Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or any of its characters.

Note: I originally wrote this for the Naruto Fic Festival 2013 over on AO3.

The Wings of Crows and Angels

When she lays a hand against his cheek, he flinches. "Has no one ever done that to you before?" she asks.

"Yes. Once."

Konan, like Kisame, is wise enough to know that it isn't a good idea to press Itachi on any matter that he obviously doesn't want to speak about. Unlike Kisame, however, she's bold enough (or foolhardy enough) to press him anyway. "...And?"

"And three weeks later, I cut her throat."

Sometimes he closes his eyes and interacts with her solely by sound and taste and touch.

A wise man once said that love is blind. This is not love, but Itachi is going blind.

She enters and leaves quietly, pieces of paper slipping under his door and reassembling on the other side. It reminds him of the ghost stories Shisui used to tell when they were children, of lost souls that could pass through walls and turn lives upside down without leaving a trace.

Konan's manner of entry and exit makes their encounters seem dreamlike. Yes, there's the sheen of sweat on his skin and the warm feeling of satisfaction afterward as testament to the fact that she was really there...but couldn't such things also happen in dreams? No one else in Akatsuki seems to know about their relationship, or if they know, they say nothing about it. The lack of mischievous grins from Kisame, lewd comments from Hidan, and resentful glares from Deidara reinforces the disorienting feeling of unreality.

I have enough ghosts following me already, he sometimes thinks. I do not need one more.

But he never turns her away.

The people of Amegakure speak of Konan with reverence. They call her their angel, and gather to listen when she appears with some new announcement or dictate from Pain. They excitedly point to the sky and call out to her when she soars overhead. It's a tradition to bring a newborn baby to the square in front of Pain's tower and hold it up, asking for Pain and Konan's blessing. Funeral processions pass through this square as well, pausing to display the coffin to the man and woman that Rain calls its saviors.

"Why?" Itachi murmurs one night. "Why does someone honored as an angel lower herself to consort with me?"

Konan's only immediate answer is to melt away into a thousand sheets of paper and slip out from under him. Itachi rolls over onto his back and watches the bits of paper dart and whirl above him. Eventually they settle and converge again. She lowers her face to his and whispers in his ear, "You were here when Hanzou's regime fell. No doubt you've heard the stories they tell: that Pain killed every man, woman, and child who was part of Hanzou's faction. Do you think he did that all alone? An angel is the hand of God, and is by his side when he goes into battle. How can you say I'm lowering myself when I have as much blood on my hands as you do?"

"Don't ever make the mistake of thinking that an enemy is no threat just because you've disarmed them," Ibiki had said once. "A shinobi's body is a weapon."

Itachi is acutely aware of the fact that this is true in a literal sense for Konan. She can peel away any segment of her flesh and turn it into shuriken or kunai. Most shinobi are hesitant about entering into intimate physical relationships because nakedness is vulnerability, but not so for her.

Itachi sees her carefully observing Tobi and knows that she's realized, as he has, that the masked man's objectives do not truly align with Pain's. As she watches the others, he watches her, searching for any sign of suspicion. Each time she visits him, he half-expects her embrace to turn deadly, edges of paper emerging from her arms and legs and torso to slice him like a thousand razor blades.

It takes a conscious act of will for Itachi to remain rigid and umoving under Pain's intense stare. Even for a prodigy like himself, the sheer power that radiates from their supposed leader's eyes is unsettling. It's been nearly five minutes since Itachi finished giving his report of the most recent mission he's undertaken for Akatsuki, and Pain hasn't said a word. He simply stands across the room, gazing unflinchingly into eyes that the most hardened of shinobi are afraid to meet.

"Have I displeased you in some way?" Itachi ventures to ask. This question is purely rhetorical, intended to prompt Pain to speak: Itachi's sure that if he had angered Pain, the two of them would be locked in combat right about now.

Pain is silent for a few more seconds, then he inquires, "What are your intentions toward Konan?"

This is so unexpected that for a second Itachi isn't sure he's heard correctly. It doesn't help that he's forcibly reminded of an encounter he'd had with Inuzuka Tsume as a child, when the clan matriarch had misinterpreted her daughter Hana's constant chatter about him.

"Konan-san is a valued comrade whose tactical prowess I respect," he answers smoothly.

Itachi's certain that there hasn't been any crack in his carefully constructed mask. No twitch of facial features or fidgeting has betrayed him, and even his body temperature and chakra output have stayed constant. But he's just as certain that Pain isn't buying it.

"I don't care what the members of Akatsuki do with each other outside of their mission duties, so long as it doesn't interfere with our goals. Konan's relationships are her own business, as yours are your business. However," he adds, and Itachi feels as if there's an immense weight pressing down on him from everywhere at once, "if you hurt her, I will tear your soul out of your body."

The charge of killing intent in the atmosphere keeps Itachi from drawing a full breath, so his voice is softer than he would have liked as he says, "I understand, Pain-sama. Will that be all?"

Pain nods, and the supernatural pressure lifts. Itachi turns to go but stops at the threshold of the room. He's heard the rumors that the shinobi of Amegakure whisper to each other in taverns and on training grounds: that God and his angel are lovers. It's a fact that everyone else in Akatsuki seems to assume as well. So he asks a question, even as part of his mind tells him that speaking further now would be a very stupid idea: "Why don't you care if Konan-san has a romantic relationship with someone else?"

He expects that he either won't get an answer at all, or that the answer will be a Shinra Tensei propelling him through the nearest wall. Instead, Pain says, "Because I was never the one she loved."

Outside, Itachi tries to take a deep breath of the fresh springtime air, but his inhalation turns into a coughing fit. These bouts have been getting more frequent over the past few months, and this time speckles of blood dot his palm when he lowers it from his mouth.

He smiles grimly. You won't need to go to the trouble of killing me, Pain-sama. I can take care of that on my own.

The pieces of paper swirl around him like snowflakes in a blizzard. Chakra congeals, and a face or a hand emerges from the maelstrom, then it melts away and all is whirling paper again. He's never seen her this agitated, even during the civil war. Not that there isn't reason for it-with the defeat of Hidan and Kakuzu, coming so fast on the heels of Sasori's death, it's starting to seem as though Akatsuki is falling apart.

He waits patiently for her to speak, or coalesce fully into a human form, or do whatever it is she's going to do. A hand reaches out from the storm of paper again, and this time it grasps his wrist. Her face and then the rest of her body become visible, but her features continually shift from one set of papers to another, staying in place as the whirlwind spins around and around. "There aren't many of us left," she says simply.

"No." And then, because some long-buried chivalric instinct insists that he should give her comfort, even if it's false, he adds, "But those of us who are left are the strongest ones. We can defeat enemies that the others could not."

"Akatsuki's goal cannot fail. It must not." There's a desperate determination in her eyes, one that he recognizes from the bright summer afternoon when he knelt on the shore of the Nakano River and watched his Sharingan spin into the pinwheel shape of the Mangekyou. He wonders if this is why they're drawn to each other, that each recognizes some sign of a kindred spirit, of one who has chosen to give themselves over entirely to an ideal that may well destroy them.

"You have no scars," she had observed on the first night they spent in each other's company. It might have seemed like an odd thing to notice to civilians, but among shinobi an unblemished body is a rarity.

"Neither do you," he'd reminded her.

Now he realizes that they were both mistaken. Or lying, either to each other or to themselves.

He wonders which one of them is better at that.

Itachi steps out from the unadorned wooden coffin and stands beside his former comrades. All of them are glancing around, taking in the sight of each other, trying to figure out exactly where they are and how much time has elapsed since their deaths.

"You see, Deidara, this proves that my viewpoint on art is correct. We have been restored as eternal beings, which cannot ever be killed."

"You've got it all backwards, yeah! This proves that my artistic vision is correct, because in this form I can create my final art over and over, existing in a state of permanent ephemerality!"

Kakuzu sighs. "First, what does 'permanent ephemerality' even mean? Second, stop bickering before I test how indestructible your new bodies really are. You're giving me a headache."

"You can't have a headache, you're dead, yeah!"

While Kakuzu makes good on his threat, Itachi scrutinizes the new form he's been given. The sacrifical corpse that holds his soul has tanned skin and hair so blond it's almost white. He knows this because Kabuto told him when explaining the jutsu that holds them in thrall. Their "containers," in many cases, look nothing like they did, so various bits of paper have aggregated to the corpses and formed a sort of outer shell that approximates their earthly appearance. The detritus that gives Itachi the appearance of his characteristic pale skin and jet-black hair carries a faint charge of residual chakra, so dim as to be almost undetectable even to the Sharingan. He has no trouble identifying the source, not when he's seen it glowing much brighter, the same radiant blue as her hair, standing out against the darkness of his living quarters back in Amegakure.

Unseen by any of the others, the corners of Itachi's lips lift into a tiny smile.

Because, whether alive or dead, she's not here among the damned.

Because even now, her wings still enfold him.