Uchiha Itachi is beautiful.

Young and beautiful and careworn and his, all his.

Nagato finds it in his body to hope, if not for the lessening of pain, then it easing for a time. Just a moment would be enough. Just a moment.

Pain realises his beauty again at the meeting making Uchiha Itachi's induction official, and it takes a moment for their new member to lower his eyes and kneel as he should, even still bloody with his clan's slaughter.

His ring is Scarlet; his eyes are steady, tomoes quiet in his irises, and when Pain orders that he follow, Itachi does.

Pein does not remember how old Itachi is. It does not matter when he has skin to touch and hair to grip tight, when he has a silence to think in while Itachi fails to respond no matter what he does. It is expected, but it is not required, and Pain takes his satisfaction with grim understanding of the flaking blood that comes away on his palms.

Itachi looks at him and rises when Pain does, reassembling his light armour as though it matters in the face of the fact that he will do all Pain asks of him as long as Madara's plans are uninterrupted. This has nothing to do with those plans; this is all Pain's desires, and Itachi is nothing if not obedient.

"Pain." Konan's gaze is sharp, her hands weary as she shapes flowers, toads, angels. "Madara."

He sits in his office and crosses his ankles. Konan remains on the edge of the desk, continues to fold her voiceless doubts. "It won't interfere."

She hands him a toad, its tongue forked and curling, and rises as God's Angel.

How it began was like this: Itachi was in his room, for one reason or another, some private discussion of means and circumstances. (They are very alike, Itachi and Pain. Very alike.) Nagato was the dominant eye at the time, and Nagato found that he desired him; found that he desired his desire, and thus he summoned Itachi to his side, took his throat in his hand, and said - quite gently, under the circumstances - "What do you obey?"

"The commands of Uchiha Madara," Itachi said.


"Your commands, my leader."

Nagato always appreciated the subtle edge of sarcasm whenever Itachi said that. Some of the others found it irritating, but he liked that Itachi had enough presence of mind to realise that Pain was less a leader and more a goat-herder when it came to Akatsuki. There was no leading goats.

"I want to fuck you," he said. Pain preferred to be blunt. Itachi remained still, but Pain's eyes saw better. "I am not your father. I will not beat you the moment you contemplate disagreement."

"Unhand me."

He let go, his hand falling slack as Itachi stood, and he watched carefully. So carefully that he almost misheard the snap of his cloak, the way bright clouds fell to the floor. But there was no mistaking how Itachi loosened the ribbon of his hair, his forehead protector, and let both fall to the floor, too.

Nagato rose as Itachi moved to his bed, calmly shedding clothes as he went, until he was nude and calmly prone on his blanket, goosebumps rising in the chill. It was enough to incite need, that confident, decisive lack of vulnerability, and Pain abandoned himself to its demands; falling, without quite realising, for this man who saw nothing of pain when Pain's bolts jarred bone and rubbed welts and tore lines of blood in his skin.

Outwardly, nothing has changed. Akatsuki are unruly as ever; Itachi quiets them with a word when his tolerance runs short; Orochimaru laughs and laughs.

Orochimaru does not often laugh, and Pain listens as the two prepare to travel for a Bijuu-mission. "It seems the leader likes you," Orochimaru sing-songs, grinning, tongue winding in the air. "Zetsu saw you coming out of Leader's room yesterday. Said you looked ... very disheveled."

"Is that so?" Itachi's diction is perfect: careless, disinterested, a reply for the sake of routine. Too perfect, and he can see Orochimaru's grin sharpen into something approaching concern. It surprises Pain, though it shouldn't.

"You're so terribly sure of yourself," and it's very definitely a question.

"Let's go."

Orochimaru blocks him at the door. "You realise the least you can do is answer me, Uchiha? Do you know what you're doing?"

"That's two questions," Itachi says.


Itachi looks at him over Orochimaru's shoulder, a flickering glance around the hall that just happens to catch his eyes. "No. Let's go."

Orochimaru grumbles and stands aside, eyes sharp with worry. "I never liked your overconfidence."

"It doesn't matter what you think," Itachi says, and they leave. Pain hides. Pain is very good at hiding.

Hearing him doubt the grace of his God stung.

"Do you enjoy this?" he asks, buried deep, and Itachi looks up at him with clear eyes through the sweat beading on his eyelashes. He is very, very quiet, and it is not the quiet of a ninja trained to habitual silence. This is the quiet of someone avoiding capture, and it makes Pain wonder when and how often Itachi has had sex on missions, to be so expert in not even rustling the sheets when he shivers.

"I do." His voice is also very clear, though soft. "Do you, Leader?"

Pain snorts and drives harder; he is rewarded with the sound of Itachi's lips parting. "I do."

"He's thirteen," Konan announces. "He's thirteen, traumatised, completely under Madara's control, and you think fucking him is a good idea."

"He can refuse," Pain points out.

Konan levels a glare at him. "Just like we could refuse when those two offered to take care of us when we were hungry and starving and completely fucking lost?"

His eye twitches. "It's not the same thing, Konan."

"I think it is. That boy is lost, Pein. You do remember he was a Konoha ANBU Black Ops leader? We know what ANBU does to the pretty ones. The missions. The torture. The focus on stamina and lies." Konan's leaning into his face now, gaze very hard. "Just how experienced is he already? Do you know?"

"He can refuse," Pain repeats. "Stop it, Konan. Or did you ask him all of this already?"

She stares. "You two are impossible," she says flatly, and leaves.

"Konan disapproves," Pain tells Itachi. They are sitting side-by-side, hips touching beneath Itachi's cloak, spread over their for warmth. Kakazu's turned the heat down again, and no amount of shouting from anyone can convince him to let it be turned up enough to be of any use.

Itachi glances at him; his bangs brush Pain's cheek. "She worries about you." It's a correction, albeit a gentle one, and if it were anyone else, anyone else at all - but he lets it pass.

"When were you first raped, Itachi?" It is obvious enough in bed that not all of Itachi's training came from ANBU.

Itachi is not at all surprised. No denial, no rejection, no obfuscating smiles, and he names a year that Pain knows well. The battlefield, then. "Me too."

He inclines acknowledgement, and their cheeks brush; then their lips, then their bodies. Pain is wearing his third-favourite body today. Short-haired, lips set firmly. Broad hands. The oldest of them. He wonders if it reminds Itachi of Uchiha Fugaku.

Then he wonders about very little other than the curve of Itachi's bottom in his hands and the tongue working at his throat, the thighs squeezing his hips. The close confines of the cloak make it seem that much more intimate, though he doubts he will ever read Itachi well enough to know his thoughts on the subject.

Itachi temporarily separates, after, to straighten and button both their trousers.

"You're aware this is an animated corpse."

"Yes." He finishes with his trousers, adjusts the bars along Pain's sternum, and leans close, tucking the cloak under his shoulders. "I was digging graves, that time. The feel is not unfamiliar."

Violated on the corpses he'd sworn to protect. It was fitting for a child.

"I don't mind," Itachi says. They sleep like that for a while, until he wakes and takes Itachi to his bed, watching the gleam of his sharingan as he leaves to replenish this body and send in another: this one is thin-fingered and long-haired, the bar through his nose asymmetrical.

This body is, rather than not-merciful, merciless, and so he wakes Itachi with a fistful of hair and a knee between his thighs. It is fast and short and it is fortunate that Itachi is a ninja with a ninja's reinforced muscles and endurance, because even with that buffer he bleeds in slow trickles onto his bed, as though he is weeping, and his muscles are shaking with the effort of exhaustion.

Itachi's eyes are wide and dark. Resigned. Pain lays a hand on his back, pressing a moment, and lies beside him to think of being God.

Everyone knows by now that Itachi means something to him. It is clear they don't know exactly what it is he means, or why Pain bothers, or why he's bothered for so long. It would be amusing if their universal assumption - that he is using him purely for sexual gratification regardless of his wishes - didn't grate so much.

Especially when Itachi seems disinclined to question it. His fourteenth birthday is spent in the bed of a body at least a decade older than he is, and Nagato twitches irritation at his passivity and summons his only female corpse, undressing.

"Fuck me," he demands, moving to make room on the bed for his body.

Itachi does it, of course. His hands are sure and emotionless and his movements are graceful and empty, and while his body aches with orgasm and whimpers lust, Itachi's composure never changes.

Pain dismisses the female body and remains where he is, hard and disgruntled.

He remains on his knees, unreadable. "I apologise for my failure, leader."

He feels a muscle tic in his jaw, a sure sign of impending headache. "No, just - come here." He crawls to his side, obligingly warm, and Pain kisses his throat.

"What do you want from me?" Itachi sounds ... almost confused. Almost angry. Almost sad. Almost.

"Some appreciation of your God would be nice."

Itachi licks at the studs on the inside of his bottom lip, and Pain kisses back and impatiently waits for an answer. "You want me to want you," he says, as though it confirms a long-held theory.

The headache is starting to show. "Yes, damnit."

He cocks his head, staring thoughtfully at his face. It's not often that Pain is embarrassed of the T&R bars in his bodies, but this gaze makes self-confidence almost impossible. "Hn," he says.

Pain twitches and pushes him away, disgusted with him but mostly at himself. "Forget it. Get out."

"I'm not Yuhiko," Itachi says. "I can't be."

"I wasn't asking you to be. I said, get out -"

"I can't be your friend," as though Pain never said anything.

He subsides into quiet fuming in the face of how contemplative it sounds, how unfinished, and he damns his own curiosity. "Well?"

Itachi tilts his head the other way. "I can be your lover," like stating a fact. Pain hates that his stomach flips, even at so blatant a concession of self. "If you wish."

"Get out," Pain says again, feeling pathetic. "I want to be alone."

He withdraws, gets dressed, and leaves Pain to nurse his headache and curse Uchiha Itachi for being a bloody cocktease and offering things Pain doesn't want.

Pain calls him to his bedroom again, and he pauses just past the door, impassive in his Akatsuki regalia. He's grown into it over the last year. "I thought you were bored of me."

"No," he snaps. It's been a bad year. A lot of things have gone wrong, some of them unfixable, some of them repairable with time and tactical patience he doesn't have - strategy was never his strong point - some of them merely irritating little tasks, and some just unclassifiable.

He's not sure what Itachi falls under. Idiocy, probably, since having him this close is making his pulse jump, and his performance as God frankly suffered when all he could think about was screwing him against the nearest surface. His expertise is a blessing for Akatsuki, but by now Pain and Akatsuki are not synonymous.

Stubbornness has never been one of Pain's finest points, either.

He smiles to notice the greed in Itachi's touch. Barely there, barely a matter of any great importance, but it's there and Itachi is devouring him alive. He has perhaps a minute before Itachi sucks his spine out through his tongue, one of those deliciously deliriously graphic kisses he never experienced before he took this to his bed.

"Miss me?" Pain says mildly.

At least he has the grace to deactivate his sharingan before he sighs and gestures at himself. "Hormones," he says with a minute grimace.

"It has its advantages," he says, still so very carefully noncommittal. He's not about to apologise for cruelty, but he's not going to fall into the trap of assuming that Itachi's lack of protest means he's all right with it. Big difference. Big, big, big difference.

Pain was angry with himself for a long time when he realised that particular mistake. Still is angry. He of all people should know better.

Itachi touches his breast, fingers tickling his side, and he stares up at him. "What are you doing?"

His eyes narrow like it's a trick question. It kind of is. "Should I not?"

"I'd rather you ate me out," he says truthfully. Itachi has a good mouth for women, and he proceeds to prove that particular point absolutely right to a level that has Pain gasping and blinking away hazy sensory numbness. "Who?"

"My ex-girlfriend," Itachi lies, and Pain closes his eyes to focus better on the tongue beginning to curl its way inside him.

"Was she pretty?" Pain asks lazily. He knows this body is beautiful.

Itachi shrugs and runs a hand over his hip. "My father wouldn't tolerate an ugly daughter-in-law."

"Mm," Pain says, hooking his ankles over Itachi's back and keening loudly at Itachi's fingers pressing inside him. He grips his hair tight and proclaims Itachi a contender for his title, warmed by his smile against his thigh.

Itachi and Orochmaru capture the three-tails. It takes seven days and nights to extract: unacceptably slow.

The five-tails is captured by Zetsu and Kisame and takes five days and five nights.

Four-tails is captured by Kakuzu and Nagama, four days and four nights.

Seven-tails is captured by Konan and Madara, three days and three nights.

Pain finds this delay acceptable, and wonders if the formation of Madara's true power and the end of the world's pain will, too, take three days and three nights.

"If I weren't heir to the Uchiha, and hadn't developed sharingan, I'd be in ROOT right now." This body, delicate and wrapped in its own hair, likes having another body close after sex, and Itachi seems willing to oblige, but not without some chatter. He's so heavy with pleasure that it's bearable.

"ROOT?" The term sounds vaguely familiar. It certainly sounds like a hidden village codename. "Like ANBU?"

"It's part of ANBU. A power struggle between the Hokage and the Village Council. I was Black Ops. ROOT is a short step further. But ROOT takes more training."

Pain can't help but laugh at the idea that he would worry about something like that. "You satisfy me just fine, Itachi."

Itachi shrugs, and Pain turns to kiss him and prove just how good he makes him feel. It turns into making Itachi feel good, which he discovers to be a frustratingly complicated task. "You don't like this body," he says finally after far too much wasted effort.

Itachi makes a noncommittal noise, glistening with Pain's sweat, his saliva, his own semen. Owned by his God is a good look on him. But there is no pleasure or satisfaction in his body.

"You prefer men," Pain concludes, and straightens.

"If I have the choice." His voice is very bland.

Pain snarls, offended, and summons Nagato.

This time when he tries, the effort is not wasted. An hour of time becomes nothing when Itachi whimpers, biting his lip bloody, and asks, with characteristic quiet, for Pain to touch him. Then to kiss him. Then to fuck him.

"You've never enjoyed sex before," Pain says, after. This body doesn't appreciate being held, and they lie side by side on the damp sheets. Itachi shuts down so quickly that it only confirms it. "You lied to me."

"I enjoy many things that do not arouse me. You'll have to be more specific."

This is ridiculous. The kid is so manipulative that trying to have a conversation with him is like catching fish: actually grabbing one is so surprising that it takes the opportunity to jump away. Nagato rubs his temples. "Don't you have a mission?"

"You should eat more," Itachi says, moving away. His nude body is a work of art, and Nagato can see the placement of every bar, every stud where he would form his channels within his body and have him be the agent of God forever and ever.

His fingers twitch.

Itachi looks over his shoulder with the sharingan. He is smiling, very faintly, as he wraps himself in his Akatsuki cloak. Pain knows he is naked under it. And in every meeting he'll be wondering if Itachi is wearing anything. It doesn't help that he knows what it's like to fuck him with the clouds shifting around their bodies. Damnit.

"I'll bring you something," Itachi says, retying his forehead protector, his hair gathered back. The necklace Pain gave him a month ago sits easily at his throat. "You missed breakfast."

He is as good as his word, and he eats the trays brought him in silence while Itachi dresses in full gear, soon to be his messenger.

"We need money," Kazuku says. "With the bijuu we've captured lately, we haven't maintained our finances. Bounty hunting is less reliable than a steady source. Both would be sensible. Itachi is a good choice."

Kisame shifts visibly, his projection flickering. "What do you mean, we're broke?"

Pain fights the headache he knew was going to appear.

Kazuku has approached him before about this, and approached Itachi, and Pain disagrees while Itachi agrees, but for Kazuku Pain's word overrides Itachi's. Barely. It seems Kazuku's decided that's no longer the case.

"Of course we're broke, Kisame. You take fucking forever in the baths," Zetsu says.

"Oi! You come here and Samehada'll fucking shave off your fucking -"

Orochimaru interrupts with one of his inelegant sneers. "This plan of yours, Kakuzu ..."

Pain's headache intensifies.

"I mean that Uchiha Itachi was a prostitute for his village. He was ANBU captain at thirteen; it's obvious that he served more purposes than his Hokage believed. Seduction and infiltration missions have the highest rewards. We can agree it's best to use someone trained for the job."

"I agree," Zetsu says. "But he is a missing-nin."

The pause is very fraught and fragile. When Zetsu brought up missing-nin, he meant more than the risk of recognition. Missing-nins have pride. Missing-nins live and die by their weaponised hatreds. Missing-nins sell their swords, not their bodies. Missing-nins cling, ferociously, to the knowledge that their ability to fight is why they survive. Missing-nins never bend, never break, never kneel.

Missing-nin are not village-broken kunochi.

"Leave that to me," Orochimaru purrs.

"I'll do it."

Everyone stares, a flicker of unease, and even Pain has to look away from that fourteen-year-old surety.

"Kid," Kisame says, growling roughly, but the concern is obvious. Missing-nin have limits, after all. Pain doesn't, Pain is beyond limits, and this is why he is God; but Kisame was born and bled into the Blood Mist, and even in Blood Mist practices, there were things you didn't do. "You know, you don't -"

Itachi blinks. Kisame shuts up. "I know."

"That decides it, everyone," Pain says. "This meeting is over."

They all flicker away, except for Itachi, who looks at him, and Pain cannot, cannot meet the blood of his sharingan. There is the ruination of a village and the unpleasant squelch of corpses in those eyes.

Eventually, too, a squeal of static.

"What are you doing?" Konan cries, one of her rare, crumbling moments. Even a woman of paper will tear under pressure, and the concern is difficult to ignore. "He's missing-nin. He's Madara's. What are you doing, Nagato?"

He doesn't know. But the fact that he - God - and them - God and His Angel - have no idea is the crux of what makes Uchiha Itachi. Madara's choices become clearer and clearer as their consequences unfold, and the boy is composed of iron filings, gravitating and penetrating. Madara took him for his own and left him empty, and that absolute lack of pride and dignity and self-possession is the reason and the cause.

It is why Uchiha Itachi does what no-one else can, and does it twice as well as anyone else, and it is why none of them can look him in the eyes.

Not that he blames them. Not that he ever blames any of them. Itachi has no accusations, no blame, no justifications, no betrayal, and none of them can face the lack of responsibility which should have been theirs.

Uchiha Itachi is the perfect missing-nin, and they are terrified. Not of him, but of the one who made him, and slowly, so slowly, Pain's dream crumbles.

After Itachi's taken a solid month of Those Missions, they begin, slowly, to be able to afford things like better heating and warmer cloaks and more food, and Kazuku relaxes his tight fist and uses some precious bounty money for plumbing. It's irritating how much more smoothly everything goes when they can all have hot showers between missions.

Itachi becomes intangible in his bed, silky and beautiful, until he is a slippery, pleased thing, his desire so deceptive that even Pain can't tell if it's faked.

He's not sure if to be pleased by that or not, and Itachi pulls out of him with the same calm he used to crawl into his bed. He hadn't used his female body today. This was a body that needed patience and kisses and foreplay to make it work, and Itachi did his job so perfectly that the body's knees are still quivering.

He resents him for his perfection. He resents him for his near-perfection, too. He knows why Itachi has done what he has done. He knows why he has failed. He knows the taste of his sweat, the feel of his moans trapped in his chest, how his thighs clench around his waist as he moans the abandon of a whore.

He knows these things, and they mean nothing.

Itachi is a man capable of sacrifice where Nagato is not, and that is all there will ever be to know.

On Itachi's fifteenth birthday, Konan and Sasori administer a series of tests to check his vision. Pain ordered it based on Sasori's reported suspicions; if one of them is ill, the responsibility falls to the others to verify the truth of the matter and compensate accordingly. It helps and does not help that Sasori and Itachi are well-acquainted, and the calm sense of expected, blameless betrayal is enough to drive both Sasori and Zetsu out of the room.

Konan continues with Pain's help, and the results are clear, the diagnosis fact: overuse of the Mangeyoku Sharingan, a metabolism trying to compensate, progressive blindness.

They've been briefed by Madara. The earliest signs of the early signs are all there. Thinning blood, thinning bone structure. Slackened tendons, weakened ligaments, organs in the process of necrosis. His condition and abilities are above and beyond on anyone else, but for Itachi the degeneration is a sliver taken from what he once was at thirteen, and that sliver will only grow.

Itachi rises, thanks them for their time, and leaves. His eyes become the sharingan, and Pain forgets what their colour was. He thinks they may have been black. Or blue, or brown. He can't be sure.

Orochimaru is expelled from Akatsuki's inner circle for, officially, disobeying both Madara's and Pain's orders one too many times to ignore. Unofficially the reason is that he was found experimenting in the sublabs of their main hideout.

The true reason was a mix of those and the fact that they were all tired of Orochimaru's attempts to torture, vivisect and otherwise dismember Uchiha Itachi for the secrets behind his sharingan. It wasn't that Akatsuki cared so much for his welfare as it was a matter of priorities.

They kept him where he could be watched, but they closed ranks against any chance of his regaining their trust. Enough was enough; Orochimaru had become a liability.

That winter Itachi has his first attack of disease. It is a harmless cold, sweeping innocently through Hidden Rain, and Akatsuki are hardy. Pain spends a day sneezing in bed; Konan coughs twice and gets over it; the rest are unaffected.

Except for Itachi. With Itachi it pauses and settles and sinks deep into his lungs, and for six weeks the sound of constant pain accompanies every word and every breath, every wink of sleep, every feeble attempt at joking about how that damn kid just can't stop coughing.

The first week it's simply damp-sounding inhales and stuttering exhales; the second week is fits between bouts of raw sneezing; the third week is miserable, desperate whoops struggling to breathe; the fourth week is when Itachi breaks two ribs coughing and passes out three times from lack of oxygen; the fifth week blood spatters on his lips and chin and hands as they watch him drown in his own lungs, and the sixth week they watch as he sinks into gaunt, agonised delirum.

They all try to help in their own ways, just to get him to stop, but nothing works and he doesn't stop, he can't stop.

At the end of the sixth week they break.

They knock him out cold, take him to the labs, and hold him down while Kazuku cuts him open, removes the ruined, slimy mess that once was the bottom fifth of Itachi's right lung, scrapes the gunk out of his sinuses and throat, and sews him back together with tubes in his mouth.

After that, with the help of Sasori's extensive medical herb collection, Itachi recovers. He coughs for another six weeks, and intermittently for two months after that when they take out the breathing tube, and for three months after that their hearts collectively freeze when he has the infrequent fit, but he recovers. So do they.

Akatsuki is not very good at taking care of its own, but they do their best against the memory of that awful, unstoppable cough. They know Itachi is fragile, now, and while they are suspicious and wary of his weakness, they need him.

A sharp hiss of caution before entering with unwashed hands or a damp cloak becomes the rule binding them together.

Kisame is good for Itachi. Itachi is good for Kisame. They are assigned together in the shuffle of members, and the partnership is solid.

Pain sits with them, listens to their reports, hears Itachi's careful words and Kisame's lazy editing. They don't speak in tandem, and they don't speak together. They both only ever speak for themselves.

It works, somehow, and Nagato stews in envy. He had that, once. Has it with Konan, but it is not the same. It is not the same, and it can't ever be.

There are no replacements for this pain.

"Who do you think about?"

They are atop the statues. This is one of an angel, weeping, hands held to the sky; it is a memorial to the unmemorable dead. Pain sits beside Itachi on one of its shoulders, uncaring of the fresh dye running from his new cloak and staining his socks. It's not a question he knows how to answer properly, and Itachi continues before Nagato can decide whose name to speak.

"I think of him."

"You think of people you love," Pain says, almost indifferent. They've had this conversation before. For someone drilled in perfect concealment of humanity, and for someone who is a sixteen-year-old boy, Itachi spends far too much time crying. But the purpose of rain is to wash away hurt and blood and pain.

"I think of him," Itachi repeats.

"People you love." It's a test, but he doesn't know the right answer. There probably isn't one.


Nagato shrugs. This body is wide-shouldered, broad, with thick baker's hands and a bald, empty face. "I think of Yahiko." He tilts his head; a chill trickles down the back of his neck. "I think of my family, my friends, my village, my nation, my home." He flicks his fingers at the rain, the destruction below, his city corrugated into whimpering grief. "I think of pain."

Itachi remains quiet. Nagato takes his hand, and is gratified when it is sandwiched warm against his thigh. They have a little time before the cold poisons Itachi's body.

"You did what you never should have had to do," Pain says. It's something he's heard Kisame say, in his gruff handling of a sword that shaves flesh from bone. Pain has come to understand that Blood Mist practices were uniquely balanced in their approach, particularly when it came to their Seven Swordsmen. To thirst for blood is not, necessarily, to be unkind. Kisame had - has? - sisters of Itachi's ilk, seduction and advance and careworn bodies, and Kisame treats Itachi as one of them.

He shrugs against him. The fact that his shrugs are so descriptive irks Pain in a very specific way, to the point of grinding his teeth against nostalgia. "He loathes, detests, hates and fears me."

"Do you fear him?" Nagato has wondered if he would be afraid of Yahiko if he ever returned somehow.

"I always did," Itachi says. "If he wanted me, I -" Itachi stops himself and rises, pulling both of them to their feet, and they drip onto the floor inside, tugging away cloaks and clothing to curl naked in Pain's bed.

"At least you'll see him again."

"My brother, or my murderer?" he murmurs.

Nagato flinches and refuses to answer.

"What does it mean to be a ninja of Konoha?" Pain asks him, on a day when the memories dig deep, so deep and make everything taste like acrid hunger. "What - what does it mean that," and he stops.

"Be specific." He turns his head to cough away from Pain, and both of them tense for a stark moment, waiting for the catch, the trigger. None comes, and they both relax. "Do you mean to be part of Konoha, to be a ninja, to be ANBU, to be a Captain?"

Pain treads carefully; the fact that he's bothering to seperate the categories indicates he's entered conversational quicksand, and Itachi is always very quick to trap when the opportunity arises. "I never saw ANBU."

"ANBU are not to be seen," Itachi answers.

"Don't be difficult," Pain says, snaps, really. "Ninja, then."

"I don't know," Itachi answers after a long, long silence where memories of hatred stretch with hideous clarity across his eyes. "It was my duty to obey and defend."

"Duty," Nagato says, chilly. "Is that so?"

He knows duty.

"You misunderstand." He's calm, too calm, and Pain chokes down resentment. "I believed that honour was the greatest asset for a ninja. That if I acted with honour, my duty would be fufilled. To serve my Kage, to defend my people, was honourable."

"You were wrong."

Itachi inclines his head. "I did not account for human error."

Pain studies him. "You were ANBU. You seduced and assassinated. You took those missions. You organised them as captain. You would have followed orders if you were - if it had been you, and you were told to come here and kill my people - you would have."

Itachi shudders. It is a light, subtle thing, and Nagato feels no pity. "I attempted suicide six times in the span between my understanding of the situation and the night I began," he says. "I stopped trying because Madara repeatedly intervened and I realised there was no-one else. It fell to me, and if I died, there was no replacement. If I were a rank ninja -"

"You weren't," Pain interrupts. "You wouldn't have been."

"No," Itachi agrees. "All right. If I were there, in the inevitable position of command, I would have disagreed with all calls for war, all invasive forces. If I were given an order that I could not disobey -"

"From?" Pain interrupts again. He wants to drag this out. It's satisfying, in a wretched way, watching his guilt spin out into the air, his guts spilling secrets. "From whom?"

"The Hokage."

"You were that crucial. You reported directly to the Third Hokage."

Itachi inclines his head. "At the time of my defection I reported to my ANBU commander, ANBU ROOT commander Danzo, the village elders Koharu and Homura, my father Uchiha Fugaku, Hokage Sarutobi, to you as Leader, and to Uchiha Madara."

"All very important people, if my being on the list is any indication. Go on."

"If I were given an order to wage or participate in war from the Third Hokage that did not allow me to create any form of disobedience or weakening of his position, in order to further create a situation where it could be retracted or delayed -"

"Unlikely," Pain says.

"Likelier than you know." The line of his mouth is very thin. "If it were the case," he continues, "then I would commit suicide rather than take my team, my people, my country, to war." Itachi grips his shoulder, heaves in a thick breath. "I would rather have died than kill your family, Nagato. I would never have been there. Never."

Pain grips his wrist. "I know."

"I would rather have died."

His grief is an old, old thing, and they curl in the messy interrupted circle of each other's arms and relive old griefs. There is no shame in knowing that in this, they are identical.

Nagato finds him chained in one of Madara's labs.

He is slowly, deliberately, and carefully pulling out one of his fingernails. Five lie beside him, the dark paint chipped. Pain wraps his hand around his wrist and Itachi tugs harder, gasping as his fingernail falls and snags. The nail is thick and brittle, edges cutting, the base ragged. It'll grow back. The others, too, will grow back.

Itachi shivers as a gust brushes over his hand. The exposed skin is torn and pink and brutally raw.

"Madara," Pain says, and Itachi nods and blinks and huddles. Pain helps him with the rest. The rule that he handle his nails himself is unspoken, but there is nothing saying that Pain can't steady his wrist or lend strength when he needs it.

Pain leaves him there with his flexing fingers, his desperate, gasping penance for Madara's rage, and takes the fingernails with him.

He fiddles with them as he thinks, rubbing them clean of blood and eventually just picking off fragments of polish and keratin to test the body's manual dexterity.

Itachi has new fingernails, translucent and baby-soft, when he answers Pain's summons.

"Your command, Leader?"

He looks weary, very weary, and on impulse Pain sits him down, arranges dinner, watches him eat dinner - forcefeeds him, really, Itachi's metabolism is accelerating faster than Kakuzu can arrange the money for dietary changes - and puts him in his bed with personally-God-wrapped fingers. Then fucks him.

Itachi's eyebrows are sometimes very expressive.

"I'm your God," Nagato informs him.

"I see," he says, a faint smile glimmering, and tucks his head against his shoulder. "Give me a mission in two days. A long one."

He agrees. Madara overestimates in his arrogance, and Pain is tired of watching Itachi's pieces scatter. Best to send him where he can't see it.

Orochimaru has captured Itachi.

Konan is saying something, but he's not listening.

They get him back. Actually, he gets himself back. Itachi is stronger than Orochimaru, after all: a Sannin is no match for Itachi's expert sharingan. The verdict is that he's fine, that he's okay, that Orochimaru didn't have him long enough to leave a scratch. Pain knows better, and he waits until they go before he grips his wrists and orders Itachi to look at him. "What did he want?" he demands. "What the fuck did he want from you?"

He doesn't say anything, and Pain shakes him. Itachi's teeth rattle, and he still doesn't say anything, and Pain asks and and orders and finally hits him.

Itachi crumples where he stands and stays on the floor, kneeling. He looks - he looks - not there.

"Not now," Pain whispers. "Not this. Not now."

Uchiha Itachi broke at four years old.

Then at eight.

Then at thirteen.

(He will break for the last time at twenty-one, just a few moments before he dies, but they don't know that yet.)

At sixteen, he breaks again.

Pain isn't quite sure how he manages to stop it from being permanent, but he does. He does it with summoning bodies and holding him in a mass of concerned flesh, and meaningless desperate sex, and pouring sake down his throat, feeding him bit by bit while he swallows with numb, sickening trust.

They put him on missions; there's no point in waiting for something that might or might not happen. Kisame shrugs and says it'll wear off, but he sticks close on the missions they do in that time and the last report is delivered with a furrowed brow Pain doesn't like.

It's done perfectly, Kisame reports. But that's all it is. Perfection. He doesn't even talk to the targets anymore, doesn't even try to get their friends or family out of his way. He just walks in, slaughters what he's told to slaughter, and leaves.

Between missions, Pain keeps him in his room, in his bed, and tries to call him back. Itachi, despite his mourning, rejection and finally bitter acceptance of the fact, is not perfection.

The final piece is simply being there with one of the bodies whenever Itachi's occupying space again, and three weeks after they kidnap him back from Orochimaru, the sharingan blinks into the dark.

Being able to tell him where he is and what's happening makes him relax in the most bizarre way. It's the look of a soldier given command, and Itachi is strangely hoarse. "Leader?"

"You came in gone," Pain says. "Welcome back."

"Ah." He can see him calculating, and tenses. It's fairly obvious this isn't something he'll want to hear. "Orochimaru experimented on my mangekyou. And mocked me for being your pet Uchiha bitch."

"There you are." Madara walks in.

It's so very precisely the wrong moment, and Itachi sits up on his elbows while Nagato grits his teeth. "Uncle."

"Pain, we have a few things to discuss. Such as the accuracy of certain ... rumours." He flicks his fingers. "Get out."

Itachi rises, dresses, and leaves without looking back.

They separate for a year. With Madara in near-permanent residence and Itachi chained to his bed and his labs and Madara's secret missions, Pain sees him only in passing, and never long enough to converse.

Nagato finds he's quite capable of loathing Madara more than he already does, and is only interrupted by Sasori, who dutifully gives his report and regards him with glass eyes.

"Madara's out," he says after a long pause. "Uchiha's miraculously intact. I wager he lasts a day before he does something stupid."

He rustles away, clinking faintly in the wake of his unexpected kindness, and Pain waits as long as required to be graceful and goes to Itachi's bedroom.

"Sasori told me," he says.

"I see." Itachi sounds unimpressed, but his shoulder flexes into Pain's hand. He's grown up, in the last year, his shoulders filling out, skin twitching over muscle. His voice broke long ago but it's even deeper now, and Pain pulls Itachi to the floor, tugs at his uniform, and fucks him.

It's a relief to see him stuff his hand in his mouth; a relief to feel him buck and push and toss his head against the grip on his hair.

It is possible that Pain may have missed this. Unlikely, but possible.

"What were you doing?" he murmurs. This is as much interrogation as curiosity, and Itachi stiffens, then twists to take his hand. Pain bites back a growl at the rasp of a seal scarred deep into the join of hip and thigh, invisible to the eye but easily discerned by hard touch. Of course.

Of course he was fucking sealed.


"Everything," Itachi confirms, and lies there listless. The light shadows his eyes. "I couldn't tell him even if I wanted to."

Pain pulls him upright and wraps a blanket around their shoulders; it's winter in this hideout, and the walls are chilly, the nights cold, and Itachi has bouts of pneumonia every year like clockwork. There's no reason to invite another. "Do you want to?"

"He hates me."

There it is again, and Pain steals another hour of closeness, another hour of stilted, wary conversation, another hour of touch, before he drags himself away at daybreak.

Itachi regards him with supreme indifference, sharingan bright. "You weren't here."

Pain smiles and slips away.

They're all used to the coughing by now, reassured that nothing about his particular form of chronic exhaustion is contagious, but that doesn't mean they aren't weary of it. Kisame in particular; even his projection looks exhausted when they report for sealing the fifth bijuu, and they both disappear as soon as they can.

The reason is clear when he drags Itachi into the hideout, spilling and trailing blood from his mouth, his eyes, his nose and ears, soaking Kisame's arm. He's still coughing.

"A little help here, guys," Kisame grits, so tired his skin is more grey than blue, and he staggers off when Sasori and Konan take Itachi into their hands. "Somebody else keep him alive. I'm done. I'm sleeping."

"Great." It's Sasori's only comment on the situation, and they drag him down to where Kazuku, alerted by Zetsu, waits to put him back together with a scalpel.

It's fascinating to Pain how Itachi continues to survive open, unanesthetised surgery with so few ill-effects. Afterwards he is peaky and irritable but recovering, and Pain chances Konan talking to him with cold, delicate seriousness more than once, silencing the moment they feel his presence.

It irks him. So many secrets, so many evasions, so many replacements, irks him. Everything is crumbling in Madara's favour, and this, he thinks resentfully, glaring at them both, isn't part of the plan.

He knows Itachi won't tell him, so he asks Konan.

"Do you remember when we were small and you were this - bright-eyed, scrappy little thing, and I said you could come with us? His brother was like that." She stares away, where the windows would be if she tipped her head. "He reminds me of you. Reminds me of Jiraya."

"They're nothing alike."

Her gaze is cold. "They're Konoha nin who know better than to start things they can't finish. And they don't care."

"I asked what you talk about."

She shrugs. "Mistakes. The people we love." The flower in her hair trembles slightly. "We talk about you."

He watches her, suspicious of the gaps. "You do?"

"Remember when you choked on a noodle and Yahiko panicked and tried to get it out with a water jutsu? He's going to die," she says, abrupt. "You know he will. Madara's patience will run out, his plans'll work out, he'll run out of blood - he'll die, and it'll be soon."

"I know."

"You don't act like it." Konan brushes past him. "You should."

Itachi looks good in glasses. They sit strangely on his face, but he is no less beautiful for wearing them, and Pain sits at his bedside and studies him.

"How bad is it?"

He shrugs and adjusts them on his nose. "Konan and Sasori retested me two days ago. They recommended I wear these when not in battle."

Pain pulls them off his nose, turning the flimsy metal over in his hands, careful not to smudge the glass. "That's not what I asked. You and Konan are too alike," he says, irritated that he keeps having to press both of them for answers when they should be honest with their God.

"You have two spikes through your bottom lip," Itachi says calmly. "But I can't see well enough to confirm."

Pain is less than a meter away from him, and he lowers his eyes and puts the glasses back on his face. There are times when he is grateful for his rinnegan; other times he curses genetic accident. He doesn't need Itachi to tell him the obvious.

He takes his hand and puts it to his face, and Itachi gives a soft, sad chuckle, thumb warm on skin and metal, pressing on his lips until he can feel the points draw blood from his chin, his thumbnail against his teeth. He opens his mouth and licks at the gap between nail and skin, his patterned fingerprint rough against his tongue.

Itachi gasps a heavy, hitching breath, and Pain smirks.

"That should be illegal," Itachi murmurs.

Pain licks again and closes his lips, sucking in until he can taste the crease of his first knuckle. "You like it."

"Exactly." He's almost whimpering now. It's a very, very satisfying sound.

He looks up to find Itachi watching him with intent, thoughtful seriousness, even through the lust-haze. "What?" he mumbles around his thumb.

"Do you need these off?" Itachi touches the glasses uncertainly.

He shakes his head and closes his eyes, sucking harder. He can feel Itachi's gratitude in how his thumb flexes gently against the roof of his mouth. "Want you to see my face," he enunciates between his teeth, a bit of saliva dribbling despite his best efforts. "See your God."

Itachi pulls out and wipes at his chin, smiling with his eyes. "Come here."

It's awkward and a little difficult, considering Itachi's just had surgery and is still exhausted enough that his arm's shaking from holding steady for so long, but they manage. Pain even manages to be patient when Itachi has to stop several times for his nausea to settle, and makes the blowjob afterwards the sweetest he's ever given.

"Thank you," he says, stroking the crumpled sheets and curling up with a sigh.

The lines of stitches and scars on his skin - however untouchable Itachi makes himself appear, he is by far the most touchable of them all - make him look vulnerable. Vulnerable to hurt and touch and modification and pain. It would be so easy, so easy, to break those lines and create new that would never fade. It would be so easy to create pain. Pain's fingers itch.

Itachi is watching him, he realises. "You can if you like." He shifts, spreads himself open, chest to throat to knees, and he swallows hard at realising that Itachi is offering his living body for his purposes; a sincere sacrifice to his God.

"I need to think about it," he says, ghosting his hands on his skin, pressing, analysing structures: perhaps here - and this - and here, and he explores symmetrical possibilities. Itachi lets him, watches him with quiet eyes.

"Come to me," he allows, the body twitching with gratitude. "Soon."

Nagato never thought of this as intimate before, but with Madra off who-knows-where for the time being and Itachi stretched out on the metal, nude and marked with ink, alive and waiting for him to begin, it feels intimate. It feels connective, this piercing of layers, and he works with care, opening holes in that body, sliding recievers into his stomach, his thighs, his shoulders. Placement is important for beauty and concealment, and as much as he longs to mark that face, he limits himself to the secret warmth of his tongue, the sweating, small of his back.

Within two hours, he's finished marking his perfect sacrifice, and he stands back to admire the handiwork of a God.

They seem to be normal barbell and stud piercings placed by an artist. To anyone who knows either of them, the opposite would be obvious. They are to claim, to mark, to subordinate this man to divine will, and Itachi wears them in perfect deference.

"Good I already talk with my mouth shut," he says, muffled by the swelling of his tongue, clearing blood out of his mouth with a sharp cough and click of metal against teeth.

"Don't fiddle with it," Pain snaps, cleaning and sharpening his tools. "We'll finish in a few days."

Itachi shrugs stiffly. "As you wish, Leader."

He stands over him at the table, bloodied scalpels relaxed in his hands. "You are not loyal to me."

"No," he agrees, his beautiful lashes magnified by lenses as he blinks. "You have the rest."

Everything of him but loyalty and love: both long commanded elsewhere in the unknowing heart of a boy with Itachi's slender hands.

It's enough. Pain is accustomed to pain, and he finishes sterilising his workroom as though he hasn't just been told for the first time in his life that he's wanted.

"Get up."

Itachi obeys, the perfect servant, and Pain is content to luxuriate in worship.

Kisame throws a baffled look at him when they enter, and Itachi leaves without a word.

Something went wrong. He knows the mission failed, but something else is wrong.

"So weak, my brother," Itachi says when Pain walks into his own bedroom to find him sprawled on his balcony, speaking from behind crossed fingers. "So young. Was I that young when we met?"

"No." Pain is confident in his answer, and sits beside him with his and Itachi's preferred body. Yahiko's body. "I never thought of you as a child."

Itachi's eyes flicker, and he rubs his forehead and puts on his glasses. Pain's got used to them; likes them, now, likes how they look. It was an afternoon with Itachi's tongue hanging out and flashing metal, trying to catch raindrops trickling from beneath the frames, that cemented it.

"You love him too much."

"I know." Itachi's cloak rustles when he shifts to kiss him. "I know."

Pain tries not to be bitter about the fact that he's clearly thinking of his brother even as they fuck lazily in the splash and spatter of rain driven upon them by the wind, even as his throat opens to recieve him and he's on his hands and knees, worshipping him exactly as he should, even as he gives quiet grunts of pleasure when Pain holds him open and flexes his slick hand inside him - he is still thinking of his brother.

"I thought," and Pain twists his fist, rewarded with a broken gasp. "I thought I could keep him alive."

"That's not your decision to make," Nagato says, and he can feel the chill inside him spread, how the spread of his fingers pushes Itachi howling onto his elbows and his glasses cracking to the ground, too full of his touch, quivering too much to sob like he obviously wants to.

He's loose and empty-looking when Pain finishes dragging wretched orgasm after wretched orgasm out of his body, breaking him to his will just that bit more, and he's panting heavily, knees and arms wet from the spreading puddles. The rain has become a torrent, and he is bare-bottomed, canted to open to command, chilly to the touch.

Pain scoffs at the patheticness of it all and hauls him upright by his hair. "Clean up and get warm."

"I'm sorry," Itachi says, subdued, his body hanging in Pain's slimy grasp with an ease none but Madara could have taught him.

"You didn't bring me my bijuu."

"Tactical retreat," he offers as Pain drags him inside, ignoring the wet trail of their cloaks, his feeble kicks, whether to help or hinder he isn't sure. More to the point, he doesn't care. "Jiraya -"

"You could've taken him."

"Not inside his toad."

"And you got there how, exactly?" He tosses him down and pauses a moment, fairly sure he just heard a bone crack against the bathtub. "You wasted all of our time. Mine, Konan's, Zetsu's, Kisame's. You were careless."

Pain cleans his hands in the sink, watching him struggle out of his clothes and into the tub, watches him fumble with the plug, the taps.

"You failed, Itachi. You failed everyone yet again. Most importantly, you failed your God."

Pain takes great satisfaction in watching Itachi scream and cry out and beg and finally lose his voice and tears as he runs current after current through the hot water, using his bars to conduct further until lightning sparks from nipple to belly to throat to thighs to stomach, and he stops when his nose detects burnt hair and flesh. Itachi is openly grieving, slumped in defeat.

For the very first time, perhaps the only time, Itachi flinches when Pain reaches to touch him. It's a quick reaction, instinctively suppressed, but he knows what he sees; the rinnegan doesn't allow him the luxury of deception.

He ignores his shaking and drags him out of the water, rubs him down, and installs his limp, burn-streaked body into the bed of his God and lies beside him, ignoring the bursting forming blisters, plasma weeping into the sheets.

It satisfies him to know he dealt appropriate punishment, but it doesn't make him any less annoyed about the situation as a whole. Pain snarls and rises to terrorise obscure jutsus into performing the way he wants them to.

There is no place for guilt in the mind of a God.

"Real nice of you," their newest recruit snaps. "But the fucking point is -"

"Do shut up, Hidan," Kazuku says.

"- the point is that our Lord Jashin is -"

"Hidan," Kazuku again.

"Would you let me finish a fucking sentence?"

Itachi's projection is very still, his voice soft. "I understand the laws of Lord Jashin require fair debate. However, those laws are suspended in the presence of an overriding authority. That authority is our Leader, and you have agreed to abide by him in the presence of Lord Jashin."

"So shut the fuck up already," Zetsu translates.

Hidan grumbles but shuts up, eyeing Itachi with deep, deep suspicion.

Pain wonders how Itachi knows these things.

"I once studied Jashinism as part of my duty to fufill clan honour when I became full heir. They have ... ties to the Uchiha histories." Itachi's stride is very brisk as they approach Pain's bedroom. "Ties which I am obliged to deny in the presence of a Jashinist. But we recognise each other."

"The eyes," Nagato guesses. "You realise the implications."

Itachi inclines his head. "The scythe was a favoured weapon of Uchiha shinobi. For much the same reason it is favoured by Jashinists."

Pain stops him with a hand to his forearm. "You're also trained to use it."

"It did not appeal to me."

He bites his tongue and follows Itachi into his bedroom, sitting to sift paperwork and watching him settle with his glasses and a book.

The image of Itachi with a scythe bothers him.

"Oi!" Hidan is loud as he slams the door open and pokes his head in. "Huh? Leader," he says, recovering from his obvious shocked understanding at seeing Itachi half-naked in his commander's bed. "I wanted to grab that fucking Uchiha for a little spar." The way he leers and cracks his knuckles indicates he expects it'll be a beating.

"Denied. You have a mission with Kazuku."

Hidan complains but eventually leaves when Kazuku shows up to drag him away, and he can feel Itachi's stare, the slither of his body against the sheets. It reminds him too much of Orochimaru.

"I don't have to explain myself to you."

Itachi inclines his head again. "That's true."

Pain ignores him.

He reads with silent, obvious patience.

Four hours of paperwork and innumerable turned pages later he cracks. "You can't sacrifice everything simply because it's expected of you."

"My duty is my obligation."

"So?" He stands and finds, to his dismay, that's he's starting to pace up and down. Yahiko always hated it when he did that. "I don't care how many loopholes you find, how much your paranoia guards you - I am never letting you and Hidan fight against each other. If I catch wind that you have ever so much as discussed it, you will be dead. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Leader," Itachi murmurs, and snaps his book shut, sitting up to straighten his glasses. "You think very little of me."

"Are you telling me I can ever trust you near a Jashinist?"

He smiles. He smiles, and it's utterly infuriating. "No. Do you think I want to be?"

"Your ideologies are too closely connected. However cleanly you strike your blows, the fact of your Uchiha temperament remains. You're a torture specialist. Your techniques are proof of that."

"It bothers you," Itachi murmurs. "How many genjutsu seals do you place on your bodies to protect them, Leader?"

Pain sits down heavily, unsure of what he wants to say, if he ever wanted to say anything coherent. It does bother him. "Too many."

Itachi puts his chin on his shoulder, his arms loose around his waist. "Are you afraid of what I would find, or what I would create?"

"This isn't like you," he says, turning suspiciously to find Itachi - bland. Bland, and blank, and after a moment his lips curve into a chillingly sincere smile.

"I find pain unreasonably attractive," Itachi admits. "You need not be jealous of Hidan. He is not attractive to me, however devout."

Nagato scoffs. "I'm not jealous."


"I'm not."

Itachi licks his throat. "Mhm."

"I will kill you," he says.


He slumps forward. "You and Konan never take me seriously."

"We take you with perfect seriousness. You think so little of me," he says again. "I promised. Doubt me if you must. Do not doubt my word."

"You lie so easily," Pain says. "This still isn't like you."

Itachi draws away. They both know Pain dislikes mission behaviour while off-duty. Particularly the money missions. "I apologise."

They both know Itachi will never come home; never be off duty; never finish his missions; never have the ability to discern what is dutiful and what is selfish. They both know Pain can ask for the world and Itachi will give it but to give it he will have to die because there is no other way to give something encompassing Uchiha Itachi.

Pain pins him to the mattress. Itachi arches in welcome, ribs straining as he breathes through the pressure of the Rinnegan. "My Leader." He sounds almost drunk with masochistic pleasure. His eyes have slid to half-mast, and he is hard. Pain wonders, again, why there is no discernible difference between an Uchiha and a victim. If all Uchiha are; if Uchiha Sasuke, the adored little brother, has never had to be.

Once, of course: to Itachi himself, and again to Orochimaru - and yet again, for Orochimaru's body, eventually - but thrice balanced against a lifetime is very little, relatively speaking.

He knows he's right. Uchiha were never anything but in the wrong place at the wrong time, and more to the point, they knew it all along. It explains much of the impotent frustration inherent in Uchiha Madara's attempts at taking back what he never had.

Itachi is nineteen the next time they are physically in the same base. Many things have occurred; too few have occurred. Itachi is gangly with maturation and forever shortened by infection, weakened by his constant, painful cough. It is still terrible to listen to; it keeps Nagato and his bodies awake, watching him toss and turn and cough, cough, cough, its double-and-triple-and-quadraple booms of bloodied fluid and blue-cast lips.

Kisame tells him he had pnuemonia again this winter; that they had to hole up in a shack in Tea Country and do their (many) (local) (side-)missions from there because Itachi was too sick and tied to a fourth-hand oxygen machine to move far. He suspects Kisame is giving Itachi more credit for the completed bounty missions than he deserves.

The physical he and Konan give him indicates two more years of wear and tear before his heart gives out if he stays off his feet, stays inside, and does absolutely nothing other than rest in order to slow its acceleration.

Perhaps one year if he actually does his job as a member of Akatsuki. If Pain commands him to do so.

He considers Itachi's watering, half-blind eyes, the chest trembling and heaving under his fingertips as he holds him, the cold edge of the medical examination table digging into his hip, and thinks: the world will know this pain.

The world will know the pain of toiling, tearless loss.

Pain is now careful to limit his missions to the surrounds of whichever base Pain resides in; he thinks peace of mind is worth the risk of having them both in the same base, particularly since Kisame is openly worried now, supporting Itachi with a hard grip on his forearm when he thinks Pain isn't looking.

Itachi is thin and fragile, chest heaving with illness, his tears running over his nose, nose running into his mouth, his mouth running onto the sheets. He is dissolving before his eyes, and they have sex for what may be the last time with Nagato above him, riding carefully as Itachi sweats and sneezes and cries and convulses and bleeds, bleeds, bleeds.

It's utterly disgusting, particularly when they have to stop to let Itachi splatter vomit into a bucket until he heaves green bile, and when he sneezes so fiercely that his head slams into Nagato's bicep and snot bubbles from his tear ducts. But the look in his blind eyes is perfect, and his hands, wiped clean as can be in the midst of so much fluid, grip him with a weak determination echoed by feverish skin.

Even delirious, Itachi recognises him, wants him, needs him, and pain loves pain.

"No," Itachi says, and Pain steadies him as they sit on the tongue of the headquarters, curled together beneath cloaks and clouds and reassuring rain, steadies him as he spits blood. "I will not survive. You know this."

"I care for you," Pain says. Enough to let him die; enough to raise him again.

"Don't." His voice cracks, and Itachi's fingers tremble thin and weak against his shoulder. "Don't. Please. I'm tired. I'm so tired. I'm so tired."

He pries his hand off his shoulder before he breaks with begging and kisses the back of it, too aware of how it trembles. "I won't, then."

Pain kneels him into the floor. Itachi obliges, twisting onto his side to keep breathing. His chin is very cold on the inside of his knee, and blood pools warm against his shin.

These days, obligation is all that comes to Itachi with the ease he had once upon a time when his lungs were new and his hair wasn't so quick to snap in his grasp, and Nagato regrets the reminder of duty's lethal lack of limitations: how far would you go?

How far anyone would go, and the lengths Itachi has gone to, are entirely different conclusions.

How has it is been since he first saw the softness of his hair and the bitter calm of his conviction that wished for Nagato to sever it, curl within its tears and create a house for a hermit of rain and ash? Seven years? Eight years?

Almost eight. It's almost time. There will be no ninth year for either of them. Nine is imprecise, a number of goodwill, and there is none of that left for them.

Nagato coughs, and it tastes of salt.

Enough nostalgia. "Uchiha."

"If Sasuke were not here, I would have loved you," Itachi whispers.

"Do you hate him for it?"

It feels important, though it is necessarily something to forget once he has his answer. It will not help him in his advance on Konoha; it will not help him teach the true meaning of pain.

"I wish I could."

The world will know this unceasing pain.