Shikamaru stumbled, because fuck, he was tired. Four days of nearly non-stop traveling, and now this. Out of sight, he heard Shino curse. Shikamaru couldn't spare a moment to worry over the uncharacteristic reaction, though; his stumble had nearly cost him his life.

Not that it mattered. His life was forfeit anyway. It was only a matter of time, and the longer the better. His plan hinged on living long enough for Kiba to reach Naruto and Motoko-sempai to reach Konoha. It hinged on he and Shino holding off the two nuke-nins so that Konoha could be reported to about the urgent outcome of their mission and Team Kakashi be forewarned that Akatsuki was coming their way.

Shino hadn't argued. All of them knew what his plan meant, but Shikamaru hadn't seen any other way. If he could have, Shikamaru would have only sacrificed himself, but there was no way he could hold off both of them. Shino was the only one of them that could fight Kisame with any aptitude, and Shikamaru was the only one smart enough to even begin to match Itachi.

As if it was any match at all; in skills, maybe, in strategy, definitely, in stamina and strength? Not a chance. Itachi's chakra reserves were far greater than Shikamaru's, and both knew it. Even as the Chunin did everything he could to compensate, did everything possible to make the fight about intelligence and not strength, Itachi wasn't pulling any punches. The Uchiha knew he did not have the time to indulge in a fight. He was out to kill Shikamaru, and then Kiba before Naruto was warned, and then probably Team Kakashi when they got in his way.

Shikamaru sprung another trap and back flipped out of reach, almost twisting his ankle in his landing because it was damn hard to fight blindfolded. He sensed Itachi's counter move and sprung to the side, altering his trajectory abruptly to avoid slamming into a tree. He then jumped up, threw a shurinken, avoided a blast of fire, and dropped down into the ground. Earth-style was hardly his specialty, but for this fight he was pulling out everything he'd ever had the misfortune to learn.

Shikamaru traveled underground setting more traps, taking his time in hopes to regain chakra that was waning, both from the fight and his extended use of his chakra senses to compensate for being blind. His injuries from the battle with Rock three days ago were hardly healed, and the stab wound in his hip from Itachi was fatal (and painful as hell) considering the acrobatics he'd been pulling to stay out of the man's reach– a lesson he'd learned because of said injury.

There was always the possibility that Itachi would just take this opportunity and leave, but he had to know that if he didn't at least incapacitate Shikamaru, he would be right there fighting him again. Itachi must also believe that Shikamaru had prepared for that possibility, as he'd prepared for everything else; though Shikamaru himself wasn't planning to spring that particular trap until after he died, to give Kiba just a few extra minutes before he had Itachi at his back.

Speaking of, by calculating how far Kiba and Akamaru would have gotten by now on soldier pills, how much further until he reached Team Kakashi's position, and Itachi's greatest possible speed based on what he'd seen of Sasuke, Shikamaru figured that he'd have to keep Itachi occupied another ten minutes at least for it to be too late to catch Kiba, and fifteen to give Naruto enough warning to really matter. The young genius wondered idly if Motoko-sempai had run into that Rock team on her way back to the village like they'd been worried about before this had happened. Shikamaru wondered if she was dead.

Itachi's hand burst into the ground and seized him by the hair, pulling him up forcefully. Shikamaru's blindfold was yanked off even as the hand holding his ponytail became acquainted with his kunai, severing the nerve at the wrist where a less awkward hit to the inner elbow would have left his opponent with the ability to still use the hand. Itachi dropped him just as Shikamaru felt the urge to open his eyes, and he sprinted to the side as he removed the forehead protector from his arm and tied it over his face.

"Fuck this." He muttered, and invented a shadow jutsu on the spot. Darkness leaked from every shadow in an eight yard radius and rose up to turn day into the pitch blackness of a moonless night. He was tired of being the only one fighting blind, especially against an opponent whose specialty was doujutsu. He'd bemoaned the fact that he didn't know any mist jutsu's early on in the fight, and this, finally, was the solution.

If he didn't have an answer, then make one. That was Shikamaru's philosophy. (Well, the most serious one, anyway.) It was really too bad that he'd just figured out he could do that on the fly, not sitting and thinking and practicing, because it would have really come in handy several times over by now in this fight alone. Shikamaru began the process of figuring out how to perform the three most critical jutsus– the ones he determined would give him the greatest edge in the fight– even as he triggered another trap and finished the hand signs for a wind jutsu that he hoped would eviscerate his opponent. It didn't, of course. Shikamaru hadn't really expected it to.

Then Itachi did something extremely strange. He began to speak.

"You see it, don't you?" Shikamaru paused, tensing, and took half a second's time to calculate how the hell to respond to that.

"See what?" Itachi was talking to him. Voluntarily. Yeah, that was weird. But Shikamaru would take whatever he could to eat up time, and if that meant having a conversation with an S-classed missing-nin and criminal, then he would.

"The rot." Itachi answered.

Shikamaru froze. He stopped breathing for almost two seconds, before he forced his body to continue functioning. But it was too late. Itachi would have heard. Two seconds was far too long a time to have slipped past the genius' notice. Itachi shifted, and Shikamaru used the potential threat to steady himself.

"You do see it. I knew it."

"And if I do?" Shikamaru said, suddenly defensive. He'd didn't call it rot, but he knew exactly what the Uchiha meant. "If I see the rot you're talking about, what then?"

"Then you have a choice."

That was it. The moment the last word left Itachi's lips he attacked, and Shikamaru spent the next few minutes trying desperately to keep from being killed. It really wasn't a fight anymore. It hadn't been for a long time. It was only desperation and fear and annoyance and anticipation and so many other things that didn't matter anymore.

Something had shifted in the other ninja's demeanor, though. Shikamaru wasn't sure whether it was the darkness they were now fighting in or the conversation, but something had definitely changed. Without the ability to see any body language, Shikamaru was at a loss as to what the change was.

'What choice?' That couldn't be it. There had to be more. Why would Uchiha Itachi say that to him, and only that? What did it mean? 'What choice?'

Itachi hit him head on with some kind of water jutsu– 'Where the hell did this water come from?'– and he went flying backwards. Shikamaru used a hand to help halt his momentum, panting hard and approaching total exhaustion. He winced when the ground pulled one of his fingernails partially off, and threw a shuriken to deflect a kunai.

"What do you mean?" Shikamaru demanded as soon as he could. "What choice?"

"The choice of whether or not you're going to do something about it."

"Do something about it?" Shikamaru echoed in terrified shock. "Are you saying that's what slaughtering your clan was about? The rot?"

"No. I killed my clan for many reasons, but that was not one of them. In the end, my choice was to do nothing."

The nuke-nin's monotone shook Shikamaru deeper than anything else had. 'Nothing? Massacring his clan and becoming a member of Akatsuki, that was doing nothing?' With a lurch, Shikamaru realized what Itachi wasn't saying, what the Uchiha meant.

"You're lying." His tone wasn't accusing or desperate. Itachi was, simply, lying. Mendoukusai.

"Yes. Do you what about?" Shikamaru knew. He wished he didn't, but he knew what the lie was and, more importantly, what wasn't.

"The reason you massacred your clan. There wasn't one." And Itachi really had done nothing, nothing at all. Shikamaru was observing the result of doing nothing, when nothing was all that could be done. A cold feeling settled in his stomach.

"Yes, very good. It seems you're as intelligent as I thought." Shikamaru squeezed one hand into a fist and hissed as pain from his torn fingernail burned. He understood now why removing fingernails were a form of torture. It hurt worse than the stab wound in his hip or his partially healed broken ribs or the gash down his arm or his fucking heart because he'd killed Shino, damn-it, and–

"It's a pity you haven't trained your body. If your chakra were stronger you might have had more of a chance against me. You might have been able to save them." There was a hand suddenly around his throat, lifting him up on his toes, and Shikamaru choked in horrified surprise. 'How did he sneak up on me? I knew where he was, I was keeping track of him. No, he's still right where he was a moment ago. Then who . . . ?'

"I've got your Chunin brat, Itachi." A harsh, low voice said in his ear. It wasn't Itachi that held Shikamaru's breath in their hand, it was Kisame. He should have known that from the start: by the hand's size, the temperature, by the calluses; kunai calluses versus sword calluses. He should have known the difference immediately. He should have noticed Kisame coming up behind him. He should have felt it when Shino died.

But he hadn't.

Shikamaru was at his limit and it still wasn't enough time. Kiba would get to Naruto and then, two and a half minutes later, Itachi would as well. That was assuming Shikamaru's dead man's trap caught him and detained him for three minutes and eight seconds, and that the effects of it would slow Itachi's speed by another two percent. It didn't take Kisame into account at all. Shikamaru didn't know enough to calculate the blue skinned missing-nin with any accuracy. He only knew that Itachi had the greater speed.

"It's about time." Itachi told his partner.

"Hey, that other Chunin didn't have any chakra. And he used freaky chakra eating bugs on me. I'm not going to be able to keep up with you at all."

"An Aburame. How unfortunate. Clever planning on this one's part. He's definitely the squad leader." Shikamaru dug the fingernails of his good hand into the large one wrapped around his neck and tried desperately to breathe. He felt his new shadow jutsu fade as he started seeing spots. Itachi made a noise of approval and walked their way.

Shikamaru didn't pounce as soon as the missing-nin was in range. He waited as long as possible in the hope that his attack would be more effective. When he finally did something he felt Kisame's surprise in the movements of the body behind him.

"What the hell?" Shikamaru felt a fierce surge of victory at the small sound of pained surprise Itachi uttered. Then Kisame's words became choked with blood, but to Shikamaru's disappointment he wasn't released. "Fuck!" Kisame managed. "Fuck, Itachi, the little shit got me with something."

"So I see. He managed to get me as well." 'But where? I need to know where!'

"What the hell was that?"

"A shadow jutsu. The second one he's used, if I'm correct, though the first I've never seen before. You must be a Nara, then, Chunin." Any sort of pain was absent from Itachi's voice. Frustrated and slightly panicked, Shikamaru knew he had to try something else. 'He knows my clan name!' But Shikamaru couldn't think about that now. He didn't know where he'd hit Itachi with his shadows, but if it was the upper torso then the shot was useless, the criminal would still be able to run at above eighty-five percent capacity. 'My chakra's too low for this.' But he'd managed to keep his mastery of shadow jutsu a secret this long; maybe, with surprise . . .

Yes. He'd snared the elder Uchiha. He was low on chakra and the other was certain to figure a way out of the jutsu in less than two minutes, but Shikamaru didn't need that long. He went limp in Kisame's hand, and used the blue-skinned Akatsuki member's surprise to mime retrieving a kunai from where Itachi kept his– and Shikamaru no longer had any– and fake stab himself in the femoral artery. Then Shikamaru lost his hold on the other as the last of his chakra drained away.

He would have gone for the jugular, but that took more skill than he could manage without sight or direct access to his own neck. As it was, he doubted he'd actually hit the femoral without a solid weapon in his hand.

Shikamaru smelt blood. Everything was still for several moments, and then Itachi started walking again. So he'd missed the femoral, and he hadn't managed to kill his opponent, but Itachi was definitely limping. Running capability down at least forty percent. More, if my first shot hit him low. That gave Kiba and Naruto enough time. He'd done it.

"Yes, a Nara. You've managed to impress me, Chunin Nara of Konoha. For that, I will leave you with a gift." Cool, slender fingers touched his forehead and slid beneath the cloth obscuring his eyes. Itachi pulled the forehead protector off in a single motion, and Shikamaru didn't bother trying to keep his eyes closed. He had nothing left to fight with, and he'd accomplished his mission. As the blind came off, he opened his eyes and looked directly at his opponent.

Red eyes looked back at him, and the world tilted.


Right. So I've had this sitting on my hard drive for ages. It went through many stages of revisions, but mostly I'm dying to make it into a chaptered story, except I have no idea how or what I would want to do with it. So, inevitably, I've decided to leave it as a short story. Sorry, but that's the way it is for the foreseeable future. I don't own Naruto, its characters, or its affiliates, and am not gaining any profit by writing or posting this work of fanfiction. Thank you.

—TS