Aces & Eights
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
Rating: T
World: Sequel to Schadenfreude, prequel to Zero Hour. Begins when Orochimaru leaves Akatsuki. Concurrent with Nepenthe, but can be read separately.
NOTES: There are no pairings in this. I just think Itachi and Sasori would have had an interesting relationship if Kishi had ever bothered to focus on it. You'll be lost if you haven't read the prequel, so I recommend doing that first. The last scene will make sense if you've been reading Zero Hour. Enjoy!

"Got a secret, can you keep it?
Swear this one you'll save.
Better lock it in your pocket,
You're taking this one to the grave."

Even Itachi's heavy Akatsuki coat could not keep back the rain's dark chill. It was a typical summer night in Amegakure, warm and misty, and still Itachi shivered. Sasori stood a distance away, the last dregs of his maniacal laughter finally, mercifully, dying down. Itachi had come here to exact justice, not witness its utter depravity.

Justice. Funny, old man.

"Come to see the show? You're too late."

Sasori made his way toward Itachi, who still had not budged an inch. The entire area was trashed. Pavement cracked underfoot like stained glass, red with blood. A giant python lay dead in the mud. Sasori stepped over it without a second thought. His Akatsuki coat bore rips and holes, though he seemed to be unscathed. Itachi narrowed his eyes and followed the intricate chakra network powering Sasori's puppet body. Perfect, truly. No one would ever guess.

But Itachi wasn't here for a show, and he was too late. Always too late to do anything.

"Pein's sending trackers after him," Itachi said, loud enough to pierce through the heavy rain.

Sasori smirked, and Itachi marveled at how human he looked. Genius.

"They'll never find him. When Orochimaru wants to disappear, he can't be found."

It was like Sasori was confessing something terrible to Itachi. Maybe he hoped the rain would drown out his secrets, but even this torrent couldn't wash away what Itachi's gifted eyes could see. If Sasori could die, this would have killed him. It already had, and Sasori didn't realize it.

"I'm sorry."

The words were sincere, perhaps the truest thing he'd said since leaving Konoha. The web of lies had become so intricate that somewhere along the way, Itachi had lost control of the spider. Now, he had to sleep with one eye open lest his own monster finally devour him. Still, monsters were better than no company at all. Not even spirits were enough. Whispers in his ears, taunts and regrets he wished he could hear. Just to hear their voices once more. But there was nothing. Itachi was alone. Not even the dead wanted his company.

Sasori recalled his puppet, the Third Kazekage, and crushed the python's gaping maw underfoot as he made his way toward Itachi. Shoulder to shoulder, Itachi still did not move. Sasori was hollow. It was like no one was there at all.

"Not as sorry as he'll be."

Years they'd spent working for a mutual goal, Akatsuki's goal, and Itachi had known almost nothing at all about Sasori. Orochimaru had always overshadowed his quiet partner, and Itachi had no interest in anyone here, anyway. Right now, amidst the summer mist and words left unsaid, Itachi got a glimpse of Akasuna no Sasori, a man who had lost everything and vowed to keep fighting. Itachi would never condone Akatsuki, even if he took this secret to his grave. But at the very least, he could understand this pain even if Sasori did not. He'd lived it a thousand times over.

Orochimaru had just made the biggest mistake of his life throwing away the only person who would have defended him at the cost of his own dreams.

Sasori found himself dragging Deidara back to Rain more often than not. With Orochimaru, he'd preferred time away. Orochimaru had been all the dreary company he ever needed to satisfy this disgusting human need to associate with others. But Deidara had a tendency to push Sasori to extremes even the maddest of the mad would have avoided. Reprieve was sometimes necessary and welcome.

It was winter, and the tropical rains had turned to sleet. Sasori didn't care (he couldn't feel the chill, anyway), but it didn't stop Deidara from complaining about it.

"Dunno why they picked this hell hole for a base. Why can't we just meet on a beach or somethin'?"

"This isn't a vacation, Deidara," Sasori said as they made their way inside the tallest tower in the city.

"I don't get paid enough for this, yeah."

Sasori ignored him and removed his straw hat. The bell dangling from it tinkled lightly.

"Sasori, Deidara."

Sasori spared the blue-haired woman a passing glance. "Konan."

"Pein is resting. Don't disturb him. I'll be back to hear your mission reports in a few hours." Konan barely looked at the artist duo as she slipped out the door and into the freezing rain.

Deidara watched her go, a sour look on his face. Sasori said nothing and made his way inside toward the living quarters.

"Hey, wait up!"

Deidara jogged to catch up to his partner, but Sasori did not wait.

"I have repairs to do. Go entertain yourself for awhile."

Deidara sighed. "Whatever."

If Sasori's body were organic, his eye would have twitched at that inane word Deidara used too often for Sasori's taste. Deidara was tolerable as a partner, but he was too young and eager at times. But he would learn. Sasori had nothing but time these days.

Making his way to his room, Sasori resolved to fix up Hiruko, whose left arm had taken damage from one of Deidara's bombs on a recent mission. He hadn't had the time or tools to make the necessary repairs on the road, and now he craved some peace and quiet to finish the job.

Like most of the rooms in the Rain base, Sasori's was plain and sparsely furnished, which was just fine with him. He'd even had the bed removed to make room for a wide worktable. In this body, he wouldn't need a bed, anyway. In a few moments' time, Sasori had released Hiruko and several other battle puppets to hang up until he had a chance to tinker with them.

Time flew by when he was working with his hands, even now. As a child he would fiddle with puppet parts or sketch models, anything to keep his hands busy and distract him from looking around, finding no one there with him. It was easier to be alone when he was busy. The clock on Sasori's desk read 3:13 AM, but no one around here seemed to sleep much.

The occasional footsteps passed by his closed door now and then, more Akatsuki coming and going. He paid them no mind. Finally, when he was satisfied with Hiruko's mended left hand, Sasori rose and cracked his wooden knuckles, listening for signs of wear. Detecting none, he decided to find Konan and get the mission reports over with. The idea of Deidara having taken the initiative was laughable.

"If you want something done, always do it yourself," Sasori grumbled to himself as he made his way into the hallway.

A dark blue rug ran the length of the hallway over hardwood flooring. Similar wood paneling lined the walls and ceiling, and a few doors dotted the walls on either side. More bedrooms. Konan, however, would be in the north wing with Pein. Sasori turned to the left and resolved to find her when he heard something heavy slam against a wall somewhere.

Freezing, he narrowed his eyes and strained his hearing. After a tense moment of silence, he proceeded again only to pick up on a wet, rasping noise coming from the second door on the left. Someone was coughing violently. Sasori was not the type to pry into others' business, and better to let someone fall over dead and have nothing to do with it than to have to explain his involvement. But this time, curiosity had hooked him.

The second door on the left was Itachi's room.

The Uchiha kinslayer always kept to himself. Even Kisame didn't know much about him (only what Itachi wanted him to know). But that wasn't what piqued Sasori's interest in Itachi. Orochimaru had thrown his life in Akatsuki away coveting Itachi's Sharingan, and while Orochimaru was many things, stupid was not one of them. If Orochimaru had decided the Sharingan had value, then Sasori believed it. The question was, why?

Silent as death, Sasori approached Itachi's room only to find the door slightly ajar. That wasn't like Itachi at all. Sasori peered through the open door, honey eyes searching for his colleague. Itachi was across the room in the adjoining bathroom, hunched over the sink. Even from this distance, Sasori could see that he was shaking and fighting for control. Judging from the overturned rug on the floor, Itachi had been in a hurry to get in here.

Sasori pushed the door open fast enough for it to squeak on its hinges. Itachi, to his credit, remained still and calm.

"Something the matter, Itachi?"

For as long as Sasori had known Itachi, the younger man had been the embodiment of the perfect shinobi. He was powerful, cunning, notorious, and easy on the eyes. The perfect killer. There was a time when Sasori had envied Itachi his composure. The idea was ludicrous now.

"Just a cold," Itachi said, his voice raspy from hacking. "Your concern is appreciated, but unnecessary."

Itachi still did not turn to face him as he continued to grip the edges of his bathroom sink hard enough to hurt. Sasori could have smiled at the sight. Here was the great Uchiha Itachi, godlike shinobi, reduced to a shaking little leaf. It was a little nostalgic seeing him like this. Fragile. Frail. Humans were disgusting, after all. But Sasori had always had an eye for the morbid and the grotesque. He stepped over the room's threshold, not waiting to be invited.

"It must be a severe cold to cripple a man like you. You look like you've aged twenty years."

At this, Itachi did turn around but not before grabbing a nearby hand towel and wiping his mouth. Without his Akatsuki coat, Itachi was lanky and pale. Sasori gave him a quick once-over, looking for cracks in the mask. Itachi was too pale, corpse-like even, and his bangs were damp with sweat. His cheekbones were prominent, but in a way that suggested malnutrition to the trained eye. The hand towel he gripped in his hand was white, and the few incriminating bloodstains there felt like bullet holes. Peak physical condition could only hide so much, and it was already unbelievable how long Itachi had been able to conceal his condition. Sasori had to fight a smirk as he began to understand.

This man needed help. Desperately.

"It's not your concern," Itachi said.

Itachi was always so polite and soft-spoken, but Sasori could hear the warning underneath. How amusing. Itachi had a weakness, as everyone did, but this was not something Sasori had expected. It almost seemed cruel. Poisons were cruel, unfair. And Sasori was always looking for new poisons to add to his collection.

"It doesn't seem to be your concern, either." Sasori crossed his arms, thoughtful. "I'm sure you know what happens to us when we can no longer perform up to standard. Why haven't you fixed this?"

Sasori already knew, but he wanted to see what Itachi would do now. Itachi had secrets, just like him, but the difference between them was that Itachi lied to keep his. Like the terrifying illusions that had made him infamous, Itachi himself was a bit of an illusion, smoke and mirrors meant to distract and divert from whatever horrible truths he kept. If there was anything Sasori hated more than people who kept him waiting, it was the liars.

"I'm aware, and my personal affairs have never impacted my missions."

Sasori ignored Itachi's attempt to dodge. "Unless you can't fix it. If you're coughing up blood, the problem is in your lungs. A bit more serious than a common cold, but you already knew that."

Itachi remained silent. Ruby Sharingan watched Sasori, unreadable, and for a moment Sasori could understand what had had Orochimaru and Deidara so taken with the sight. Deidara, of course, preferred to forget that particularly embarrassing incident, but Sasori had to admit that the kid wasn't totally blind to the beauty of true power. An idea began to form.

"Or maybe you don't want to fix it. What would Uchiha Itachi gain from a slow and painful death?"

This got Itachi's attention, and Sasori found himself shoved against a nearby wall. Itachi had a hand around his throat, as if that would do him any favors. Sasori couldn't hold back his smile now.

"I could kill you," Itachi said offhandedly, like he was offering to teach Sasori how to play cards.

"Even you can't sell that lie."

Tense seconds ticked by and Sasori was about to cut the waiting short, but Itachi finally backed off. Sasori cracked the mechanical joints in his neck, glassy eyes ever trained on Itachi.

"What do you want?" Itachi asked. He tossed the bloodied hand towel on his bed, rumpled from recent use.

"I'm not here to blackmail you."

Itachi rubbed his eyes. "Everyone wants something, even if they don't know what it is yet."

Sasori thought about that.

Yes, that's true.

"If I told you I could find you a cure, what would you say?"

"I'd say it's not important."

"What could be more important than your own life?"

Itachi didn't respond. Nothing, of course, was more important that one's life. Sasori had always known this. It had kept him alive longer than most in their profession. And yet, here were more secrets. Deep and ugly. Sasori didn't care what Itachi's reasons were as long as they didn't interfere with his own agenda, but there was something fundamentally at odds between the two men. Secrets are knowledge, and knowledge is power. Orochimaru had been right about that.

"Certainly not family; you killed them all," Sasori went on. "Except for your little brother, of course. Does he know about your condition?"

Itachi watched Sasori carefully, his body tense and poised to attack at any moment, though he remained unmoving. "Leave it, Sasori. I said no."

"Because if you fight him as you are, you'll surely die. ...Or is that the point?"

"I don't owe you explanations for matters which do not concern you."

Itachi pushed past Sasori and held open the door. He was at his limit, it appeared, or perhaps he'd run out of lies for now. Either way, Sasori had heard enough. There was always tomorrow.

Pausing at the threshold, Sasori said softly, "He'll come after you one day. Are you so eager to die?"

Itachi met his gaze, solemn but steady. "If that's the hand fate deals me, then so be it."

Sasori released a sharp breath and looked away. "There's no such thing as fate."

He exited Itachi's room and continued down the hallway to the north wing as he'd originally planned. Itachi watched him go, thinking. It wasn't until Sasori had cleared the corner to an adjoining hallway that he heard Itachi close and lock his door.

You were wrong, old friend, Sasori thought to himself. Only death comes to those who wait.

Days at the main base were always dreary and slow. Itachi didn't mind coming back here, truth be told. He had just finished having tea with Konan, the only person in this group around whom he felt he could relax a little. She seemed to know what was on his mind without him having to say much. Companionable silences were a rare commodity, especially when he was so used to the screaming echoes in his head wherever he went. With Konan, there was only the rain and her soft breathing.

It had been three days since Itachi's run-in with Sasori, and he was still reeling over the encounter. He and Sasori hadn't had much interaction over the years other than the incidents surrounding Orochimaru's defection, but Sasori was infinitely more tolerable than his partner, Deidara. Itachi still did not understand what had turned Deidara against him, but there was no talking to the man. Sasori just didn't talk much to anyone in general.

Until now. Somehow, Itachi wasn't surprised that it had been Sasori to find out about his illness. Itachi took extra precautions around Konan lest she mention anything to Pein. Kisame didn't suspect how grave Itachi's condition was, and Itachi planned on keeping it that way. But Sasori was a whole other breed of monster.

"What do you think about Sasori?"

Konan spared Itachi a glance from her chair. Outside, the freezing rain clinked against the glass roof of the small veranda in which they usually shared tea whenever Itachi was in Rain.

"He's reliable."

"Is he?"

Konan set down her tea and gave Itachi her full attention. "As long as he sees equal benefit for himself, yes."

Itachi thought about that for a moment. "Nothing is free."

She watched him with sad, silver eyes. As much as she had come to enjoy Itachi's company over the years, there would always be something dividing them. Even now, if she'd tried to reach for him, she wouldn't quite make it. Itachi was meant to be seen, not kept, and Konan had never been able to keep anything without watching it shatter and cut her hands.

"No," she said. "But everyone has a price if you're willing to pay it."

Itachi rose, suddenly restless. He made to leave when Konan's voice stopped him.


He resisted the urge to look back at her. "I know."

She didn't try to stop him.

Itachi found Sasori with Deidara in one of the base's living rooms. Deidara was playing darts, tossing them lazily across the room to a tiny target on the opposite wall. Sasori sat at a small coffee table arranging chess pieces. As soon as Itachi entered the room, Deidara sneered.

"What do you want? Base isn't big enough for you or somethin'?"

"Deidara," Itachi greeted politely. He turned to Sasori, who hadn't bothered acknowledging him. "Sasori."

"I assume you play chess," Sasori said, moving some pieces around to their starting positions. Finally, he looked up at Itachi, expectant.

Itachi lingered. "I'm not terrible at it."

Deidara snorted. "Showoff."

"You refuse to learn, Deidara. Not that I'm surprised."

Deidara rolled his eyes. "Whatever, yeah."

He got up from his spot on the couch and pushed past Itachi, hitting his shoulder in the process. Itachi let the incident slide. If Deidara truly detested him for dragging him into Akatsuki, then Itachi could not blame him. Deidara was just another death rattle to add to the many that called for Itachi's blood.

Once Deidara was gone, Itachi approached Sasori and took a seat opposite him. The living room was nothing special. Other than the dartboard and a couple couches, it was practically empty. Itachi wondered if Sasori had brought the chessboard with him.

"Black or white?" Sasori asked.

"You can go first."

Sasori turned the board. "Black, then."

It started slowly. Itachi wasn't an avid player, but he enjoyed the mental stimulation whenever he had a chance. Kisame wasn't keen on games of the mind, so it had been awhile since Itachi had last played.

Sasori captured one of his pawns, and Itachi sat back, thinking.

"There's no cure," he said after a moment, advancing his knight.

Sasori's honey eyes flickered in Itachi's direction. "No."

Itachi had looked. Few medical ninja even recognized his rare ailment, and the ones that did had given him the same diagnosis. He would die before his twentieth birthday, and that was a conservative estimate. Three years seemed like forever to live with this curse, but he had no choice…

"But there are ways to mitigate your symptoms."

Itachi captured Sasori's bishop in a rather risky move that left him open to attack from Sasori's queen, which Sasori capitalized upon immediately.

"What exactly did you have in mind?"

Truly, he couldn't begin to imagine what a man like Sasori would ever want from him. But everyone had a price, just as Konan had said. Itachi would pay just about any price if it meant ensuring Sasuke's revenge.

"A simple trade. I have something you want, and you have something I want."

Itachi studied the chessboard, noting Sasori's setup for a possible check. "Death doesn't scare me."

Sasori chuckled, and Itachi looked up at him, a little surprised. He'd never heard the man laugh like this, soft and almost intimate. It sounded so real. Itachi rubbed his hands together to fight off a slight chill.

"What a human thing to say. But there's something even more precious to you than your bravery." Sasori smirked. "You may be fearless, but I bet whatever you're hiding isn't. What happens if you die tomorrow? Will you be satisfied then?"

Itachi schooled his features and forced himself not to swallow. "My situation isn't so desperate."

"I can give you time."

"What could be more important than your own life?"


Itachi grabbed his queen to keep his hand steady and moved her forward. But Sasori was half right. Itachi needed to live long enough for Sasuke to find his peace and not a day later. Until then, he couldn't afford to fall to this sickness. He couldn't do that to Sasuke.

"…How long?"

Sasori shrugged and casually knocked one of Itachi's pawns off the board with his remaining bishop. "Years, potentially. But it won't be pleasant. You'll suffer in other ways."

Itachi took out Sasori's rook with his queen, and Sasori narrowed his eyes at the move. "You just threw your best piece away." He captured Itachi's exposed queen easily. "Check."

Years were what Sasuke needed. Twelve and still a Genin, the boy had a long way to go. Itachi was already used to giving more than he had for his little brother.

"To win, one must be ready to sacrifice even his best pieces." Itachi moved his bishop into its final position. "Checkmate."

Sasori studied the chessboard, and after a moment he smirked. "Clever."

Itachi took a slow, steadying breath. His throat itched, but he quashed the feeling as best he could. If there was one thing Itachi prided himself upon, it was his self-control. Especially in front of someone who would sooner manipulate him at the first chance.

"What do you want, Sasori?"

Sasori leaned forward over the table and steepled his hands. Honey eyes held Itachi's gaze, amused, like he wasn't looking at a reflection of his own death. The Sharingan would never work on Sasori in its traditional fashion, and he knew it. Even though Itachi never liked to dwell upon the deaths of others, this thought disturbed him deeply.

"There's only one thing I really want, and to get it I need knowledge. Secrets. I'm sure you can understand what I mean."

Itachi remembered a dark, cold night in the rain, the mist so thick he could hardly breathe. And Sasori, laughing at himself, at his failure, at his loss until there was no telling whether he was truly laughing or screaming in pain. Itachi understood, perhaps more than he would have liked.

"My Sharingan."

Of course. It was all anyone ever wanted from him. It was his gift and his curse. There was no Uchiha Itachi without the terrible Sharingan.

"Allow me to study it. It's composition, your techniques, all of it. And in exchange, I'll give you all the time in the world."

Itachi remained silent. Sasori was asking for a hefty price, and it occurred to Itachi that this could get them both killed. But if Sasori was true to his word, that he could keep Itachi alive, then wasn't that worth the risk? Something told Itachi that Sasori never made bets he didn't think he could win.

Sasori mistook Itachi's silence for hesitance. "Don't misunderstand me. I'm only interested in research. I have no intention of stealing your eyes or taking over your body."

The pause that followed was extremely uncomfortable. They both knew where this was going, and neither seemed willing to pursue it. Itachi had a weakness, but so did Sasori. With a knife to each other's hearts, there was only one way to proceed.

"Fine," Itachi said. "I accept your terms."

Sasori held out his hand. "Then we have a deal."

Itachi took his hand and they shook on it, the deal done.

A deal between the dead and the damned.

For as long as Deidara had known Sasori, he knew the puppet master to be efficient with his time and his money. There was no bullshit with Sasori (unless they got to talking about art, and then Sasori was a tasteless fool). So for Sasori to detour after a mission just to visit a civilian clinic in the middle of nowhere was suspicious.

Deidara followed his partner at a slight distance, imagining why this was happening. Maybe Sasori had a secret lover in this Podunk mountain town. Probably a little nurse since he seemed into that kind of thing. The sick people thing, not the role-playing kink. As if it even applied to Sasori. Was he even a man?

Deidara choked on air at the thought and nearly tripped over himself. Sasori shot him a warning look over his shoulder, and Deidara violently waved him off, making believe he'd just had a spasm.

"Don't lag behind, Deidara."

"Wouldn't wanna interrupt, yeah," Deidara mumbled under his breath.

The town's main street was nothing more than a well-worn dirt road. The very few buildings around were dilapidated and probably leaked when it rained. A few sad locals trudged down the street carrying wilted vegetables or lumpy sacks of who knew what. The place was an old shit stain.

Sasori went inside what Deidara assumed was the clinic he'd mentioned when he announced this charming detour. He did that a lot. Deidara was sixteen, which was very young compared to Sasori, sure, but in their profession kids grew up fast. Why couldn't Sasori at least pretend like he cared about Deidara's opinion on where they went? He kicked a pebble at the clinic building's wall, watching it bounce off and settle into the dirt, sad and alone.

"Just great," Deidara grumbled to himself.

There was nothing left but to follow Sasori inside. The redhead was busy conversing with the hefty, blonde receptionist. Deidara rolled his eyes and approached, leaning over the counter. The receptionist, who was probably also a nurse here, gave him an odd look. He flashed her a devious grin and she blinked, hurriedly looking away.

"I need it now," Sasori continued, sparing Deidara a glance.

"The whole list, sir?"


The receptionist looked over a small slip of paper Sasori had passed her, her brow scrunched up like she couldn't pronounce the words on it. "All right, I'll see what I've got. Have a seat."

Sasori and Deidara watched her disappear through a door in back.

"So you're buying drugs now?" Deidara asked.

"They're not for me."

"Y'know, I'm pretty sure it's illegal to buy drugs for other people, yeah."

Sasori shot him a dirty look. "Try not to give me more reasons to find you incompetent. If you can."

"Oh lighten up, Master Sasori. Did you throw out your sense of humor with your human body, too?"

"You are not funny."

"I'm fucking hilarious, yeah."

"Deidara, don't make me kill you in the middle of this upstanding establishment."

Deidara grinned and poked Sasori in his wooden chest. "Hey, whaddaya know? You can make a joke, after all."

Deidara had to pull his hand away and take a step back before Sasori sliced him with a knife hidden in his palm. That was when the receptionist returned with a cardboard box in hand.

"Sir? You're in luck. My boy just brought back a new supply of the moon root you wanted. It's all here with the other items on your list."

"Good," Sasori said, ignoring Deidara and fishing in his pockets for money.

"I sure hope this'll help your friend, bless his heart," the receptionist said.

Sasori slammed the money on the counter and pulled the cardboard box toward him. Deidara recognized that look, and he tensed. Someone might, in fact, die here today. But Sasori blinked and turned away from the woman.

"It's all there," he said coolly, heading outside before she could say another word.

Deidara hurried after him, eager to get away from the old people smell in the clinic. Sasori seemed to be in a hurry to get out of town, and for once Deidara didn't feel like griping about the rush.

"Take us out of here," Sasori said once they were far enough out of town not to draw attention to themselves.

Deidara brightened and sculpted a clay bird for them to fly back to Rain. Sasori was almost always stuck inside Hiruko, so flying wasn't an option. Secretly, Deidara liked flying them. It was like Sasori depended on him for this, and flying was Deidara's area of expertise.

Up in the air, the pair lapsed into silence. Deidara sat in front, controlling the bird, and Sasori was in back with the box of stuff he'd purchased at the clinic. Medicine, most likely. Deidara thought about what the receptionist had said to piss off his irascible partner.

"So, who's dying?" Deidara ventured.

Even if Sasori didn't want to talk much, Deidara had plenty of time and opportunity to pester the older man. Like Twenty Questions, except the object was to get Sasori to answer just one without getting violent.

"You, if you don't shut up."

Nineteen left.

"What's in the box? Kakuzu's acne meds?"

Deidara could practically feel Sasori rolling his eyes.

"Okay, well why the hell did we have to come all the way to this shithole, huh? You got family here or somethin'?"

Sasori sighed. "No, obviously."

Well, that was kind of an answer. Deidara considered it progress. Now, all he had to do was wait for Sasori to decide whether or not to be forthcoming before he fired off more questions.

They soared over the plains of southern Earth Country, rocky and barren and utterly devoid of life. Deidara had never cared for his native country, and the view wasn't helping any. He figured they had a few hours before they would reach Rain.

"It's the only place that stocks the particular ingredients I need," Sasori said after a short while.


"Seriously? That dump? There's gotta be something better, yeah."

"I've looked. It's not like I enjoy visiting such a place."

Deidara kept his gaze fixed on the horizon. "I guess whoever it's for must've made you a good offer."

Sasori shifted a little behind him. "Yes. It was a very good offer."

Usually Deidara didn't care to pry into Sasori's affairs. The guy always seemed to be plotting something, and Deidara didn't want to get dragged in too deep with this Akatsuki business. He still planned to get out one day. But even he could appreciate the gravity of a secret when it was right in front of him. Whatever this one was, it was big and ugly. Best to leave it alone.

For now.

Deidara began blabbering away about some nonsense or other to fill the space between them, as per his usual. Sasori was mostly silent, but he didn't tell him to shut up again.

It had been a long time since Sasori had been down here. He and Orochimaru had kept a lab in the badlands between the Rain and Fire Countries where they ran most of their bigger experiments. Sasori hadn't planned on returning here at all after Orochimaru defected except to burn the place down, but he'd never gotten around to it. No time, he told himself, but of course this was a lie. The only person Sasori ever lied to was himself.

The place was just as he'd left it last. Jars of pearlescent human life force collected dust on the shelves. Severed body parts, floating in preservative chemicals, sat in jars on a desk in a far corner. The smell of old blood and bleach permeated the space. Memories. Nightmares. Home.

Two operating tables sat in the middle of the room, and Sasori ran an unfeeling hand over the leftmost one. This was the place he'd been reborn, the end of pain and suffering. Or so he'd thought. He snatched his hand away, the sting of failure still fresh in his mind.

"You can lie down here," Sasori said.

Itachi walked around him, ruby eyes taking in the surroundings but giving nothing away. Words would have been redundant when they were both thinking the same thing.

"I want to run some preliminary tests before I begin the experiments," Sasori explained.

Itachi studied the machinery surrounding the operating table, like alien technology. Shinobi didn't have much use for technology beyond radio communication, but medical nin did. He wasn't surprised that Sasori and Orochimaru had invested in the best equipment for their heinous experiments. All the in the name of science, of course.

But then, who could argue with the results? Sasori was practically indestructible.

"You procured the medication I'll need?" Itachi asked, resting a hand on the table.

"Yes. It takes time to prepare, but by tomorrow you'll have it."

Itachi nodded and situated himself prostrate on the operating table. Sasori wasted little time in powering up some of the bizarre equipment around the table. He attached wires to Itachi's temples with tiny suction cups and clicked a few buttons. Itachi remained motionless the entire time.

"You say you want to know my secrets," Itachi said. "What's the point? The Sharingan will die with Sasuke and me."

Sasori had expected Itachi to be curious. "Orochimaru saw value in your Sharingan. I want to know why."

But Itachi already knew that. Sasori felt a bit like he was reciting a script when he spoke with Itachi. The boy wasn't much older than Deidara, and yet it felt like he'd lived a thousand lifetimes already. It was almost comforting in the way shared misery is comforting. The silence wasn't so lonely when Itachi was around.

"He saw what everyone else sees: a weapon. That's all."

Sasori flicked a few switches, and a buzzing sound filled the room, like something was charging. "No, he saw eternity. It's not the same."

"Strong or weak, everyone dies. It's only a matter of time."

Sasori closed his fingers around a thick lever but stayed his hand a moment. Itachi didn't understand, but Sasori hadn't expected him to. No one understood. Only Orochimaru. Only him.

"You're looking at it all wrong. I've removed time from the equation. There's nothing left but eternity."

Sasori pulled the lever and the machines whirred to life. Itachi's Sharingan began to spin and expand as his chakra leaked into the air like a dark miasma. Sasori bared his teeth in a grin.

Now, the truth.

Konan had been right; Sasori was reliable when the bargain was mutually beneficial.

"Take one pill twice a day, every day," Sasori had explained, handing Itachi a plastic bag with homemade capsules.

"What is it?"

"It will reduce the bleeding in your lungs. And this," Sasori handed Itachi a small box of tea, "is for your cough. One cup at night."

It seemed too good to be true, and Itachi had voiced as much.

Sasori smirked. "I warned you this would be unpleasant. Every medication has a side effect, but it shouldn't be anything you can't manage."

It was like being reborn. After only a week of taking his medication, Itachi noticed considerable improvement. He'd only had one bad coughing spasm since starting the regimen, and the blood it drew up was less than half what he usually produced. Even Kisame noticed the change in him.

"Hey kid, did you finally get laid?"

Itachi nearly choked on his water. The partners were in a small café sharing a plate of dango in between missions. Itachi patted his chest with a fist, trying to quell the coughing spasm from water going down the wrong tube, and set down his cup.

"No, but I am feeling better, if that's what you mean."

Kisame chuckled. "Nothing in this world's better than getting laid. What're you now, fifteen? Sixteen?"


"You're an old man, Itachi. Come on, live a little. Life's short."

Itachi smiled a little. "Yes, it is."

But not too short. For the first time in recent years, Itachi thought his perfect plans might actually pan out the way he'd intended.

Until the migraines started. Those were manageable. As a child, Itachi had often suffered from severe headaches due to overuse of his Sharingan. This was nothing new, and pain was an afterthought. But the night terrors were another story. They began as unpleasant dreams he didn't quite remember in the morning, and all that remained was a chill and a racing heart when he started awake.

But they got worse as the months dragged on. He saw Sasuke being slaughtered in his sleep by Konoha ANBU. He saw Danzo interrogating Sasuke about old wrongs that had nothing to do with him. They all ended the same way: in Sasuke's death. Sometimes Itachi relived the Uchiha massacre, except he rammed his sword through Sasuke's heart. Other times he ripped Sasuke's eyes out to steal for himself. And always, Sasuke screamed and Itachi laughed. Those were the worst, when he awoke to the sound of his own laughter.

He asked Sasori about the side effects eventually during one of their sessions.

"I warned you this wouldn't be pleasant. Everything comes with a price," Sasori said, jotting down notes in his book.

Itachi couldn't argue with that. He'd known his situation was dire from the start, but just a little hope went a long way. He was doing better, and by Sasori's calculations he'd live to see his twenty-fifth birthday if he didn't overtax himself and took his medications. Surely, Sasuke would be ready to defeat him by then…

"…You're sure about the timing then?"

Sasori narrowed his eyes in warning. "If I could die, I would stake my life on it."

"Of course. I didn't mean to offend you."

Sasori said nothing to that and directed Itachi to stand in position. "Your Amaterasu technique is one of your most powerful, I hear. The fire that burns for seven days and seven nights."

Itachi said nothing.

"Show me."

Itachi still did not understand why Sasori was so interested. He could appreciate the connection with Orochimaru, but it seemed weak. What good was a dying breed? But this was the price of meddling with time. Nothing was free.

Itachi's eyes changed to their Mangekyou form, and he prepared to gather chakra for his signature technique. Sasori's voice stopped him.


Cool pinpricks of chakra touched his temples, almost soothing but on the verge of knife wounds if he dared move. Sasori's strings were notorious. It was said that he could control anyone, even against their will.

Well, not everyone, apparently.

Itachi kept that thought to himself.

"Continue," Sasori said.

Itachi released his technique and the training area they occupied turned into a sauna. The air was superheated under the force of his technique. Devil's fire. This power was never meant to exist. Stygian flames flared bright and dark all at once, a trick of the light, and Sasori said nothing. The hum of chakra in Itachi's temples was faint but noticeable.

"That's enough," Sasori said eventually.

Nothing changed, and Sasori didn't remove his strings.

"I'm not able to extinguish it," Itachi admitted, reverting his Sharingan to its normal form.

Sasori withdrew his chakra strings and frowned, thoughtful. "That's interesting. You haven't tried?"

"It's impossible."

Sasori chuckled. "Nothing is impossible, Itachi."

Itachi watched as Sasori approached the black fire and tried touching it with his chakra strings. They caught fire, and the smell of burning chakra filled the area. Sasori withdrew.

"Seven days and seven nights," Sasori said to himself, his gaze faraway. Eventually he turned back to Itachi. "It's just a chemical reaction in your chakra. You think it has to burn for seven days and seven nights, but it's all in your head."

"I don't usually wait around for a week until it burns out."

"Maybe you don't have to."

"What are you getting at?"

"That's your problem. You're so resigned to your so-called 'fate' that you ignore opportunity when it comes knocking. Where do you think you'd be if I hadn't heard you dying that night in Rain?"

"Where would you be?"

Lies were always friendlier than the truth. They consoled and comforted. They covered up his filth and his ugliness. Withholding the truth was a kind of lie, a kinder version. But Itachi was starting to see that his lies would not work so well on Sasori. In the darkest depths of his imagination, he wondered if the only thing keeping Sasori from realizing the horrible truth was Sasori's own indifference. Misanthropy made him an ally. Monsters sought out other monsters. Was this all that was left to Itachi?

It was more than he deserved.

"I would be working on Plan B. You should always have one of those. You never know what could go wrong."

But Sasori didn't need a Plan B now. Itachi didn't doubt that Sasori had one, but he also didn't doubt that Sasori had foreseen not having to resort to it. Itachi had acquiesced to this arrangement, and Sasori had planned the entire affair. It was fate, no matter how much Sasori tried to ignore it. And Itachi's fate would find him eventually. He was counting on it.

"No, I suppose not," Itachi said.

But like Sasori, he wasn't relying on Plan B, either. There was only one path he would accept, and he would die to reach it.

"What are you doing with him?"

Itachi ignored the man as he stared out over the panorama of a twilit Hidden Rain. It was beautiful at this time of day, just as Konan had said.

"Itachi, I asked you a question."

Itachi closed his eyes and bade his heart be still. This creature was his most pressing concern. Uchiha Madara, or so he called himself, had found him at a young age and attempted to mold him to his likeness. Within Akatsuki he went by 'Tobi,' the hapless underling of Zetsu, but to Itachi he was the true leader of the organization and the biggest threat to Itachi's plans for Sasuke. There was no one Itachi wanted to erase from the face of the earth more than this man.

"Nothing. He's my colleague."

Madara made no move to approach. Itachi could picture him in that orange mask, a decoy to hide his true form. Whoever he was, a scorned Uchiha or otherwise, he wasn't the real Uchiha Madara. Of this Itachi was certain.

"He's an annoyance. Orochimaru is an enemy of Akatsuki, and Sasori was his partner. If you allow him to acquire your Sharingan, that will be the end of Sasuke's vendetta. I'm sure you don't want that."

Itachi pursed his lips. Above, thunder rumbled with the onset of rain. "Sasori is not in league with Orochimaru. He simply holds a petty grudge. Nothing more."

A hand on Itachi's neck yanked him back a foot, but Itachi didn't resist. It was best not to provoke 'Madara'.

"If I find out you're plotting something, I will kill you before your illness can. I promise you that."

Madara released him and stormed off without another word. Itachi remained on the base roof, unmoving.

"Did he threaten you?"

Itachi turned at the sound of Konan's voice. She approached him, Akatsuki coat billowing behind her. Itachi instantly relaxed.

"It's nothing."

They watched the oncoming storm until the rain began to fall. Itachi closed his eyes, imagining the plunge and the abrupt halt as the drops hit the pavement below.

"He needs to be stopped," Konan said softly.

"The time isn't right. Not yet."

"I'm worried about Nagato."

That was putting it lightly. And what did Itachi know about any of this, anyway? Eighteen and without a single person who loved him in all the world, he shouldn't have been at the center of this maelstrom. Even if he told himself that Sasuke still loved him deep down, it was never enough. Who could love a man who repeatedly subjected his own little brother to emotional terrorism? The only person Itachi could never lie to was himself.

"We'll stop him, one day. But not today."

Konan put a gentle hand on his shoulder and Itachi had to physically restrain himself from leaning into her touch. It wouldn't bring him any closer to her, anyway.

"Or die trying," she said.

She left him then, lingering only briefly in the roof's doorway before disappearing.

"Or die anyway," Itachi said to himself.

The rain poured hard and heavy.

"I got a nice straight. Suck it."

"Full house."

Deidara's face fell and he threw down his cards. "You're a cheating piece of shit."

Kisame grinned. "It's called talent, kid. Get some."

Deidara grumbled curses under his breath and reshuffled the cards. Poker was his game of choice when he bothered with games. He liked the fast pace and the necessity to improvise on the spot before a rival could call his bluff. Anyone could win.

"This is some bullshit. I've won most of the hands anyway, yeah."

"Well then, let's bring in some fresh meat to make this more interesting. I'll still cream you either way."

Deidara rolled his eyes. "Oi, Sasori, come play with us."

Sasori approached the card table and peered at the set up. "I don't do poker."

"You mean you can't, yeah."

"…Deidara, shall I relieve you of your only visible eye?"

"Oh come on, Sasori. Don't be such a stick in the mud," Kisame goaded.

Sasori got that murder look he tended to get when someone pushed him over his limit.

"I'll play," Itachi said, taking a seat beside Kisame.

"You gotta be kiddin' me," Deidara grumbled.

"Afraid I'll beat you, Deidara?" Itachi said, gathering up the cards to reshuffle the deck.

Deidara growled. "Fuck no. As if I'd lose to the likes of you, yeah."

"Sasori?" Itachi said, dealing him a hand anyway.

Deidara watched as Sasori and Itachi shared a look, but he couldn't glean anything from it. Sasori sat down to play, though. Odd. Lately, Sasori had been disappearing whenever they reported in Rain, and Deidara had a strong suspicion that whatever was happening had something to do with Itachi. But what would Sasori and Itachi possibly have to discuss? Something was fishy, and he didn't like it one bit.

"Now this is a poker game," Kisame said, rubbing his hands together and grinning.

Deidara dealt the cards and the game continued. As it turned out, Itachi was quite good at bluffing. No surprise there, Deidara thought bitterly. All Itachi needed was a goddamned guitar and some tattoos and he could've made a decent living selling sad songs to young girls across the continent. The thought made Deidara roll his eyes. Itachi would probably be good at that, too.

"Call," Sasori said.

"You know, Sasori, the point of this game is to bluff your way to the pot. You can't win if you don't lie," Kisame said, raising the pot.

The players showed their hands and, sure enough, Sasori lost the round. "A game based on lies is a farce," he said. "Wouldn't you agree, Itachi?"

Itachi laid down his cards. "I think it depends on what's at stake."

Deidara looked between his partner and his hated colleague. Somehow, he was going to get to the bottom of this. "One more round, yeah."

Kisame was dealer this round, and the bets came slowly. Deidara tried to read the others' expressions, but it was near impossible. Sasori was totally unreadable, but the key with him was to watch his reactions to the pot. Kisame was a decent bluffer, but he got excited too easily. And Itachi was so engrossed in his own lies that maybe he believed them himself. Deidara rearranged his cards, thinking.

The door to the living area opened suddenly and Konan walked in. "I just received word that Sound and Sand have launched a siege against Konoha."

Everyone turned to look at her.

"Really? Someone starting a war?" Kisame asked, only mildly interested.

"Yes. Orochimaru," Konan said. "Zetsu confirmed that he murdered and impersonated the Fourth Kazekage in order to infiltrate Konoha. The battle is dying down as we speak, but Konoha is in ruins."

Deidara glanced at Sasori. He was aware that Orochimaru used to be Sasori's partner in Akatsuki before Deidara came along, but that was the extent of his knowledge. Sasori didn't seem to react to the news at all.

Itachi, however, stood up to leave. "Kisame and I will go to Konoha to investigate. We may be able to procure the Nine-Tails Jinchuuriki in the chaos."

"I'll relay the message to Pein," Konan said, following him out.

Kisame also rose to leave. "Well, looks like I'll get to see a little action soon, after all. See you."

Deidara sighed dramatically and threw down his cards. "Typical. I was winning and a war has to break out, yeah."

Sasori had not said a word since the announcement, but now he rose slowly and walked around the card table, his wooden fingers running lightly over the discarded playing cards.

"Hey, Orochimaru was involved. You wanna check it out?"

Sasori stayed his hand across the table where Itachi had laid down his hand facedown and pulled the cards toward himself. "No," Sasori said, honey eyes examining the cards in his hand. "Itachi and Kisame are already going."

Deidara shrugged it off. Sasori got a little weird when the subject of Orochimaru came up. In the past, Sasori hadn't liked discussing it much, so Deidara let it go. What did he care, anyway?

"What'd Itachi have? Did I beat him?"

Sasori set down the hand Itachi had just before abandoning the game: two pairs of aces and eights.

"Dead man's hand, huh?" Deidara said. "Wouldna beat my flush. Even Itachi can't win 'em all, yeah."

Sasori stared at the cards, his expression unreadable. "No, he certainly can't."

Deidara frowned. Once again, he felt like he'd just tripped over some ugly secret watching Sasori tap the cards with a carved finger.

"Come on. We have our own mission to accomplish," Sasori said, turning to leave.

Deidara got up but his gaze lingered on Itachi's cards.

Dead man's hand.


It was just a stupid game, anyway.

Two years Sasuke had been with Orochimaru, and Itachi still could not quite accept it. He was sure his little brother was strong, but Itachi had seen the effects Orochimaru had on people. Everything Itachi did was too little, too late these days. Pein had forbidden interference with Orochimaru (well, Madara had, to be precise) because Akatsuki's main target was still the nine Jinchuuriki. Pulling Sasuke out of Sound had crossed his mind more than once, but then what? Return him to Konoha? Sasuke had left of his own free will, driven out by Itachi's brand of mental torture. No, Sasuke would not go back willingly, not until Itachi was six feet under. Maybe not ever.

As always, Itachi kept these thoughts to himself. If anyone should ever find out about his true intentions, it would mean the end of him. The end of Sasuke. Potentially the destruction of Konoha, as Akatuski would likely tear the place down to get to the Nine-Tails Jinchuuriki. He was trapped in the web of his own lies and the only way to avoid the spider's jaws was to spin more lies.

Itachi had disposed of all clocks in his possession. The infernal ticking drove him mad. One minute more that Orochimaru had to manipulate Sasuke. One minute closer to Itachi's own death, but not at Sasuke's hands. Sasori's medications worked, but Itachi knew their effects wouldn't last forever.

"There is a way to cure you permanently," Sasori said as they sat together in a seedy bar in Rain late one night.

"I'm not interested."

Sasori leaned back in his chair, bemused. "I wouldn't even have to turn your whole body; just the parts touched by your disease. The lungs, the heart, the liver." He paused a moment and lay a hand over the place where his heart would have been. "I'm good at what I do."

Itachi took a sip of his drink, ignoring the alcohol burn in his throat. "It wouldn't serve my purposes."

"Everyone has a price, Itachi. Even you."

"My price isn't immortality."

Sasori chuckled. "Yes, you would sooner toll your own bell. Or maybe you can't tell the difference between your own lies anymore. What do you really want?"

"What does it matter? I'll be dead before long either way."

"It always matters."

Itachi swirled his drink. "When will you make your move against Orochimaru?"

Sasori was silent for a moment. The bad blood between the old partners was no secret, but Sasori had given no indication over the years of any intention to act on it. Itachi, however, had gleaned a special insight into the puppet master's habits. Having lived on the receiving end of Sasuke's festering hatred for most of his life, Itachi knew hatred when he saw it, even in Sasori's carefully guarded, glass eyes.

"Surely you want revenge," Itachi continued.

Sasori glared at him. "Revenge is for spoiled children. A fool's errand. My intentions are not so trivial."

It was rare that Itachi concerned himself with others, mostly because he had bigger problems to worry about. But Sasori was interesting in that Itachi could not figure him out. On the surface, Sasori appeared to be another Orochimaru only interested in the kind of power that came from cheating death. But it wasn't like that at all. He wasn't in it for power or glory, but for something much more personal. Secrets, knowledge, schemes…all for what? Whatever game Sasori was playing, it was much bigger than what he appeared.

"Revenge would bring you peace."

"No. Only war can bring peace. Your eyes are gifted, but you're blind to the bigger picture. Do you really think your brother's revenge will be the end? That your death or his would be the end? Death is only a challenge, not a defeat."

"You're a terrible liar," Itachi said. "If you think you can fool either of us into thinking you don't want Orochimaru dead, then you're the one who's blind."

Sasori shook his head. "So the kid was right. The difference is vision, after all," he said more to himself than to Itachi.

Sasori got up, but before he left Itachi alone to finish his drink he stopped beside him. "The truth is the best lie, Itachi. It cuts deepest. Somewhere in that failing heart of yours, you know I'm right."

He left and Itachi pushed his drink away, troubled. For the first time in his life, he was questioning whether shouldering this terrible truth alone had really been the best option.

When Uchiha Madara came to him, Sasori wondered what had kept him so long. The fact that he approached Sasori in his workshop room only added insult to injury. Puppets and parts were only a flick of the wrist away should this turn ugly, but Madara hardly noticed.

"I know you know who I am, Sasori," the masked shinobi said.

Gone was the sing-songy lilt Tobi usually employed whenever Sasori had the displeasure of seeing him around the main base. This man was the one Orochimaru had warned him about, the one Sasori had stumbled upon the day Orochimaru tried to take Itachi's body years ago.

"Do I? Perhaps if you removed that mask," Sasori said, facing the man.

"Whatever deal you struck with Itachi ends today."

"What's the matter? Has your favorite pet strained his leash too hard?"

Madara chuckled and Sasori drew chakra to his fingers instinctively.

"I have no quarrel with you." Madara walked further into Sasori's room and touched a hanging puppet carapace with a gloved hand. "But I can't have you interfering with my plans."

"I don't care about your plans. Isn't that the deal? So long as we accomplish Akatsuki's goals, we're free to pursue our own agendas."

"And what exactly is your agenda? Manipulate Itachi? Turn him against me?"

Sasori smirked. "It sounds like you're doing a fine job of that all on your own."

Madara moved with impossible speed. A sword hovered just over Sasori's concealed life force canister, shaking. Translucent chakra threads wrapped around it from blade to hilt, snaking up Madara's forearm.

The lighting in Sasori's room was dim, but from this proximity he could make out the glow of a Sharingan through the lone eye hole in Madara's mask.

"Orochimaru divulged a bit more than just your pseudonym, Madara."

Madara flickered and Sasori's strings clenched through his arm and sword, as though they had become incorporeal. He then stepped back over the threshold and sheathed his weapon.

"Consider this your only warning. There is a difference between eternity and immortality. You're not invincible."

Madara disappeared and Sasori threw a concealed knife at the puppet Madara had touched, impaling it between its painted eyes. Time was running out. It always was. The time to act was nearly upon him, and if he didn't do it soon, he wouldn't get another chance.

Time would always be a part of the equation. It was time to stop lying to himself.

"What is it about Itachi, anyway? Why's everyone got it bad for him?"

If Sasori could roll Hiruko's eyes, he would have. Waiting in this damn cave with Deidara for their pesky pursuers was grating on his nerves. The lot was a bunch of incompetent fools if they couldn't even figure out how to get past the concealment seal on the cave.

"You're one to talk. One might say you have an unhealthy obsession."

"That's rich. I just want the guy dead, yeah."

"Wait a bit. Death always comes to those who wait."

Deidara fell mercifully silent for a bit. He rolled over the dead Kazekage's body, kicking it a bit to make it more comfortable, then sat back down.

"He's the one you got the medicine for way back when."

Sasori didn't have to answer a question to which they both already knew the answer.

"That's some crap, if you ask me."

"No one asked you."

Deidara ignored him and prattled on. "I mean, don't get me wrong; I hate the guy and I'm gonna make him pay for underestimating my art. But even that peacock doesn't deserve to go like that, shitting himself in a sick bed, yeah."

"How positively touching."

"Nah, I'm gonna kill him myself. I even got the perfect technique to do it…"

Sasori tuned Deidara out as he went into detail about some jutsu that could explode on the microscopic level. Orochimaru was weak from his fight against the Third Hokage some years ago, and Sasori knew he was running out of time on his current body. He would need a transfer soon, and Sasori planned to intercept him before he could do just that. In ten days at the Tenchi Bridge, Sasori would meet with his spy, Yakushi Kabuto, and use the man to infiltrate Orochimaru's hidden Sound base. With Deidara along for the ride, they would have ample firepower to take the place out.

"If you see my brother there…"

Sasori dispelled the memory of his last conversation with Itachi just before this mission when something hit the giant boulder blocking the cave entrance, thunderous. Deidara winced at the sound. Spider-web cracks expanded from the epicenter of whatever had blasted the rock, and chunks fell to the cave floor in sonorous claps. After a few seconds, all that was left of the behemoth boulder was a cloud of dust obscuring the view.

The enemy stepped through the haze on clicking heels and walking sticks, a young girl and an old hag. They were all that was left after Deidara sped off with the dead Kazekage, headstrong as usual.

"I hate to drag things out," Sasori said, swishing Hiruko's scorpion tail back and forth. "So I'll kill you both quickly."

"I won't let you get away with this," the girl said, glaring at him.

Sasori chuckled. Bold words for a girl who looked like she belonged in a garden rather than in a fight with Akasuna no Sasori. "Then let's begin, girl."

Under dark skies roiling with smoke and thunder, Itachi found precious seconds to reflect. This was his moment, his time to fall under the beautiful rain as he'd longed to do every day watching it fall next to Konan. This would be peace after his long war.

Sasuke heaved, tired but never finished as he stood proudly atop the Uchiha monument, his hand raised to the heavens to summon thunder itself. In this moment, Itachi wanted so desperately to let the rains wash him away.

And then Sasuke cackled, his eyes mad with a rage he'd grown to cherish, for it was all he had left. Itachi had taken everything else. And he remembered.

"Do you really think your brother's revenge will be the end?"

All around Itachi, his devil's fire burned the earth, greedy and unquenchable. Seven days and seven nights, but he wouldn't be around to see it extinguish.

"It's all in your head."

"What have I done?" Itachi said to himself as he watched the monster he'd created turn the fury of their family upon him.

Itachi had always been a good liar, although he could never manage to lie to himself. But Sasuke, like all the others, had fallen under the spider's jaws, blind to the reality right in front of him.

"A game based on lies is a farce."

"Disappear with thunder!" Sasuke said, unleashing his terrible technique.

Itachi's good eye widened, blinded by the light, as a nightmare beast raced toward him from the heavens.

What have I done?

The collision was a brilliant explosion of light and fire. Itachi felt his skin begin to peel away under the extreme heat, his ultimate defense the only tether keeping him anguishing in the land of the living.

"Sasuke, you've become strong," Itachi said, forcing himself to stand and keep the urge to cough at bay. Blood leaked from his eyes and mouth, but he ignored it. Sasori's medications would not help him now.

Sasuke, resorting now to his Cursed Seal power, lost control and Orochimaru's latent chakra within him took over. Ten dragon snakes, each taller than a skyscraper, spouted from the seal, a manifestation of Orochimaru's taint within Sasuke.

"Orochimaru's Hydra technique," Itachi said, steadily making his way forward on shaky legs. He thought he might collapse from the overwhelming need to cough. Just a little more. "So even a small fraction of your chakra can accomplish this much."

The snakes hissed and snapped at Itachi's fully manifested Susano'o, as though they understood.

"I was hoping it would be the real you," Itachi said, raising a hand to command Susano'o. "But I know…whatever he has in store for you…will be much worse."

The legendary Sword of Totsuka swung hard and true, slicing off the hydra's heads and sucking Orochimaru's remaining power out of Sasuke. Itachi coughed, the rumbling in his collapsing lungs becoming nearly unbearable. He fell to one knee and the rain reached him again. He watched as his own blood mingled with raindrops and sank into the earth. Susano'o misted around him, a living ghost that burned him to the bones.

"If you see my brother there…"

Sasuke had nothing left. His demon was gone, his chakra with it. There was only the terrified little boy that had watched his beloved older brother slaughter their parents in cold blood. Itachi cried blood and rain and tears, moving ever closer. Just a little more.

"Let me guess: don't kill him."

Itachi wheezed, the blood filling his lungs and making it hard to breathe. No matter how many clocks he'd smashed, he could still hear that infernal ticking, finally slowing to mere heartbeats as he backed Sasuke up against a wall.

"If you see my brother there, don't tell him anything about me. About our deal. I don't want him to know…anything."

For the first time in their acquaintance, Sasori had almost looked sorry. "I don't make promises, Itachi."

Itachi smiled, reaching for Sasuke. "My eyes…"

They're no longer blind.

"I-Itachi," Sasuke rasped, fearful.

Itachi poked his little brother in the forehead. "I'm sorry, Sasuke," he said with his dying breath. "This…is the last time."

He fell with the rain, stones in his pockets dragging him to the bottom of the ocean, down and down to darkness, to the fall he'd watched with Konan all those gray afternoons in Rain, wondering what it would be like to finally hit the bottom, stop running. Madara was still a threat, and this wasn't over, but Itachi had done all he could. Sasori was still out there somewhere, somehow, and all Itachi could do now was believe that he could play the game better than all of them.

The light left Itachi's eyes as he finally found some peace.

I guess I didn't have a Plan B, my friend.

The last sounds Itachi heard were the rain and Sasuke's short breaths. He wondered if Sasuke was crying like he always had, but told himself that it was impossible to verify through the rain. He smiled.

Itachi had never been able to lie to himself.

The rains fell hard and unforgiving at the ruined Uchiha hideout, and Amaterasu still burned both dark and bright mere hours after the battle that had raged here. Sasori pulled his hood down to keep the rain from soaking him through completely. The battle between Itachi and Sasuke had been one for the history books, apparently, though Sasori himself hadn't taken the risk of showing up personally. Not with Madara and Zetsu sniffing around.

Now, with the fanfare over and the Konoha carrion birds gone, Sasori could finally investigate. He'd barely missed Sakura, but it was all the better. No sense in involving her with this plan until it was necessary. The information his spy had given him had led him to a cave several miles away from the battle site. Sasori found it with little trouble and took shelter from the rain. When he found what he was looking for, he held out the kerosene lamp he'd brought to get a better look.

"I told you to have a Plan B, Itachi, but you didn't listen," he said. "Lucky for you, I always do."

Itachi's battered corpse lay on the stone floor. It would be best not to linger. There was no doubt in Sasori's mind that Madara or one of his underlings would still be in the vicinity keeping watch. Itachi's eyes were too precious to leave unguarded like this.

"If you see my brother there…"

The young Uchiha had listened to Sasori in the end and taken matters into his own hands. Orochimaru had failed with Itachi, and now he'd failed with Sasuke, too. Sasori never did anyone any favors unless there was something in it for him (and there was always something), but something had compelled him this time.

"If you want to survive Orochimaru, I suggest you start playing the game by your own rules."

It was disgraceful how much Itachi loved his little brother. Anyone could have figured it out if only they'd bothered to pay attention. Sasori had always found humans fascinating. Disgusting, filthy creatures, but fascinating. And maybe somewhere along the way, he'd come to respect Itachi enough to do right by his brother. He could understand that feeling a little now, that human feeling of wanting to keep another close for whatever purpose. Some people, he supposed, were more precious than any secret.

But when Sasori had discovered that Itachi was a double agent working for Konoha the whole time, he almost didn't believe Deidara. It was an occasion for a drink, a toast to the spider's web that had ensnared them all. Sasori had to admit that Itachi was a true genius. A brilliant liar, maybe the best. He'd had everyone fooled, and he'd paid the ultimate price for his victory.

"To win, one must be ready to sacrifice even his best pieces."

Sasori kneeled next to Itachi's body and surveyed the damage. Calculating. "But you were wrong in the end, my friend. To win, I'll need all my best pieces. Sacrifice is not an option."

Outside, Amaterasu burned the rain and turned it to ashes. Devil's fire.


The dead man's hand.