Note: Life is kicking my butt. But, thankfully, not enough for me to abandon my remaining fics. |D Last chapter of The Hazards of Amity is coming. Bear with me and please enjoy this in the meanwhile. Reviews are therapeutic love. :D
He was dreaming in monochrome.
It was a long-forgotten crux from childhood, when the shades of grey and black had first crept into his dreams from the Shinobi War. A coping mechanism, the doctors had told his mother. A way of the mind tricking itself into feeling better.
He hadn't dreamt like this in a decade. It was frighteningly lucid. Startlingly cold. The infirmary appeared soundless, as frigid and grey as the steel behind him. He sat on the floor, against the legs of the table. Despite the illusive sterility, all around him was the smell of bleach, blood and sick.
It began slow. A thin, dark stream of water crept across the floor in front of him. Slowly, other rivulets joined in, pouring from some scattered source into a collective pool in the centre of the room. He tried to pull back and found his limbs unresponsive. The dark water saturated his clothes and stained his skin, abrasively cold.
He flinched. Tried to wake.
It rose abruptly, gushing against his sides. Nobody but him seemed to be in the room. He managed to raise an arm and grasped the corner of the table, straining to pull himself up. The torrent of dark water was at his chest, wrenching the air from his lungs.
It's just water, darling. Just water.
His mother's voice, distant and sweet, desperately lying to make the tears stop. He couldn't believe in the words like he'd used to, knowing the truth when the liquid leeched into his mouth and tasted like metal.
He would not wake till he drowned in it. There would be no sweet, lying voices to bring him out of it this time.
He tilted his head up, drawing shallow breaths as the liquid swallowed him, lapping at the corners of his mouth.
"Wake him up—"
It rose higher, up to his temples, encompassing his vision till it split the room into white ceiling and black water. He squinted, eyes brimming with it—
"Hey, calm down—"
He inhaled and felt his lungs collapse, as real and as painful as his subconscious could make it. A pair of arms seized him and held him down.
The arms restrained him and he drowned, succumbing to the deluge. Through the mist of evaporating sleep, he felt real pain. The tight grip of the arms holding him down. His wound and limbs throbbing where he'd thrashed into things.
It's just water, darling.
There was no comfort to be derived from those words.
He stopped moving and felt the arms slacken their hold slightly. The dream dissolved and he started to wake. A heavy sigh sounded somewhere to the left of him.
"Take it easy now..."
Another voice drifted through the fog. Recent, tired, and real.
Take it easy, Konoha.
He opened his eyes to the sight of a weary medic-nin and an anxious Sasuke leaning over him.
A tremulous hand came to rest upon his brow. He blinked and raised his eyes, seeing fear and relief in his brother's features. He recognised the hand upon his brow as Sasuke's and felt himself go limp, sinking back onto the table.
The medic-nin spoke in a murmur to Sasuke and was soon injecting something into his IV. Itachi didn't speak, staring blankly at the infirmary and the rows of injured. Before the medicine could take effect, he let his eyes drift to the corner of the room.
The curtained area remained empty and isolated. No one stood before it and no shadows moved beneath the drapes. The blood had been wiped clean from the floor.
He stared at it until his eyes drifted closed again.
The Fourth Shinobi War ended sometime before he woke.
It may have ended sooner. The announcement hadn't been made with fanfare, nor had it been official. Instead, when the stream of injured tapered off and the Kazekage became a constant, hovering presence inside the infirmary, the injured shinobi pieced together their own conclusion.
There was a brief, tentative celebration—made in the ways of shaky smiles and scattered clapping. But there was an air of stillness. A heavy, bewildered sort of silence.
It was the air of a nation who'd won, but just barely, with a victory that could hardly be called as such for all the loss and agony sustained to achieve it.
Itachi estimated he'd been asleep for what may have been a few days. He'd woken to the sight of Sasuke laid out in the bed next to him, unconscious. His little brother had managed to escape injury for the most part but had finally collapsed in the field from sheer chakra exhaustion.
On the other side of the room, the Kazekage and his brother drifted in and out of the infirmary, visiting the injured but spending most of their time in the curtained room.
Supplies and donations trickled in from the surrounding villages. They were finally able to change out of their filthy, torn uniforms into pristine white hospital gowns. No news was given about the affairs in the outside world. The Kazekage seemed to intend to keep it that way.
His reasons were understandable. Though fleeting, the spell of obliviousness was its own sort of balm. Injured shinobi slowly began recuperating, wandering the rows of the infirmary in their clean gowns with optimistic thoughts to fuel their recovery. It was a surreal experience; a pleasant, strange state of limbo.
The limited number of medic-nin meant a more rudimentary means to healing. Sasuke did not wake for two days, and when he did, it was only with enough strength to limp to the bathroom and back before he collapsed back into bed.
Itachi's wound still pained him and occasionally bled, requiring a change in wrapping two or three times a day. It left him watching the surrounding developments from his bed, including the pile of gifts, flowers, and sweets amassing outside of the curtained room.
He'd been asleep when she finally emerged, nearly one week after she'd been admitted. The small commotion and celebratory cheer that had gone up on the other side of the room had been enough to rouse him. He'd opened his eyes but hadn't moved, opting for listening to the elation of her subordinates and dwelling on the quiet swell of relief spreading through his chest.
She'd disappeared back into her room by the time he'd woken the second time. He'd spent the remainder of the day following her example, easing himself out of bed and working the blood back into his limbs as Sasuke slept on nearby.
His first destination had been the window and he practised getting in and out of bed until he was well enough to stand and walk there without difficulty.
He decided to attempt it the next day, waking to a jubilant atmosphere and the sight of the others looking preoccupied with something on the other side of the room. Glad of their distraction, he eased his weight out of bed, clenching his jaw when his legs trembled. Gripping the edge of the table, he pushed off of it and started towards the window on the opposite side of the room.
By the time he reached it, he needed to hold onto the surrounding tables to keep his legs from crumpling beneath his weight. Gingerly, he leaned forward and looked out the window.
The sunlight sent pain throbbing through his eyes. He closed them briefly, allowing the pangs to cease before opening them again. He found himself gazing out at a fenced playground and what looked like a sandbox in the distance. Immediately outside the window, chain-link fences enclosed a concrete courtyard and a playing field.
They were in an elementary school.
He looked out at the scenery a little longer before continuing on, deciding to make a lap around the perimeter of the infirmary. He paused at each window, scoping the grounds and absorbing the sunlight as some of the others began filing back to their beds.
They paid him no heed, talking amongst themselves and sounding noticeably upbeat.
He paid no attention in return, keen on avoiding direct contact. Alliances and enmities had changed in the wake of the war, but he was not willing to risk identification. Not just yet.
Gradually, he made his way to the opposite corner of the infirmary, slowing his steps when he noticed his proximity to the curtained room. The drapes were drawn. No sounds or movements issued from within.
He stood there a little longer before deciding to pass by. He skirted around it, brushing past the drawn curtains. The contact disturbed the fabric, parting it just enough to let a crack of light into the room. His eyes flitted there of their own accord, stilling on the sight of the empty bed before the curtain drifted back into place.
He stopped at the sound of the voice. When no other words were forthcoming, he turned around.
Temari stood behind him in an identical white gown, holding a red gift box in her hands. A bandage had been wrapped around her forehead and her hair was loose, hiding some of the bruising on her cheek.
She looked up at him curiously, appearing much younger and deceptively fragile without her uniform and forehead protector.
"Did I miss you?" she inquired.
He remained silent, not understanding.
She seemed to take his silence as a negative and glanced down at whatever remained in the box. Then she pursed her lips, shrugged, and held it out.
"Everybody else got some already. Just take whatever's left."
From the corner of his eye, he saw one of the nearby jounin holding one of the items she'd distributed from the box. Chocolate.
Taking it seemed the fastest and easiest way to end the encounter without arousing suspicion. He reached out and accepted it from her, eyes travelling from her hand up the length of her forearm where the skin was bruised and mottled at her elbow. The marks of the needles were still visible.
It was only a second, but it was all she needed to take a closer look and tilt her head to the side. "Do I know you?"
Before he could speak, a quiet voice interrupted from behind.
They turned and found the Kazekage standing there, watching them with an inscrutable look on his face. The boy's eyes stayed focused on Temari, resolutely ignoring the figure standing near her.
"I need to see you," he said.
Temari blinked and moved towards him, oblivious to the silent look of warning her younger brother aimed at the man behind her. Itachi said nothing, watching them until they departed through the double doors.
The noise of talking voices crept back into the room, slowly making him aware of the fact that he suddenly felt very tired. He looked at the red box in his hands, tilting it forward. Three foil-wrapped chocolates slid to the bottom, reflecting the fluorescent lights overhead.
The sight of them made him feel incredibly heavy.
Slowly, he turned and tucked them under his arm, making his way back to his bed. The box found a place beside the IV stand, garish against the white and grey backdrop of linens and tubing. He sank into his bed, weary.
The sun shone bright and vivid through the window across the room, glaring against his skin. He closed his eyes and turned his face into the sheets to block it out, not opening them again until the light subsided into late afternoon.
The gentle tinkling of the lunch bell brought him out of his reverie. Voices and carts wheeled past his bed. The mild smell of rice and lentils filled the air. It felt cloying beneath the sheets and he forced himself to sit up, eyes closing tightly at the ensuing blaze of light.
By the time he opened them, a tray of food was resting at the foot of his bed. The others were already reclining or sitting up in their beds, eating.
Against his own volition, he looked away from his food and at the curtained area across the room.
He went still.
She was looking straight at him, sitting up in bed with her food lying untouched in her lap.
This time there was no mistake. He knew she recognized him. But not as the dying shinobi whose life she'd saved. Not as the sick patient she'd aided that night. The cold, shuttered expression on her face ensured that.
After a moment, she looked away and reached for the curtain. With a jerk and rattle, she blocked herself off from the rest of the infirmary.
He stared at it a little longer before taking his food tray and leaning back against the wall. The rice and lentils tasted like nothing. He forced himself to eat it, keeping his gaze trained on the bright, red edge of the box near his IV.
He did not expect she would ever speak to him again.
He wouldn't blame her.
Four or five days passed before Sasuke was able to join him in his laps around the infirmary. His little brother was weak, occasionally stumbling and easily becoming short of breath.
Itachi stuck close to him, watchful and aware of their isolation from the rest of the group.
The others recovered at the same pace, flocking towards Temari who, despite having nearly died, seemed the hardiest of the bunch.
An act, he surmised, to keep their spirits strong while her brothers rallied aid and tried to get the total body count from the war. They continued to receive no news from the outside. Part of him knew many of them were glad to let the state of ignorance persist.
For her part, Temari was making a valiant effort at keeping them occupied. She spoke authoritatively though her voice was hoarse. She led them in simple exercises to get their bodies back into shape even though she could scarcely hide her winces. She was hurting badly.
Sasuke derided her efforts, but Itachi knew his little brother was thinking the same thing he was when she tied another hospital gown around her waist to hide the growing splotch of blood. Her tenacity was admirable.
With more time, more food, and Temari's persistence, they slowly grew strong enough to start venturing outside. One by one, at first, then in groups for those who could bear it, then finally all at once when Temari decided to move their exercise regimen into the courtyard.
Sasuke stayed close to him as they sat apart in the corner of the yard, watching the others form ranks in the centre of the court. Temari emerged from the building wheeling a large crate. It wasn't until she tossed the first of the items and the receiver staggered beneath its weight that they realised it was a medicine ball.
"Archaic," Sasuke muttered, reminded of Rock Lee's training methods. "Like that'll do anything."
"That may be," Itachi said, watching as she sorted the shinobi into two separate lines. "But it's effective."
She handed out the medicine balls until each person in the first row had one. They were too far away to hear what was being said, but they did not miss the way one of the chuunin raised his arm and pointed towards them.
Temari glanced in their direction. Then she picked up another medicine ball and started towards them.
Sasuke glanced at Itachi, wary. Itachi said nothing and merely watched her approach, his face unreadable.
She stopped a couple metres away from them, holding a ball under each arm. It didn't escape Itachi that she kept her gaze focused resolutely on Sasuke.
"Noticed you haven't been participating," she said. "Training will help you get back on your feet."
Sasuke eyed her carefully before speaking.
"Really," she said, voice flat. Her fingers drummed against the ball. "You saying you're back to full strength?"
Sasuke narrowed his eyes but refrained from retorting.
Itachi said nothing, knowing he did not need to tell Sasuke how to behave. His little brother was perfectly aware of the fact that Suna could have his head on a platter for his affiliation with Orochimaru. He liked to think Sasuke had retained enough decency to still feel things like shame and gratitude.
When Sasuke made no reply, Temari made an amused sound and turned away from him. She placed one of the balls on the ground, tossing the remaining one in the air and catching it again. She paused.
He looked at her questioningly.
Sasuke barely had time to raise his arms before the ball hit him in the stomach. It knocked the wind out of him, nearly sending him sprawling onto the concrete. He clutched it to his chest, hardly managing to hold on as he sent a pained glare her way.
She smiled, appearing satisfied when he slowly rose to his feet and gave her a grudging look of acceptance. She nodded and gestured for him to join the rest of the group, watching him limp off before glancing briefly at Itachi.
Her expression grew blank, face unreadable save for the wariness that still shone through. She turned away without saying anything, bending to retrieve the medicine ball.
As she straightened, she saw his shadow rise in her periphery. She glanced back, surprise briefly flitting over her face when she saw him standing, hands by his sides. She walked away without saying anything.
He took it as a tacit invitation and followed.
There were about forty of them in all, split into two lines facing each other. There would be thirty whistle blows in three sets. Ninety reps of pain and tedium to coax their atrophied muscles back to strength.
The first whistle blew, and they threw.
The courtyard was strangely silent save for the shrill bursts of the whistle and the muffled impacts of medicine balls. Their pace was steady and methodical, slowly increasing in intensity as the whistle blows grew shorter in duration.
They rotated the line as they went, changing partners after five throws. Gradually, grunts of pain rent the silence, along with curses as grips slipped and the medicine balls went rolling over the ground.
Itachi kept up, feeling pain and ignoring it. His expression remained unchanged when they shifted the line and he stood across from her in preparation to catch the ball.
In the sunlight, her eye colour was that of green glass. They narrowed at the sight of him, hard and glinting. The whistle blew, and she threw.
He caught it, the impact sending a twinge ricocheting through his wrists. Even weakened, her upper body strength was formidable. He threw it back, using the same force. She caught it, hardly waiting on the whistle blow to fling it back.
He caught it again, feeling another sting run through his nerves.
Three more times, each throw harder than the last, till his muscles ached and something red was blossoming over the pristine white of her gown.
He saw it spreading and heard the whistle blows fade into white noise. It looked stark and visceral, filling his mouth with its taste and his body with the nightmare memories of drowning. His arms throbbed. It was with a strange blend of contrition and wonder that he realised the same blood seeping through her clothes was still rushing through him.
The fourth time, and she was giving him the most withering look she could muster, growing angrier still because the look he was giving back was so clear yet utterly incomprehensible because it said—
you saved my life
—the final whistle blew, and she flung the ball. Hard.
It hit with resounding impact, the shock reverberating all the way to his shoulders. It forced him a step back, leaving his fingers tingling and the healing wound beneath his gown dully throbbing. When the whistle fell silent and the line settled, he slowly resumed his spot.
They were out of breath, some of them on their knees and groaning in pain. Sasuke was sitting on the ground, chest heaving with his head between his knees.
The balls lay scattered and forgotten around them. Temari stood motionless, halfway realising she was supposed to be ordering a clean-up when her world swayed and blood ran down the length of her leg.
White-faced, she took a step back.
"Take ten," she managed to say.
Then she turned and walked away, disappearing behind the corner of the building.
Itachi dropped the ball and went after her.
The others were too exhausted to take notice or comment. He reached the building and turned the corner a few seconds after her, following the trail of blood and finding her slumped against the brick clutching her side.
His arms were useless, left quaking and weak from exertion, but he reached out to steady her nonetheless. She immediately shoved him back.
He took a step back, watching as she lifted her head and glared up at him. Her breaths came in short gasps, beads of sweat forming on her forehead. When he made to step around the corner of the building to get help, she reached out and seized his wrist.
She was breathing too hard to speak, but the word "don't" spilled soundlessly from her lips. He paused, gaze dropping pointedly to the speckles of blood on the ground. She grimaced, leaning heavily into the wall and sliding down onto the concrete. Her fingers did not loosen around his wrist.
They were cold and trembling with the effort to keep him still. He stared down at her, understanding her intentions, and moved away from the corner of the building.
When she saw that he wasn't about to leave, she released her hold and focused on steadying her breaths and stopping the bleeding. She drew a roll of gauze from the front pocket of her gown, hastily wiping the streaks on her leg and fastening it around the wound beneath the gown. She was only wearing one layer this time, an oversight she was cursing under her breath as the wound bled effortlessly through the fabric.
It ceased, eventually, the red splotch growing dark and matte on the front of the gown. She remained silent and stared at it, touching it as though she could wipe away the evidence. When it became clear that she couldn't hide it, her lips pressed together and she lowered her head in resignation.
He watched her a little longer, saying nothing. Her hands had formed fists by her sides, her silence exuding apprehension. She had two minutes before she had to go back.
Without speaking, he reached up and undid the ties on his hospital gown. She looked up when she heard the shift of fabric, stiffening when she saw him removing it. Wordlessly, he dropped it into her lap, left wearing the older, bloodier gown he'd kept hidden from Sasuke.
Before she could respond, he turned and walked away, cutting across the courtyard and back to the corner where he'd been sitting before. The others loitered around the yard, waiting, and minutes later he watched Temari emerge from behind the building. Her gait was slow and unsteady but her injury was hidden beneath the new gown she'd donned over the first.
She paused upon reaching the others, scanning the group. Then she turned her head in his direction.
He met her gaze for a moment, expressionless, before looking elsewhere. She did the same and did not look back at him again.
Slowly, the sun sank beneath the clouds and a chill permeated the air. Exhausted, they returned to the infirmary. Itachi walked ahead before his brother could catch up and take notice of the bloodstains on his clothes.
He grabbed one of the spare gowns on his way into the infirmary, slipping it on before climbing into his bed. Sasuke entered shortly after, a bewildered look flashing across his face when he found his brother already in bed.
"Are you all right?" he said, eyes flicking over him in concern.
Itachi mustered a faint smile. "Fine. Just tired."
Sasuke nodded and sank into his own bed, weary.
"She said we're running more drills tomorrow," he said, eyes closing and brow furrowing. "Don't see the point..."
"Training will help you recover, Sasuke."
"I wasn't talking about me," he muttered, reaching up to rub his arm. "I was talking about her. Doesn't seem like she needs it."
Itachi stared at him, a closed expression overtaking his features. At the same moment, the head medic dimmed the lights at the front of the room, casting the room into the dark save for the sallow lamplight.
The voices tapered off, most of the shinobi immediately dropping off to sleep. Sasuke, too, fell silent, asleep before he could even bring the covers up over his chest. Itachi waited till he was completely under before sitting up and leaning towards his bed.
He took hold of the covers and pulled them up over his brother's frame. Sasuke slept on, unaware and undisturbed as Itachi sat back, watching him pensively.
They were both recovering, as slow and painful as the process was. The comfort and blissful ignorance of the infirmary walls would only protect them so long. The questions that haunted him about their future crept up from where he'd hidden them, casting lines and shadows across his face.
He was glad Sasuke was not awake to see it. His brother had seen enough. He'd bear it on his own and figure it out, even if at the moment he could find no end in sight.
He tiredly lowered his eyes after a while, remaining at the edge of the bed. Sleep held no allure for him. He'd stay awake as long as his body could bear it, keen to avoid returning to dreams of drowning and black water.
The thought prompted him to look down at the new gown he'd donned. His hand rose to the place where the blood was, resting over the wound. It wasn't until he touched it that he felt the back of his neck prickle.
He raised his head, gaze falling on the bed across the room.
The curtain was partially open, revealing her sitting at the edge of her bed. Her arm was held out to the medic who was taking her blood pressure. She didn't turn or look away when she saw him look up, instead watching him with an expression he couldn't place.
He stared back, finding it strange that he felt nothing at the fact that she'd caught him in a moment of vulnerability. He had nothing left to hide behind, anyway. Structure and presets had crumbled from his life, leaving him battered and raw.
It was a nakedness that reminded him of lying on cold steel, when his heart had varied between skipped beats and thunder as the blood pooled through his fingers. It reminded him of the relief and unconcern he'd felt about facades when his soul had been seeping out of him like smoke-and the only thing he had registered was the pair of teal eyes looking straight through him at his fears lying out in the open.
He felt nothing. It was for that reason he didn't look away until the medic took notice and quickly closed the curtain the rest of the way, whispering an apology on the other side.
He remained where he was for a little while longer, motionless. It wasn't until there was movement in the bed ahead of him that he looked away and saw his brother stir in his sleep. The sight of Sasuke brought him out of his reverie, reminding him of the aches and pains and that he needed rest to stay alive to take care of his brother.
Mechanically, he shifted back until he was lying down and gazing up at the ceiling. Sleep eluded him for a long time, creeping in near dawn with the first trickles of water entering his dream.
He knew what was coming. Repetition never made it bearable. Anticipation only made it worse.
He watched himself watch the water rush in, watched it engulf him and listened to his mother's voice deny what it really was. The fear and the strangling sensation were borne of trying to believe that lie; that the water wouldn't hurt him; that he would wake up unharmed.
It reached his mouth and he stopped listening, readying himself for the mouthful of metal.
There was a lull. A brief pause before the water flooded his mouth.
Take it easy, Konoha.
He blinked through the murk, breath held as the words surrounded him like a fist.
There was no comfort in them. No fallacy to coax him out of the dream. But they were a real and veiled reassurance, acknowledging that it would hurt and he would endure it because dying in fear was no better.
He closed his eyes in acceptance. It wasn't just water. Not just water.
Take it easy, Konoha.
Lips parting, he released his breath and let himself drown.