on the periphery, but there were no great crowds moving through like herds of cattle, as he had been used to as a child. It was strangely peaceful.
Having to walk arm in arm with another person, led like a senile old man, because he could barely make out tree from street lamp, was not.
For one thing, Itachi felt like he was at the mercy of the young girl beside him (because he was), and for another (and he was uncomfortable to admit this even to himself), he hadn't been in such close proximity to a young woman in a very long time.
That made him somewhat nervous. Just a little, Itachi told himself. Not much. Well, maybe just a little more than that…
He twitched somewhat when dust hit his face, and he bit back the urge to cough that had been rising on him all day. He had a horrible feeling, that if he coughed, he would see a spray of blood fly from his mouth, and he didn't want to deal with that.
"Hey, we're here." Tenten gently tugged on his sleeve, helping him into a chair. She called for two plates of sesame dumplings cheerfully, and fell silent.
Once again, Itachi wished his eyesight had not deteriorated so badly, so he could at least see the expression on her face and know what to say. Tenten, like him, tended to fall to discomfited silences, fidgeting self-consciously and waiting for something to break the quiet.
Eventually, the dumplings came, and their warm taste made Itachi realize just how long he had gone without a proper meal, and how bland pre-packaged foods really were.
"They're good, aren't they?" He could guess that she was smiling. He could guess, but he couldn't tell for sure.
That was something else threatening to drive Itachi to distraction. He couldn't see the looks on people's faces when they spoke; he wanted to see a smile, one last time, before his sight faded entirely.
Again, the urge to cough was almost overwhelming; while Tenten turned away momentarily, he rubbed his head.
"Tenten!" A voice from outside the booth called; a male voice, exhilarated.
"Lee? Hinata? What are you both doing here? I thought you'd be at the exams!" Her voice was a mixed inflection of surprise and pleasure; to his own shock, Itachi found it rather pleasant.
Two figures slid into the booth, one on Tenten's left and the other on Itachi's right. The young man, Lee, was clad entirely in green, it seemed; Itachi was reminded irresistibly of one of the jonin he had fought when he had first come back to Konoha a little over four years ago.
The figure who sat by him was, as far as he could tell, female, a woman with a cloud of dark hair. Beyond that, nothing.
"Yes, Hinata-san and I did wish to attend, but when we heard that you would not we decided to give you company. When we could not find you in your apartment or the Uchiha compound, we went out to look for you."
Tenten shifted in her seat. "Lee, can I talk to you? There's a vending machine nearby; we need to get water anyway."
"Yes, of course."
They slipped away, and Itachi was left with the girl named Hinata. She too, was very quiet, and sat twiddling with her hands for a few moments, her hair falling over her face. Then, unexpectedly, she began to speak.
"How are you, Itachi-san?" Her voice was soft and quiet, somewhat hesitant almost as though the words did not come easily to her lips.
Politeness demanded an answer. "Well." It was a lie, but explaining how he truly felt would be somewhat more difficult.
She seemed content with this for a while. Itachi had long since abandoned his lunch, and found himself thinking with longing of when Tenten would return, if for no other reason than filling the air with talk again.
Hinata seemed to know who was on his mind. "Tenten-neesan has told me much about you."
Itachi snorted, ignoring the fact that the girl had just called Tenten 'neesan', and the closeness it implied. "None of it good, I'm sure."
A gentle reproach rose to her lips. "Actually, from what she has told me, I am led to believe that you are not nearly so black as you have been painted."
Itachi began to feel unaccountably light-headed.
After a talk to either confirm or deny the rumor Lee and Hinata were dating (Tenten had been listening to the rumor mill fairly hard lately, just in case she picked up any news of a planned attack on the man she was supposed to be watching), Tenten and her teammate started to return to the booth, four water bottles in hand.
What she saw made Tenten shove her water bottles into Lee's arms.
Itachi seemed to be in the process of hacking up a lung, coughing like a man who was choking, and drastically. Hinata was patting his back feverishly, her face white as a sheet with fear and bewilderment.
Sasuke warned me about this… Tenten ran up to the booth, just in time to catch the coughing man before he fell off his chair altogether.
"Oh my God, I'm sorry," she stammered, mortified. "Sasuke told me you had been ill for a while; I shouldn't have—"
"I'm…fine," Itachi managed to choke out. His clouding, paling eyes met her own still bright brown ones, and Tenten could see the lie hidden within them.
"Like hell," she muttered, slinging an arm around her shoulder. Itachi, for himself, found that he now needed her help not only to walk but to stand as well.
Tenten turned her attention to Lee, who gladly accepted his wordless offering of a water bottle. She was probably going to need it later. "Lee, Hinata, I'm sorry, I've gotta go, since someone seems to have decided to start dying on me." Itachi shuddered at the word 'dying', and whatever she said, Tenten fervently hoped there wasn't anything seriously wrong with him. "I'll see you later."
The two made a slow walk back to the Uchiha compound, Itachi coughing, Tenten worrying, and the crowd in the far-off arena cheering their hearts out.
When Sasuke strode back into the house, Naruto close behind, it was clear that either Lee, Hinata, or both had intercepted him on the way home. He was absolutely white-lipped.
"Do you need to have a medic look at you?" he brusquely demanded, not bothering to knock, say hello, say how the match had gone, or anything.
"I'm fine." Itachi tried to wave him off; he was more interested in hearing how Sasuke and Naruto had done.
"Seriously, Itachi, if you're sick, you need to get treated," Naruto interjected. In the background, Tenten shrugged helplessly; to her frustration and grief, she had been having the same argument with him for more than half an hour.
"How did you and Naruto-kun do at the exams?" Itachi asked hoarsely.
Sasuke folded his arms impatiently. "We were both promoted, but what does that have to do—
Itachi felt the suggestion of a smile form on his face. He crooked a finger towards his brother. "Sasuke, come here."
He crossed the room. "Now lean down."
Sasuke did, and when Itachi saw his moment to strike, he did. He jabbed Sasuke in the forehead.
Sasuke fell back, looking highly affronted (1), and Itachi did not see his teenage brother, but rather the petulant eight-year-old who had sulked because Itachi couldn't help him at shuriken practice. Tenten burst out laughing. Naruto was absolutely confused. "What—"
"Sasuke, when I was first examined by a medic upon returning, I was told that as long as I did not activate the Mangekyo Sharingan again, my eyesight would no suffer no further deterioration, and that, over time, my overall health improve, if slowly. You have nothing to worry about; I have not coughed up blood in some time."
Then Itachi closed his eyes, his face crinkling upwards in a smile, and Tenten couldn't help but marvel at how much his face softened when he smiled. "I am very proud of you both; I knew you would do well."
With his failing eyes, Itachi could just barely see the implication of a reluctant smile spread over Sasuke's face, but the warmth it inspired in him would have made even the deepest winter snow drift melt.
After the day of the third exam, Tenten was gone for two days. She had left no notice, no warning, and Itachi could only guess where she was.
Then, one afternoon, he was alerted to the sound of metal hitting wood in the courtyard training ground. Carefully making his way through the room (the jab the table provided when he walked into it had left a dark bruise on his thigh for four days the last time) to the outside, he soon saw where the noise was coming from.
Tenten, it seemed, was back. From what he could tell, she was attacking the wood target with a furiousness rarely seen; kunai and shuriken constantly whizzed past his face.
Almost self-consciously, Itachi slipped into the Sharingan, and bit back a gasp as it showed him what his dimming eyes could not.
Naruto had gone on about Tenten's aim before, but until now Itachi hadn't realized that the blond was being serious when he said that Tenten's aim was 100% accurate. He watched as every single weapon was guarded to its target with deadly accuracy, watched as he saw where in the kill zone they would hit before they actually did.
Suddenly, Sasuke, who was leaving to go on a mission, appeared at his shoulder. "I used to watch her as she trained when we were all in the academy; she was a year up from me, but she always stayed late, so it wasn't hard. She never misses, niisan, never. They let her practice with shuriken unsupervised at seven."
Tenten stopped abruptly, and Itachi felt a sense of foreboding abruptly spread over him. She was tense as a cat waiting to spring, and her panting breaths, heavy and labored reached his ears.
The only time a shinobi ever flung kunai the way she had was when they were upset, frustrated, or both.
Later, in the dead of night, when Itachi heard the sound of ragged sobbing from the next room, he was not surprised.
The next day found Tenten at the training ground again, but instead sitting on the steps, her shoulders slightly hunched, twirling a kunai in her hand.
Itachi stared sadly at the sight before him before sitting beside her. She was in the ANBU; with his experiences in that organization, he could think of a few things that would be capable of provoking such a reaction in her.
Tenten did not look up when he sat down; she only continued to stare with empty fascination at the facets of the kunai. But she did talk, in a hoarse, raspy voice that bespoke of long empty hours with nothing to do but sob. "Why am I here so much?"
"Because you were ordered to be," he pointed out softly, watching the kunai with some trepidation.
She refuted this assertion with a harsh laugh. "Actually, I wasn't. Hokage-sama went around asking shinobi she could trust to watch you, to make sure no one started to feel the urge to further massacre the Uchiha. I was the only one to accept. This isn't a mission; I'm not being paid to do this."
Itachi would have been lying if he said he was unsurprised; he would have thought…
Tenten's voice and rambling words drove him back to reality. "You know, I've always loved kunai. They're so smooth and sharp, and the way they whistle is really something."
Itachi gave her a long, measured look, not liking where her slightly incoherent, absentminded, trailing words were going. He made a crucial decision. He quickly snatched the kunai out of her hand before she could tighten her grip over it, and tucked it away into his clothes.
This action seemed to sober her, somewhat. "It was my first time," she whispered, the thickness in her voice making the air feel particularly charged.
Itachi raised a hand to grip her shoulder, than dropped it again. "Your first assassination mission?" he asked softly, praying it was only that.
"No." Her voice quavered. Her voice broke. "No. If only…"
With mounting dread, Itachi listened as Tenten related her tale to him. "My senpai and I were sent to a vassal town to the north, where a city official has been abusing his duties. I thought we were just going there to kill him. But we weren't.
"When we got to his house, my senpai and I went into the bedroom of his four-year-old son." Itachi flinched, and for a long, hard moment closed his eyes, because he knew what was coming next. "My senpai thrust a syringe into my hand, and told me to inject it into the middle of the boy's chest." She shuddered, long and hard.
"The boy woke up. He didn't scream. He couldn't scream. The liquid was a drug meant to depress muscle function until suffocation and cardiac arrest took place. All throughout, he was conscious, his eyes open." She stopped; the abject horror reached Itachi, and he remembered another dark summer's night, eight years ago. "His eyes…his eyes were so blue."
So…Her first time killing a child.
"You know, I've seen the pictures." Itachi stiffened. "The children…they didn't have a scratch on them."
He looked at her in horror. "I smothered them," Itachi choked out. "I couldn't bear…" I couldn't bear to watch their faces as I killed them, so I held pillows over them so they wouldn't feel any pain.
For a moment, Itachi's eyes cleared, and he saw… He saw her face, white and twisted in agony, her huge brown eyes glittering blindingly (Oh, blindness, he thought ruefully. What is blindness of this sort for one who can not see?) with unshed tears, and though her face anything but composed, it was nothing if not beautiful. Itachi felt his composure shatter, and knew that there was now a look of torment on his face to match hers.
"Does it… Does it ever get any better?"
Itachi could only answer with one word, though there were many more, true but cruel words he could have told her. But he couldn't bear to treat her with cruelty when she showed herself to be so vulnerable; she was on the verge of breaking, and Itachi wouldn't be the one responsible for someone breaking. Not again. Never again. "No," he whispered hoarsely, his horror only rising. "No."
A harsh, strangled sob escaped from her lips. She pressed her thin, broken, shaking body against his for some sort of solace, now sobbing uncontrollably, and Itachi could only awkwardly slip an arm around her shoulders in a vain attempt to comfort as she wailed and wailed and wailed.
Itachi wasn't sure when Tenten took up permanent residence in the Uchiha compound. With Naruto, it was definitely when Itachi had realized the horrible conditions he lived in, and had quietly but firmly demanded that he move his things to the Uchiha compound, where there was more than enough room for a few more.
Naruto's boisterous antics and inherent good cheer had brought a sort of light to the Uchiha compound. Tenten's presence brought light of another kind.
Neither Itachi nor Tenten ever brought up that day on the training ground; it was like some sort of secret shame, yet Itachi liked to think that they understood each other a little better now. Tenten wasn't nearly so tense and wound up like a straining spring as she had been before, and Itachi got the feeling that she was possibly happier; her voice didn't hit dark tones as often anymore.
Naruto, Tenten and Sasuke were finished training for the day, sitting shoulder to shoulder against the wall. Itachi perched nearby; he was rarely far from their company.
Then, Tenten began to talk. The afternoon sky was beginning to show to Itachi's sight a blur of red and gold; shadows fell like fluctuating spirits across the pathways covered by tiled awnings.
Her voice was going somewhere distant and faraway; it took on a lazy, settled tone. She spoke of a far away land, beyond the rolling emerald hills to the west and even beyond the narrow sea. It was the land where her mother's family had originated from, she said dreamily. She spoke of times of peace and times of war, of fantastical sights and Itachi was quite sure that even Sasuke had fallen spellbound to her masterful tale-weaving.
"I'm going to go back there some day."
As they all moved to go inside, he motioned her aside. "What is it?"
"It's an interesting dream," Itachi started.
"It's more than just a dream to me," Tenten said fervently. "When I was a child, I dreamed of that place, and there were times when that dream was the only thing I had to live for. I won't let it die."
Itachi couldn't help but pass her a sad smile. "I had a dream once."
"It was of peace. I had to let it die. But," he murmured, "I think you may still have a chance to live out yours."
Itachi was shocked when a thin pair of arms snaked around his neck, and even more shocked to feel the soft pressure of lips against his cheek. Warm hair, a little coarse for a woman's, tickled his skin.
"Thank you." Her voice thrummed with gratefulness, before she disappeared within the threshold of the now much fuller house.
Bemused, Itachi let himself think that maybe not all dreams should be allowed to die with old age and despair, and that the blind man's sight maybe saw far more than those who only saw the world with their eyes.
1: Sweet sixteen? Just take the terrible two's, multiply by eight, and add a driver's license. Or, in Sasuke's case, chunin status.
Hope you enjoyed.