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to die, to sleep; (-to sleep: perchance to dream)

Chapter Text

Itachi dies in the war and goes to a place of healing and repentance.

 

It’s not nice, it’s not peaceful. It is fire and brimstone, and not-hell but not-heaven either. Every choice he’d made, all the consequences, intended or otherwise, are slammed into him. ‘Here’, the void says. ‘Look at what you’ve done. Understand and repent.’

 

For someone less mad and clever, it would have been agony. For Itachi, a tragedy of an Uchiha that kept harming his Person over and over and over again, convinced in his madness that he was helping -  after the agony of his life, this is nothing. This is terrible, yes, but also much more than he deserves.

 

He floats and - healing isn’t the right word. Recrimination and Judgment fall on him like a hammer, pain melts him down into something malleable, and so in the forges of death, he is - made anew.

 

It’s not the pain he minds, in the end, nor the flames. He’s an Uchiha, fire is his lifeblood. No, it’s the waking up. That, he minds.

Chapter Text

 

 

The difference between death and not-death is, evidently, an instinctual, primal awareness. Itachi was dead and now he is not. I think, therefore I am? Whatever. It helps that he has experience in these matters. He’s been alive, he’s been dead, he’s even been resurrected. 

 

Let’s develop this, then. If he’s not dead and he is not undead, that should leave him—alive? Alive and inhabiting a body that, even in the scant seconds he’s been inhabiting it, already shows its superiority to the previous model. He indulges in a long moment of luxuriating in the physicality of being here, wherever and whatever and whyever that might be. It’s fantastic, fuck, it’s almost meditative by itself. Goodness fucking gracious, how easily blood flows through his body, how effortlessly his lungs expand and collapse. Itachi is free of the metallic twang bubbling up with every breath and the looming air of sickness weighing him down. Nothing hurts. Nothing hurts.  

It’s a novel fucking state of being. It’s a miracle and a threat and fucking temptation all rolled into one. Alright, you’re getting nowhere. Settle down and let your mind reboot. This incomprehensible state he has found himself in deserves some savouring. He sleeps. 

 


 

The next time he wakes up, his neurons must have had some time to get to know each other, because he feels slightly more capable of following a thought to a conclusion, such as it may be. It seems, he decides, that something, somewhere, had judged him undeserving of death. Of peace. 

Which, yeah, is disappointing, but not all that surprising. He might not like it, but he can’t hate it, can’t hate anything when the air is so sweet and his mind so quiet. Already his time in the Void slips away like a half-forgotten dream, leaving behind only an impression of agonizing, purifying flame.

 

While on the topic of quiet minds, it's disconcerting how utterly devoid his mind is of gibbering insanity. He was never afforded the mercy of ignorance, before. Even if he were, damn, it would have to have been some industrial-strength blindness, to mask how thoroughly insane Itachi had been, before. Deafness too, if it had to strangle the sound of screaming in his mind, the shrill demands for death at every conscious moment.

Experimentally, morbidly, he thinks of Sasuke. There must be a limit to this new-found serenity and if there is anything sure to catapult him into depths of raving lunacy, it was thinking about the person—his Person—that he has failed so comprehensively. 

 

It doesn’t. He has more trouble grasping that than suddenly being alive. He feels regret, yes, and pain cut with fierce, protective love, but the toxic twist of madness is nowhere to be found. What, if anything, should be done about that strange, strange concept is beyond him. It seems that whatever happened to him, managed to rip away, or at least temporarily suspend, his curse of hatred. How—suspicious.

 

He drifts. 

 


 

It’s nice, being new, he decides. His body is perfect, which will not get old any time soon. Even now, when it’s communicating how unwise it was to sleep on hard stone for so long, it’s alarmingly healthy.

A part of him wants to stay like this until he dies of thirst and hunger. The larger, smarter part of him is aware that something must have plucked him out of death’s fiery embrace. Something went through the trouble of depositing his sorry soul into a brand new, flawless body. That took some doing, surely, and Itachi is aware of the chains he had been re-birthed into. Nothing is free. There is a task ahead of him and Itachi must complete it—or else. The rush of bitterness that sweeps through him is almost nostalgic. The never-ending servitude of one form or another is hard to appreciate but is, at least, a familiar touch-point.

 

He is to live, then. Which means opening his eyes. His presumably Sharingan-bearing eyes. How—wearisome. 

 


 

It appears he’s in a cave of some sort. He can see quite clearly, which is something to keep in mind. Other than softly glowing plants high up on the ceiling, it’s pitch black in the cave. He puts a pin in that thought, right next to all those other pesky questions like ‘Why am I not mad’ and ‘Why God, why am I alive’. Credit where credit’s due, it’s nice when the coefficient of terribleness decreases with each new question.

He’s not in the Elemental Nations, he knows. He knows that with the same shade of certainty that he knew he was dead before and that he is alive now. Some things, apparently, are known soul-deep. 

The process of sitting up goes—not as well as he’d have thought it would. His limbs are slow to move, achy and weak. His level of muscle tone is, frankly, alarming. With some rather creative scrambling, he manages to both sit up slightly and slide down the stone structure he’s been using as a bed. 

His first thought when he looks over his makeshift bed is, randomly, anvil. Wait. Why anvil? Itachi is a Shinobi first and Heir to a Noble Clan second. Nothing in his life—or death—should have made the leap to an anvil of all things. He’s seen—less than ten anvils in his whole life, back before. He knows precisely nothing about smithing other than it iron and fire are included somewhere along the line.

 

So—why? It doesn’t look very much like an anvil. Doesn’t look manmade at all, truly. It's the symmetry of it. The lines are blatantly on the other side of straight, so much so that it drives his eyes away. It’s unpleasant, being around supernatural things. It makes mortal minds bend around them, avoid the futile exercise of explaining the unexplainable. Itachi has spent enough time in his Summons’ realm to be aware of the phenomenon, even if crows weren’t much for construction. The few things they did build, though, felt very much like this. 

 

Moving hurriedly along, then. The cavern doesn’t feel supernatural in the same way, even if it makes up for it by its sheer majesty. The walls are high, carved out of silver-grey rock and covered in runic carvings of some sort. The floor is tiled with slabs of the same silver-grey, and are oddly warm, warmer than Itachi’s skin. Is that why he’s not shivering with cold, being naked and most likely underground? 

 

All in all, the chamber is very much in keeping with what Itachi has come to expect from the supernatural. Awe-inspiring, severe and not at all comforting—but undeniably beautiful. 

He turns his attention to a more pressing matter, which is his new body. 

He’s a—child? Estimating age with any real degree of precision is beyond him. Best guess would be the six-to-eight-year-old category. More important is how comically weak he is. Civilian-born (Civilian-spawned?) or not, it is hard to conceptualize a body that is so fucking functional and so severely lacking in muscle tone. It’s like, fuck, like he now belongs to a species that births their young fully functional, like horses or deer. His skin, holy Sage, his skin is just—never mind the scars, he doesn’t even have calluses. Fuck, he doesn’t even have wrinkles or beauty marks or anything. Lack of body hair is nothing new, Uchiha bred that out of their children a long time ago, but he had started training around age two. Callouses were a part of Itachi’s life long before he had a concrete self-concept.

 

Fuck, but this is weird. Okay. Calm down. Never mind the callouses. Why are you so focused on the fucking callouses? So he has good skin, go him. Move on, idiot, before you hurt your feeble little mind.

 

His Chakra is present, thank the Sage. Weak and understandably untrained, but present. That’s a massive weight off his chest. Weakness can be overcome by training, but living without Chakra is not something he particularly wants to experience. Especially with Godly-enforced missions hanging over his head. 

The pathways around his eyes are developed. More developed than they would be for a non-dōjutsu user. So, he has the Sharingan to contend with. A complicated cocktail of emotions swirls low in his belly when he considers that in any depth. Put it away, put it aside. There will be time yet to get over that particular complex.

More interesting, however, are the strange markings on his body. Which, really? Really Itachi? You just spent, not fucking five minutes ago, all that time whining about your soft skin, and you completely missed the full-body fucking tattoos? His priorities, boy are his priorities fucked. Moving on. The tattoos are—not tattoos, actually. They’re much too vibrant for straight-up ink. No, his skin is patterned, like a tiger’s underneath its fur. Only instead of pretty stripes, Itachi is covered with some sort of lettering? Or inactive Fūinjutsu? They’re mostly black, with some red thrown in here and there and—wait. Isn’t that? Isn’t that pattern sort of familiar? Maybe? He’s seen those shapes before, he’s seen them recently in fact, with how fresh the knowledge feels in his mind. What the fuck—

 

Oh. Oh, right. The walls. The walls are inscribed with the same fucking blocky script that covers him head to foot. Sure. Okay. That’s fine.

 


 

Alright, he scolds himself. That’s enough. Time to leave this eerie fucking place. First thing’s first, his Chakra might be meagre, but he should have enough control for a basic scan of his surroundings—

 

fire-evil-malice-pain-death-madness-FIRE

 

He slams his senses shut and mechanically forces his breath to remain steady even as his heart stops and stutters in his chest, too scared to race from the adrenaline but too panicked to do anything else. 

 

A sensor he is not, but a comatose Genin would keep over from the demonic presence so very fucking close. Is it even surprising that Itachi’s rebirth was deliberately placed within walking distance from a malignant force so potent, all the other monsters he’d faced so far pale in comparison? Kyūbi no Kitsune was, when it comes down to it, an Avatar of Inari-sama. It had no inherent evil. All nine Avatars absorbed human malice, amplified it and reflected it right back. This is—Who even knows what this is? Kaguya would be close, perhaps, but the rabbit-Goddess was—detached. She didn’t hate humans, much like humans didn’t hate a microscopic speck. This God, Demon whatever it is, hates him, hates everything, passionately and with focus. 

 

Itachi runs. The direction is unimportant—away, is the goal. Amaterasu wept, at least the thing hasn’t noticed him. And why would it? He’s a child with barely a spoonful of Chakra, neither powerful nor important. It would notice him only if he walked up to it and kicked it in the eye. 

 


 

He runs for—days possibly. There is no clear way of knowing, nor any concrete need to. Many miles, in any case. Not that it matters much. He runs and runs until his body gives out, and the presence of Evil is just as strong. Using Chakra, is out of the question, not when it might risk bringing the Thing’s attention his way. That’s a nice way of putting it, hey? Much better than, say, you couldn’t even if you tried, you limp noodle. You can barely move, your brand-new body may be free from insanity but it’s also free from a single learned instinct. And isn’t that a strange thing to observe in oneself? The difference between learned skills and inborn knowledge is for the most part unknowable theoretical. Well, not for Itachi it isn’t, not anymore. It’s rather dismal, as distractions go, but if it will prevent his mind from gibbering, he will damn well focus on anything, even pointless theoretics. So far he’s learned that he knows how to walk and run to a point, but judging distance is definitely a work in progress. His sense of taste and smell appears to be sharply different, but that is difficult to judge what with being in a different world. Perhaps the rats in this world simply taste like that?

 

Not that they taste bad, honestly. Food, in general, is rather enjoyable, considering he’s limited to rats, insects and arachnids. He’d go for more substantive prey—such as one of several impressively large bats flitting to and fro fearlessly. Unfortunately, the Demon provides a strong incentive to get the fuck away from this place. So he eats what wants to eat him first and drinks from one of many ponds strewn about, both natural or artificial. Which is undeniably convenient, he admits, gasping for air, curled up next to a particularly lovely artificial lake. Even in Elemental Nations, finding a water source that wasn’t tampered with or used as bait by either humans or large animals was complicated. 

Then again, he is in a settlement of some sort. And isn’t that something? 

A settlement isn't the right term. Within the first few hours of his mindless escape from the Thing in the Deep, he stumbled out of one of many indistinguishable corridors and into the most mind-bending creation he has ever seen. 

It could be called a cavern, perhaps, even if it was to a cavern what a perfectly polished diamond was to a lump of coal. It’s so mind-boggling, in fact, that Itachi has to argue himself into believing its authenticity, even as evidence is right there in front of him. It’s definitely a creation, in that it was created by a people, at some point. Perhaps Itachi is in a mountain? A mountain that has a column running down its length and into, presumably, Hell itself? 

 

It’s not that it is not beautiful, because it is, very much so. But it’s also, no matter how you look at it, not a thing that is possible. The endless spiral staircases carved out of the mountain itself should not exist as they do. What about the thousands of bridges of varying width going to and fro, some inlaid with tracks, some not? That it stretches far past the limits of the human eye, sure, he can internalize that. It’s a hollowed-out mountain, the height is not the most alarming thing here. But. What about the tunnels? What about the rest of it? What type of wizard-engineer could even construct any one of those spindly bridges?

He dubs the whole infernal nightmare of bridges and tunnels and headaches the Main Chamber and does his even best to ignore the rest of it. The newly named chamber comes equipped with a handy gigantic staircase carved right into its walls. Fuck physics, that’s a very plausible way out, and boy, does he want to get out. So—up he goes. What little effort he put in being stealthy and quiet goes out of the window. He’s the only living being on the fucking staircase. He’s about as visible as one could get, even if it made the Shinobi part of him curl up in disgrace.

 

Sleeping is an unavoidable fact of life, to his endless frustration. His woefully untrained body can only reliably manage two of running before it gives out. Not that he has any real way to tell the time, what with moving through an architect’s fever-dream. He runs until he cannot and then collapses near the closest water source around. It’s a rather efficient system, all said. 

 

In the few minutes between eating and sleep, he allows his frustration with the limitations of language to come to the forefront of his mind. There is only so much stuff he can willfully shunt to the back of his mind, and language was a much safer thing to be frustrated about than, well, pretty much anything else. So yes—the language. Everything around him is grand and huge and imposing. The lines are too perfect to be made without—magic is a wrong term, but Orochimaru, in his more approachable moments, used to say that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Boy, does that apply here. Whatever technology, whatever people managed to carve their way up and down and through this mountain, they might as well be mages, witches or wizards. They’ve managed to build structures so incredible that Itachi can’t even verbalize them. 

The tunnels—mine-shafts, some complete with rows of steel carts slotted in the tracks—often begin with something like a residential area, where presumably the miners would rest and eat. Itachi can’t quite bring himself to sleep on the stairs, a bright spot of life among the stone, visible for a hundred meters each way, so he usually crawls into the nearest tunnel and sleeps in a corner.

 

Rats attack, when he rests, which is convenient and irritating in equal measure. He’s typically too tired to be alert, so he doesn’t stir awake until the most daring rodent of the bunch bites. On one hand—his rest is compromised which is far from ideal. On the other hand—food comes to him. It’s a reasonably fair arrangement, especially once he discovers remains of old but perfectly flammable bits of wood he can use to cook his rats with.

 


 

The tunnel is about forty-eight rest-sleep cycles long. When it stops it, yeah, it fucking stops. He can almost hear the desperate wail his brain makes when it tries to internalize the madness. Yes, the crazy people have managed to brick over a sixty-meter wide cavern somehow. Yes, that is a square hole on the side that is, presumably, some sort of entrance. Sure. Makes all sorts of sense.

 

The chamber above the square entrance (totally not a lid with a hole) is a little easier to comprehend, which is good fucking news on Itachi’s mind. Compared to the industrial, alien aesthetic of the mines, this chamber looks to be more—industrial, but in a craft-oriented way. Another difference is that the ceiling here is clearly visible and the sides aren’t. Not from where he’s standing, at least. The space is tightly packed, buildings spiralling improbably high, but some concessions were made for beauty. Not an inch of space is left unused. The buildings, he realizes, are carved out of giant columns, that support the ceiling. Between the tall structures, a web of bridges and staircases is suspended in mid-air, making something like a web of roads, almost.

 

All in all, this district is a massive upgrade from the mines. Not only can Itachi now scurry into a proper house and sleep more easily, but the presence of Evil is, somehow, diminished by an order of magnitude. Why, precisely, a stone fucking lid would do anything about the Demon in the deep, Itachi doesn’t know, but he’s not picky. Rest, by now, is not the matter of want, or even need. He will rest of he will die, there is not much grey area to be had, anymore.

 

The goal of the day, then: get yourself a safe space to rest and recover.

 


 

Izanami fucking wept, did Itachi luck out on his safe space.

True to form, the Shinobi part of Itachi’s mind insisted that the safest space is the one most difficult to access by conventional means. Which, in this case, meant climbing through the dingiest, filthiest corridors around. Several times he climbed through entirely natural-looking holes and paths, damp and slippery and all-around harrowing to move through. Around twenty minutes in, it was only delirious mania cut with Uchiha-stubbornness that kept him going, that made him ignore the very high probability that there is nothing at the end of this path but a drop into the abyss. The last leg of the journey would’ve been entirely impossible without wall-walking if he didn't find a tunnel barely large enough for his teeny-tiny child body to squeeze through. 

Tired and filthy and altogether done, he pops out of the tunnel like the worlds most pathetic mole and straight into paradise. 

 

Paradise, in this case, is a massive lake, covering three-fourths of a relatively low-ceilinged cave, not more than ten meters high. Not that it matters, it could have been a noxious swamp, and it would still be paradise because the presence of Evil almost winks out completely. It’s still there, generating stress in the back of his mind, but for the first time since he woke up in this strange, strange world, he feels like he can relax somewhat and let his mind unwind.

 

Only the ceiling shows any signs of tampering and even then it was subtle enough that he couldn’t bring himself to mind. The surface of it had been smoothed out, and the artists, whoever they were, had inlaid the stone with familiar runic script. That also happened to be glowing.

 

The glowing kind of gets to him. So far, he hadn’t dared to try and sense anything with Chakra, not eager to be choked by Evil for no good reason. He’s curious now, though. It gnaws on him—why are the runes glowing? Is it Chakra? It would have to be, right? Perhaps it was some sort of technology, some variant of electricity? Perhaps it was an entirely new energy source? But—it could be Chakra. What if it is? What if it’s not?

 

Alright, alright. Carefully, oh so carefully, he channels a trickle of Chakra, just barely enough for a tentative scan. When he gets nothing, he increases it ever-so-slightly—

 

Huh. Well, it’s—something. He can’t claim it’s not Chakra because, well, it could be. But it’s not any type he’s familiar with, even in passing. Nothing like this existed back in the Elemental Nations, he’d wager both his eyes. Which, okay, sure, great work detective. Why would it? It’s a different world, after all. But it could be Chakra—

 

You’re going in circles. Let it go. You won’t find a better answer than ‘a magical variant of Fūinjutsu’ and you know it.

 

Like many things recently, he does his best to just accept the insanity and doesn’t quite succeed. It’s the power of it, that keeps kicking his poor mind into focus. How powerful are the people inhabiting this world? How much energy did these maniacs cram into the runes, that they kept running this long? Because the mountain is clearly abandoned, that much is clear. Has been for hundreds of years, if the wood he came across is any indication. For hundreds of years. Just—how ridiculously outclassed is he, in this terrifying new world, if this is how the locals build a mine, Goddamn.

 


 

His temporary home is such a fucking delight. The part of the cave not taken up by the lake is covered with either stone or soft, pillowy moss. There are plants here, real, proper plants, vines and shrubs and the like. The lake is huge, deep and teeming with strange, pale fish-like creatures with mouths overflowing with multiple rows of teeth. He doesn’t catch them, as much as he wades in knee-deep and waits for a swarm to attack. As weak and untrained as he is, he gets bitten a time or six, but every fish is about half his size, so he only has to hunt so often.

To cook the fish, though, he needs fuel for the fire, which means—looting. Several tunnels connect to his new home, as it turns out, but most are too small even for him. The rest lead him to different parts of the same residential area right above the mines.

 

Having some time to inspect the architecture a bit more closely is pretty great. The dwellings, for example, are much more beautiful than he gave them credit for. Some are built like a house in Konoha would’ve been, with four walls and a ceiling, but a lot of them are carved straight into the rock, which is a trip. That second type somewhat resembled an apartment building, if they were forty stories tall and carved directly into the rock.

 

Raiding them is a joy, just as much as hauling the wood for the fire back to the lake is the exact opposite. His tiny body can carry laughably small loads, be it kindling or anything else. Wood won’t cut it, not when each fire will take him ten trips. Still, if he’s in a residential area sooner or later he will find a more efficient energy source than fucking timber.

 

It takes him about six sleep-rest cycles, but once he unearths a cache of coal, it’s time for some proper rest, complete with toasty evenings by the fire and devouring his body weight in fish.

It's just about the best time Itachi has ever had, previous life included. The grief is still there, and he’s trying not to think about what the utter and complete isolation is doing to his mind, but there’s just something—fatherly about his lake. He’s often reminded of a feeling he remembers from when he was very small. He can’t have been more than two, and he had snuck into Fugaku’s office to watch him work. Back then, his father had not yet become the twisted ball of misery that fucking village made out of all of them. There was still enough light and love inside of him, to pretend he couldn’t see his toddling son trying to sneak inside his heavily warded office. Itachi doesn’t have many happy memories, but this one is so clear these days. The memory of being warmed by the solid, unyielding presence of his father’s fire is vivid in his mind like not many memories are.

Isn’t it sad that until now, he hadn’t thought about those memories for—fuck, who even knows? Most of his life. He had forgotten them, in truth, and he can’t help being pathetically grateful to whatever magic that brought them back. Without the haze of lunacy and grief, the love his father had for him is evident, as is the way that love played a part in the whole miserable affair. It’s not a matter of forgiveness. Whatever Fugaku and Mikoto did, Itachi is the last person who would dare cast a single fucking stone. That would be a truly reprehensible level of hypocrisy. No, it’s not forgiveness, but—understanding, perhaps? Empathy. Love. He was loved, after all, which means something (which means everything). 

 


 

He stays there for a long time. Months, likely. His torn-up skin re-grows and his hollowed-out cheeks regain a fraction of the baby-fat appropriate for a boy his age. It’s too dark to see his reflection properly, but the blurry, shadowy figure looks similar enough to child-Itachi, that he thinks he could be human, still. He doesn’t exactly feel human, though, a fact he feels he should be more alarmed by than he is. He’s pretty impervious to cold, for one. Always a good thing, and probably why he hadn’t long since died, climbing up those fucking stairs, naked and starving. The night-vision is also neat, unlike his body’s stubborn insistence on never growing a single callous come hell or high water. 

 

If his Chakra pool grew at all, he certainly hadn't noticed, which is—frustrating. Is it his new species? Are they simply stuck with a set amount of Chakra?

 

No, shut up, what? Chakra is a mixture of physical and spiritual energy. If his physical energy can grow, then so can his fucking Chakra. Man, but he has some wacky ideas sometimes.

 

The fact remains, though, that neither training nor meditating have done much to expand his rather pathetic reserves. If he couldn't sense his Chakra as easily as he could, he’d start doubting if he even retained the ability to channel it at all. Thankfully, he can sense the blessedly familiar energy coursing through him clearly as anything. It’s there, it’s his, it’s just—tiny. Not even an academy student has reserves this meagre, never mind Itachi who started training before he could speak. 

The only thing that keeps his frustrations from tipping into outright anxiety is that, for the first time, Itachi Uchiha doesn’t have a mission. He will have one in the future, that much is certain, and he had better be able to handle it when the time comes, but for now, this time is his and his alone.  If it takes him a long time to get to any reliable level of skill, well, sure, who cares? Not Itachi. He certainly isn't looking forward to blood and pain and shame and death that inevitably accompany a mission he was specifically chosen for. Especially when the alternative is training peacefully, at his own pace, cushioned on all sides by an ethereal air of goodwill. 

 


 

The first thing he manages to re-train is the softness of his steps. He doesn’t quite dare use Chakra, not yet. With how little he has, channelling even a little could knock him straight into Chakra exhaustion. But balance, flexibility and a delicate awareness of his body, those things he can learn. 

 

The level of body dysphoria is hilariously high and very, very weird. He doesn’t feel uncomfortable in his new body, not at all. He’s just—possessive of it in a sort of impersonal, disassociated sort of way. It’s only really his eyes that he feels in any way personally attached to. For the rest of it—the image he sees in the lake does not map onto his self-concept even a little. If and how this bizarre issue can be fixed, he doesn’t know, but it’s clear that it is likely to grow twisted and peculiar as Itachi grows up.

His physiology is another solid entry to the ‘strange things afoot’ column. He can’t say he gave it much thought at the time, what with being occupied by the mindless escape from Evil, but afterwards he kind of expected the baby-fat to stay gone. Not so. As soon as he started eating a healthy amount for a Shinobi child his age—about his body weight in fish, three times a day and some snacks in between—it came right back, plumping his cheeks and dimpling his elbows. Disturbing, honestly, especially since Itachi is pretty certain he lost baby-fat before he was four, the first time around. He’s never really had to deal with a body so determined to be as harmless as possible.

 


 

Training his Chakra starts when the last wound and ache has faded, and he feels as strong as he’s likely to get. Even so, he’d have left it for later if it wasn’t so annoying not to have it at his disposal. He’s so used to having Chakra that he channels it subconsciously, instinctively to strengthen his limbs and such. Training himself out of those habits isn't impossible, of course, but it's counterproductive. He won’t always be weak, and there is little sense in un-learning good habits just because he’s too weak to use them now. 

If the amount of Chakra is slow to change, he can pivot and work on control. Wall-walking is out of the question, as are all the more involved control exercises. No, it’s best to begin with the basics—sticking leaves to his forehead. It took him just under three minutes to get the exercise down, before. Now, it takes him about a weak. Irritating. 

On a brighter note, his scavenging operation is flourishing. Every building is a treasure-trove of information if nothing else, but the metalworking district, in particular, is a game-changer. He would have discovered it sooner or later, with how big it is, honestly, but it feels like a reward. You did good, kid, says the Universe and drowns him in spectacular feats of craftwork.

 

He’s not surprised as such. You can’t build this stupidly magnificent mine without having even better tools. He can’t even say that his standards are low—Elemental Nations had some damn fine smiths. Uchiha Clan, for example, did amazing things when they used Chakra-flames to heat the metal.

 

Eat your heart out, Uchiha Clan, because these people, these damn wizards, were on a whole another level. Most of the items laying around are tools—scissors, jewellery hammers, needles, wire, that sort of thing. There are some blades and axes and such, but only ever in the less accessible areas. The smithing district is the first place where he sees signs of looting. Inexpert looting, sure, and focused on weapons to the point where they overlooked solid gold in some of the more decorative pieces. The blades he does find, though, make the Shinobi part of him swoon. Fuck, they make the Uchiha part of him swoon. Mikoto would have given over their house for any one of these blades. What, precisely, was done to the steel to make it this durable and this sharp—who even knows. But it’s getting very obvious that he will collect each and every one of those swords and knives and store them at his lake. For safekeeping. Who knows when the looters could come back?

 

Carrying them is something of a mission. He can’t hope to move some of the axes, but most of the swords are just heavy enough that he can drag them in fits and starts. He won’t be able to carry it up to his tunnel just yet, but it's safer for it there, at the bottom of the drop than here where it’s obviously vulnerable to anyone who might think to take it.

 

Fucking looters.

 

So his routine changes, to include collecting every single blade in the smithing district. The pile at the foot of the cliff is getting ridiculous, he’s been stacking them in a square pattern, and he’s got a solid tower going by now. Which is actually fairly excellent training. Typical strength-building exercises get old after a while, and lugging heavy iron up and down countless stairs is both more engaging, and gets him a masterpiece. Everybody wins.

 

Except for the looters. Fuck the looters.

Chapter Text

Bit by bit, item by item, Itachi realizes he is building something of a life here. He already has a set schedule, a routine he follows without exceptions. He cobbled together a—rather arbitrary—timekeeping system. He bathes regularly, has three meals and two snacks per day and eats with cutlery so beautiful it makes his head hurts sometimes. His moss-bed is gorgeous, the fire pit and grill he’s built could be an abstract art piece and the sword-tower he’s built at the bottom of the drop is taller than he is.

 

The only drop of vinegar in an otherwise wonderful bowl of porridge is that the Chakra-training hasn’t progressed much, if at all. He guesses he’s been at the lake for three months, training in some shape or form for most of that time, and he only now feels confident enough to try the weakest E-rank Jutsu.

 

It—works. Kind of. Not at all. It’s all very bizarre. 

 

He can’t even blame his minuscule Chakra reserves. Small or not, his control is best it’s ever been. A Kawarimi should not be beyond him. And, technically speaking, his execution is flawless.

His Chakra just behaves oddly once it leaves his body. That is, it disappears completely as if sucked into the atmosphere with nothing to show for it. Or, well, maybe not like it disappears but the connection between Itachi and his Chakra only holds as long as it sits behind his skin. As soon as he tries to interact with the environment—it just flows into the air with all intent or purpose scrubbed from it. Somehow.

 

Nothing for it, then - it’s time to experiment. 

 

The experiments are gruelling. He spends every drop of Chakra he dares, and then a bit more because he’s a reckless fucking idiot. There are not many E-ranked Chakra techniques, so he’s forced to be creative.

 

Being creative, let it be known, is not Itachi’s strong suit. In fact, a solid argument can be made that Uchiha with their pig-headed reliance on the Sharingan, were just about the least inventive people that had ever existed. Unlike, say, Hyūga who went in the opposite direction and thought learning Chakra-techniques by rote was immoral or fuck knows what, and were stuck re-inventing the wheel over and over again. Time was, without a doubt, the most limiting factor for Shinobi. Half of them died before they were twenty and then half again before they were thirty. Only the paper-pushers ever made it to their sixties, and their Chakra-work all had to do with bureaucracy.

 

Point is—Itachi’s experiments require thinking outside a box, and Itachi is so comfortable inside of his box he’s pretty sure his mind is square by now. He doesn’t even see the box. He’s pretty sure he is the box.

 

The data that he manages to gather, after weeks of flailing and fucking-up in pretty much every way imaginable, suggests that he can only channel Chakra internally. Once it leaves his body things start becoming screwy. His first assumption is that it just dissolved in the air, got absorbed by the Nature Chakra or whatever. The more he thinks about it, the more unsatisfied he grows with the explanation. There is no reason Chakra would behave so differently—why would it just dissolve like that. It has to be something else.

 

Which, sure Itachi you demented pigeon. Good work. ‘It has to be something else’ his shiny kunai. What could it be?

 

More importantly, he muses as the fourth month comes to a close, why do you care? No, really, what are you, an intellectual? Do you care about knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Fuck no, you’re a Shinobi. Shinobi-in-training. Whatever. Point is, you don’t need to know the cause, you just need to know what you’re working with. Ninjutsu and Genjutsu are out, which leaves you with Taijūtsu, Kenjūtsu and Shurikenjutsu.

 

Not a bad deal, honestly. Ninjutsu is boring, anyways. What little beauty that he could find in the Shinobi arts were all centred around the physicality of it. Savage, brutal beauty, but no less striking for it. If anything, the lack of pretence and high stakes made you appreciate it more. When your life hangs in the balance, you notice a lot more than you would normally. The twitch of muscle underneath taut skin, the sharp edge of a tensed jaw—or even just the aesthetic pleasure of watching a human body perform at an optimal level.

 

Alright, wrap it up. You know your scope, now. Figure it out and get it done, for the love of Izanami.

 


 

Happiness, he realizes, a little stunned is a necessary side-effect of meditation. Or, perhaps, of meditation when not saddled with terminal insanity. He is operating, day to day, on a level of such bone-deep contentment, that it scares him a little. Who would have thought?

 

He’s fucking happy, and he lives in a cave. An unknowable volume of rock stands between him and the sky, and he’s here, frolicking in a lake, fawning about how pretty his fire-pit is. A cave!  He used to detest caves with the heat of a thousand suns, and with good fucking reason. Every time he found himself inside one, it was all-around a terrible experience. Danzō’s ROOT, Akatsuki’s hideout, Orochimaru’s labs, everything about Iwa, the list goes on. Now? When he’s stuck in an abandoned mine, fuck knows how deep underground with a Demon bellow him waiting to devour his immortal soul—nothing. Not a twinge of discomfort. If anything, the feel and smell of the stone around him fills him with peace.

 

Strange, strange shit is afoot.

 

Another possible side-effect of his newfound mental flourishing is that he has finally begun growing himself a personality. Possibly for the first time. Thinking such things about oneself is a rather worrying sign of dissociation, but that doesn’t make the observations untrue. Aspects of himself that were previously buried underneath trauma and a death wish are coming to the surface, and his internal dialogue has never been more vibrant. He never used to curse, for one, and now he gets a little hit of scandalized delight every time he does so.

 

Then there’s the snobbery. Having been born into a Clan about as noble as it can get, elitism was baked into him. Joining Akatsuki didn’t change that, and neither has being here. Not when the tools he uses are fit for any Daimyo. Not when his scissors are inlaid with diamonds. Put all of it together, the snobbery and the hoarding and the increasingly unhinged inner dialogue, and it’s altogether possible he will turn out to be a real asshole when he grows up. Marvellous. 

 


 

Like all good things, this period too comes to an end. The lake has been good to him, and he will return even if he has to do truly unwise things to make it happen, but there are some things an underground lake simply cannot provide. A well-balanced diet, for one. Fish and rats are well and good, but his is a growing body. It needs things like sunlight and calcium and a slew of vitamins and minerals that aren’t on offer here. 

Staying here until he feels ready is a fool’s errand. He won’t get better without proper nutrition and better living conditions. If anything, he will get worse. On top of that, if his current rate of progress is any indication, it will take years to train himself into something acceptable. His body is determined to stay harmless for as long as it can, and that’s not something that he can change, only work around.  

 

Once he starts preparing for the move, he has to stop avoiding the obvious problem: he’s completely naked. No, really, he’s got nothing. The textiles in the mountain have long since crumbled into dust, and the few pieces of armour he could find are prohibitively heavy. Now, being naked is not a problem in itself—there is nobody here but Itachi, the rats and the insects. Who cares about clothes.

 

A bag though, a bag would be really convenient. A pouch, even. Anything to carry some weapons in. He briefly entertains a harness made out of wire, but nixes that idea when the wire cuts a centimetre into his skin within ten minutes of trying it. He'd tied back his hair with a braid made out of his hair, that’s how desperate he is for non-metal materials.

 

In the end, he sticks as many knives as he can into his hair-bun and just—leaves. Fucks right off, clueless and sky-clad, for all the world like a kid running away from home.

 


 

It seems that he’s seriously miscalculated, Itachi muses, as he watches a group of straight-up monsters very loudly eating one of their own. Itachi has seen some shit in his life, has done even more, but there is just something about cannibalism that makes you take a step back and think about all the choices in your life that led you here.

 

He perches on a balcony, comfortably out of sight of the monsters and settles in to observe this newest fucking insanity.

The creatures are—odd. 'Improbable' is not strong enough, but 'impossible' has long since lost all meaning. Right off the bat, their Chakra is a conundrum that Itachi doesn’t even know how to approach. It’s almost dual? Their base energy, their normal Chakra signature is overplayed by a layer of twisted, artificial maliciousness. The closest things he has to compare were Orochimaru’s experiment—if Orochimaru wasn’t anywhere near as a good scientist as he was. Even that is is not really an apt comparison. Orochimaru’s creatures all felt like they were still a part of the natural world, even after he finished playing his deranged gene-splicing games. The monsters here feel crude, even if their revolting appearance is discounted.  

 

It’s not they’re ugly, which they are. They’re misshapen in a way that says dysfunctional in big, bold, neon letters. Whoever designed them—because he struggles to believe that they could have evolved into these forms—must not have known much about humanoid physiology, and didn’t really care to learn. Their torsos are disproportionally large, arms hulking for no clear purpose, but abdominal muscles are oddly shortened. The way they move with unintuitive, lurching movements, the puffs and huffs of displaced air—everything suggests that physical agony is pretty much their baseline. Which goes a long way to explain the manic insanity in their eyes. 

 

The more he observes of them, hidden safely in his alcove, the less he likes. 

 

They are not a community, notably. They act more akin to—terminally insane slaves? There is sentience, there. The sounds they produce are much too uniform to be anything but a language. They don’t use it to cooperate, from what Itachi can see. They just spin endless performances of aggression and dominance. The weakest get killed pretty much constantly, with no rhyme or reason to it other than straight-up bloodlust. In the hour he’s been observing them, more than ten get killed and either eaten or just left on the ground to rot. No, Itachi simply cannot see any way a species like this can exist, can claim even basic functionality. As far as he can tell, the only force that drives them is hate. Corrosive, malicious, gnawing hate at each other and themselves and the world. It’s rather chilling, actually. 

Their purpose here is another mystery. They could be a raiding party of some sort, but they don’t seem to be moving anywhere. That aside, they are much too numerous to be hunters, with over two hundred monsters easy. Their camp is primitive, yes, but not temporary. If nothing else, the mountain of bones set up like a fucked-up monument is too high to have been made in a day or two.

 

In a somewhat cruel stroke of irony, the setting itself adds to their grotesque aesthetic. If the creatures are cruel evidence of deliberate disfiguring, so is the hall they set up camp in. If the lower levels were leaned into the industrial, practical design, this hall is clearly built with an eye for art and beauty. The ceilings are over forty meters high, with two rows of stone columns going down the hall. How long the hall might be, he has no idea. Hundreds of meters at least, judging by the fires he can see in the far distance.

 

Whatever it once was, it’s now infested with the monsters. The air is heavy with blood and pain. Screams and growls bounce off of the stone walls, and the experience is very much akin to an artists interpretation of Hell. If there wasn’t that little bit of natural chakra beneath the synthetic, twisted majority, he’d have to reconsider if he was alive at all, and not in fact wandering through circles of hell, with the worst of the devils lurking down bellow.

 


 

After a short but intense bout of deliberation, he comes to a tentative live-and-let-live policy in regards to the monsters. Which, in Shinobi terms, means that he would not seek them out, but would put them down if they pose a threat to him—unlikely—or others less able to defend themselves—more likely. 

 

His pacifist mindset does not survive past the day. About as long as it takes him to realize the creatures drape themselves in a crude approximation of jewellery made out of little bones. Itachi’s wretched life has made him very aware of what infant skeletons look like. He can’t stop looking, frozen in morbid fascination, at the tiny sternums that double as piercings in a large monster’s nose, and swiftly updates their status to ‘exterminate if at all possible'. With the monsters now appropriately categorized as enemies, they deserve a more analytical once-over.

 

They look fairly weak, actually. A moderately well trained civilian should have no trouble with taking one on and winning. Their weapons are equally crude. Really, the only things they have going for them are numbers and their berserker nature. Is that the right term? It’s not courage, as such, but it’s not just a lack of self-preservation instincts. Even the weak and injured charge to their deaths with reckless abandon. It’s not bravado, he concludes. It's either insanity or deep-seated suicidality—he leans towards a mix of both, especially considering how physically agonizing their existence appears to be. 

There is little to be done about them, here and now, no matter how pretty black flames would look on the patchwork grey and green skin. 

 


 

The advent of his newfound motivation—and the first glimmers of a Godly-decreed mission—brings about changes in Itachi’s life. Mainly, a slight balancing, for lack of a better term. Itachi might have been stuffed into a sane body, but he is perfectly capable of fucking it up for himself all over again. Months in isolation have made their mark. Itachi is well aware of the effects isolation has on the human mind. (Shinobi have been using isolation as a way of breaking prisoners for so long, it’s almost canonized into tradition. It had its own limits—which methods don’t—but if used correctly, on Shinobi of low enough skill that they couldn’t remove themselves from it eventually, it was a very popular technique. It was a labour-free, very reliable and very low-cost way of getting the prisoners just mad enough that they will gratefully spill all their secrets.) 

Now, though, there are the Monsters, who are just humanoid enough to apparently count as some meaningful interaction, and his mind is—glitching. Adjusting to the possibility of intelligent life. Sure, it’s not ideal that his only humanoid company are child-eating monsters he is looking forward to exterminating to the last wretched one, but. Someone must have built the architectural wonder of spanning around him, and it sure as fuck weren’t the creatures unable to fashion so much as a chopstick, never mind a bowl.  

 


 

He stays in the Hall for a little over two days, all told, before moving further upwards. He should not have lingered even that much, he knows, but the chance to kill the few monsters stupid enough to wander off alone was too tempting.

 

The intel he collects over the two days of observation is—fucking trippy. Their origins have to be artificial. They have to be. No species can survive like this, they would’ve died out long ago. What do they even feed on? They certainly don’t hunt or grow their food. From what he’s seen, cannibalism is their primary survival strategy. What a paradox. Predator species too numerous to subsist on hunting—especially here where rats and insects appear to be the only available prey—and too aggressive or unintelligent for even most primitive agriculture. Could they be summons of some sort? Why would they need to eat at all, if so? 

 

His least-insane theory is that they are the result of some gruesome experiments done on humans. Their humanoid characteristics seem to be just about the only phenotypic traits they share—bipedal, with vocal cords, eyes, mouths, five-fingered hands. That line of reasoning proves to be treacherous very fucking quickly, once it leads him into thinking about possible means of reproduction. He shuts that dismal thought down as quickly as possible, and still nowhere quickly enough.

 

He doesn’t dare kill them in any meaningful number. Not that he could, really. He’s pathetically weak, his Chakra is all but nonexistent, he can barely swing his weapon. The only thing he has going for him is the size of this place, the creatures’ general lack of intellect, and the lightness of his feet. 

 


 

The following two weeks go by in something of a blur of movement and exhausted sleep. The small part of his mind still capable of higher thought regrets it—after all, the higher he goes, the more spectacular the architecture becomes. Or, well, not really. The mines were spectacular in their own terrifying, industrial way. Perhaps ornamental is the right word? The ceilings are dug higher, and the apartment buildings grow higher, caved out of grey granite and inlaid with silvery metals. The web of staircases and bridges is considerably more damaged here, but the fragments that remain are impossibly spindly.

Unfortunately, artistry doesn’t prevent infestation. The monsters roam the upper levels. Alright, Itachi, you know the drill, as distasteful as you may find it. Get yourself out of there as soon as possible. You know what your relationship with temptation is like. You’re an Uchiha. Even basic impulse control has been genetically engineered out of you twenty generations ago. On top of that, you no longer have Shinobi strength to back it up, do you? Your life expectancy falls on some rather alarming levels if you combine brazen recklessness and a body about as lethal as a bunny rabbit.

 


 

This whole place, he thinks a few days later, huddled in a gorgeous balcony, is something of a very on-the-nose metaphor. A metaphor for what, it’s not completely clear. Nature vs nurture perhaps?

 

The exact causal relationship is unclear, but the observations are very fucking clear. The monsters change visibly, physically, becoming less twisted and grotesque the further up he goes. It’s, yeah, it’s not out of the question to suggest that they might be separate species altogether. Either that or the Demon in the depths has a more direct effect on their physiology than Itachi would have considered possible.

 

These new and improved monsters appear much healthier. Their hips appear to be stable and rib-cages proportional to their height. Their skin is less patchy and closer to a uniform grey. More importantly, they don’t murder each other with the same deranged urgency as those below. They fight yes, but the participants tended to survive. 

 

He might have been tempted to let them live, if not for the fact they were just as evil, if not more, than their less fortunate cousins. The bone-trophies they wear are just as numerous, and the fact that they were crafted with a degree of proficiency made them that much more reprehensible.

 

Staying out of sight becomes a task he has to actually work at. The monsters operate in decently organized shifts and patrols. Their night vision is almost as good as Itachi’s is, and their hearing is considerably better. Itachi has Chakra, sure, which evens out the playing field a little, but not as much as it should. Not on the level Itachi’s at, where his Chakra runs out just by running for longer than he should.

 

All in all, it takes Itachi just over a week to duck around them without tripping into a confrontation that he would lose.

 

The last group is the biggest and meanest yet. 

 


 

After however many weeks and months, Itachi has developed something of a feel for this place, as wacky as it is. Even if he didn’t, there is no mistaking where he should be going. The giant spiralling staircase leading up to the square hole in the ceiling, some sixty meters high, seems like a pretty sure bet.

 

Which, yeah, Itachi, excellent fucking sleuthing you did there, but what are you going to do about it? The chamber with the staircase is enormous enough, but it’s connected on four sides by other equally large spaces, going fuck knows how far into the mountain. The, for lack of a better term, Main Chamber, is the one with the fewest buildings, less than fifty all told, all of them apartment-buildings carved into the sides. The vast majority of the space is bare by design, with intricately designed polished stone tiles now desecrated by monsters and their filth.

 

Itachi scurried up into the closest apartment building straight away and is trying to come up with a reasonable plan to avoid the monsters milling about in the thousands. It’s, yeah, there are several factors to consider, here, and all of them worrying. The monsters, okay, pretty straightforward stuff there. There are at least a hundred discrete camps, or campfires at least, in the Main Chamber alone. The minimalist design of the room is also a problem. For once, Itachi can’t make use of the three-dimensional maze of bridges and staircases going every-which-way. The only physical path to the staircase is by foot, which is just straight-up impossible.

 

The most immediate worry, however, is Itachi’s physical state. His Chakra has dwindled into nothing, he faints from exhaustion and hunger at least twice a day, and his mind is cloudy with dehydration and stress. Without some proper rest and recovery, he will literally faint, split his head open on the ground and die. The monsters won’t even have to twitch a fang one way or the other.

 

So, yeah. The plan, such as it is, is to find a place to sleep and eat and drink and meditate for, fuck, a month, seems like. Easy peasy lemon fucking squeaky, just find a safe place to rest in a place teeming with rabid flesh-eating monsters. Wonderful. 

 



Perhaps the Universe decided to reward him for his somewhat sensible decision to rest and prepare. Perhaps whatever deity brought Itachi to this world has realized they’re about to lose their investment to hunger and thirst. Perhaps it’s just dumb luck. One way or another, Itachi scores big on his resting spot. Big enough that his survival chances jump from single- to double-digits.

 

Purely by chance, he managed to crawl into the most perfect hiding spot. Alright, so it’s not completely at random, but his reasons were, yeah, completely fucking stupid. There are many reasons why this building was the optimal choice if he had to remain in the Main Chamber. It was the tallest one. Its first three levels were completely demolished, so the balcony high up on the tenth story was the only entry-point. It smells like it has a water source inside. Many reasons.

 

Itachi chooses it because it was pretty. He’s a vain, vain creature, and this building was carved into a vein of stunning blue-green rock with cute little spots, like the spots of black and brown like the spots on a bunny rabbit. It’s cute as anything, and there is nothing in Itachi that can resist that. All those other strategic considerations are good too, but he knows he would have chosen it even without any of it in mind.

 

Scurrying inside is not the easiest task in the world. It should have been, if he had Chakra, or if he wasn’t about thirty minutes away from passing out, but hey. Life. Whatever. He manages to crawl and jump and stumble his way through the balcony and inside.

 

The previous owners of Itachi’s new hide-out were rich as fuck, it has to be said. Even if you disregard that the walls themselves look to be made out of polished jewels, they’re also decorated with hundreds and thousands of sharp, angular runes inlaid with some sort of silver alloy. The runes don’t glow like the ones at Itachi’s lake do, but there is a subtle sort of energy to them. A suggestion of Chakra, a hint of something less-than-mundane. More than mundane? Whatever. The floor is inlaid with gold. It’s a lot.

 

Another stroke of luck is a nest of fascinatingly large rats he finds in the uppermost room. They’re all large, well-muscled, and with a hard edge to their beady eyes. It’s obvious they don’t consider him much of a threat—the thirty or so rodents attack without hesitation. Very convenient, he thinks, sorting their corpses by size and quality of fur. Their meat is, by every metric he has, not only edible but passably tasty. Not to mention the slab of interestingly pink salt he found in one of the rooms, which lets him season and preserve the meat. 

 

The skins he saves, obviously, delighted at the thought of clothes in his immediate future. He’s not cold, but being naked in the company of humanoid creatures and remaining calm and rational is costing him a lot of processing power. He’s always had a weird relationship with his body, even before he started his relationship with extreme dysphoria. Your body is your greatest weapon. Shinobi were bred to be beautiful, that was no mere coincidence. What little variation was inevitable, was tamed by a Chakra operation or three. Only very eccentric or uncaring parents let their children be anything other than conventionally attractive. The Uchiha were certainly no exception. Itachi was taught to use his body in whatever way was advantageous. Becoming so strong to not have to resort to those measures was the very first milestone he set himself, back in his first childhood. He doesn’t think he can bear to go back to the way things were before. In that way, the inhumanity of the creatures was a blessing. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t seduce his way through them. Not a small boon, that. 

 


 

He doesn’t bother counting the days spent in the beautiful house, but he can ballpark it to around five weeks, without having left the nest once. The rat-hides are fully prepared by the end, stretched, dried, and tanned into very ugly, but perfectly usable pelts.

 

Sewing himself a piece of clothing is—hilarious. He knows little about leathercraft, but Genin were taught a wide array of random skills and crafts, mainly for purpose of undercover missions. There is no thread, of course, but he does have plenty of jewellery wire at his disposal. Some of it is made from the same silver alloy that makes up the runes, but some of it is your run-of-the-mill gold wire. Perfect for stitching.

 

It’s, yeah, all the best shades of ridiculous, using gold wire to stitch together the world’s ugliest shirt. 

 

The abundant protein, freshwater, and the eight hours per day he spends meditating get him healthy enough to attempt his escape. The only hope is wall-walking. He can get about a third of the way by scaling the buildings and such, but he has to take to the ceiling for the rest of it. Which, yeah, won’t be easy or simple. It's not impossible, even with his minuscule Chakra pool, not if he gets his control even sharper, somehow.  Not impossible, but fucking risky, too. Running out of Chakra mid-climb is certain death. Then again, staying here isn’t much better. Eat meat is a finite resource, and he has better things to do with himself than starve to death in the prettiest building he’s ever seen.

 


 

Surprisingly—suspiciously—it goes off without a hitch. He allows himself an even week to practice wall-walking, sharpens his determination as far as possible, and gets on with it. Without Chakra, strength, or tools, it takes him about four days to get to the point where he has to take to the ceiling. His fur shirt is secured by extra wire wrapped around his torso, he has extra salted rat-meat stashed about his person and he’s drunk as much water as he can.

 

It takes a long time, and he’s utterly exhausted when it’s done, but he makes it. There is sunlight, he thinks, feverish and dripping in sweat. There is light here. How—beautiful. 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The upper levels are a different world altogether. Part of it is sunshine, yes, but it’s so much more as well. The miasma of corruption is diminished by several orders of magnitude, and so is the amount of damage. He spent anywhere up to a year in the lower levels, a fact he is disturbingly undisturbed by. He was a creature of action, before. Even the slow days, when he didn’t slaughter some poor unsuspecting soul, couldn’t have been described as calm. Not when morbid insanity was an ever-faithful companion. But now, now he’s spent between three and six months without saying a single word. He doesn't have any tasks, missions, or pressing deadlines. He’s not dying, there are no murderous younger siblings to keep track of, no morally dubious dictators to appease. Just—Itachi. Itachi and the Demon he isn’t going to think about without full mastery of every single Chakra-weapon available to him. And perhaps an army of undead zombies he wouldn’t feel bad about sacrificing. Amaterasu above.

 

There are obvious questions that he carefully skirts around to preserve the peace. Questions like ‘What happened to me?’ ‘Why am I like this?’ ‘Why am I not tearing my hair out and doing everything up to and including killing myself to get away from this place?’

 

‘Why is the passing of time suddenly—irrelevant?’

 

Dwelling on any of those questions is dangerous and, honestly, kind of futile. It’s not like he doesn’t know how all this is going to play out. Right now he’s running the show, but he’s not naive enough to think this arrangement will last. Once he gets drawn out, out there—there is no going back. People will tie him up in chains of duty and responsibility and never, ever let him go. There are no mysteries, once duty gets its hands on the reigns. A task will be set before him, and then another, and another after that. No, he won’t run away from the inevitable and absolute loss of freedom that lies ahead, but he won’t rush to meet it, either.

 


 

The Fortress that still remains nameless is, evidently, as much an above- as it is a bellow-ground ground structure. He didn’t have the opportunity to explore the lower levels much, busy as he was with running for his life, so it’s only just dawning on him how gigantic this place actually is. The entire village of Konoha could be happily slotted in just one wing of the ground level he is currently exploring, and have space left to spare. It begs the question, doesn’t it? Is that what actually happened, way back when? Have the Builders actually carved themselves a country? Found a handy mountain and hollowed it out, made it all pretty? What kind of a fucked up world is this, that you resort to such extreme fucking measures to grant your people safety?

 

Giving up on one in a long line of headache-inducing concepts, he continues wandering the long corridor. The exit out of the lower levels deposited him right next to a hilariously oversized stone gate, which he hopes to Izanami is the main gate and not just a run-of-the-mill entryway. What kind of a mechanism did they build, to move however many tons of rock this fucking door weighs? Unless, of course, it’s magic, because that’s the level of insanity he has come to expect in this Sage-forsaken place.

 

The giant hall leading from the main gate and into the fortress is just as imposing as the architectural marvels of the lower levels but in a different way. The floor is paved with black marble, and the ceiling is so high that Itachi could only see it with the aid of the Sharingan if he were stupid enough to waste Chakra on that right now. There are no dwellings, interestingly. It’s all long unbroken tiles of stone, carved with softly glowing runes and two rows of twenty-meter-high stone sculptures facing each other on either side. Perfectly preserved stone sculptures. Even the gold in their crowns and the silver of their axes and hammers are all present and accounted for. 

 

The runes on the walls match the ones carved into the floor, except these ones glow considerably brighter than those below. Interesting, that, especially when coupled with the fact that Itachi’s runes-tattoos-birthmarks-instructions-from-God tingle when he comes near. It’s subtle but Itachi is very aware of his body.

 

As beautiful as it is, Itachi can’t quite shake the feeling that the dynasty of the Builders is watching him, and does not like what they see. He bows in their direction in wary respect. Even if they were magic—and they’d have to be, to have created any of this—Itachi has to respect their artistic vision.

 

The upper levels aren’t difficult to get to. The main hallway branches into a three-pronged staircase, each leading into a different part of the mountain. He picks the left one at random, and quickly ends up in a forest of all things.

 


 

 

He loses time, frozen by this newest fucking insanity. There is an honest to Izanami forest in this Fortress, and why is Itachi even surprised. Direct sunlight is even harder to internalize. Alright, you muppet, pull yourself together. Bit by bit, he corrals his gibbering mind into something like calm and decides to try the novel fact-finding method of climbing a fucking tree. Up and up and up he goes until the branches struggle to bear even his negligible weight.

 

Oh. Okay. That—Okay. So that’s a thing. He—doesn’t actually understand what he sees. If his eyes are to be trusted, if his mind is in any way capable of comprehension, the entire west side of this giant cavern is made out of—giant windows? Somehow?

 

Numb, he climbs down and makes his way towards the latest miracle. It takes him longer than it should, not only because he’s dragging his feet, but because the forest is surprisingly large. Around twenty minutes later, he’s crossed over three different streams and has finally found his way to the edge of the forest and thus to the windows.

 

They're every bit as disgustingly spectacular as he’d come to expect. He has to believe they’re made with Fūinjutsu of some sort. He has to. There is nothing, no material, not a single thing except magic or Chakra that would keep glass panels of this size whole and clear after however many centuries. It’s beautiful, without a doubt, but skirting the lines of impossibility so closely that his mind shrieks at him in protest. Alright, point taken, time to stop trying to understand the impossible. Moving on.

 

He walks aimlessly along the edge, one arm touching the window reverently, staring at both the incredible material and the outside.

 

Because this is suspiciously close to the perfect compromise, isn’t it? Still inside, still protected, still safe, and also close enough to the outside for nature to flourish and the sun to warm his eyelids. It’s far more glorious than anything he would have had the processing power to imagine.

 

He’s so absorbed in his awe that he doesn’t notice when the window turns into an arched doorway, so he lurches, unbalanced, almost falling through. He doesn’t, of course. He jumps back, instead, every muscle tense and poised to run and fight and kill. He’s not hyperventilating, because he’s an old hand at willing his panic into submission, but his Sharingan activated without his conscious control, which is an unacceptable loss of control.

 

The door is only around two meters tall, which is tiny for such a grandiose fortress. It appears to lead onto a balcony? It’s hard to say, what with it being part of the forest just as much as the inside is.

 

Mind still reeling from the unexpected danger of the Outside, Itachi inches back, muscles tense enough to snap. The further away he goes, the easier it is to breathe. When he’s around a hundred paces away and he can’t see even a glimpse of the archway, he can even proclaim himself passably calm.

 

Okay, irrational terror aside, it’s likely a good thing, that he has a reliable exit from the mountain. There could be a fire. The monsters could swarm from below. The Demon could—the Demon could do whatever the fuck demons do in this lunatic world. Point is, it's comforting to know he could go outside if he so wished.

 

Look at you, all rational and practical and shit. Where was all this rock-solid fucking reason when you almost fainted at the very thought of the outside? Good thing, his shiny kunai. Stay away from the fucking doorway to servitude and pain and grief. It will come to you in due time, no need to stress.

 


 

He makes his home in a valley, nestled between two streams. It’s, yeah, it’s heaven. The fish are refreshingly happy to share their space with a strange rat-clad child. The grass is thick and healthy. The air tastes of peace and smells like calm.

 

Making a home, not a campsite, not a bolthole, but a real, proper home, to live in for the foreseeable future, soothes something in him that he didn’t know was hurting. He didn’t have a home for a great many years, before. Even before he killed his Clan, he wouldn’t have called the Compound a home, except by the most literal definition of the word.

 

Now, he is making one for himself with his own two hands. He wants a bed, he makes a bed. Sure, it’s not as comfortable as what he was used to before, and even his relatively thorough education in survival is stretched to its limits when he has to make everything from scratch, but he’s in no hurry.

 

He hasn’t been in this world long enough to judge, but the weather suggests a balmy summer outside. Not that it matters, like, at all. The seasons, when living in a giant magical greenhouse, are by and large academic. Sure it’s warm, but without rain or any strong wind, the only difference is that the sunlight is everywhere, always.

 

Building a proper, comfortable camp takes him about three months. The cot is there, of course, next to the fireplace and a wide array of tools he’s scavenged from the what few areas of the mountain he could bring himself to visit. It’s not an easy decision. Stay in his heaven-forest where everything is nice and nothing hurts, or be smacked between the eyes by the knowledge that, yes, people had lived here, in fact, and those skeletons there? Those are the people who created everything you see around you Those are the people whose tools you use, whose runes you’re warmed by, whose greenhouse keeps you safe and happy.

 

Handling that level of emotional weight is—it’s a work in progress. Most of his scavenging trips these days end in a numb haze and a vague, unfocused bloodthirst that sits in the beds of his nails and the roots of his teeth.

 

Moral quandaries aside, Itachi’s camp quickly becomes a charming blend of crude, childish structures and lavish, gorgeous tools dripping with gold and jewels. Among the many things he is uneasy about, claiming the tools is not one of them. Tools are tools before they are anything else, and tools want to be used. It could be beneath their dignity to be used by Itachi of all maniacs, but it’s better than nothing, surely?

 

The stone fire-pit is something he’s particularly happy with. He built it, stone by stone, dragging the damn things from various parts of the mountain. Whenever he’s got a spare hour, he improves it in some way, and so it grew from a fire pit to include a fairly efficient stone oven and a barbecue grill.

 

And then there’s the garden.

 


 

The Garden Conundrum begins, yeah, pretty whimsically.

 

About a week into his glorious stay in the forest, he stumbles across his first fruit. Completely by accident. There are no large predators inside, but birds, rabbits and squirrels are everywhere. He half-heartedly stalking one particularly clumsy grouse when he finds himself eye-to-berry with a blackberry bush. The bird immediately forgotten, he starts exploring this area with a whole lot more interest. It’s, to his elation, filled with a thorny bounty of berry bushes, far more species than had existed back when.

 

It’s, honestly, how most of his innovation goes, these days. How fucking spectacular is that? Instead of training to survive, he is sitting in the sun, trying to figure out how to weave a basket for his berries. Any blood he has on his hands these days comes from berry-thorns and scratches of tree bark on soft, uncalloused skin.

 

He eats something approximating his bodyweight in berries, that day, after having failed to create so much as a loose approximation of a basket. Today has been a good day.

 


 

A year, a wondrous, peaceful year softly bounces by, and Itachi hasn’t done anything more than eat, sleep, play in the forest, or meditate. He trains, in a way. He tries to design his games to have at least some practical use, long term. He would spend days frolicking in the stream, excusing it as a Chakra control exercise. He jumps about from tree to tree, practising his balance and grace but mainly playing tag with squirrels.

 

As months flow by, he observes the changing of the seasons from his cushy forest clearing, stewing by the warm coals, as the leaves on the trees change and fall.

 

His clothes have gained some crumble of sophistication, it has to be said. He’s certainly proud of his crumble. Making clothes from nothing is hard fucking work, one that he is in no way prepared for. Now that he has access to tools and time and space, he can figure out how to properly prepare and tan leather, but textiles? He’s got nothing. He knows that linen and flax are made out of plants and that silk and wool are made out of animals, and that’s about it. Somewhere in the mountain, there exists a whole district that focuses exclusively on textile-making, but even if he found it, it would take years to learn where to begin.

 

In the summer, he was happy enough to remain nude. Now that winter has come and snow has started to pile on the outside, he admits defeat and slips back into fur shirts and foot-coverings.

 

Not that it’s real cold or anything. Some unholy magic is keeping the large glass panels warm enough to melt the endless snow falling on it, so the glass remains clear and light comes through as easily as it had in summer. It all leads to the plant life inside of the mountain being largely unconcerned by the shift in seasons. The temperature dropped some, sure, but not much, and there is both light and running water. It might be why the growing seasons are so screwy here— but then again, it could be all the fucking magic. Either way, the berries give slightly less fruit, but the carrots and potatoes are suddenly everywhere, followed by several species of beans that he’s never seen before.

 

He is trying very hard to just roll with it, but this is a bit much even for his stubborn ignorance. When the beans come about, it’s time to admit that, yes, he does live in a greenhouse, which, yes, was built to keep the Builders fed. It doesn’t change his behaviour much, except he ducks away to give solemn thanks to the giant sculptures below every now and again. The mountain has, so far, been so overwhelmingly accommodating that he has to pay his respects somehow. Besides, his tattoos tingle when he’s in the hallway, much more so than they do anywhere else. That is a pretty obvious sign that something is watching. Best try to keep that someone on his side. 

 


 

Spring comes again, without much fanfare. Itachi still does pretty much whatever the fuck he wants. The training inches on, nominally. He couldn’t do much even if he wanted to. His physiological development is slow enough to make it clear that, whatever his new species may be, it’s a great deal more long-lasting than humans are. Which, yeah, is bothersome for now, but Itachi is not that short-sighted. Being long-lived just means he has more years like these, where his biggest worry is whether his hair will have time enough to dry before sleep.

 

He’s focusing on balance and gracefulness around the time winter ends. Without Genjutsu and Ninjutsu, he is left with speed and agility for the most part. His body should be very accommodating for that path. Uchiha have been phenotypically geared towards lean frames and sharp reflexes for over a millennium. Itachi’s previous body was almost a carbon copy of his mother—short, lean and weak if compared to, say, Fugaku. New species or not, he appears to be following along similar lines this time around. Bladed combat is in his future, but for now acrobatics, gymnastics and balance are what he focuses on. Mikoto taught him a little, ANBU taught him more, and Akatsuki most of all. Now all he needs to do is to take all that harrowing fucking shit and transform it into play.  So, yes, it’s slow-going but it’s cathartic, and this second stab at childhood is shaping up to be everything the first one wasn’t.

 

In other news, his life as a mad hermit in the woods is progressing rather well. Too well. He’d have tentatively said, before, that he was a solitary creature by nature. What a stack of nonsense, hey? He didn’t have a personality, before, only a death wish. Now, though, that statement would be disturbingly true. He’s completely and utterly comfortable with being alone, with only the animals and the monsters as his company. Abstractly, his lack of social interaction is concerning, but people are pain and doubt and shame. Right now he’s got joy and peace and quiet. Being concerned about his mental well-being, when he knows very well what kind of anguish and insanity human interaction will bring, is absurd. He’s perfectly happy, as he is.

 


 

The levels above the greenhouse are closely specialized for craftwork. Is anyone surprised by that? Itachi sure as fuck is not. It’s just how Builders think. Thought. Whatever. Point is, they have a method. Find a resource, build the necessary harvesting infrastructure, and place a district devoted to appropriate crafts above it. it. It’s how it works in the mines, it’s how it works here. The floor above the greenhouse-turned-forest is dedicated to various plant-based crafts—wood-carving, carpentry, weaving, sewing, paper-making, and so on.

 

Unlike the metal-work, this type of work he was considerably more familiar with. Weaving and ink-making was considered appropriate work for Noble Clans. The other Nobles had similar specializations. Aburame created silk, Hyūga specialized in pottery and Hatake in sculpture. Most Clans had a craft they tended to excel at, partly because of their long history of Chakra-use. Out of a Clan, only up to a third went into combat, and yet every child was instructed in Chakra techniques. The craftspeople didn’t take it further than the basics, for the most part, but they were all competent enough to incorporate Chakra into craftwork.

 

The workshops in the mountain are predictably magnificent, even if time has wreaked havoc on the organic parts of the various tools. It helped that the Builders have built everything that they possibly could out of various metal alloys. The Plant District consists of thousands of workshops, each one a small treasure-trove of tools of their respective trades. Some workshops are more affected by time than others, and some are specialized in crafts Itachi has no hope in identifying, but less than he would have thought. He finds perfectly functional cast-iron spinning wheels, bronze and copper looms, spindles and scissors and needles of all shapes and sizes.

 

But. And this is an important 'but'. Scavenging tools is one thing. If Itachi is to be actually using the Builders' workshops, the very least he can do is to stop ignoring the Bijū in the room. Setting aside that this is something he should have already been doing, the first thing to do now is to set the Builders’ remains to rest, somehow. Honour them, at the very least.

 


 

 

The self-appointed task marks another shift. He still lives in his forest, in his home nestled between the trees and streams. He still sleeps and eats and trains, still tends to his ever-expanding garden, but his free time? All spent in the upper levels.

 

He knows, well, not a single thing about the Builders’ history and beliefs, which rules out any drastic measures like cremation. Really, there is only one option—a crypt. That leaves him with the option of acting on any future knowledge, should he find it, and the remains can rest in a quiet and dignified place in the meantime.

 

Okay, good, great, fucking spiffy. A crypt. Well, if it’s a crypt he needs, then it will have to be perfect. Beyond perfect. A representative. A symbol of crypts, the most fantastic crypt to ever crypt. Which, for this place, is a tall fucking order. Itachi can’t match a blacksmith’s workshop for magnificence, much less a majestic, dignified resting place. What would constitute a good enough resting place? What could?

 

His search takes him to all sorts of wondrous places, glittering halls and magnificent museum-like chambers. None work for his purposes. Either too utilitarian or too pretty or too lively. A perfectly preserved library, bigger than the eye can see, is almost enough to shock him out of his laser focus, but he persists. There will be time later to drool over stacks of books and scrolls, lovingly encased in golden spines and soft leather covers. Later. Up and down and left and right, he wanders the halls, until, in the end, he finds a space without a single fucking fault.

 

It’s almost night, the day Itachi finally stumbles across his Perfect Fucking Spot. It also happens to be in the middle wing of the mountain, many, many levels above ground. Going back home would take him, fuck, much too long to be practical to make that trip often. That’s—not ideal.

 

He’s dubbed the area the Government district. The whole place reeks of bureaucracy, but, like, the majestic type. Like the Daimyo palace, maybe. It says a lot about this fucking place that the entire Daimyo palace can fit comfortably in a handful of chambers over a few floors. He also gets a feel for the Builders' taste. The mines and the craftwork districts took him part of the way, the Main Gate and the giant sculptures even more, but here everything is built for the sole purpose of aesthetic pleasure. And it’s, yeah, it’s amazing.

 

In Fire Country, the general aesthetic revolved around wabi-sabi, the appreciation of impermanence and transience. Itachi didn’t concern himself much with civilian aesthetic philosophy, true, but from what he understood, the principle was to remove what can be removed, with a strong emphasis on removing human delusions, and reach perfection by elimination, almost. The Builders went the opposite direction, from what he can tell, but somehow ended up in a similar spot. The vein of minimalism is bold, but instead of trying—and failing—to mimic nature, the Builders went with glorifying craft. Thing is, when you reach a certain level, craftwork becomes something of a celebration of the material you’re working with.

 

Itachi would hesitate to call it art. Art, from what he had come to know, or feel, or whatever, was about telling a story, about displaying truth, whether that is a concept or an emotion or a grain of wisdom. The Builders, the way they work with stone, makes it pretty clear they do not try to impart anything on the material. They carve the stone to display it, to celebrate it. To worship it, even. That, there, is where their approach touches base with Fire-country wabi-sabi.

 

Not that there isn’t artwork present, because there is. The base layer, the foundations of the palace may be a shrine to the mountain itself, but the Builders did not shy to add their own presence on top. There are a lot of stories and a lot of truths and a lot of lies told in the Mountain. When it came to artistic expression, the Builders went for grandiose, blatant shows of wealth. Not tacky, he doesn’t think, but a bold, self-aware show of the ostentatious. It’s, yeah, he can respect that, for all that it’s not his thing. It’s a hard line to walk, to be flamboyant without crossing into vulgar. Time, he thinks, is what made that line possible. Over however many hundreds of years the Builders spent working on this fucking monstrosity, they naturally weeded out the tacky shit and were left with inspired, genuine pieces.

 

Which makes the throne room that much more fucking galling. Maybe, he thinks, trying and failing to push through his outrage, maybe it was a comparatively new addition, that just so happened to coincide with the time the mountain was sacked? He has to think that, he fucking has to, because there is no way that a people who could have floor tiles hundreds of thousands of tiny runes inlaid with crushed jade could look at the gaudy monstrosity of the throne smack-dab in an otherwise perfectly elegant hall. Every inch of the horrible golden chair is covered with fucking diamonds and rubies and whatnot, all smushed together to conserve space.

 

Don’t, no, bad, stop. It’s not yours. You can’t take a hammer to the thing, even if it rots in the depths of gauche vulgarity. You can’t destroy other people’s shit. Calm down. If he ever meets the Builders’ dependents, if they’re even alive for him to meet, he can make a strong case, but otherwise, let the ugly and pointless chair be.

 

As he crosses the room and tries not to look at the wound in the aesthetic tissue of the hall, he can’t help but consider—the Builders might actually have a Monarchy. Like, a proper, King or Emperor or whatnot. Absolute ruler type shit. They could even be in the pre-Hidden Village stage of development and could have, like God-Emperors or something. Fucking—

 

Calm down. Honestly, do you really have the emotional energy to waste on the Builders’ hypothetical model of government? What do you even know, maybe the Monarchies in this world are better. Maybe the divine right to rule nonsense isn’t all a thin veneer of fiction over a very base desire to control. Maybe there actually are benevolent gods here, that do speak through their chosen representatives and instruct them on ways of ruling and shit. What, it could be true. Just because monarchies in Elemental Nations were terrible, stifling institutions that strangled any culture they got their claws into, doesn’t mean they aren’t a stable, innovative method of government.

 

Izanami wept, enough pointless faffing about. There is work yet to be done.

 

Behind the throne—eugh—stands a large, double-sided door that leads, presumably, to royal quarters. The doors fit into his original theory of self-aware opulence, he’s not mad at them. What he is—not mad, maybe, but definitely confused by, is the purpose. Why announce where the ruling family spends their most vulnerable moments? Surely Kings come hand-in-hand with assassins? In a mountain that is already ninety per cent maze, couldn’t they have leaned into the concept some more, and squirrelled their royals at the end of the most elaborate maze around?

 

None of your business. If they wanted to shout ‘Here, go through this door to assassinate all our little royal babies' that's their right. Focus on the task at hand.

 

He tries the doors, as per the procedure, and one by one they lead to dissatisfying outcomes. An office here, a sitting room there. One particular door leads to the family wing that he doesn’t really have the heart to explore. He won’t build a crypt inside a nursery, will he? No, no he won’t. Plus, roaming around this place feels voyeuristic in a way that he hasn’t yet felt in this life. Maybe it’s because these rooms were clearly only meant for intimate, private life? Whatever it is, if the sight of a room is enough to disquiet him, fuck knows what would happen if he actually went into a nursery. Just—just go, Itachi. This is not your place.

 

He returns to the throne room and tires the last door, a slate-grey thing with solid veins of gold running through the polished granite. The counter-weight mechanism still works, miraculously, so opening them is easy as pie.

 

The grey door opens in a room so perfect, that it could have been plucked straight out of his mind if he had the processing power to imagine something so gorgeous. The air is heavy with understated majesty, think with imposing grace. It used to be a dining room, or a ballroom perhaps, but it departs from the flamboyant style and into severe, almost brutal elegance. The floor isn’t tiled but is all one unbroken slab of polished granite, not a hint of rubies or emerald to b found. The only trace of ornamentics are the glowing runes scattered on the ceiling, so high up that they would resemble starts in a night sky. The only thing piece of furniture is a long rectangular table, easily a hundred meters long, running down the length of the room, bracketed on each side by two equally severe stone benches. The remains of four chandeliers lay on the floor, but that’s easily fixed, and for the first time in a long whole, Itachi - calms. He has found his crypt.

 


 

Getting the room ready for its future as a crypt requires some actual planning. There are, like, steps. Considerations. Fucking caveats. 

 

First, the table and benches have to go. That’s just a fact. Itachi’s crypt won’t double as a fucking dining hall. Actually making that happen will be—well, it shouldn’t be impossible. With enough time and bullheaded determination, most everything can be done, and this boils down to physical labour more or less. Oh, it will take months and months. Itachi is stronger than the average seven-year-old, but that doesn’t make him especially well-equipped to move, what fifty tons of stone? Double that? Fuck knows.

 

That wouldn't be so much of a worry by itself. Itachi has time. If it takes a year it will take a year. Who cares? Itachi sure doesn’t. What he does care about is his forest-home. The trip from his home to the crypt takes just under two days. The Government district, to make matters that much more tedious, doesn’t have any food or even running water readily available. From what little he managed to piece together, water and warmth used to be pumped to the royal chambers with some complicated plumbing mechanism that, naturally, hasn’t worked for a long time. The best way of determining these things is that there are no rats here, or bats, or any of the wildlife one would expect. Which means—no water. Not there, anyways. The nearest water source from his crypt is about three hours away on foot, which is not too bad, but not very convenient either.

 

The trial and error is unpleasant, but he manages to cobble together a rather harrowing schedule, at least in comparison to his previously rather languid approach to life. He can reasonably transport around a week’s worth of supplies up to the throne room. A week’s worth of supplies takes about a week’s time to prepare. It’s, yeah, a bit tedious, but the week in the forest goes a long way at re-establishing his mental equilibrium, so he can’t complain.

 

The less said about the following six months, the better. He would not have managed, he’s pretty certain, if he wasn’t forced to alternate between a week of stonework and a week of rest in his forest. And boy, after a full week of chipping away at the stone table and hauling the resulting blocks away, he barely has the energy to crawl back to his clearing and lick his wounds. It says a lot about the resilience of his body, that even a month into the project, he gained next to no muscle tone.

 

The actual work is—surprisingly eventful, for manual labour. Since he is, objectively, a feeble child, he has to work smart to get anywhere. That is some solid motivation right there. He makes some interesting insights into Tsunade-sama’s famous strength techniques. As it turns out, the absolute value of Chakra necessary is laughably small, less than an E-rank technique, if that. The whole thing came down to Chakra control, and that’s kind of where the rabbit lies.  Itachi has honed his control significantly over the years, absolutely, but he can’t hold a candle to Tsunade-sama. Which would explain the difference in effect. Where the Slug Sanin could, and did, level a mountain with one kick, Itachi can manage to put one solid crack in the thick stone slab. On top of that, his Chakra pool can accommodate just about ten E-ranked techniques before dwindling into dangerously low levels. Which is all to say, the task claimed its pound of flesh before it was finished, but finished it was. His precision improved exponentially. Tsunade-sama might have had better control, but she aimed to shatter. He aimed to cut. After the first month, he was somewhat pleased with how neat his edges were. By the end of the sixth month, he could have sold the damn things as construction material.

 

A small break is necessary before the second, rather more horrible, part of the task can begin. He allows himself two weeks of doing nothing more strenuous than drowning in berries and sleeping next to as many wildflowers as he can. The wildlife is no more wary of him now than they were when he first arrived, and he takes shameless advantage of it, petting every bunny rabbit and trading walnuts with every squirrel he can reach.

 

Unease buries deep into his bones all too soon, restlessness following soon after. At the end of the second week in his forest, he can barely stand in one place. Not all that surprising. Annoying, yeah, but predictable. He was born with an obsessive mind and he will die with it. Procrastination is all well and good, but an Uchiha can’t let a thing go to save their life.

 

Fuck, though, is it grim work. Room by room, house by house, district by district, he gathers the skeletons of the Builders with great care and transports them into the designated resting place. As it often happens with greatly unpleasant but equally as important tasks, time blurs, until days flow into one another, and self-awareness dwindles into the aether. There is nothing but the task at hand.

 

He resurfaces after a while, about a full year later, judging by the fact Spring has come around again. Every single corpse he could find has been laid down in the Crypt with as little damage and as much respect as he could have afforded them. The Sharingan has proven invaluable with the more gruesome aspects of the work, such as determining which pieces go where and similar morbid concerns.

 

It was grim, thankless work, and he can’t deny he’s glad that it’s over—but. Looking over the mournful and yet dignified room, he doesn’t want to stop the pride that spreads warm through his veins. He helped the Builders, there is no denying it. It’s entirely too possible that crypts are far, far removed from what they once considered appropriate burial rites, but it’s undeniably a majestic place for them to rest and await their descendants that will do what Itachi doesn’t know to.

 

Not gathering the remains from the mines is not so much oversight, as it is a concession to reality. The monsters own the lower levels, and they are far too fond of bone-piles for Itachi to have any hope of recovering them. On a more cheerful side, it’s gratifying to see not only how very few children’s remains he’d found, but all in all, how few corpses there are. From the entire upper levels, Itachi has recovered less than two thousand adults, which cannot be the entire population of a mountain this big.

 

No, if he’s right, and he’s pretty certain he’s right, the Builders weren’t exterminated, they were driven out. Some died, yes, but most managed to escape, and bring the children with them. Which means that the chances of Itachi meeting their descendants are much better than he had first assumed.

 

What a trippy fucking notion. Itachi very decidedly doesn’t want to meet anyone, but if he had to, it would be the Builders, and not only because of the debt he still owes them. People who create rather than destroy, who value their young over the ludicrous amount of wealth they left forgotten in the mountain—by every metric he has, they are worth knowing.

 

He closes the slate doors, blocks the door entirely from view by stacking his granite slabs high,  bows once, and leaves. It's fitting, all said, that the stone that once helped feed the Builders, now guarded them in their rest.

 

 


 

Chapter Text

 

Using ‘obsessive’ as a descriptor of the Uchiha is a wholly pointless endeavour. It is their absolute defining trait. Sharingan eyes and deeply obsessive tendencies they developed far as they would go as a rule. An obsessive Uchiha was an alive Uchiha and that is just, like, fact.

 

Itachi-of-before was no exception. The only thing that prevented him from following the tried and true Uchiha way was that his development more or less stopped at, what, six? Around the time when he had first created his rather dismal understanding of war and peace and Sasuke and life and death and how all those things relate to one another. He got stuck there and stayed there until the end, not having the mental capacity to develop a wide array of obsessions that most Uchiha cycle through. Even Sasuke, dear, lovely, fucked up Sasuke, managed to have several by the time Itachi finally managed to die for good.

 

Point is, now that he has nothing but time, he can confirm from first-hand experience just how inevitable obsessions are to Uchiha, and how utterly comfortable he is with that. He has just spent a year and a half, pretty much without pause, on a self-imposed task that he took on pretty much at random. Not only does he not regret it, the feeling of settling an obsession is straight-up addictive.

 

Oh, he’s drained, physically and mentally exhausted and sort of wobbly and emotional, but there is an optimistic sheen to the vulnerability. A quiet, humming noise that keeps his spirits up even when he feels like a damp tissue for quite a while.

 

These attention quick-sand pits can’t be healthy, that is certainly fucking clear but, like. Is Itachi anywhere near the point of his life when he can afford to judge life in terms of healthy and unhealthy? Is he even capable of not indulging his nature, now that he knows what that rush of determined, unflinching passion feels like? He sure doesn’t think so. He would pay almost any price, to get to submerge his soul into the sure knowledge that he is exactly where he needs to be, doing exactly what he needs to be doing.

 


 

Another thing of note, he thinks, is the Spiritual aspect of this new and mysterious world.

 

The Gods and Spirits back in the Elemental Nations weren’t what one might call subtle, but they were—distant, perhaps? Not all too invested in the idea of humans as a whole. Their presence was felt, and felt strongly, but not in any way that felt particularly caring. Gods and spirits were to be survived and endured, worshipped and given respect but not, like, loved or anything. Uchiha called upon Amaterasu-ōmikami, upon the three noble children and a host of other supernatural spirits, but there was always a sense of risk and reward to it. Itachi’s eternal black flames were given to him by Amaterasu-ōmikami, but he knew very well how conditional that power was.

 

The hand of the supernatural in this new world is a good deal less capricious. Itachi’s garden, for one, is flourishing. Is that too tame? It’s thriving, it’s burgeoning, it’s fucking prospering. If he didn’t have a first-row seat, he would suspect sabotage or, who knows, an illusion of some kind. The vegetables doubled in number practically overnight, but okay, that’s not too weird. It’s the size. Each and every one of his fruit-bearing plants became eerily eager to please. The blackberries can barely fit on his palm, and the strawberries are easily apple-sized. The potato plant now sports flowers in every hue under the sun, from neon-orange to a blood-red.

 

It's all rather ridiculous, but he can admit to himself that he appreciates the straightforward nature of these new Gods. It’s less fire and brimstone and more direct bribery. Do good things, and I will feed you. Its a type of regime Itachi’s Shinobi mind can accept and live under peacefully.

 


 

Resting in a supernatural garden of peace and wonder is an experience unlike any other so far. The plants are both practically sentient and quick to grow and evolve. Which leads to fruit falling into his mouth when he’s lying about, and bean-pods conveniently dropping into a neat pile when the mood strikes them. It’s, yeah, it’s all very cosy. The plants feel parental, in a way. The plum tree especially has a pointed way of dropping its fruits, as if admonishing him to eat more.

 

Well, never let it be said Itachi can’t take advantage of a good thing. The only task he will allow himself for that summer and autumn is to build two shrines, one per deity that have been so instrumental in this new world. The first one, devoted to the deity who gave his garden sentience and a friendly disposition, and the second one to the stern God that plucked him out of death and brought him here. For lack of something better, he calls the first Mother and the second Father. It’s, yeah, it’s pretty self-defeating to project any sort of familiarity onto two supernatural beings of unknowable power, but Itachi has never been very gentle with his heart. Fictional love is better than no love, after all, and he’s perfectly willing to risk delusion if it buys him some peace in the meantime.

 

The shrine to Mother is a rather simple affair. He chooses the softest, most soothing patch of grass, in a small clearing not far from his own. The stream nearby provides the stones, whimsical, pretty things that children would play with. He places them in a circle and then spends the next few days carefully planting the prettiest flowers he can find inside the circle made by the pebbles. It’s all rather silly and inoffensive, and fun to boot, and he thinks that the deity who created supernatural potatoes will appreciate it for what it is. He feels a ghost sensation of a warm hand caressing his cheek which makes him smile for the rest of the week.

 

In contrast, the shrine to Father is definitely a more serious affair. The location, for one, is nowhere near as obvious as Mothers’ shrine had been. He debates making it downstairs, in the Main Hall, but decides against it pretty quickly. It’s not that he doesn’t associate the Builders with Father, he does in a vague sense, but he wants to make the distinction clear for his own benefit. The Builders were people, just as any other, if insanely gifted in craftwork and architecture. It would be dangerous to confuse talented mortals with deities that have the power to move souls across worlds.

 

The mines would suit—the eerie room where Itachi first woke up comes to mind—but that is simply not feasible. Monsters aside, he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to find the anvil-room if he searched for centuries.

 

His third option was the makeshift Crypt, which he grows more and more attached to the more he thinks about it. The Builders must have been Father's worshippers since His words on Itachi’s skin match the writing on the wall. Since the deities here seem to be more involved with their people, perhaps Father would appreciate His shrine serving as a second, rather more definite, level of protection to the fallen warriors. The only issue he has with the idea is that the Shrine will be in the same room as the ridiculous throne, but he can be the bigger man this one time.

 

He lets his intuition guide the construction, for lack of a better term, of the Shrine. After some borderline-sleepwalking, he ends up wandering the Mountain, collecting hammers along the way. Hammers suit, he thinks. He appreciates their duality, that they are used to both build and destroy. The collection grows piece by piece, and he tries not to let his preconceptions limit which hammers are best. Some are old, well-loved tools, some look to be toys, practice tools built with children in mind. Some were obviously meant exclusively for combat. He arranges them into a semi-circle in front of the blocked off enteric to the Crypt and bows, satisfied with his work. When a ghostly hand clasps his shoulder, tears spring to his eyes, as warmth makes his bones feel heavy.

 

He has little doubt in his mind that his gesture, as clumsy as it might have been, is accepted in the spirit it was meant.

 


 

Some things in life, Itachi thinks with vague amusement, are certain. Not that he has a problem with his height or body type. He definitely doesn’t mind not having to mess with his Taijutsu style. He could have done so—he will do so if something drastic changes—but he doubts he will have to. Short, lithe and androgynous is the name of the game. Perfectly fine. He has more than enough equalizers at his disposal, from his Chakra to Kenjutsu, for size and base-level strength not to matter all that much.

 

On a less sanguine note, first inklings of puberty start inching along, heralding anxiety and disquiet to come. The hormonal overcharge hasn’t happened yet—and he remains hopeful that his new species might not feature that particular disaster—but his body has started to change. He’s patched up his psyche some, over the years but his relationship with body dysphoria is complex and ever-evolving relationship. Seeing his body starting to develop secondary sex characteristics is overwhelmingly disturbing. At least he’s spared having to look at himself much, thanks to the lack of mirrors around. That’s not nothing. That’s quite a lot, actually. Amaterasu above, while he might not be so violently insane this time around, he’s certainly not likely to avoid the label altogether.

 

With his body finally starting to develop more concretely, the time has come to step up his training. He hasn’t been languishing as such, but his Shinobi skills have grown as dull as they can get. This body has zero combat training—how wacky is that? Itachi Uchiha—not a single day spent practising kata or working on blade-work? Weird. He’s grown to be pretty agile, much more so than he had been before, and his Chakra control is fucking excellent by anybody’s standards, but Taijutsu and Kenjutsu? Fucking nil.  A reasonably intelligent Chuunin could take him out without breaking a sweat, which is just unacceptable.

 

So, as Winter turns to Spring, he hunkers down and reshuffles his priorities. Gardening is, by this point, completely unnecessary. Roaming around the mountain and learning about the different crafts is certainly enjoyable, but not, perhaps, all that important. With those two out of the way, his schedule is pretty open. Other than a little hunting per week and tending to his pelts and such, he’s got all the time in the world to get himself up to speed.

 

At this stage, the lack of an opponent is inconvenient, yes, but more than that. He’s an absolute beginner, there is a lot he could work on. Learning Taijutsu, training muscle memory and reflexes, takes time, will and not much more. He’s been in enough actual combat before, to know what works and what doesn't, and how to move and what to focus on. It will all need to be honed in actual combat, definitely, but he can get some decent training in beforehand.

 

Two things, other than Taijutsu he needs to focus on are Shurikenjutsu--adapted for ranged weapons he can scavenge from the Mountain--and Kenjutsu. If he is to be short and with how area-effecting techniques seem to fizzle out, he must extend his reach somehow. Picture-perfect aim, avoiding open conflict and a good sword or three seems to be a good way to stay alive. Kenjutsu will have to be shelved, for now. He doesn’t have an appropriately small blade or any real experience beyond the basics he learned in ANBU. Taijutsu and Shurikenjustsu are manageable.

 

All told, it’s a fulfilling way to be. He trains and meditates and sleeps, and does little else. His skills are slow to improve, but by the time Autumn nears its end, he is definitely getting somewhere. The last eight weeks or so, as his work escalated in physical demands, he had to write in a solid block of time to recuperate. Which is excellent, because he really needs to think about his non-existent gear. His clothes will have to be leather, of course, he doesn’t have any other material to work with, but after years of living in the clearing, he’s amassed a decent amount of tanned leather just waiting to be used.

 

With time and effort and plenty of wasted material, his projects improve. If he didn’t delight in the novelty, he’d be damn annoyed that combat is his slowest skill to grow. After a lifetime of blood and pain, he’s far from dissatisfied that he will get to create this time around, and not just destroy. A shirt that fits is his first mile-stone. It’s far from perfect, of course, but it’s comfortable and doesn’t hang loose and awkward around his body. He’s cheating a little by taking advantage of buckles and clasps he’d found in various workshops. It’s, yeah, a bit disquieting, especially on a body of a very young teenager, but it’s also practical. Skintight fetish-bait it might be, but it’s decent protection, and it helps camouflage his moon-pale skin.

 

His gear is finished, and plenty of food is salted and stored by the time Winter comes about and the time comes for training gloves to come off. He has a convenient nest of monsters to practice on right below him. For once combat will come with no ethical pitfalls and nightmares about pacifism and the inherent value of human life.

 

Itachi, Monster slayer—it’s practically the title of a children’s book.

 


 

A strange thing that happens when you change species, Itachi realizes, is that your perception of the world shifts with it. In his case, since his new species is exponentially longer-lived, his comprehension of the passage of time adapts. Case in point, having established a well-loved, fulfilling routine, it’s easy as pie to let time flow around him as it would. The smallest time interval he considers relevant is the season, mainly because each season has its own purpose. The winters are spent in the mines, murdering the monsters. Summers are spent recuperating and healing from the stressful months. Spring is spent working on his gear and various other projects, and autumn in training and preparing for winter.

 

It's a surprisingly rewarding way to live. During the peaceful seasons, each new skill he learns, each new plant he discovers and brings back to his garden, settles his heart further. On the opposite, and yet equally fulfilling side, he grows happier with his chosen role in life with every band of Abominations he kills. This, unlike the contractual slaughter back in Konoha, is something he can be proud of.

 

His excursions to the Mines have not gone unnoticed. As a concession to his stubbornly harmless body, he has embraced his Shinobi roots and adapted his style to distance-hits and ambushes from above, making sure to eliminate all his targets as efficiently as possible. Which, yes, kept him alive, but had a convenient side-effect of keeping his identity and skill-set hidden. They’ve learned some, especially the less insane variety in the upper levels of the Mines. After a few years of being picked off one by one, they’ve learned not to wander off alone. It’s unavoidable, perhaps, and if they were any less ridiculously evil he wouldn’t even mind. The wolves, though. The wolves are a problem.

 

Fuck, but does he hate dealing with the wolves. Someone—presumably whoever created the monsters in the first place—has managed to breed a species of wolf-bears. That in itself wouldn’t be an issue, the animals more or less exhibit what you would expect from a cross-breed. Their features are eye-catching but in no way grotesque or monstrous. Physically, they are powerful, proportional and intelligent—if he had encountered them in the wild, he’d be vaguely impressed by just how many traits of an apex predator is crammed into one animal. The problem is that they were broken to such an alarming extent, that they carry the monsters on their backs more or less willingly.

 

The very concept turns his stomach. A wild tiger would rather die than accept a human rider. He can’t even imagine what these creatures were put through, up to and including magical enslavement, to accept the monsters, who exemplify rabid violence. The tamest beast of burden would bolt in the face of it. The most house-broken milk cow would fight to the death as best it can to be free of their malice. How, then, are the wolf-bears possible?

 

He has to kill them. He desperately doesn’t want to kill them. It’s a problem.

 


 

He typically resurfaces around the beginning of spring. After the initial burst of focused healing and recuperation, it’s time to dive into craftwork. Time to live and create. Time to let his spirit grow and develop in whatever direction suits his whims.

 

He tries his hand at dozens of crafts and revels in each one. Every new skill, every small improvement is a very tangible achievement which, considering he is who he is, means a whole fucking lot. Just to make sure he’s as outrageous as he can be, he makes sure to use his Sharingan as much as he can, as much as his Chakra pool will allow. It works very well, not only because he gets a hit of dopamine every time he imagines the look on the Elders’ faces if they knew he was using their precious bloodline limit to sew, but because he floods his mind with memories of pure light and wonder. He will forever remember, with perfect clarity, hours spent in the sun, languidly tanning a piece of leather. Sewing a pouch. It’s fucking heaven.

 

One craft that stands above all others in terms of how much joy it brings him is making linen. Which, yeah, is not at all a simple endeavour.

 

About two summers into his routine, his garden—Mother—gifts him a plant that resembles flax in a lot of ways, except it’s bigger and it grew quicker and its flowers were a dark, dense violet that Itachi adored beyond reason. Since his understanding of how linen was made boiled down to ‘it’s made from flax’, doing anything with his newfound bounty took several seasons. Just identifying an appropriate workshop was a task and a half, never mind figuring out what to do with any of it. With the added factor of Mother’s blessings that saw his little crop of flax plants grow into a sprawling thing in an entertainingly short amount of time, he made his first linen sheet in just over two years. After that first successful piece, his skills grew, aided as they were by Sharingan fuckery. Relatively quickly, the quality of textiles he could produce grew to something he could sell to a well-off merchant for a decent sum.

 

Hand in hand with the Plant District, came the more in-depth exploration of the ‘Animal District’ —the collection of workshops above the abandoned and rather sad-looking animal pens. For his textile operation, he had managed to lug the necessary tools back to his clearing to work from home, as it were. He doesn’t even try to lug any of the cumbersome equipment from the animal district, considering it’s about a day away on foot. Setting up shop in the district will have to do.

 

Itachi is lying about, lazily petting one of several bunnies that made themselves comfortable on his body, when he realizes he’s been living in the Mountain for over a decade. He freezes briefly, looking inwards. Is he—he should be alarmed? He has to be at least shocked? Disquieted? He’s spent a decade in this place, surely that means something?

 

It doesn’t, and it does. He’s not disquieted, that he’s certain of. He is—something though. Not unhappy, not even a little but. Restless, maybe? The need for change has been burrowing under his skin for a while now, but he’s been putting it off by focusing on immediate tasks. Fix that piece of armour. Improve your aim. Find a more efficient way to crisp your potatoes.

 

Do you want to keep putting it off? You could, you absolutely could. You’ve started to get a proper grasp on the spinning wheel, but you haven’t tried doubling your tread. Or tripling it. You haven’t tried your hand at smithing at all, and you know fire and Uchiha go well together. You haven’t tried making proper soles on your shoes. There are a million things he could try but—something tells him he’s on the cusp of something. Some truth he’s already realized but hasn’t let himself hear it just yet.

 

Yes, he will embrace it, whatever it is. If change comes knocking, who is he to say no?

 


 

Chapter Text

The next phase of his life starts after that ten-year mark, as if on some divine schedule. Or maybe Uchiha schedule? He’s due an obsession, a proper ‘itch in your teeth, buzz in your ears, I will die if I don’t figure it out’ type of thing. He couldn’t have predicted that his second proper Obsession in this life would be Fūinjutsu of all things, but there it is.

 

He hit something of a plateau with the Shinobi arts, partially because of a lack of imagination, and partially as a result of his body being very slow to develop. When the idea of Fūinjutsu occurs to him, something clicks together, some door in his mind opens wide and sucks all of his attention right in. Seal-work is fucking perfect, an unholy blend of art and battle and craft that will fit so well in this new world. He’s got the time, he’s got the parchment, he’s got the determination. All he needs is some ink and blood and he’s all set.

 

The drive runs rampant, takes no quarter. Spring turns into Summer, and then Autumn by the time Itachi has got himself a respectable selection of inks. It’s somewhat telling that in this, his Noble education was definitely helpful. Ink making was considered a prestigious past-time—Uchiha have been making the special Chakra-infused ink for hundreds of years. Itachi tries to repeat that, now, to infuse the charcoal with Chakra one way or another, and bind it all with different types of glue. It’s really fucking funny, that ink-making, one of the messiest things Itachi has ever done, is considered high-class but there we are.

 

His materials good and ready, parchment, ink, brushes present in ample amounts, he’s ready to begin.

 


 

There has never been, thinks Itachi, awash with morbid fascination, a worse Fūinjutsu user in all the worlds. He’s not even hung up on shame, or something dumb like that. His life and upbringing weren’t good for many things, but easy confidence in his skills and place in the hierarchy is carved into his fucking soul. No, he’s straight-up terrible. Beyond terrible. He’s pretty sure fishermen in fucking Wave would have gotten a result by now.  Any result. At all.

 

Failure, as poor, darling Sasuke could, unfortunately, attest to, doesn’t do much to deter an Uchiha with an obsession. So he tries and fails and tries again. He blows through his parchments in half the time he’d estimated when he first started and sacrifices some of the leather he set aside for tanning. The net volume of blood he drains from his scrawny body starts pushing the outer limit of sanity. He tries and tries and tries and lets the project consume him entirely. Adrenaline keeps him going, passion tints his days red and his mind soars.

 

Chakra exhaustion becomes a staple of life. Fūinjutsu is punishing Chakra-wise, that's certainly no secret. Itachi’s currently working out of a prepubescent body of an undetermined species. His Chakra reserves would make the instructors at the Academy think twice about admitting him into the program. He doesn’t let that slow him down.

 

He compiles data in the morning. While he hadn’t been the most studious person around, he knew his Chakra theory as much as the next S-ranked Missing-nin. Writing everything down is unnecessary and would require a dizzying amount of parchment, but he does summarize the important bits. Early afternoons are dedicated to his own hypotheses—thought experiments for the most part.

 

After the theory session, there are as always chores to be done, and he does them in a haze, mind churning through the rather esoteric concepts, which provides an amusing backdrop to mundane shit like peeling the potatoes or slicing the mushrooms.

 

Afternoons are for experimentation. The gruelling pace doesn’t allow his Chakra to replenish much, so the number of Seals he can activate is fucking meagre. Sometimes he has strength enough to crawl to bed at the end of the day. Usually, he works until he drops.

 


 

Itachi hits his first meaningful milestone around three years into his scholarly lifestyle.

 

How do you feel about that he thinks, comfortably perched at the intersection of amused and horrified. It took you three years of near-constant work, of sometimes literally bleeding yourself to the point of unconsciousness, to come to a conclusion that might as well be written in giant neon letters in the sky.

 

Observation one. Fūinjutsu is an art of using a script as both focus and medium for Chakra manipulation.

Observation two. The words—or symbols—serve the function of guiding Chakra in a precise pattern, analogous to how Ninjutsu uses hand-signs.

Observation three. Much like Ninjutsu, Fūinjutsu uses both spiritual and physical Chakra. The physical Chakra is kinetic, and it follows the shape. The spiritual chakra is abstract, and it follows your intent. A seal consists of both, a shape to contain the kinetic Chakra and a command to focus your intent.

Observation four. Uzushio Seal-script either evolved from the Uzushio dialect of Chikigyo or was deliberately created for seal-work.

Observation five. With the resources you have, it is impossible for you to learn the Uzushio seal-script.

Observation six. Nobody but Uzu Shinobi knew Uzushio seal-script in Elemental Nations.

 

 

Observation seven. Elemental Nations have been using Uzushio Seal-work for fucking centuries, by painting the fucking pictures and feeling the fucking feeling by rote memorization.

Observation eight. Take a bath, clear your head and think about your life, Uchiha Itachi, because you just spent three years doing the same, except more and worse.

 


 

Alright, alright, scrap the whole sorry affair and start over. Sealing is, essentially, Ninjutsu. You exert your will on the world by using your life force as an energy source. You have a specific, precise command, and you imbue it with Chakra. The calligraphy, the script and the symbolism, are focusing instruments. They train your woolly and easily distracted mind to associate a symbol with an idea very, very precisely, in a way that can be replicated time and time again.

 

Working with Chakra is inescapably mushy, and Fūinjutsu is a mix of wishy-washy talk about truth and meaning—as is always the case when working with the Spiritual side of things—and lots and lots of mathematics to balance the energy input, flow and output, and everything in-between.

 

Mathematics aside, you have been trying to focus your mind by aping a language you do not speak, from a culture you do not know, by a people you could not be more different from. Well done.

 


 

Wouldn’t it be something, though, if he invented his own? If he took, as a completely non-random example, the beautiful runic script that marks his skin and created his own symbols. His own meanings.

 

Huh. Now there’s an idea.

 


 

Is he really doing this? Is it arrogant of him? Well, yeah, probably. But. If not him, then who? No, wait, that’s a stupid way to look at this. The correct way to look at this is, why the fuck not? The Uzumaki did it. Why not Itachi? His seals don’t have to be as pretty as the Uzushio swirls and spirals, they don’t have to be as versatile—and with the limitations of Chakra in this new world, they cannot be—but that is not a sufficient reason to give up. His obsession burns now as strongly as it had since it made a home in Itachi’s bones. Why not?

 

Calligraphy is out. Fuck calligraphy. If he’s doing this, then he’s doing it with a medium he actually enjoys. Metalwork. Stonework. Weaving. Why not be inspired by the majesty of the mountain? Create something new. You’re in a new world, you can escape your Clan’s legacy of stealing shit from actually creative people and using it without any understanding at all. Maybe, if you work and enough, your legacy can be that of invention, not appropriation and theft? Who cares if it takes longer? He has the time,  he has the patience, he has the will.

 


 

From day one of his second go at it, it’s clear that he made the right choice. Because the first step is understanding his chosen medium. Which happens to be carving.

 

Goodness, but carving is fun. He dismisses the idea of wood-carving practically the moment it occurs to him. Not only is wood not as steady and permanent as he would like, it is also much too opinionated. Wood is not as alive as, say, leather, but is far from pristine as stone or metal. Later perhaps, his skill will grow enough to try stitching his designs on leather with metal thread. For now, the blank, calm stone is perfect.

 

If it were any less fun, learning how to carve in a fortress that doubles as the pinnacle of the craft would have been petrifying. It helps that Father’s brush of pride when he switched from parchment to stone was unmistakable. What else could he need? Instead of an unreachable goal, the beauty of the fortress serves as a perpetual source of inspiration.

 

Learning how to carve with Chakra is a balm on his somewhat battered ego. He’s never been what one might call insecure—at least not in regards to his Shinobi skills—but he did spend three years without so much as a drop of progress. But carving—whether it was the result of a blessing or by some characteristic innate to his new species—is natural and soothing in equal measure. Overthinking things is his biggest enemy here, so he gives it his utmost to follow his instincts where they would lead him.

 

A good indicator that things are going well is that his days are fucking blissful. Instead of ending the day in a haze of physical and mental exhaustion, he now bounces off to bed, mind pleasantly empty. Which, yeah, makes all sort of sense. He is, by every metric he has, meditating. This method of carving is a simple affair, stripped from all unnecessary drama. He is tracing his chosen design on stone while channelling the slightest thread of Chakra he can. Thousands of times. It’s meditation and it’s a Chakra exercise and a whole lot more that he can’t quite name.

 


 

Things get more intense once he’s got Chakra control down, and starts incorporating intent into it. Channelling a consistently steady output of Chakra is not easy per se, but it’s a skill he is familiar with. Doing the same while focusing on a very exact concept is a different matter altogether. If he wants to carve a rune for protection, he will need to first sand down the nebulous concept to something concrete, and then hold that condensed idea in his mind for hours at a time.

 

He’s still learning, though, so he leaves the philosophical shit for later. For now, it is enough to learn how to deliberately, purposefully feel, mind and body and fucking soul.

 

It would be false to claim that opening his heart to a specific feeling and keeping it there wasn't satisfying on a visceral level. Itachi, like most Shinobi, had experimented with every mind-altering substance to had been had. That artificially induced high? Doesn’t hold a fucking candle to the rush of emotions that keeps growing and growing the longer he forces himself to feel them.

 

It would be equally false to claim that coming down from the high wasn’t messy and gruelling and downright embarrassing at times. It leaves him an overwrought wreck, constantly bursting into tears for no particular reason, every single time.

 

Fucking worth it.

 


 

Philosophical shit doesn’t let itself be put off for long. After seemingly no time at all, it’s time to wade in those murky waters. Man, but it’s a lot.

 

Stick with protection, Itachi. It is what you know, Itachi. You’re a Shinobi, you know protection, Itachi. Hah. 

 

Sure, okay, protection, excellent. Protection from what? Fire? Self-doubt? Bad weather? More importantly, can you summon up enough mental and emotional energy necessary to carve any of that shit?

 

No, no you can not. As it happens, Itachi can’t feel that many things strongly at all. The sheer volume of his notes is rather compelling evidence to that effect.

 

The pile for protection is the biggest one, sure, but that doesn’t mean much. He’s isolated hundreds of shades and flavours of the concept. The pile for the more aggressive concepts is laughably small, in comparison and in itself. The same is true for luck, or love, or happiness. What the fuck does Itachi know about love? How would he even use such a rune? Wouldn’t that be incredibly intrusive? The very idea seems both impossible and immoral. Definitely something that he would rather destroy than create.

 

Back to protection, then. Amaterasu give him strength.

 

Philosophy aside, the way he’s matching the runes to concepts is woolly as fuck. A scientifically literate person would be driven to substance abuse. The first step is reasonable—he compiles a first rough selection of things he thinks are feasible. Then the wacky shit starts.

 

It’s not even all his fault. If there is a rational method of creating a language, he doesn’t know it, and it wouldn’t suit his need besides. He doesn’t want to write with his runes, he wants to feel them. So he needs to—not think. Just let himself be a vessel driven by intuition and subconscious insights. It’s, yeah. It’s something. Training or no, feeling and doing without thinking is not something that comes easily, or comfortably. 

 

The next step is much more pleasant because it consists of consulting Mother and Father, which takes a while. There are several, rather predictable roadblocks. First, there is the obvious problem of communication. The Gods, wonder of wonders, don’t really communicate in concrete, digestible concepts. He doesn’t doubt they’re imparting magnificent, revelatory truths onto him, but his feeble human mind can only internalize what it is capable of knowing. It’s a strange idea to wrap his mind around—that they can only teach him a thing that he doesn’t know he already knows. It’s like a tongue-twister, but for his mind.

 

On top of that, he can’t shake the feeling that they’re laughing at him. Constantly. He doesn’t mind, of course. Who would? Gods laugh at mortals, that’s practically their job. Plus, he’s pretty laughable. The first time he stomped into Mother’s Clearing with his bundle of notes, he didn’t think to ask for help. He just came to sulk. The feeling of gentle amusement that washed over him soothed him but didn’t stop him from blowing a very sincere raspberry. Something similar happened when he brought his work to Father’s shrine, only to feel a booming sort of laugh, and a feeling of a large, warm hand carding through his hair.

 

Even without their direct input, Itachi found that Their presence guides his focus enough to eliminate one or two options per sitting. Not always, of course, that’s not how any of this works. Some days it was harder to focus, and some concepts were more challenging to grasp. He made his peace with not having a reliable system, so that is no longer a worry.

 

After he recovers from the pit of infirmity he has driven himself to with his Uzu-sealwork, the benefits start trickling in. The process of creation, he is startled to discover, is rewarding even without having accomplished much at all. He doesn’t have much experience with creativity and self-expression, but that doesn’t stop him from becoming hooked. How did he live before? Before he had found an outlet for himself before he had these long stretches of time where his mind could play and his heart could bask.

 

The haze thickens. His other duties fall to the wayside, and while he’s still taking care of himself, his mind is constantly on his work. Which runes to use, and why? Why do they feel like this, and what meaning could he associate with it? What would be the emotion most prominent to the concept?

 

It takes about a year, to have a set of twelve runes that he’s happy with. They’re, for the most part, unambitious, quiet things. Nothing grand, nothing flashy. Protect your home from sabotage, protect your dreams from nightmares. Protect your weapon from breaking, protect your mind from self-sabotage. Simple, mundane wishes, almost blessings, or prayers.

 

Now it’s time to try and actually carve the things.

 


 

Carving goes—predictably.

 

The first attempt crashes and burns, and Itachi doesn’t mind even a little. He paired a lovely piece of white marble with a roundish, stumpy rune, and the concept of ‘protect the unwary from unseen attacks’. After about a season, it’s clear this particular combination won’t work. How he knows, why it won’t work, what should he have done differently—anyone’s guess. It doesn’t work, it won’t work, it’s time to change some things.

 

He tries switching the stone, he tries injecting it with more Chakra—tries injecting it with less Chakra—but the attempts fail, one after another. That there is quantifiable progress keeps him from drastic actions, but the Chakra in the stone never—clicks. Some of it sticks, after each trace of the rune, but the energy is unfocused and weak—confused, even.

 

He repeats it again and again and again. By the sixth time he starts over, he has learned how to trace the rune in a single, uninterrupted motion, while cycling through the complex idea on each pass of the finger. It’s a bit of unconscious mimicry of the blood pumping through his veins. His hand flows through gesture and the concept flows through his heart and—he succeeds. Between one moment and the next, after, yes, solid three months of work, something esoteric happens to the stone. His design lights up, glows brightly, pulsing like a heart. It subsides after a few moments, dimming to a barely-there violet-blue light. His breath catches as he stares at the miracle—his miracle—thrumming and happy and fucking spectacular. This thing that he created from nothing but his will and the guidance of his Gods.

 

He knows, somehow, that the stone will glow softly until the energy it spends fulfilling its mission equals the energy Itachi poured into it. Which is a decidedly non-trivial amount. For such a simple task—glowing bright and growing warm when unseen enemies grow near—the amount of Chakra coursing through that stone will keep it running for—fuck knows, really. Decades.

 

The next four years follow a similar pattern of an unbroken string of failures, culminating in a roaring success. Every rune-stone is perfect and worthy of worship—Itachi certainly adores them. Why wouldn’t he? He breathed life into stone. His own life, yeah, but it counts. The stones are pieces of him or have started as pieces of him, and only time will tell how they will develop.

 


 

The final stone, a capricious, needy rune for ‘protect a loved one from certain death by a superior foe’, is his most complicated design yet.

 

After seven months of trial and error, he settled on a palm-sized, flat stone of unknown composition, as close to pitch-black as he can imagine a stone being, and veined through with glittering red. Itachi is never really sure what, precisely, any of his rune-children will do, in which specific ways they will utilize the lake of Chakra he’s poured into of them. Their concepts were vague, loose guidelines without any practical instructions and commands. He likes it that way, of course—nobody on this or any other world would look at Itachi, his nightmare of a life, and think ‘this is the person I want giving orders’.

 

Neither the rune nor the complicated meaning associated with it let themselves be changed into something more reasonable. It’s not that Itachi can’t feel it—he absolutely can. The overwhelming fear and panic he felt when Sasuke was in danger are very clear in his mind. Sasuke, Sage love him, never failed to throw himself head-first at the biggest, baddest monster around, with Genin-level Taijutsu, middling Ninjutsu and no Genjutsu to speak of. That Orochimaru opted not to cut up the boy into pieces was luck and caprice, nothing else. His subsequent enemies were not that kind. So yes, Itachi knows the shape and the weight of desperation that one feels when the person they love most in the world is about to get killed, and there is nothing you can do about it.

 

The potency of emotion is enough to carry the ridiculous amount of Chakra Itachi pours into the rune. Time and time again, month after month, he thinks—this is enough, surely this must be enough. It wasn’t. It isn’t. It takes and takes, until Itachi’s grip on time slips and he stops thinking about it. After a couple of months, his skin breaks, and the stone soaks up the blood without hesitation. Nothing out of the ordinary. Carry on. As you fucking were.

 

When it comes alive, it shines a fierce white-blue, Chakra almost audibly snapping into place. What will it do, who is it meant for—how would it be used, if it let itself be used at all—those are all rather immaterial questions. Because his fiercest rune-child is finished, and with it, somehow, his obsession—disappears.

 


 

After a solid week of coming down from his years-long high, he tries to—figure shit out. How much time has gone by? Is his Clearing in a decent state? Is his body in a decent state?

 

After sitting down with a brush and parchment, he manages to figure out that he’s been at this for just over ten and a half years.

 

That’s—a long time to spend in a haze. He doesn’t know his own body anymore, hasn’t trained so much as a day, and while the experience has been incredibly rewarding, it is scary to learn that about himself. To be shown with such sharp focus, just how helpless he is against his own whims. A decade, damn, a decade went by. He has now spent more time in this world than in Elemental Nations—and he’s not even fully aware of it. It—if asked, his honest estimate would be a year, at most.

 

He has responsibilities here. Craft and self-expression are all well and good, but he hasn’t gone down to the mines once since his obsession dragged him in. Fuck.

 

Guilt permeates every cell in his body, every half-formed thought. Dragging himself and his red rune-stone to Father’s shrine is just about most he can do.

 

He—hopes. There are no excuses, not really. Having a personality disorder doesn’t absolve him of anything, nor would he want it to. He only hopes that he had been, well, right. Something so beautiful, so powerful—it needed to exist. It needed to be born, and Itachi had to do it.

 

He kneels in front of the shrine, sets his Stone in the centre of the half-circle of hammers, and bows low, forehead touching the stone.

 

“Forgive me.” His voice is—ruined by the years of silence. Why he speaks now is a mystery—but it feels right, so he forges on. He’s not looking for comfort, here. He is here to apologize.

 

Fathers presence is as tangible as always, thick with pride, attention weighing heavier than Itachi is used to. It’s the pride, really, that’s fucking him up, that makes tears bead in his eyes. It might very well be taken away, and then where will he be?

 

“I forgot about my task,” he rasps. “I failed you and Mother. I—I had to. Please believe me, I had to. They were—they were there, the idea of them heavy in my soul, and I had to make them. Had to finish it. I’m sorry I failed, but I couldn’t have done otherwise.”

 

His body wants to cringe, so he cringes. What would be the point in appearances? Subterfuge or obfuscation is wholly impossible. Father sees—exists—inside of him. Whatever weaknesses and failures Itachi has, are bare to His gaze. Such as, for example, the fear that Itachi's inability to set his work aside could be what takes Father’s pride away. That the arrogance of creation will have lost him Father’s regard.

 

The presence—softens, and if he wasn’t already crying, this would have pushed him over the edge. It’s difficult to admit any failing, much less one of this magnitude. A wave of calm washes over him, as slow and steady as the mountain above him. Then—it’s all pride and acceptance and understanding. It’s care, love, and while if he never doubted Father’s regard, he’d come to expect the gentle aspects only from Mother. This, now, it’s more than he’d ever thought the stern deity would be willing to bestow.

 

He cries for longer than was probably warranted, but it seems his decade spent doing little else than feeling intensely left him utterly incapable of processing emotion in appropriate intensity. Father is there with him, every step of the way, a pool of calm in the maelstrom of emotion.

 

“Thank you. Can I—Can I leave him here, with you?”

 

His red stone, he thinks, fits in better with Father than Mother. The other eleven stones are happy to remain at Mother’s shrine, but the red one, the fierce one, the closest he can come to making an offensive rune, is much too wild to just let be. It is strong, and thus dangerous—much like Itachi is. His track record so far proved that he does peculiar things when his loved ones are in danger. He would try to account for that, to plan for it. With Father’s stern guidance, and Mother’s forgiving love, maybe this time Itachi—and by extensions, his rune-children—won’t do terrible things to those they love in the name of protecting them.

 

He revels in Father’s presence some more, basks in his strength and warmth, bows again, and leaves. His stone stays, casting the room in a soft, blue glow.

 


 

Is it amusing? It should be, right? He should be amused that his body managed to erase any trace of combat training he spent years learning. Yes, okay, so he spent a decade sitting down and drawing pretty pictures on various surfaces. Should that justify the fact his arms feel like he’s never held a blade before in his life? His reflexes are firmly back to civilian levels, his stamina is pathetic, and the little muscle tone he managed to put on is well and truly gone.

 

Izanami wept, but this is annoying.

 

Well, he consoles himself, at least your Chakra pool has grown some. Not a lot, he’d still charitably place himself on a low Chūnin level, but it definitely grew. His control, of course, is far better than he thought possible, especially with the new edge he can now give it. Imbuing intent into Chakra will one day be the best weapon in his arsenal, he can tell. Once he manages to do it instinctively, and not after days and months of meditative prep-work.

 

His body appears to have concluded its battle with puberty, at least. It’s kind of hard to tell, frankly, without knowing much about the developmental stages of his new species. By and large, he is unchanged. He grew slightly taller, but body hair is for the most part fully absent. His skin is soft as a child’s, the pale skin only interrupted by the runes.

 

Here’s hoping that his body will cease its stubborn refusal to retain any muscle mass, now that he’s out of puberty. It’s not at all an insignificant concern. His wrists alone appear to be so thoroughly breakable, he kind of wants to wrap them in fluff and cotton and never let anything bad happen to them.

 

What a concerning thing to think about oneself. Honestly, Itachi, pull yourself together.

 

The only path forward he can see is to train as much as he can physically endure, and maximize his protein intake. It’s autumn, now, and he plans to be in the mines doing his duty to the Mountain before the winter is out.

 


 

He doesn’t quite meet his winter mark. The training goes along acceptably well. He is tentatively pleased with the pace of progress. What his trashfire mind managed to forget is that his gear needs a complete overhaul. The linen garments are fine for now, if slightly tight in shoulders and around the chest, but that is likely to change quickly, now that he started putting on some flesh on his bones.

 

New clothes mean months of work. Except for linen underclothes, his gear is useless. Nothing personal, this shit happens, with kids. They’re soft and breakable enough to require compensation with body armour. Adults can get away with protecting vital areas—neck, groin, under-arms, spine, kidneys. Shit like that. Kids need more of it, made out of thicker material strapped close to the body to double as a soft brace when soft kiddie bones give out from the stress of the job. One of the many reasons why civilian kids die at ten times the rate of Clan kids. Kiddie armour is expensive, can’t be bought pre-made, and has to be replaced, what, twice a year if you’re lucky? Once per season, during a growth spurt.

 

Itachi is not mad he has to replace his gear—it's been a decade. Even if he hadn’t grown higher, his body composition still changed. Now, he can go at least a class lighter and not bother with leg- and abdomen- braces at all. Okay, he will make a couple, he’s not yet found a death wish, but they aren’t necessary anymore.

 

Six months, overall, and he’s got himself a rather fierce dark-brown armour, leather tinted with an acorn dye. Dark colours are his friends, especially in the Mines. He’s a Shinobi, he belongs in the shadows, and shadows are not a fun place to be if one wears off-white linens and leathers.

 

His hair is something of a problem too. Cutting it is out of the picture, but he has to do something with it. It’s grown past his shoulder blades, much too thick and heavy for conventional hair-taming measures.

 

Helmet it is. It’s a horrible, disgusting piece, makes his face sweat and a rash break out around his hairline, but it is convenient.  The hole in the back allows him to push his hair through, and then a wire net keeps the inky mass where it should be. A master of the craft might have made it look pretty, but Itachi kind of looks like an asymmetrical bird, in it. Whatever. Vanity is a lovely pastime but the Mines are truly not the ideal setting for such considerations.

 

Ready, he visits Mothers and then Fathers shrine, and soaks up their attention. He won’t be seeing them for months, and the extra twang in their farewells seem to echo that sentiment.

 


 

Chapter Text

No.

 

It’s - no.

 

For a long series of moments, he doesn’t believe it. Surely not - surely it’s impossible.

 

And yet.

 

The Abominations are keeping slaves. There are people in cages and just -

 

Itachi’s mind - stops.

 

***

 

When he first crept down the winding staircase to the lower levels, it took real effort to keep his breath quiet and his heart-rate even. The Abominations have been busy, he remarks, slipping into a dispassionate, analytical state that always served him well in situations like these.

 

Right off the bat, it’s obvious their numbers have grown. Alarmingly so. Exponentially so, even. Yes, he had abandoned his duty for a decade, but his mistakes alone can’t explain how the massive halls are teeming with monsters.  How they breed is still a mystery to him, and one he’s in no particular rush to solve, but considerable effort has certainly been made to get their numbers to these levels. To make matters even worse, they’ve increased in both quality and quantity. Where, before, the crazed rabid monsters had far outnumbered their saner, healthier-looking counterparts, now it’s the other way around. Most every monster he can see looks to be at least passingly intelligent, and not imminently likely to snap and try to kill everything around it. There is a sense of - order to them, in the loosest approximation of the turn. Discipline with a very distinct implication of fear, but discipline nonetheless. Now and again, a monster would lunge for another, and then abort the movement in a furtive, frightened manner. Something was whipping the Abominations into shape, which is just terrible news all around.

 

The second most alarming change is the presence of outposts, marring the beautiful stone halls. They’re crude, yes, but built solidly and visibly in use. How - strange. He’s been away for a long time, but he’s been present just as long, before. In all the time he’s been stalking them, he hasn’t come across a single monster with a propensity towards creation. He would’ve sworn only dealt in death and destruction. These primitive watchtowers and outposts, they don’t sit well with him at all. Something has changed. Something is new.

 

 

***

 

The leader is not hard to identify, once he was aware to look for him.

 

The albino monster stands head and shoulders above even the tallest monster he’d seen so far. It isn’t his colouring or his powerful build that makes him stand out, though. It’s the Chakra - strong, and evil and sharp-edged enough to make Itachi stand back and take note. He’s not intimidated by the monster, not after what he’s seen, not after what he’s done, but he’s not blind. Whatever new technology had created this particular monster, it is a vast improvement to its kin. So much so that it marks it as an opponent not to be underestimated under any circumstances.

 

He needs better intel and needs it badly enough to risk a bit of recklessness. Slowly, using every skill in his arsenal to remain unseen, he inches forward as close as he dares, but still far away to avoid alerting the mounts.

 

The intelligence in the carmine-red eyes makes the monster stand out even more. This one is dangerous, the cunning giving an edge to his cruelty. For a moment he’s reminded of Kuriarare, one of the Seven Swordsmen of Kiri. The shinobi, closer to a true monster than most, that fought with a giant needle. Itachi has only encountered him briefly, but the man’s calculated inhumanity was seared into his mind despite the relative briefness of the encounter. To be reminded of it now - and by an Abomination of all things - it’s both fitting and deeply unsettling.

 

A quick assassination would be best, once he gets the feel of the situation. He inches back from his spot on the ceiling and scurries into the closest available bolt-hole. Thank fuck that he’d had the foresight to prepare for this eventuality, and had made certain to convert every dwelling inaccessible to Abominations into a bolt-hole of some sort. There is now a slew of such hiding places spread out through the Mines, each one equipped with the most basic tools - weapons, bandages, food and so forth.

 

***

 

As nice as it would have been, Itachi has to admit defeat after a few days of stalking the albino monster. The beast is constantly surrounded by its underlings, and even after a decade of inactivity, the creatures hadn’t forgotten about him. They still move in groups of six or more and try to keep at least one wolf-bear with them or near them at all times.

 

There is only one viable plan if he was determined to kill their leader by any and all means. And that is dropping down from the ceiling onto its head, killing it in plain sight of the entire army, and running away in the chaos. Which, as plans go, is not the absolute worst plan. The chance of accomplishing his objective is very high, and the chance of death is comparatively low. With his Chakra and his speed, he can outrun anything and anyone in the entire army - even if only by virtue of climbing the walls and running to the ceiling where their projectiles can’t reach him. All in all, he’s likely to get away with survivable injuries, which is fine - he’s not scared of those.

 

What he is scared of, is the Demon down bellow. So far it doesn’t seem to have taken notice of any happenings above, but that might change if Itachi grows arrogant and starts taunting the armies of Abominations with shows of impossible feats of magic. If the Demon gets involved, Itachi is dead-dead-dead, with no earthly hope of winning, and just as little hope of keeping his immortal soul.

 

No, discretion is key, here. He’s smart, as he was told ad nauseam, he can figure out a better plan than ‘jump on head, cut off head, run like hell’. In the meantime, his old routine of stalking them and sabotaging their dens seems to be the best way forward, for now. They’re better organized, sure, but that’s here, right next to the entrance. Further away, he’s bound to find easier targets.

 

 

***

 

About two-dozen sleep-wake cycles go by, and Itachi’s routine proceeds without much difficulty. His lake is as free of the Abominations as it’s ever been, and the glowing runes are as soothing as they were two decades ago.  He doesn’t spend all his free time there, just enough to rest, gather supplies and take care of any inconvenient injuries he might have sustained. The food he’d stashed here might be long gone, but the cloth for bandages, the large assortment of tools and weapons - they’re as useful as they’ve ever been.

 

All told, his mission is going well. He’s picked off five or so bands of creatures and incited over a dozen free-for-all fights that were much more effective than anything he could manage himself.

 

As these things go, Destiny laughed at the mortal, and waited for the sense of calm, before tearing the rug from underneath him.

 

***

 

He finds them on a regular patrol into an area he dimly recalls was scarcely contaminated by the Abominations.

 

He can’t quite believe his eyes, at first. It’s just plain impossible. He’s been in the mountain, and he’d have noticed if the Abominations were carting in people through his fortress. There’s just no way-

 

There is, in fact, a way. However they came to be here, they’re here now, people in their hundreds, sick and dying and so, so afraid. Their guard is paltry, but they’re so deep into the mountain, that it perhaps doesn’t matter.

 

Itachi’s mind - stops, stalls, reboots. He shuts down, completely unable to comprehend what he’s seeing. People, trapped in cages, right here, in his Mountain.

 

This cannot be borne, he thinks numbly. It’s an unforgivable tear on his conscience, that he allowed this to happen. He was busy carving rocks, and bellow, people were kept, tortured and presumably eaten.

 

He’s so shocked by it all, by how massively he fucked up, confident in his awareness of his Mountain, confident the Abominations couldn’t slip something like this pass him, that he doesn’t remember to be shocked by the sight of people, people right there, in front of him.

 

The rage is slow to break through the shock, but when it comes it overwhelms everything, his sorrow, pain, the mounting social anxiety - everything. He clamps down on his Chakra and breathes through the near panic-attack. Izanami wept, but he’s got a lot to make up for. He’s getting the poor souls out of here, one way or another.

 

***

 

It takes him almost a day to calm down enough to not rush there and try to mount a daring rescue. None of the people in the cages there are in any shape to run or fight, and what is he going to do with hundreds of broken, emaciated people, stuck halfway to the centre of the earth. No, as with everything, he needs to be clever about this.

 

The guards are, by all accounts, the lowest of the low. Less sentient and all but frothing at the mouth. While that arrangement is not particularly favourable for the slaves in the short-run, it is in the long run. Thinking around them - or killing them quietly - shouldn’t prove a difficult task. 

 

It’s an opportunity and Itachi will take it. Freeing them all might be beyond him, but he can take some. Triage is, sadly, necessary. He spends an hour first losing his mind from the stress of the choices ahead, and then fervently praying to Mother and Father. Their presence in his mind is muted, bare wisps, but enough to get their love and support across. Fuck it all, but he had hoped never to have to juggle lives like this.

 

***

 

Upon observation the slaves - prisoners, let’s call them prisoners -  appear to be two distinct species. The biggest group is, by all accounts, human. Thin and weak and terrified, they are by far the worst off, and they are dying by the score, some from abuse, some by their own hand. The humans are taken from their cages once a day, and then returned indeterminate time later - sometimes in slightly diminished numbers, but more or less intact. He assumes they are the ones that are building the watchtowers.

 

There is a handful of prisoners, though, that are neither human nor dying. They’re tall, and painfully beautiful, even as abused and starved as they are. Each figure is locked inside a separate cage, that is further affixed to the ground with a crazy amount of chains. Even in the short time Itachi has been an unwilling observer of this horror show, it’s obvious that these prisoners don’t serve any other purpose but to be tortured for their captors' amusement.

 

Focusing desperately on the task at hand, he manages to yank his mind back into its lane. Intel. You need this fucking intel. What can you see? Well - their Chakra, for one, is screwy as fuck. There’s more of it, a lot more of it, and it’s as inhuman as they are. Honestly, Chakra-vise they could very well be Summoning Spirits of some sort. Elemental Nations may have only had animals, but fuck if he knows anything about this weird world. They also have enhanced senses - even more than Itachi does. Case in point, the spirit-person kept in the cage closest to Itachi’s hiding spot has noticed him. He doesn’t betray Itachi’s location in any way - thank fuck for that - but he keeps sending wary, curious glances his way in the scant minutes he has between beatings.

 

Watching the monsters beat the prisoners is - an experience he is not going to be lucky enough to forget. The monsters don’t bother the humans much, apart from the obvious, but they do enjoy their time with the spirit-people. It’s honestly the most character Itachi has seen in the monsters so far - they are almost displaying a semblance of real personality. Cowardice, for one, as they don’t dare come close to the cages themselves, and instead poke and prod the silent figures with spears and poles and assorted ranged weapons. Joy is another. He’s never to date seen an Abomination smile - but these come as close as their disfigured faces can allow. It’s - important, somehow. Sadism wasn’t something that he attributed to them, up to this point.

 

The spirit-people bare the mistreatment with austere indifference that is to their credit. Itachi is certainly fucking impressed. There are five of them overall and, apart from one figure unconscious on the ground, the others stand under their own power, and don’t radiate defiance exactly - more disinterest. It makes it, perversely, easier to watch without snapping. They’re not unlike Shinobi - Jōnin - when captured. The humans, however, are a different brace of kunai. They’re all civilians, for one, and Itachi is completely unprepared for the amount of misery and suffering they are made to experience. True, he admits grimly, it’s all too possible that his spiffy, new, altogether-sane mind processes human suffering differently than the broken, traumatized one from before.

 

Sadly, it’s all too clear what the only possible way forward is. Whatever escape he might hope to mount is likely going to end in all of their gruesome deaths when inevitably caught. Which - is fine, honestly. But, if he is to decide these people’s fates, he owes them the best possible chance to survive. Which means - taking the strongest ones, the ones with the highest chances of survival. Which all points to spirit-people, who are both stronger, and seem to be mentally present. Thank fuck, but there are no children here, which makes his impossible choice the slightest bit more bearable. He doesn’t quite know what he’d do otherwise, but it would have been even less wise than what he’s doing now.

 

***

 

He waits until the Abominations take the humans away for their daily toils, leaving behind only two token guards. Slipping behind them and breaking their necks is the easiest thing he’s ever done, and the white-hot rage in his belly purrs briefly, before screaming for more. The beginnings of a berserker-rage are a strange thing to observe in oneself, and he’s saved only by the weight of his sorrow being just as unending as the force of his anger. The two sad lumps of organic material fall silently, without so much as a scream.

 

The commotion caught the attention of the prisoners, at least the four that were conscious to do so. The one unconscious figure doesn’t so much as twitch, and Itachi resigns himself to the fact that that’s one soul he won’t be able to save.

 

Creeping up to the nearest cage, he observes the lock intently. How the fuck he’s going to open this without making a god-awful racket and bringing the entire mountain-full of Abominations down on their heads? The movement inside the cage breaks his attention very efficiently, and he tenses, cursing himself for the lack of situational awareness? Sage wept, did he forget about the fucking prisoners?

 

The spirit-person is even more beautiful, up close. Covered in filth, silver hair matted through with blood and dirt, he still - glows. Honest to Kami glows, not unlike like Itachi’s carvings. He looks like there is so much Chakra trapped inside his body that he simply isn’t able to keep it contained within himself. Like his soul is so pure, he can’t help but be illuminated by it. It’s objectively beautiful, and physically uncomfortable for a creature as fucked up as Itachi.

 

He snaps from his daze, when the spirit-man retreats slightly, limited by the scant space he has available. Fuck, but the decades in isolation are wreaking havoc on whatever social skills he might have had. Thank Amaterasu that the spirit-people are by all accounts a composed people because if he approached the humans like this, they would’ve screamed and yelled and made the whole thing impossible. He needs to show he’s not an enemy - which, how? He’s not an Abomination, not with how tiny he is - and, honestly, how well-proportioned he is.

 

His face. It’s a human face, more or less. His throat is clenched shut, and he doesn’t speak their language besides, so communicating will have to remain in the physical realm.

 

In his hurry to communicate his good nature, he yanks the helmet off his head, forgetting his hair is tied up inside. Air hisses through his clenched teeth as he is forced to lose even more time, first by unclasping the net holding his hair, then by actually removing the damned thing without yanking his hair out. Leaving behind hairs or, Sage-forbid, blood, is just terminally stupid. The creatures might be too stupid to track him by scent, but their mounts are not.

 

Immediately the wary posture of the prisoner straightens, and he moves towards him, reaching with a long arm through the bars, disbelief written plainly on his otherworldly features. Itachi can't help but flinch back violently, unreasonably discomforted by the idea of someone touching him. Fuck, but he can’t stop making mistakes here, can he? The first rays of hope in the pale, glowing face flicker out, and the prisoner shrinks back as if convinced Itachi is a mirage of some sort.

 

Fix this. Now. Speaking is out of the question, but if he can just stop being a jackass for one fucking moment, that would be just great. With some effort, he forces a hand to just - move and meets the retreating hand with his trembling one. The prisoner all but jumps in surprise, wrapping his fingers around Itachi’s joke of a wrist. The touching, as expected, is a hairsbreadth from being unbearable, but if there is to be any hope of success, he can’t afford to make concessions to his weaknesses. The chances of him having to carry this and any subsequent prisoner at least a part of the way are so astronomical to make it a certainty.

 

So he bares the alien feeling, and closes his eyes for a moment, centring himself. Get a grip, ignore the panic, you are not, in fact, dying right this moment, not if you - breathe. In and out.

 

He opens his eyes and manages to recall some of the training of dissociating trauma under extreme pressure. Block it away, quiet down your mind, don’t let the ringing in your ears prevent you from being aware of the approaching enemies. Breathe slow, keep your eyes open. You know the drill. That’s it. This is just a rescue mission. You know how this goes.

 

The spirit-man is just as shocked as he is, staring at Itachi like he doesn’t comprehend what is happening. The apparent frailty of his elegant hand is as deceptive as Itachi’s is. He could perhaps break that hold with ample and very involved Chakra reinforcement, but there is still a chance he’d have to snap most of his bones to do so. Interesting. Make a note. Physically superior.

 

The prisoner opens his mouth to say something, and Itachi shakes his head in panic, putting a finger over his mouth in what he hopes is a universal sign for staying quiet. The man stops himself in time and thankfully seems to gather a semblance of calm - more-so than Itachi for sure, whose traitor heart is making a frenzied attempt to tear out of his chest once more.

 

He repeats the shushing motion for good measure, and tugs his hand softly, with a pointed look just in case. The man seems unwilling to let it go but relents quickly. Itachi doesn't quite stop the relieved hiss from escaping, but he makes up for it by keeping his movements soft and unthreatening. As hard as he is dissociating, he falls back to the learned habits, distancing his overwhelmed mind from the situation by keeping his actions performative. With exaggerated care,  he removes his hand from the cage and resigns himself to the world's most time-pressed game of charades.

 

He gestures to the lock and mimes breaking it, then to the man, then to Itachi, then to the exit, and tacks on what he hopes is a comforting smile but is likely an unholy grimace.

 

The beautiful man blinks at him and reaches out again to touch him, this time content to lay his hand on Itachi’s chest. Itachi trembles through it, bears it as best he can, but can't help mime as best he can that time is of the essence here. He doesn’t know how good his point comes across, but awareness enters the fathomless silver eyes, and a gentle smile, definitely much more comforting than Itachi’s pathetic approximation, spreads on his face.

 

And then - and then, the blasted creature shakes his head in unmistakable denial, and points to a prisoner, two cages from him. It’s a lady-spirit, he notices, who is lying motionless on the floor without so much as a spark of life visible.

 

Dread fills him, as he seems to realize a flaw in his plan. Of course that a being so apparently pure is going to be stupidly self-sacrificing as well. Of course. He can't help but let his despair show when he mimes again, more insistently to the man and then to the exit, but is met with another gentle smile and a shake.

 

Fucking hell. Is he going to make him beg? Itachi can’t make that decision, can’t take her and not him, can’t trade a man’s life who has a good chance of making it, with a woman’s whose days in this world are numbered even to Itachi’s untrained eyes.

 

The man appears to be unmoved by the pain in his eyes. Begging it is, then. It’s not like Itachi has any dignity left to lose.

 

He drops to his knees and presses his forehead to the floor. He waits for a heartbeat and then rises, letting all the desperation shine from his eyes. The man kneels as well, distress written in every line of his face, hands outstretched, but not quite touching Itachi, as if afraid of spooking him.

 

Silver eyes meet his black ones, more expressive than they have a right to be. He won’t leave without her, not if it’s his life in the balance. Not if it’s all their lives.

 

Alright. New plan. He will take both.

 

Rampantly incoherent determination rises inside of him as he stands up, mirrored by the spirit-man who can make even helpless despair look beautiful. Typical.

 

He nods his head at the spirit-man resolutely, and hope lights up the lovely face. He points to the man, then to the woman, then to himself, then to the exit, and quirks his head as if to say ‘happy?’. 

 

The man’s face falls slightly, but for once Itachi’s face must be cooperating with him because his absolute unwillingness to be moved on this comes across. The prisoner casts an agonized look to the rest of his comrades, who have been quietly watching the happenings from the sidelines. Fucking hell, what a nightmare.

 

In keeping with the general misery of it all, the three men who have been watching this opportunity to live that wasn’t afforded to them, meet their comrade’s gaze and nod, even managing a genuine if resigned smile. God, the sheer goodness of it all makes Itachi’s heart stutter. He will return for them. The four males appear to be absorbed with their silent communication, and Itachi busies himself with the lock.

 

He’s breaking the lock as quickly and quietly as he can when a realization hits him, strong enough to make him stagger. You fucking lackwit, you will return for - whom, exactly? Whoever is left in this godforsaken pit will be killed with absolute certainty, once their captors return. The Abominations will take one look at the missing prisoners and the dead guards, and will tear them apart with glee and vigour. It’s not like they serve any purpose to them, other than to suffer on demand.

 

He makes his unfeeling hands move, goes through the familiar motions of breaking the rather crude mechanism. Can he bear it? Can he - really? He has four moderately healthy-looking prisoners and one unconscious one that the rest of them won’t leave behind. Can he leave them, locked inside their tiny cages, waiting for a torturous death?

 

Of course he can’t, Sage fucking wept, what is he even thinking about. Perhaps he could have, once, when his one goal in life was to die at Sasuke’s hand, but now? Fuck. That. His life in this new world is not so highly-priced.

 

They will all likely die together, which will likely piss off the deity that brought him here, but he will deal with that when it happens. Either way, if the deity in question minds him dying in the attempt to stop five people from being slowly tortured to death, well, tough. It would have happened eventually. Dying in service of innocents is the best deal Itachi was ever going to get.

 

Alright, new plan, he thinks on the other side of hysterical, as the lock clicks. The door squeaks, but at this point, staying quiet is markedly less important than staying quick. The fucking shoddily made piece of trash creaks loud enough to wake the dead, but there is little to be done about it.

 

He doesn’t dare to meet anyone’s eye, not the prisoner he’d just released, nor the ones he had planned to abandon to their fates, so he ducks his head and focuses on his task. The second lock goes easier, since he’s somewhat familiar with the mechanism, now. Three to go. 

 

Third goes quickly as well, and the fourth is almost easy. He resolutely doesn’t think about why this lock appears to be used more often than her male compatriots, nor about the way her clothing seems to be in worse condition than theirs. He unlocks the door, opens it, and steps back, gesturing wildly between the males and her. There is no way he’s touching a lady of a different species who’s been kicked every way except up. He focuses instead on unlocking the fifth cell and takes a few steps back, head lowered, focused on keeping his breath even.

 

Alright, that slew of impulsive decisions - done, now let's focus on getting out. A good starting point is facing your new charges at some point, you coward.

 

Carefully not hyperventilating he jerks his head up and forces his eyes open. The spirit people are hugging in pairs of two, silent tears running down their faces. The lady-spirit is still unconscious, held close to a man's chest who is weeping hardest. The intimate way he cups her slack face is unmistakable, and interestingly it’s not the first man, who had insisted on freeing her. That man stands half a step away from his embracing friends, looking over them with heartbreaking joy.

 

He’s the safest one to approach. Itachi skirts carefully around the two pairs, and pads over to the silver-haired man he’d dubbed Hatake for his self-sacrificing nature. Food. He has a little food, still, and a small water-skin. Thankful for the excuse to avoid meeting shining silver eyes just yet, he digs around his pockets unearthing the meagre supplies. Keeping his head ducked like the coward he is, he hands Hatake the strips of salted meat and fish and tries not to fidget like a child. Morbid anxiety aside, it’s easy to avoid looking at the prisoners, since they’re even taller now that they’re free of the cages, and the top of Itachi’s head barely reaches Hatake’s breastbone. It’s all rather intimidating, but there is little time for them to dally. From what he’s seen so far, there haven’t been any patrols, from when the humans are taken to when they’re returned, but he hasn’t been here long enough to b willing to bet their lives on it.

 

A hand plucks the offerings from his outstretched hand, barely lingering for more than a moment. God, but these beings discomfort him with their effortless kindness. What would it be like, to be so naturally predisposed towards kindness and light? Must be so - freeing.

 

He nods jerkily and steps back, letting the man distribute what little food there is between them. It’s not at all surprising that Hatake kept only the very least amount for himself.

 

Objectively speaking, it takes only a handful of minutes for the prisoners to compose themselves, but Itachi counts each breath, crouched near the exit. He’s so focused on keeping his senses as sharp as they could get, listening for any signs of approaching Abominations that he doesn’t notice his charges attempting to get his attention. When a hand carefully grazes his shoulder, he startles, badly. Thank fuck that he didn’t attack anyone, but instead choose to jump up and up and up, sticking to the wall a couple of meters above their heads, heart rabbiting in his chest.

 

For a long moment, he completely ignores the disbelieving gaping from the spirit-people, filled as he is by mortification. Which is, ironically, what helps him calm down that much quicker. It’s such a nostalgic emotion, he hadn’t felt it in a long, long while - since Shisui, probably. Or Kakashi.

 

He scurries down the wall and resolutely ignores the shock carved into the prisoners’ faces. Fake it ‘till you make it, that’s a perfectly fine motto to live by. Especially since he has no semblance of a plan except ‘let’s not be here by the time the monsters return’. A deep breath, and another. You can do this.

 

Hatake is definitely his favourite among the lot, both because he seems calmest of all of them - Itachi very much included - and because the giant frame, silver hair and grey eyes remind him so much of Kakashi. He locks his eyes with his silver ones and tries to project confidence that is a filthy lie, while doing the typical miming routine - motion to himself, then to all of them, then to the exit, topped with a classical shushing motion. Sure, they don’t need the extra reminder to remain quiet, but it won’t hurt. Unlike the alternative.

 

Hatake nods at him blankly, obviously miles away, eyes darting between Itachi and the wall as if trying to divine the trick Itachi used. Which - okay, not that surprising. Itachi is by now pretty certain the people in this world don’t channel Chakra like he does - if for no other reason than that the Builders would have been in the business of Chakra conducive metals. If they are unfamiliar with the techniques, then what Itachi is doing looks uncomfortably close to magic, and it’s actually to their credit that they’ve kept as calm as they had, when faced with the impossible. Then again, they aren’t just normal people, what with the fucking glow.

 

Moving on.

 

Weapons, fuck, but they need weapons. He’s loathe to let go of a single one of his own that he has stashed about his person, but if there is trouble, and there will be so much fucking trouble, the spirit-people deserve to die with a blade in their hands. So it’s with only minimal reluctance that he pats himself down and digs out all weapons except his two main knives. It’s - as expected of any Shinobi really - a sizable pile when he stops unspooling the garrote from his waist, and yanks out the final four knives from their straps on his thighs and calves.

 

He ignores their slightly wary faces at this new development and gestures impatiently been them and the sharp pile on the ground. Hatake, a truly excellent example of what to hope for in a traumatized, torture victim you’re breaking out of an underground prison, is the first one to break the standoff, and he crouches down and picks out two good, solid blades and a pair of slim throwing knives for himself. Good man, he nods at him in approval, and something like amusement lights up silver eyes. Wonderful, now he’s entertaining the spirit-people.

 

His brethren are less sanguine about it all, but after crouching down, and warily making sure Itachi is not going to snap and start stabbing, they also arm themselves, with skill obvious in every move. They appear to be trained warriors, which is just a gigantic relief. The man carrying the lady doesn't appear to want to let her to for even a moment, so Itachi looks at Hatake, and mimes between him, the leftover weapons, and the pair of unarmed prisoners. Hatake nods simply, thank the Gods, and picks up several blades, seemingly at random. The leftovers are, somewhat predictably, the sneaky, assassin type weapons, like the garrote, and several spools of wire. Those he puts back where they were on his person.

 

He nods at the wary group, and motions for them to leave before him. By some unearned miracle, they move more silently than he dared to hope. They’re just about as silent as he is, even the one carrying an unconscious partner, and they aren’t using any Chakra.

 

They are, by all accounts, strong, smart, trained and quiet. They might all just make it to the lake, at least. Leaving is almost certainly a doomed endeavour all around, but they can at least die well-fed and watered. That’s not nothing.

 

***

 

By some miracle ( Itachi suspects Father’s guiding hand) they all make it to the lake in one piece, and Itachi only had to be somewhat reckless. The strategy, such as it was, mostly consisted of Itachi running ahead of the group and killing all Abominations in their path as quickly as he could. The only fault of that - very involved - plan was, naturally, that their back was unprotected, but circling back without sacrificing their speed was completely impossible. In the end, only one band attacked them from the back, and the spirit-people dealt with them swiftly and quietly. Other than that, and the increasingly fearful glances his charges have been sending him whenever they came across a pile of monster corpses, everything is going swimmingly.

 

The first real hiccup, it turns out, was that Itachi had forgotten why his lake was safe from Abominations in the first place. Namely, that to get to it, one must either climb an unclimbable cliff or squeeze through a child-sized hole. Itachi can wall-walk, sure, but the spirit-people sure cannot. In the end, after much furious miming and whispered arguments between the prisoners, they relented and allowed Itachi to carry them one by one up the wall. The lady was the first, deposited into his arms by her lover, who was torn between glaring at him in warning and showering him with gratitude. The less said about the awkwardness about carrying five people twice his height and width up thirty meters of rock, the better. Thankfully, only the lady was unconscious, and thus dead weight in his arms - the rest of the spirits were strong and agile enough to cling to his back in their own power and work with him when possible.

 

All said, Itachi’s charges are all present and haven’t suffered further damage, which is a win of epic proportions. As for Itachi, he managed to escape with entirely negligible injuries for how recklessly he was acting. His forearms are slashed - shallow, unimportant - ribs are bruised, a small concussion from when he was slammed into the wall by a particularly lucky Abomination, and one deep cut along his side. Nothing that can’t be borne, he’s injured himself more while training.

 

Crawling into a dark corner to nurse his social anxiety is tempting. Unfortunately, their tracks are all too clear, and any and every wolf-mount in this fucking mountain will sniff them out without so much as a pause. Erasing the tracks is impossible, but confusing their pursuers is easy as pie. He just needs to stop fucking bleeding first. Sage.

 

By a stroke of luck, he had managed to keep his blood inside his body for now, by wildly improvising a Chakra barrier along his skin. Replicating it in the future is going to be almost certainly impossible since it was a momentary rush of inspiration - and one that saved all their lives. There would have been no confusing anything, not if the wolves had something as concrete as blood to track them by. As it is, time is running out, and pretty soon it won’t matter what happened or didn’t. Stop spazzing out and just - move. Your Chakra is almost three-quarters full, you’ve barely lost any blood, and all your bones are whole. You’re practically in mint condition. Move!

 

The next few hours are something of a blur, but he must somehow convince Hatake to stop clucking at him in languages he doesn’t fucking speak, and let him cauterize the wound already.

 

Whatever happened, from one moment to the next, Itachi is running down countless tunnels, not paying attention to where he’s going, waving about strips of clothing donated by the escapees, trying to kill as many creatures as he can. If they’re lucky the combination of dead creatures in random locations, the lack of definite tracks, plus the Runes, would be enough to confuse the inevitable pursuit. Plus the creatures don’t know Itachi can scale up walls, which, thank fuck for that little nugget. There is no reason to assume they will jump to the conclusion of magic without some pretty obvious evidence which they hopefully don’t have. 

 

Just to be safe, he circles around a couple of more times, ambushes a few dens in the furthest part of the mines he can find while staying on the same level, and circles back to the lake.

 

Sage, but he’s tired.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The first two weeks at the lake are, without much exaggeration, torture. Without the adrenaline and the wildly unhealthy dissociation techniques to fall back on, the freight train of anxieties and neurosis Itachi had accumulated over the years hits and leaves devastation in its wake. The fact that they’re still in a high-stress situation certainly doesn’t help any, nor does the language barrier. The first time Hatake touches him, unconsciously, friendly touch, Itachi vomits and shakes for hours, in turns terrified, ashamed and disgusted.

 

 

 

Speaking, after all the years of isolation, is not even a thought in his mind. He hasn’t spoken to a real person for just over twenty years, in comparison to the sixteen or so where he spoke when he absolutely had to. No.

 

 

 

It doesn’t make the spirit-people trust him any, which, honestly, is the least of his concerns. They are wary of him, as they should be. He’s objectively strong, and quite demonstrably feral. He’s wary of himself most of the time. What’s more concerning, objectively, is that two of his charges are as good as dead, and neither their comrades, nor Itachi, seem to have any way of helping them.

 

 

 

The lady-spirit hadn’t stirred once, since the rescue, and her lover has been conscious just long enough to register a comparatively safe space. As soon as he physically could, as soon as he had taken some time to clean himself and his partner, he had laid down next to her and started - well, fading.

 

 

 

It’s not like it’s shocking - for all that he’s a bad example of one, Itachi is still an Uchiha. He knows better than most that people fade, sometimes. True, the Uchiha version tended to include infernal hellfire and rivers of blood, but on the rare occasion that there was no-one to take revenge on - the outcome was pretty similar to the fucking tragedy unfurling in front of his eyes. The only difference is that fading is a more - literal - description when it comes to the spirit-people. The healthy - and completely unnerving and otherworldly - glow that surrounded the captive had started to quite literally fade away as soon as he closed his eyes next to his companion. By now both of them barely glow at all - they’re not dead yet, but it’s clearly only a matter of time until they are.

 

 

 

It’s tragic, but it’s nothing Itachi is not used to. They got to die on their own terms, at least, away from the senseless torment. Their comrades are equally as accepting of their comrades' fates. Their Chakra is muted, subdued, but nothing shows on their faces except an eerie calm as they stand a silent vigil over the two fading forms.

 

 

 

The lady-spirit breathes her last around the third day, as much as anyone can tell the time in the Mines, and her partner is seconds behind. Between one moment and the next, without so much as a sigh, their Chakra just - stops. Their comrades' serenity breaks, then, and as tears start streaming down their faces, Itachi flees. He doesn’t want to intrude even the slightest bit on their sorrow, and his own overwrought, emotionally stunted heart needs a moment.

 

 

 

Besides, he’s overdue a patrol.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The mines are a hotbed of activity. The Abominations are running to- and fro- and Itachi has to stay on the ceilings at all times to avoid detection. They’re driving their wolves hard, pushing them to track the escaped prisoners, and the air is thick with hysteria and anger.

 

 

 

The white monster is apparently trying to whip them into some semblance of order, but with little result. The monsters are too agitated to be made to listen, their bestial nature on full display. He can’t even make them stop tearing apart the corpses Itachi had left in his wake. Fights break out constantly, over insults, over looting the corpses, over anything at all. The smarter ones - the dangerous ones, converge in the largest hall that conveniently holds the exit from this fucking place - and lay down in wait. The rest of them run up and down the tunnels in a rage-induced hysteria and die in droves. In terms of cover, it’s ridiculously convenient. In terms of a proper escape, they’re completely screwed. Every single monster in possession of a spark of intelligence sits between them and the only exit Itachi knows of. For now, they’re golden, because what they need is food and rest and a place to grieve. Long-term, things are as grim as they could be.

 

 

 

The human prisoners remain a constant bleeding wound in his conscience. He’d abandoned them to their fates without hesitation, and now they’re kept in a cage, right in the centre of the main chamber, constantly surrounded by thousands of monsters. He can’t know what exactly it’s doing to their little remaining strength, but their numbers are going down sharply. It won’t be too long before they all perish one way or another.

 

 

 

If there is a way to save them, Itachi doesn’t see it, not without condemning his three alive charges to certain death. He steels his heart and locks away the guilt in the deepest, darkest corner of his mind. He can’t save them all - he can barely save any. It’s, unfortunately, the way of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Thank fuck, but the three spirit-men dealt with the funeral rites on their own. All he knows is that there is a disturbed patch of moss on the far side of the lake from where he’d set up his camp, with a rough-looking headstone with illegible characters. He’s had enough funeral rites for a whole nation, much less a single person.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Over the next couple of weeks, he gets to know his charges, in the few lucid moments when he’s not wrecked by this or that neurosis. It’s a strange affair all around, mostly because while they do their utmost to get to know him, he does mostly the opposite. It’s definitely a nightmarish affair, not only because being near them is so taxing on his shitshow of a psyche, but also because the three males have Chakra so overwhelmingly expressive, they're practically screaming their emotions at Itachi - at all times. They feel so strongly, in fact, that the effect bleeds over to him. As pathetic of a sensor he is, they’re projecting so much that he’s feeling their emotions, and it's adding a whole fucked up level of complexity to his never-ending state of panic.

 

 

 

Hatake, the silver-haired giant of a man, is without a question Itachi’s favourite. However randomly he was named, at first, it is very apt. He doesn’t remember Sakumo Hatake, of course, the man was dead and buried before Itachi was even a thought in his parents’ minds. The stories, though, those he remembers. Sakumo was something of a mythical figure, in his home. At least one, but he suspects both, his parents were obviously infatuated with the man at some point, whether for his Kenjutsu skill in Mikoto’s case or his unflinching sense of honour, in Fugaku’s. So yes, Itachi might not remember him first-hand, but he’s heard enough stories to feel like he does. And almost everything he was told about Sakumo applies to the spirit-man lookalike. For one, they’re both obviously strong, practically bursting with vitality. They’re also both obviously and unexplainably gentle, in both thought and action. To be fair, all three spirits have noticed and tried their best to help Itachi through his many, many panic attacks, but Hatake is the first to notice their very presence and brightness is overwhelming to Itachi. Since then he tries his best to both give him space as much as possible and to mute his emotions as best he can.

 

 

 

The other two are much more - exuberant, which by default makes Itachi avoid them. They take the death of their comrades hard, for all that they don’t outwardly show it much. Their Chakra is all sorrow, and confused pain. It’s their youth, in the end, that both endears them to Itachi and makes his stomach turn. He has no way of telling their ages, but their demeanour and intensity of emotion, the way they instinctively look at Hatake for guidance and instruction - it all points to them being - not children, exactly, but definitely very young adults.

 

 

 

The three captives are happy enough to rest and recuperate for a week or two before restlessness kicks in, and Itachi knows their suicidal escape is growing near. It’s time to hash out a plan. Not a good plan, there are no good options to be had. They just need a way out that has any possibility of success, no matter how unlikely.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

His go-to person is, obviously, Hatake. It’s clear to everyone by now that Itachi can handle being close to the other two for only so long before bolting, so Hatake shoos them away when it’s time to plan. They busy themselves with sparring in silence, stopping their weapons at the last moment, in a show of skill that Itachi is definitely happy with.

 

 

 

The first thing to do is to somehow communicate their location to Hatake, which can only really be done by drawing. His first attempt is to try and draw a map on a large stone. A few minutes in he realizes just how little he thought the idea through - the Mines, after all, are fucking gigantic, and there is no way he will cover even this one level on the small surface. He abandons the idea immediately and moves to draw directly on the floor. Thankfully, a large surface of the ground is made up of flat stones, so it’s possible to draw uninterrupted lines without too much hassle. He’s scoring the stone with Chaka which earns him some sideways looks, but they’ve gotten used to these little displays by now.

 

 

 

Trying to draw their location is - hard. It’s not the question of memory, because he knows the paths well even without the genetically-engineered memory, but space here is very - three-dimensional, with endless stairs, and ladders, and bridges.

 

 

 

The final result spans the entire floor, with added carvings on the walls for clarity. Explaining it all silently, with the language barrier firmly in place, takes about three days, during which time the map is expanded to include symbols for stairs, paths and holes, and places that are only accessible by Itachi by wall-walking. Bit by bit, they cobble together several distinct paths from the lake to the exit, with enough bolt-holes along the way to rest and lay low if necessary.

 

 

 

Beyond exhausted, and mindlessly trembling from excessive social interaction, he leaves Hatake to explain it all to his comrades. He needs to patrol again and see what the situation is.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The hysteria has lessened, but the consequences are clear. It’s an important realization: Itachi’s greatest success in dealing with the creatures is to manipulate their base nature, their propensity for chaos. It’s an important fact, with an equally dangerous flip-side - it underlines how unpredictable the monsters are. Itachi wants to cause damage, yes, but only ever in a controlled way. Chaos and mass hysteria by definition draw attention, and that is something to be very, very cautious about. No matter how important his mission is, there is still the omnipresent threat of eldritch horror in the depths.

 

 

 

So, to recap. The only viable chance he has to lead his charges out and away is to whip up the monsters into a frenzy, and then slip away in the chaos. On the other hand, there aren’t many things Itachi can do to enrage them, that he’s willing to. He won’t use the humans in the bid to cause Chaos, because it will lead to their messy deaths by torture. He won’t reveal himself, because that could stir the Demon from it’s hellpit.

 

 

 

Sabotage, then. Strategic, choreographed sabotage to cause maximum mayhem, combined with utilizing the network of hiding-places Itachi has established throughout the Mines. Not all of the spots are suitable for their needs - a lot of them won’t fit them all - but enough to make it even passingly possible. Not sane, almost certain to lead to their messy deaths, but possible.

 

 

 

It's galling, to be so reckless, to be aware just how paltry his ability to protect the lives he has made himself responsible for is. No matter how much he tries, he can’t see a way to increase their chances. He can’t take them one by one - even one large-scale distraction is a borderline-impossible task, much less three. He can’t teach them to use Chakra, even if he could communicate with them to do so. They can’t stay at the lake for however many years it will take Itachi to train himself up to a level of skill where he could power through the mountain on his own.

 

 

 

No matter how he looks at it - it’s going to be more or less a suicide run for them all. Mother-willing, the spirit-people are as aware of this as he is. Hatake looks to be a sensible one, he is surely aware just how much luck it’s going to take for them to leave.

 

 

 

Sage fucking wept, what a horror-show.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

A day more is spent, after his return, on trying to map the places they can hide, on their way out. There’s fourteen all up, scattered about on the levels between the lake and the exit. That’s - not nothing. With the fourteen hideouts, they have several ways of combining them, all with pitfalls of their own. He leaves them to debate the best way out, knowing that whatever plan they may make will crumble the very moment they start.

 

 

 

The first problem is figuring out if Itachi is strong enough to carry them, as he would need to. The only chance they have is if he scales the walls while carrying them one by one, between each hide-out. Which, quite apart from the fact that he’s not sure he has the Chakra and the strength to do that, also he has to touch them for extended periods of time.

 

 

 

Touching, in the end, is a bigger obstacle than strength which - is really to be expected. His body may be weak, compared to what it was, and what it could be in the future in the unlikely chance he survives past the week, but his mind is definitely his weak-spot. Even Hatake, with his comparatively calm Chakra and dimmed emotions, makes bile rise in his throat as soon he touches him. Their first attempt is a dismal failure. Hatake lays his hands gently on his shoulders, and minutes later, Itachi is neck deep into a panic attack, having escaped to the highest, darkest corner of the cave to breathe through his panic.

 

 

 

To their credit, the spirits are by now well used to his insanity, so they don’t make a big deal out of it. Their restlessness even diminishes greatly, as they seem to put away their own discomfort in the face of Itachi’s phobias. Which is both exasperating and deeply touching. He can feel their empathy clearly, especially the younger two, and he is not so proud to allow it to rankle. They’re overwhelming, yes, by their very natures, and their brightness makes his head hurt and his heart ache, but their kindness is genuine and abundant, and he knows enough about the world to never take kindness for granted.

 

 

 

The days of acclimatizing to the prolonged touch blur together in a miserable stretch of fear and panic and dizzying pain that makes him hurl like clockwork. He doesn’t know how long it takes, nor does he care, and his charges patience doesn’t run out, not at all. If anything, the two younger spirits seem to have gotten over whatever fear they might have had of him, and even if their discomfort is now replaced by pity, Itachi will take pity over fear any day. He is a pitiful thing, after all, so he can't really blame them.

 

 

 

They slog through the panic days, only stopping when they absolutely have to. Hatake firmly calls a stop to it, when Itachi starts gouging wounds in his arms deep enough to draw blood. Why Itachi’s growing madness isn’t filling the three of them with dread, with their only chance of escape collapsing in a fit every ten minutes, he doesn’t know, but they’re not. Their emotions are bared to the world, and Itachi knows very reliably they don’t doubt him more now than they did before - mad beings that they are.

 

 

 

In the end, he manages to hold each of them for ten minutes each, while keeping his Chakra tightly lashed, which has to be enough. The least awkward position they managed to figure out, what with Itachi being half their size and less than a fourth of their volume, is them to cling on his back while he scales the walls, not unlike a lizard.

 

 

 

A harness is, to that end, improvised out of wire and strips of their clothing. It's more to provide them with handholds and two footholds than anything else, but it also divides their weight across his shoulders and midriff conveniently, while also making them more secure. He uses up every last bit of the wire, to make it extra sturdy, and the end result is more than strong enough to carry a spirit, and sturdy enough that they can brace against it if they’re careful about weight distribution.

 

 

 

It looks ridiculous, of course, and the spirits look desperately uncomfortable with it, once he started working on it. Several long hushed arguments were had, with the three apparently uncomfortable with the concept, which okay, he can see that. Unfortunately, their survival is just about the only thing he cares about by this point, and if he can put himself through weeks of puking and shaking and crying, they can damn well manage.

 

 

 

The last problem, and also the most difficult one, is how exactly is Itachi going to sabotage the mountain without fucking up massively and killing them all.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The first stretch of the escape will be the most challenging one, that much is clear. From the lake, the nearest possible stop is more than an hour away. The distraction must happen beforehand, and Itachi must draw away most of the creatures, and let the three men run to the hiding place. Ideally, he’d wait for them there, carry them up the wall, and they can proceed from there as planned. From there, the ‘safehouses’ are closer together, and he would take to the ceilings, carrying them one by one, high above the abominations.

 

 

 

The crucial part, now, is the distraction. He considers, briefly, all too briefly, the possibility of making a type of explosive that would detonate and cause mayhem. The idea dies a quick death as soon as he realizes that is exactly the type of reckless bullshit that would draw the Demon’s eye right to them, and then nothing will save them.

 

 

 

No, the distraction has to be something else, something clever.

 

 

 

He leaves the spirits to get as ready as possible and to make as many rations as they can from the fish in the lake - as food is likely to be scarce. He goes to scout.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The creatures are simple, he reasons. The only emotion they really understand is anger and to a lesser degree fear and malice. So the best bet to making them angry is to take away something they consider to be theirs. Which, alright, he won’t use the captives, that much is already covered. The only other thing the creatures consider theirs are the wolves. Now, that is an idea.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Say what you will about the Shinobi culture, but they’ve really turned the craft of making lethal weapons out of nothing into an art form. Even before learning any Chakra-techniques, the Academy students were drilled endlessly in all the different ways they could manipulate the environment around them into becoming a very inhospitable place for their enemies. Admittedly, most of what he’d learned applied to forest-based combat since their teachers figured a lone genin caught in Kumo or Iwa should apply the second widest array of skills they were taught, which were suicide techniques. 

 

 

 

Since sabotage is the thing of the day, he goes on a scavenging run. His only spare linen shirt was sacrificed for the cause and was turned into a bag to carry his loot.

 

 

 

Obviously, the simplest - and crudest - way of sabotage is demolition. Explosives, fire, bringing down the walls and the like. Explosives are impossible without resorting to heavy Chakra use, which nixes that idea straight away. Fire is good, though, since the chances of it spreading into an uncontrollable inferno are vanishingly low in the stone mines. Bringing down the walls is even better, even if it will take some doing.

 

 

 

Poison is - difficult. Abominations are obviously immune to anything Itachi has on hand - their diet basically consists of diseased, half-rotten flesh. If they could be killed by poison, it would have to be some heavy-duty shit that Itachi cant synthesize here. The wolves could be less immune, but he can’t get to their food-supply easily, as they mostly feed on the human corpses, or smaller game like rats and such, and the odd abomination or two.

 

 

 

Dealig with the wolves, though, now that’s possible. Their weak points are obviously their vulnerable eyes, ears and mouth, as is the case with most canines, and their conveniently flammable fur. Metal shavings in the eyes and nose will do nicely, and there’s low-quality metal available in abundance. Fish oil to spray on them from afar, and set on fire would also work. Very finely ground metal could work if they inhaled it, but that would be difficult to get airborne without also sabotaging himself.

 

 

 

A toxic gas would be amazing, though. It wouldn’t kill them most likely, but he could mangle their sense of smell which would be invaluable. A stink bomb would be ideal, but he can't make any complicated ones without them smelling him beforehand. So, a bundle of toxic plants that he would light on fire and throw in their pens would be ideal.

 

 

 

Traps would also work - although it would be difficult to set any complicated traps without the creatures either spotting him or setting them off themselves.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

His charges perk up as soon as he starts hauling in supplies, their Chakra singing with anticipation and confidence. For such a terminally simple plan, the tasks ahead are many and varied, and the spirits seem perfectly content to spend weeks preparing, as long as there is something to work towards. The younger two especially have a slightly feral look in their otherwise calm eyes, and their emotions are often tinted with helpless rage. Hatake is a different sort, his anger is quieter but definitely present. The death of their two comrades aside, they’ve seen what the creatures are doing to the humans, who are dying by the score, even to Itachi’s distracted eyes. Every time he goes on patrol, the number of captives has drastically lessened, and by the time they can escape, Itachi doubts there will be any more humans to even attempt to save. It hurts, standing by while they die, but it would hurt more to lose the three beings he has become reluctantly attached to.

 

 

 

In his skulking expeditions, he managed to find several large spools of sturdy rope that Itachi is pretty certain is reinforced with steel wire. When Hatake sees it, he all but glows with glee. Which, okay, it occurred to Itachi already that it provides a much better way of escape. Instead of carrying them one by one, Itachi can just set up the ropes as high as he can, and the three could just cross the makeshift bridge. With how light their steps are, and how unnatural their sense of balance is, he has little doubt that they can run up and down a taut rope without hesitation. Which is an impressive feat that Itachi couldn’t dream of replicating without the aid of Chakra. This new discovery opens up a host of possible strategies. They have to be high up, that much is certain, but if the rope is enough to let them cross, then Itachi can find them spools and spools and spools of wire, which they can braid into thick metal rope. Then Itachi can hang them up before-hand, and have several routes ready before they even start.

 

 

 

That discovery, along with all the planned sabotage, sets them back another couple of weeks, but it’s actually going pretty fast. Itachi can go sneaking about for supplies, and the three are left in the lake, braiding the rope, making metal shavings and extracting fish oil into stone containers.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

It’s strange, the things you get used to, thinks Itachi, as he crawls on the ceiling, not unlike a particularly slow lizard. The harness they improvised for carrying the spirits, is now repurposed to carry the long spools of wire-rope. The weight and awkwardness that in the beginning looked almost prohibitive, is by now almost unnoticeable. He’s been lizarding up and down these ceilings for weeks now, connecting the highest points he can find, with sufficient structural integrity to bear a grown man’s weight. Thank Mother that the Builders have left endless amounts of wire, otherwise they would never have managed even this much.

 

 

 

As it is, they have almost five separate escape routes planned out, each of them ending at the largest chamber where the staircase is. For that last leg of the road, Itachi will have to carry them one by one - it can’t be helped. All the most dangerous creatures are stationed there, not even counting the leader, and while Itachi is good - he’s not that good.

 

 

 

That they managed this far without being killed - it’s amazing. The risk of it - the brazenness - it sometimes takes his breath away. Sure, he’s got experience with sneaking about these mines by now - decades of it, in fact. Not to mention the absolute cheat of being tiny and being able to walk on ceilings. The creatures rarely look up - which is not just his imagination. Their necks aren’t made for mobility, and their shoulders are too hulking and malformed - they can do it, and they will if they have to, but it’s neither a natural movement nor a pleasant one.

 

 

 

He reaches his destination, the final hide-away point, right at the entrance to the main area. Its the same abandoned house that Itachi has discovered all those years ago, and has by now spent so much time in it’s practically cosy. The balcony is too unsound for him to connect the heavy wire to, but the empty window-pane leads straight to what was likely a sleeping chamber once. The bed-frame is massive and it’s - bizarrely - carved straight out of the floor. That will be just fine, he thinks with incredulous satisfaction. He winds the wire several times around the heavy frame, perhaps more than strictly necessary, but it’s better to err on the side of caution, here. If that thing falls - who knows what will happen. Perhaps the creatures are too stupid to think anything of it, but he won’t bet all their lives on it.

 

 

 

That done, he collapses for a well-deserved rest. It’s back-breaking work, yes, but he can’t deny it’s - fun. Exhilarating, and risky, and just this side of dumb. In a way, it feels good to lay down the groundwork - and lay it well. The amount of creatures in the mines is growing at an alarming rate, and exterminating them now will be - difficult. Konoha’s ANBU could have done it, if they worked together, and didn’t particularly care about the civilians caught in the crossfire. Which, when it comes down to it, ANBU don’t tend to give much thought to. But no ANBU force, nothing that Itachi can figure, can fight the fucking Demon and win. Perhaps - perhaps - Madara would have won. Madara, Hashirama, Orochimaru, Nagato - if he was very very lucky. Sakumo? Konoha’s best and brightest, with ample time to prepare, and at the top of the game, with all their techniques at their disposal. And even then - it’s doubtful. But the Mountain only has Itachi who can’t use his Chakra externally and is a scrawny teenager again.

 

 

 

So, no. There will be no running the creatures out, not while they’re under the protection of the Demon. So building a decent movement-route that the creatures can’t track, that can be used to smuggle out prisoners - it’s a good idea.

 

 

 

He sneaks out, and steps on the wire carefully. It drops slightly, shakes, but holds, with only the slightest hum. He tries scurrying down, but he’s not - good at it. Not like the spirits are. He’s never needed the skill, and while he’s secure in the sense he won’t fall down, his balance just isn't good enough to -

 

 

 

He overbalances slightly and has to crouch down to stop. Annoyingly, two creatures have spotted him, eyes caught by the jerky movements. He drops down on them - silently, of course - and snaps their necks before they can do more than grunt in surprise. Stashing them is slightly bothersome, but by now he’s gotten used to finding nooks and crannies to dispose of the bodies in. It’s all but impossible to do such brazen work and not be caught now and again. As long as he’s not spotted when he’s carrying his charges, he’s golden.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Interlude 

 

 

 

 

Upon reflection, it’s almost funny it took over four millennia for Silevon to start objectively doubting the integrity of his mind. He’d seen a lot, lived through kingdoms rising and falling, and yet, the past months made it all seem not only tame but forgettable.

 

The Eldar are by nature and choice, resistant to change. Silevon was not - is not - an exception to this. He’d been perfectly content to walk the well-beaten path for however many years he was blessed with, before sailing peacefully to the Gray Shores. And yet, a simple expedition to Rivendell was all it took to fall into a dream-like world so different from his own it might as well be a different reality altogether.

 

He can’t stop the endless repetition of ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’, his overwrought sense of what is possible not giving him any respite. Why did the Orcs take them? Elves - especially Lorien Elves - haven't been targets of such for thousands of years. Even Orcs know that retribution for such deeds was swift and decisive. Should he escape this alive, which in of itself is a glaring impossibility - their Lady will not let this stand, not for anything. So - why? He’d have heard if this was becoming common - he might not be a warrior, but modesty aside, he was a scholar of some repute. He knows well the histories of his people and their struggles with the servants of Morgoth. So - why now? Why a group of five, neither rich nor important? He’s a historian, for Eru’s sake, and his companions are but mere apprentices.

 

With some effort, he guides his buzzing mind around the gaping wound in his fëa caused by the loss of two dear lives. Gellamdil, for all that he wasn’t a blood-relation, has been a cornerstone of his life since the elfling’s birth. To be without him, now, to lose him to grief within a handful of days, after all the centuries spent under Silevon’s guidance - it’s beyond comprehension. Alas, there was little doubt of his fate, after witnessing the brutality his wife endured.

 

Now, Silevon’s survival, and that of Dúlindor and Maerchanar, that was where the world went from ‘irregular, but ultimately comprehensible’ to ‘abandon all hope of understanding a single aspect of what’s happening here ever’. The topic of their inexplicable saviour is never away from his thoughts for more than a handful of moments - even the heavier topics only manage to distract him for only so long.

 

‘How?’ Ai, but he must have asked the question thousands of times by now - tens of thousands. He didn’t understand then, he doesn’t understand now, and yet his mind doesn’t relent.

 

Honestly, why should it relent? The facts, such as they are, are that five captive elves were freed from a very unpleasant death by a child - a mute, magic-wielding child, more feral than he’s ever seen a conscious being be.

 

Everything about the boy is impossible - from his very existence to the mind-boggling powers he wields. He would have bet his very life that an Elves and Dwarves cannot procreate - and yet the proof is right there in front of him. The Eldar blood is all too obvious - from the beauty of his face to the unthinking grace and economy of movement. And yet, that the boy is a child of Aulë is every bit as obvious - if not more. Khuzdul runes cover him head to foot, and they don’t look to be inkings a warrior would inscribe. Even setting that aside, the fact that the boy chose to stay in Moria of all the Orc infested pits speaks of his allegiance to the Dwarrow. There is little doubt in his mind that there is nothing in this mountain that could stop a wall-walking, magic-wielding child from leaving, should he had wished to do so. Well, that’s not strictly speaking true, but the Orcs certainly wouldn't have been able to. The boy stays here because he wants to and that is perhaps the most bewildering thing of all.

 

Eru, and the magic, oh his magic is - endless. Mithrandir was a frequent enough visitor in Lothlórien, that Silevon had ample opportunity to observe the powers of the Istari. Honestly, for all that he knows the Maiar to be immensely powerful, they never really dealt with overt magics - not that he’s witnessed anyway. And yet, this elf-dwarf hybrid child does six impossible things before breakfast without so much as a blink.

 

His mind lurches again painfully, trying in vain to get accustomed to his change in circumstance. How? How are they now in a peaceful lake, with dwarven runes shining from above, their mellow light a ceaseless comfort. How did the child even find the lake? Did it build it himself?

 

Why is he doing all this? Silevon knows very well that there is little for them to do but die in a vain attempt to escape. Dúlindor and Maerchanar are just as aware of this as he is. There will be no fighting out of here, no matter how powerful the child is. None of them are warriors or heroes of old - if the child had Lord Glorfindel to work with, then perhaps they’d have had a chance. But what he has is an old, tired elf and two writers’ apprentices barely out of their first millennia.

 

And yet - the child persists. He can’t speak - doesn't even attempt to - but he manages to make himself understood. Every flat bit of stone has been carved - by magic, as it happens - to show endless maps of the mines. The plan, as he understands it, is that the child will cause chaos enough to make a suitable distraction, and then the four of them will sneak out of the mountain using one of the several routes the child has discovered.

 

Two obvious problems spring to mind - one is that, skills in battle aside, the orcs want to kill Elves above all else in life. The hatred for the Elder has been bred into them over millennia, and nothing that the child can do will distract them from pursuing them. The second problem is that, if he understands the drawn maps correctly, the child has made a network of hiding places, typically in places the Orcs can’t reach - by virtue of being magic, of course. Obviously, while Silevon’s as light on his feet as the average Elf, none of them can, in fact, walk on walls. The child will have to carry them - which means touching them.

 

Even the passing of his pseudo-nephew doesn’t make him as helplessly enraged as having to sit through the agonizing process of acclimatization that the boy puts himself through, to get desensitised enough to touch them. It’s not something that he’d ever thought was possible. What dark magics have been spun on this child, for him to instinctually fear touch, to flinch away in pain, shaking like a leaf at the very thought of an Elf touching him? It has to be sabotage - it has to be enemy action - otherwise, he can’t fathom what would bring a partly Elven child to this level of insanity. To make matters even worse somehow, the three of them aren’t helping, they’re actually hampering the boy in his efforts. It’s completely obvious the child is an empath - not unlike the Elven Lords are - and that’s putting extra weight on the ever-so-small back. Silevon can’t even grieve and rage in the privacy of his own mind, whenever the boy breaks down into a shivering mess, tears running down his face, hugging himself in the darkest corner he can find - which happens approximately once every hour or so. All that any of them can do is give him space and try and regulate their emotions as best they can so as to not cause him further grief.

 

It’s something of a routine, actually, the past ten days, after the routes have been drawn and the plan, such as it is, has been made. The first six hours after waking are dedicated to desensitization torture. After that, the child runs away from them like the hounds of hell are on his heels, and the three elves can indulge in some gratuitous raging themselves about the torment the child is putting himself through for their sakes. The afternoons are spent working on different weapons, he assumes. The boy (Felador they dubbed him in the end, cave brother, even though cave-child was perhaps more appropriate) drags in ludicrous amounts of baffling supplies, and they try to help him as best they can. Steel shavings, pouches of dried, toxic plants, spools upon spools of wire are brought in for unknown reasons - the piles of weapons grow by the hour. Even a salt-rock has been dragged in, to begin their food preparation - salted fish wrapped in dried algae, which should be more disgusting than it is. Even the few spare tunics that the child had been torn into bandage strips.

 

The real trouble starts, however, when Felador starts constructing a harness to help him carry the elves. Which is just - a nightmare all around.

 

He knows, he knows perfectly well that the child is supernaturally strong. The child is also maybe - maybe - half their height. It’s grotesque, this contraption, the wire-leather thing strapped to his back and over his chest and waist, with hand-holds for the elves to hold. It’s not even the matter of dignity, it’s cruel, to literarily sit on the Childs back while he carries them to safety. And yet, there is no argument he can make that will convince him of that. If this world is to make any sense, then they should be the ones protecting the literal child from harm. But the literal child wields magic, and is stronger than all three of them combined, and has put his life and freedom on the line for them.

 

The desensitisation suddenly makes a whole lot more sense.

 

***

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Preparations are as complete as he can make them, and he’s even stolen a week, ostensibly re-checking the structural integrity of the rope- and wire-paths, but actually dragging his feet and trying to convince himself there is a chance in Hell this might work. Dozen of satchels with a wide array of irritants are finished, wrapped in the rags stolen from the creatures, to further disguise the scent. He’s already distributed them to the appropriate safe-points, along with the stone containers of fish-oil. Dried fish and water is present in each safe-spot as well, and the wire-paths have been tested sufficiently. With his general disassociation from the passage of time, he’d be perfectly content to drag things out further, perhaps develop some additional weapons, traps, anything to increase their paltry offs. His charges are, unfortunately, more than ready to leave. Even the even-tempered Hatake shows obvious signs of restlessness. They will leave soon, Itachi or no Itachi.

 

As impossible as it looked in the beginning, Itachi has grown somewhat used to them. The slightest amount. Touching them is still unnatural and nauseating and just terrible all around, but they’ve become familiar in other ways. But he’s picked up bits and pieces of their lilting language, even if he couldn’t make himself vocalize any of it, even in private. Blocking out - or, rather just ignoring - their beaming emotion has gotten easier as well, even if most of the credit for that belongs to the spirits themselves. Even the two younger ex-captives had gotten quite good at controlling their beaming emotions.

 

With some surprise, he realizes he will miss them. Whatever the epilogue of this whole mess is, they will still be done with each other. Hatake is, he suspects, aware of this, even if the younger two - that are still mostly interchangeable - definitely think he will accompany them out of the Mountain. The silver-haired spirit is also more viscerally aware of just how foolhardy this whole enterprise is, and how deeply unlikely it is that any of them will live through it. His features remain as serene as ever, but his Chakra grows more and more tinted with wistfulness and regret as their arbitrary deadline approaches. He feels - guilty, that Itachi’s stab at a rescue will likely result in his death.

 

How ridiculous.

 

He leaves him to it, thinking that the man will get over the ridiculous holdups all up to the day of the escape. When it’s clear the guilt is, if anything, intensifying, it’s clear intervention is necessary. He takes the man aside, and raises an imperious eyebrow, mimicking Mikoto as best he can. Hatake, to his credit, understands his meaning without much more prompting, and wistfulness increases, even while a wry smile tilts his lips. He shrugs, as if to say ‘I can’t help it’ but nods, not bothering with speaking at him uselessly - good man. Itachi rolls his eyes at him - an exaggerated, unnatural motion that he only manages when he tries to emulate Shisui - and nods back.

 

The other two are by the exit-hole from the lake, waiting impatiently. He cuts a glance to Hatake and raises three fingers. The three of them will start after the signal, or after three hours, whichever happens first. Itachi’s path is different. He is the distraction.

 

A sharp spike of worry and fear and frustration disrupts Hatake’s Chaka, making Itachi jolt, surprised. The man crouches down in front of him and meets him, eye to eye for once, silver to pitch-black. There is so much gratitude there, and worry, and fear - for him, for Itachi, what the fuck? Itachi has to look away, heart skipping, completely unprepared for this guerrilla attack of gentleness. A jerky nod is just about all he can manage, which doesn’t do much to soothe waves of worry and guilt. Goddamn, and Itachi thought they were over this.

 

The other two spirits are much more serene about the whole affair, not bothering with worry or fear, overflowing with an expectant sort of jittery energy. Their confidence is as disquieting as it is encouraging. Typical.

 

He nods at them, confirms once more they will wait for three hours, getting an exasperated nod for his efforts, and leaves. Predictably, his thoughts quiet down and the artificial, icy calm of an impending mission begins. His objectives are crystal-clear, his strategies are as good as they can possibly be, and either way, what’s done is done. He rolled the dice, and now it’s time to play.

 

***

 

Duck-duck-jump-stab-jump-runrunrun

 

Breaths roll smoothly, and he can practically hear the blood rushing through his veins, amplified by adrenaline. Chakra keeps his muscles strong, and Sharingan spins, cataloguing the cacophony around him. Predictive ability of the Sharingan is at it’s most useful in one-on-one combat. When surrounded by a sea of enemies, it eats up a lion’s share of his attention. On the other hand, it keeps him one step ahead and is possibly the only thing keeping his head on his shoulders.

 

Steel-shavings are a bust - too heavy to stay in the air, and too unwieldy to throw accurately. He manages to blind one or two wolves, but got about a hundred more on his back, snapping and snarling and being all-around very good illustrations of pissed off predators. About ten minutes into his mission, he’d come to the conclusion there is no way to cause a sufficiently enormous distraction and not compromise his own desire to stay hidden. In a fit of impulsivity, which is becoming annoyingly common, he’d thrown caution to the wind and decided that his charges’ lives are more important than whatever dubious security his secrecy allows.

 

The added freedom of movement makes dodging his enemies a much more survivable affair. He takes to employing the ever-effective tactic of dropping down in the middle of a pack of wolves, dealing as much damage as he can before running away very quickly to the nearest tunnel. The only thing he held back is blatant Chakra-use, but he flashes his spinning eyes from behind his hood. The monsters are altogether too insane to be intimidated by it, but the wolves are cleverer by far. They still attack, vicious and rabid, but they are at least peripherally aware that they’re attacking a superior monster. Thereby displaying tactical thinking miles above their riders, who don’t change their attacks no matter how many Itachi cuts down.

 

Toxic fumes are both a dud and not. They don’t hamper the wolves much, but they do make tracking by scent completely hopeless. Which is really a much better deal - the spirits will have an easier time to sneak above them without worrying about their scent giving them away.

 

The fire, though, the fire works, and it works well. Better than he’d have thought, judging by the creatures’ nonchalant use of torches and their ease around the campfire.

 

The wolves’ fur is apparently covered in some sort of protective oil that makes it clump together, and makes it a very, very efficient defence against blades and blunt weapons of any sort. The downside, apparently is that a single spark will light them up in flames faster than anything not designed for that purpose. He only really needs to light one on fire and let things develop from there - a massive, frenzied creature is a very effective means of spreading the flames to its surroundings. Which is excellent since he only has so many opportunities to chuck a flaming piece of cloth at them, without getting overrun. Taking to the walls would solve that particular problem, but that is a secret worth more than Itachi’s life. Not more than his charges’ lives, but so far they’ve had far less trouble than he’d feared.

 

So he runs and runs, and just when he loses his pursuit slightly, he is in another chamber full of fresh monsters to enrage.

 

***

 

Itachi manages to lose his frothing pursuers after approximately twenty hours, with stunning results. Honest to Mother, he is stunned. Sure, he’s spent about two-thirds of his Chakra, almost nothing in the grand scheme of things, but the amount of damage and insanity he’s caused is - staggering. More than a hundred wolves are dead by fire alone. The monsters he let be, only killing those he absolutely had to. The stampede had a much better score, trampling every monster that so much stumbles in their path.

 

The crowning jewel of the day is clear, though. Around ten hours into his mad-dash through the mountain, as exhilaration and battle-lust began to well and truly addle his mind, he decided to lead his monstrous congregation to the main chamber. How exactly he survived that unholy mess remains a mystery, but somehow he managed, even when their Leader revealed his bestial nature, and joined in the frenzy. Granted, his mount was a particularly large, white wolf-creature, with the type of strength and intelligence that made it a good deal more challenging to evade. Their size, however, was against them in the tightly packed chaos, and weaving above and under them was not beyond him. As soon as he ducked away into one of the smaller, more complicated tunnels, he just slid down some mine-shafts to the level bellow and circled back to harry them from behind.

 

The manoeuvre worked so well that it bore repeating - the goal was to lead the monsters away from the exit, after all. By the end of it, they were such a large group, that their momentum was impossible to divert - the only challenge there was to run ahead enough to be clearly visible, but not so close to be in immediate danger of being mauled. Arrows were pretty ineffectual against the Sharingan, so most of the damage he took was completely self-inflicted - over-extending at the speed he’d been moving resulted without exception to the muscle tearing. Channelling Chakra to the area kept him mobile but it was very much a band-aid type of solution and a drain on his reserves to boot.

 

His charges are, thank Mother and all the gods, right where they should be and stare at him in something like awe, although in Hatake’s case it’s mostly overshadowed by fear and worry. They are perched in their final outpost, the opulent apartment Itachi had found all those years ago, and look none worse for wear. If anything they had a good vantage point to observe Itachi’s shenanigans. The two younger spirits look just about ready to start ranting but contain themselves admirably.

 

Hatake settles for shooting him a glance that’s very reminiscent of Shisui who had a very similar look whenever Itachi pulled something like - well - this. On reflex, he responds just as he did then, with a raised eyebrow and a slight, crooked smile, as if to say, ‘this is all planned, of course it is, remember who I am, certified genius here, not a single needles risk was taken, fine and thank you.’

 

Surprise and fondness spike through the man’s exasperation, but settles into something more sombre. Itachi might have overdone himself on the distraction front - and he really, truly has, to the point where he’s at least 80% sure Father and/or Mother smoothed his way a good deal. His damage is survivable, all said, and he’s managed to spread the stinging herbal fumes on pretty much every large chamber and a good number of the tunnels. And it’s not like the chaos is by any means over. They lost him, yes, but judging by the racket, the stampede is not really aware of it, and the infighting is just beginning. The leader will have his hands full with keeping his underlings on track, never mind the wolves once they get distracted by the free meals lying around.

 

On a less encouraging note, their numbers truly are - concerning. It’s impossible to judge, but from the small sample he’s seen so far, extrapolated to account all the lower levels, and the various chambers he hasn’t visited - they’re more than twenty thousand strong. He’s killed fifty or so, sure, and dented their wolf-population more significantly, but that’s all drops in the ocean, considering.

 

Tearing his mind away from the things he cannot change, he focuses on the more pressing issues, which are roughly twofold. Most important is the fact that, even if just for this moment, the giant chamber is virtually emptied of creatures and wolves alike. A few stragglers here and there, which will be laughably easy to dispose of. Good news for the spirits, certainly, but it does bring about a - complication. In their rush to slaughter Itachi, the monsters left the leftover human prisoners virtually unguarded. There is a small window of time - how small, it was impossible to say - where they are very much within reach. Another opportunity like this - even if his recklessness doesn’t make sneaking around infinitely more dangerous in the future - isn’t going to come again soon. Definitely not in the humans’ lifetime.

 

He is still gazing at the paltry amount of humans when a hand goes very near his shoulder but stops short of actually touching it - Hatake. The spirit looks at him with pride shining like a miniature sun. His face is even, though, and shows only confidence. He points to the humans and nods, poised and calm.

 

Endangering his charges - rankles, but the stretch of the chamber is easily covered. Once he gets them to the ground, they can make it out of the mines without Itachi, if they run as fast as they can. Hatake nods again, and turns to the other two, explaining the change of plan before quickly walking to the balcony and climbing out.

 

Itachi doesn’t jump after him, but does walk very, very quickly. They’re very high up, after all, and the climb is anything but easy - if it is, in fact, possible.

 

It seems that his worry was unfounded because Hatake is scaling the stone facade smoothly - and much quicker than advisable. It seems he underestimated the spirit-people again, even though this particular feat was well beyond what non-Chakra users could accomplish back in Elemental Nations. Well, he reasons, it’s not like they’re human, after all.

 

The other two waste little time in following their silver-haired leader, and then Itachi is somehow the last one standing in the tower. He shakes his head a bit and clears all thoughts as to how he has gotten to be so damn impulsive in his old age. This is not the behaviour of a well-trained shinobi, to so consistently break every plan he set himself.

 

They might be unnaturally good climbers, but Itachi can run down the wall, and from one moment to the next, he’s overtaking them. He zips between the remaining monsters, using every single trick he knows to make his mad dash to the finish line as quick as possible. It cant be more than a minute or two, all up, and the remaining creatures are dead and harmless.

 

He rushes to the massive cage, ignoring the prisoners, for now, focused on his task. Breaking the lock is much easier than picking it, and he all but tears the doors apart in his hurry to get this over with.

 

Finally looking at the humans, he’s dismayed to see very little intelligence there. They’re well and truly broken, animal fear shining from their eyes, huddled back as far as they can go in the rusty, disgusting cage. He doesn’t growl impatiently, but settles on quickly pointing between them and the door and tries to mime the urgency. Fuck, but he doesn’t have the time for this - more importantly, they don’t have time for this.

 

They just shake and shudder and don’t so much as move. He’s considering just - physically moving them out of the cage and hoping they will have the sense to run towards the exit when Hatake - dear, wonderful, suicidal fucking Hatake reaches them. He speaks low and calm, but to Itachi’s frantic mind it looks like he’s shouting, like his words are ringing out into the chamber and will bring forth hordes of creatures Itachi will be unable to protect them from. Ten seconds. Twenty. Thirty. Fuck, what is taking so long?

 

Finally - finally - a middle-aged man, covered head to toe with whip marks, few of them slightly healed, but most still angry, weeping wounds, unsticks himself from the bars, and moves forward. He speaks, voice rasping, broken from screaming presumably. Hatake answers and his words must have triggered some sort of animal hindbrain in the prisoners because they’re also moving, slow and creaky. Most of them are too injured to move quickly, which is a very concerning development, but at the very least they’re able to walk unto their own power, which is not nothing. He resolutely does not think about the fact that not being able to move meant a very, very limited lifespan in this terror-show.

 

Hatake’s soothing demeanour and beautiful face are definitely better than his scrawny self, covered head to toe in black blood and scorched in more than a few places. He moves away from the cage and focuses all his senses outwards. The angry-frothing-mad-enormous Chakra of the stampede is not difficult to sense, and it’s currently - very close to their position, right below them, in fact. Where exactly they’re heading it’s difficult to say, but it’s best to assume they are going straight back here. In which case they have maybe - maybe - three minutes to move the group of dozen or so humans in the cage to the staircase and out into the top of the mountain. From there, its a short walk to his forest, which conveniently holds the only exit from the Fortress he knows out, out of the balcony.

 

Thank fuck he’s old hand at keeping his panic at bay because they’re truly fucked. Should he go down and distract the mob some more? What if a different group of creatures attacks? There are many, many bands of monsters, and he’s only enraged a small number of them, comparatively.

 

His mind is still judging the pros and cons of letting Hatake take point, and buying them some more time, when he realizes the three spirit-people - and when the fuck did the other two arrive? - have successfully herded the humans out of the pens, and all of them are jogging obediently if slowly towards the winding staircase.

 

He checks again, and alright, the largest group of monsters is still several minutes away. The humans are already at the edge of the staircase. And Itachi remains in front of the cage, still. Like a fucking idiot. Why the ever-loving fuck is he still at the cage?

 

He dashes after them, reaching them in a few moments, and surveys his additional charges. Males, all of them. He remembers women being present, when he first saw them, in about equal proportion. Not the time nor the place for such thoughts. Eleven - twelve - thirteen - fourteen men, of differing ages. They’re all scarred, heavily so, none of them without extensive, weeping wounds. They were strong, once - he shuts that thought right down, chiding himself. They’re absolutely still strong, to have survived this however long, hopeless and alone. The man who spoke to them is the oldest of the bunch - and coincidentally is also the one falling behind. Which is - fair - considering the jagged cut, spanning from his knee, over his hips, to his sternum. Hatake and his two companions are spread out around the group, assisting them as best hey can, but are focused mostly on keeping the humans moving - and are doing a stellar job of it. The old man, though, needs more than a quick assist, if he is to make it out of the mines alive.

 

He doesn’t think about it too much when he picks the man up and slings him around his shoulders, trying to be as mindful as he can about his injury. The man rasps out a short scream and cringes into a tight ball - which makes it even easier to carry him. Hatake looks back at them sharply and nods, as another sharp spike of pride jolts his Chakra. He says something to the quivering man on Itachi’s shoulders, and the man - doesn’t relax, but stops gibbering in fear, which is something. They’re at the stairs now, and Itachi runs ahead, slow at first but picking up speed, up and up and up, the stairs seem to be much longer than he remembers - are they ever going to end - fucking hell - and then he’s at the end. His passenger is quiet, but alive, judging by the full-body shakes that certainly hadn’t lessened at the supernatural show of strength. Tough. Itachi cant spare the time to comfort him even if he knew how. He settles for crouching low, as low as he can without lying down. The man gets the idea and manages to stand on trembling limbs.

 

With a hurried nod and a hand in the direction of the forest, he scrambles back down the fucking stairs. There are more painfully slow humans to bring upstairs, and the enemy is close and many and angry.

 

***

 

All in all, he carries four more petrified humans upstairs before the rest of them have finally made it upstairs. Now what - should he go down and check for pursuers - but they don’t know where to go - fuck.

 

Hatake, bless him, provides the perfect excuse to not go down to the Sage forsaken mines for a good long while, when he starts whisper-shouting Itachi’s spirit-given name. Right, leading them out of the mountain, that’s what he should be doing. Itachi nods at him, trying to project confidence he assuredly does not feel. Hatake doesn’t bother with nodding back but gives all his attention to the humans, who’ve lost any semblance of composure they might have had. Some are shaking on the ground, some are weeping, some have just collapsed where they stood and are staring blankly at nothing in particular. Hatake barks something at them, for once losing his serene tone, and the sorry group snaps to attention as best they can, animal fear now being joined by an actual, real hope.

 

Both fear and hope are good motivators, and the group must have found some last dreg of strength somewhere, because they start moving, running even. Itachi has to be in front, now, as they don’t know where to go, so he snags the old man again, in a similar manoeuvre as before. The man is perhaps slightly less terrified now, but only just. Instead of shaking, he holds himself as stiffly as he is able, which actually makes him more awkward to carry. Not that the awkwardness is even approaching a worry right now.

 

Alright, they’re out of the mines, and they’re all whole - as whole as he found them, not worse off from being in Itachi’s care at least. Now it’s the race to the finish line, and Itachi refuses - absolutely refuses to let it all go to waste.

 

He forces his focus to sharpen more and more until the only thing that exists is the mission. Get them out. Get them out and to the balcony. Keep them moving and keep them alive and nothing else is there. Nothing.

 

***

 

He jerks back into real life when he realizes he almost stepped outside. He jerked to a stop actually, right at the great arch - one more stop and he would be outside of the mountain. He turns around, afraid suddenly that the others have fallen behind, that they’re - no, thank fuck they’re right here, a weeping, stumbling pack of men that look closer to dead than alive, that look at the doorway like it’s the gate to paradise. The old man around his shoulders is quiet, but awake, judging by the hammering heartbeat punching into his back and the wetness spreading over his shoulder.

 

Hatake is right there, with an armful of a man - boy, really, no older than Itachi looks to be - managing to make the arrangement look infinitely more comfortable. The other two spirit-people are equally as burdened with their own humans. It’s - done? He’s done?

 

Itachi kneels down, suddenly awfully confused. Really? They’re - alive? All of them? Hatake? The two kids? No - heroic sacrifices at the last minute, no monster at the exit to bar their way? Just like that - they tried, and - what? Succeeded? Even rescued the humans while they were at it?

 

His mind is spinning and the old man must have realized that Itachi is spiraling down some concerning holes because he gets help. Hatake looks at him with a gentle smile on his face, even while his Chakra screams in equal part with sorrow and pride and disbelief. It doesn’t show on his face, though, not the slightest bit - and Mother, but he’s even more beautiful in the sun, somehow. The gold suits him, and where before he was simply a spirit-man, a cross between a man and a Noble spirit, now he’s something straight from the legends, Susanoo himself, given corporal form.

 

Focus. Come on, there is still - he needs to - he doesn’t know what he needs to do, actually, but the humans have to leave, quickly, before the creatures catch up. He’s never in his years of being in the mountain seen a single monster in the upper-levels, but nothing is certain, ever. They could get over their presumed aversion to sunlight if riled enough, and Itachi certainly riled them the best he could.

 

With slightly more awake mind, he steps to Hatake, grits his teeth and manages to place his hand on his shoulder. He lets go quickly, having gotten his attention, and bows low, low as possible without kneeling. No matter how unworthy Itachi feels being in his presence, the man was a miracle of patience and intuition, and much more than Itachi deserved. Especially now, that he will foist over a dozen wounded, traumatized humans on him.

 

He straightens and does his best to ignore the pain, the pride, and the - affection, shining from the lovely eyes. He bows to his other two companions, instead. Well. Kind of bows - more nods really, but the two definitely deserve much less of his respect than Hatake. They don’t seem to mind, either way, but feel - sad and confused, but mainly terribly happy - overjoyed to feel the sun on them. Farewells done, he moves to leave - circle around them, find a nice quiet, spot, up, up, up, high up from here where he can decompress for the first time in fucking months -

 

Hatake stops him, a warm hand on his shoulder, and Itachi doesn’t even flinch - alright so he flinches a little - and just - touches his lips to Itachi’s forehead in an unmistakably familial gesture. Too gobsmacked to move, Itachi’s mind kind of stops and start and stops again, unsure as to - what the fuck.

 

Hatake steps back, with a small, polite smile, when his Chakra is little more than pain and bitterness, and - affection. It’s an impressively good facade, Itachi thinks dumbly as Hatake casts him one last glance, and then turns to Itachi’s - no, his now - charges with a calm but commanding air. He barks something and his two friends snap to attention and start flitting around the group, for all the world like young sheep-dogs worrying around their flock.

 

Heart-sore, and with only trace amounts of Charka left, Itachi stands at the door, unable - unwilling - to anything else but watch them leave.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Silevon's POV

 

The barely-there path deposits them on the wrong side of the goddamn mountain. Miles of Orc-infested rock stands between Silevon and home - and safety. On top of that, he has with him a group of non-verbal, barely mentally-present humans who were kept as slaves for Eru knows how long and are in dire need of healing. 

 

      Clearly, there is only one path forward. Silevon is going to drop this shitshow right off to Rivendell, without so much as a twinge to his conscience. Then he’s going back to Lorien to gather some forces and straight back to the mountain to get his - Eru, but he doesn’t know what the fuck the kid is to him. His rescuer, the wild, feral, beautiful child that has enough Eldar blood in him for Silevon to make a decent claim. It’s not like the Dwarves had done so, in however many years he spent in the mountain

 

The whirlwind of emotions that Felador can invoke in him never fails to give him a headache. It’s the mix of pride and guilt and sheer awe - Silevon was not built to hold such contrasting emotions for so long. And that’s not even taking into account the very specific vicious twinge his mind gives when the topic of the child’s magic comes to mind. For all that Felador mimicked being an ordinary teenaged elf-dwarf hybrid (hah), it was completely obvious the youth was chock-full of magic. Walking up and down walls, writing on stone with a touch, it was all second nature to him. And the less said about the red-on-black spinning-eye-thing that Silevon doesn’t know the purpose of, other than being absolutely terrifying.

 

Eru, and the amount of damage that boy can deal. He’s never shone quite as brightly as he had zipping about with a sea of orcs and wargs engulfing him on every side. The reckless abandon with which he fought, the efficient and indomitable ease of movement - just watching him enrage every single orc in the mountain was an adrenaline overdose. The goddamn kid flipped over the large orkish chieftain like he was a measly obstacle in his path, not to be given more attention than any inanimate object.

 

Silevon would like nothing more than to say that stunt was a nod towards his Eldar heritage but he knows that’s false. If anything, he’s never been more dwarven - only children of Mahal held such a propensity for chaos. While elven youths were known to be impulsive on occasion, at their worst they couldn’t have wrought a fraction of the whirlwind that the Aulë-blessed Felador had for almost a full day.

 

It’s perhaps not strange that he has grown so attached to the youth, not after what he has done for them, after all the endless struggle he has put himself through with no thought to his own well-being. But the pride he feels for the boy - now that is definitely strange. Strange and most likely unwelcome. Felador was by blood and by his own choices obviously aligned to Aulë and the Khazad closely. So much so that he refused to leave Moria with them. So much so that he obviously made it his home, never mind the countless orcs, and whatever nameless monsters lay in her depths.

 

But - but - but - for all that Silevon has never wanted children, never even liked them, he has grown to care for the feral child. Care deeply, in fact, and elven hearts aren’t easily dissuaded when set on a course. He is proud of the boy, proud of his strength and kindness, proud of the fierceness with which he protects those he deems his to protect.

 

Silevon is an old elf - at the twilight of his fourth millennium, and while this certainly isn’t the first child he has come to care for - recently departed Gellamdil and Hinnorthel come to mind. Those two, however, came under his wing when they were adults, almost a full millennium old themselves. Their end wasn’t shocking, for all that it’s deeply tragic - so young, too young to die, and for no reason under the sun. It’s all too possible that he’s compensating for Gellamdil’s loss by latching on to the child, but. In the end, he doesn’t care, not at all. No matter where his care - dare he say it, love - came from, it’s there now, and it would be a sin to disregard it because of some dubious doubt about its origins.

 

No, he reaffirms his earlier decision. He is depositing those poor unfortunate humans into Lord Elrond’s hands and then heading straight to Lothlorien to get some supplies, and then it's back to Moria. Staying there with the boy indefinitely is out of the question, of course, but he can at least give him some supplies. Decent weapons. Bandages. Books. Teach him the damned language, even if he remains determinedly mute.

 

 He looks to his two remaining companions, who are tirelessly hoping the humans keep moving. They weren’t as familiar to him as he would’ve liked, closer in age and mindset to Gellamdil, but bonds built under duress are often stronger for it. While he doubts Dúlindor and Maerchanar feel for the mountain-child in the same manner he does, they do definitely care for him. Silevon very much doubts he will be alone in his trip back to Moria.

 

 

***

 

Everything gets derailed, of course, when they are approached not three days into their trek by a troupe of rangers with a distinctively harried air about them, who eye them like they’re precisely the type of trouble they don’t need right now.

 

Silevon, being the oldest and least feral-looking (which not saying much at all) accepts his role as a spokesperson and a bedraggled looking ranger meets him halfway.

 

A short conversation later and, in keeping with the tone of the last several months, even the very tentative plan gets completely derailed. According to the rangers, the Dwarves have been raising an army to go to war against the Orcs entrenched in Moria. Apparently the orkish chieftain Azog has caught and executed the Dwarven King and has sent his head back after having branded the name AZOG on his forehead in Khazad-runes.

 

Everything about the news brings about more questions than it raises. How did Azog get his hand on a dwarven king? How does he even know the dwarven runes? Can orcs even write? Who returned the head to the Dwarves, and which clan of dwarves are involved? What in Eru’s name is wrong with these Moria Orcs, that they’re antagonizing every single warrior race in Arda without care?

 

But the main concern, which quickly pushes out every other thought from his mind is this: There will be a war fought against the orcs in Moria. That means his timeline just got a hell of a lot more rushed. There is a mountain-child that he’s gotten to love, that needs to be warned that whatever hideout he managed to find in the mountain will soon be overrun by war. Silevon is not a warrior, but he’s been around for a long enough time to become a reasonably competent fighter, and as an escaped prisoner, he has valuable information to share with the dwarven commander.

 

The Dunedain are just as flabbergasted with his story as he is with theirs, even if he’s taken pains to obscure the exact details of what went down. Even just the fact that they were kept captive and were rescued is crazy enough, they don’t need to know about any mixed-rase children that may have orchestrated said escape. Either way, they agree without an argument to take over guarding the humans, and delivering them to Rivendell for healing, or their homes should they choose otherwise.

 

The argument with Dúlindor and Maerchanar is not at all as simple. He manages to convince them in the end that Lord Elrond needs to know what happened, especially since he has a faster way of communicating with their Lady. All Eldar kingdoms need to know that the Enemy has gotten strong and confident enough to abduct five elves for sport, all the while keeping hundreds of humans as part of their war-machine.

 

Silevon might not be the oldest, or the wisest elf around, but as any historian knows, while history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly follows along the same patterns. And they’ve all seen how this particular pattern plays out. Standing back, letting the spawn of Morgoth have free reign will end in nothing but death and destruction. Right now the Orcs have managed to enrage Dwarves at least, and he hopes with all his being, his Lady has not grown complacent in the years. Either way, there will be at least one Elf present in the war for Moria. 

 

The rangers, true to their word, don’t waste much time in organizing themselves around the humans and distribute what little rations they have around. Soon enough they leave, taking Silevon’s two companions with them, and he is left alone.

 

He’s days away from the godforsaken mountain, and it looks like he won’t make it much further. With a sigh, he finds an appropriately hidden nook and lays down for a rest. He can afford this last restful night before he’s thrust into battle again, Eru help him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The first three weeks Post Passably-Human Contact go by in a flood of misery. Mostly, Itachi spends his time alternatively weeping at Father’s shrine, or sleeping at Mother’s. It’s odd, and definitely not something that he’d have expected, but he finds it easy to cry with Father. He doesn't want to bring such darkness at Mother’s Clearing, and the impressions he gets at the Father's shrine are very, well, close to his heart. There is no denial, no soothing, just grim acceptance of reality and an almost binary rhythm to the way Father guides his thoughts. Yes, Itachi managed to save some, no, he wasn’t good enough to save them all. Yes, he is emotionally impaired, no, that may never change. Yes, he did the best he could, no, that wasn’t enough. Yes, there will be a price for his reckless actions, no, paying it will not be simple. 

 

Three weeks is about most his body can handle before it starts sending urgent signals about the imminent shutdown. He feels - empty but purified. Physically, he’s a mess. He’d lost pretty much all the weight it was possible for him to lose, and then considerably more. His skin turned a shade so pale that his arms look carved from marble, blue and green veins snaking to and fro. His cheeks feel gaunt, which probably makes him look even more tragically woebegone. Thank fuck that he’s managed to avoid reflective surfaces so far - a trend he is more than happy to continue - but from what he can tell by touch, his cheekbones are just about ready to rip through his skin. 

 

Okay, so things are somewhat alarming. He hadn’t given much thought to his physical state back in the mines, preoccupied with other concerns. It’s painfully clear what he should be doing next. What he should have been doing already, but. It seems he’s gotten spoiled, somewhat, used to the fact that the above-ground levels of the Mountain were safe, and his. Unfortunately, nothing is safe and his anymore, except perhaps the two shrines and his little clearing. Monsters roam the corridors, breaking and burning and destroying beauty with gleeful abandon. They don't dare the sunlight - yet, and the areas where supernatural presence is high is well beyond them, but otherwise, they have free reign. 

 

Itachi’s stress levels rise to levels hitherto unknown. Safe behind presumably supernaturally enforced wards, he hides like a rat, looking at his home being ransacked, powerless and furious beyond reason. They’re looking for him, after all, and in their pursuit, they're destroying everything they can get their misshapen paws on. He’s never been a particularly level-headed individual, prone to spikes of rage and with a growing willingness to indulge them. This never-ending fury, though, it’s becoming problematic. He has control enough over himself to not let his mounting insanity get in the way of his health, yes, but rest is almost impossible. 

 

Mother and Father keep him from completely snapping, but only just. The shrines and his camp remain oases of peace, even as everything around them burns and crumbles. Food is no issue, and if he meditates very, very carefully, he can almost block out the echoing shrieks and screams reverberating through his Mountain. 

 

The sixth week passes and the seventh brings with it the arrival of further chaos. A deep, resounding horn thunders outside, the sound carried through the balcony, and Itachi’s murderous mind sits up and listens. The unmistakable sounds of an army are the final nail in the coffin of his peaceful life in the Mountain. 

 

*** 

 

The first thing on the agenda is by all accounts, identifying the allegiance of the massive sea of Chakra at the door. He dredges up every shred of composure he has and forces himself out of his beautiful linen Yukata and into the worn battle-leathers. There aren’t too many ways he can get the intel - outside or bellow. 

 

Objectively, it’s massively fucked up how straightforward his decision is. The thought of going to the Mines after everything makes bile rise in his throat, even if he completely disregards how dangerous it would be to do so. And yet, the overwhelming dread of going outside outstrips it by miles. The very idea of losing the comforting presence of Mother and Father, the hum of the runes carved into the stone walls, the infinite beauty of the stone-work - it doesn’t compute. If he has to go to the Mines, he will go to the Sage forsaken Mines, monsters or no monsters. But leaving? Not a single fucking chance

 

***

 

Sneaking into the Mines was, as it turns out, impossible. The rate of the creatures going in and out of the wide staircase is incredibly high, and his chances of discovery are at an even hundred per cent unless he managed to re-discover a cloaking Genjutsu right that moment. The absolute most he can manage is to creep to the underside of the stairway and skulk in the shadows. Not that it was truly necessary to do so. It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that the monsters are being marshalled into some sort of army. The majority of the weaklings wear gear about as pathetic as expected, but the bigger, stronger ones are armed decently. The craftsmanship of the weapons is a clear indicator of the Builders. 

 

When he's seen just about all he needs he slinks out of the mines and scurries up a nearby golden statue, perching on its head. There is still little observable order to the mob, but their commanders make quick work of ordering them into several rough but decently organized platoons, each a hundred strong. 

 

Thank Mother for small mercies, but they are clearly terrified of direct sunlight. The weaker ones literally have to be beaten into submission by their more aggressive brethren, and all of them shy away from even a patch of direct sunlight. 

 

***

 

Night comes all too soon, and the steady trickle of creatures quadruples. Their pale Leader, astride his pale wolf, makes an appearance and brings with him a contingent of creatures Itachi hasn't seen so far. 

 

The new creatures are at the same time the ugliest animals Itachi has ever seen, and still less grotesque than the monsters whipping them into compliance. There's not a single spark of sentience to them, as far as Itachi could spot, for all that they looked more - natural - than the creatures. Their frames were giant, yes, and appeared to be incredibly strong, with bulging muscles, and enormous, long hands whose knuckles all but brushed the floor, but they were decently proportioned, and looked more like giant, hairless apes that were tortured into insanity. Their skulls were shaped oddly, yes, and their skin was bone-pale, with small eyes set wide apart, suggesting a fairly weak sight. Put it all together, and you get a naturally occurring species that dwells deep underground and depends on hearing and smell, eyes being an evolutionary holdover. 

 

The force gathered at the main hall is about four hundred strong, and consists of the most dangerous monsters Itachi has come across so far. Which triggers a surprisingly glorious thought - the Demon is much less willing to stir to action than he had initially feared. Which, granted, might not matter if the monsters kill them all, what with the surprisingly dangerous forces they’re mobilizing. Monsters, though, Itachi can handle with enough time and resources. The Demon he definitely can't. 

 

It's a waiting game, now. His Chakra-sensing has improved - it had to after the hellish months he spent in the mines, more or less constantly on edge. With the increased range, it’s not too difficult to sense the mass of Chakra gathering outside of the Mountain. He can’t be certain it’s an army, of course, but there’s little else it can be. 

 

With everything he has, he hopes that whoever is in charge will be sensible enough to not attempt a frontal attack. The giant ape-creatures are deterrent enough, and they would do well to pick them off with whatever ranged attack they might have. Not to mention that the creatures have unearthed a decent amount of archers, who’ve found whatever high ground they can crawl to. No, whatever attack comes, it would be best to play on their propensity towards stumbling into a blinding rage. Not unlike Itachi did, six weeks ago. 

 

He settles into a semi-meditative state and waits. 

 

***

 

Of course, of course, of course’ runs on repeat in Itachi’s mind, crouched where he was, furious enough to scream. Of course, the sorry excuse for a commander couldn’t think of a better plan, than to come to the main fucking gate, and - open it. Whatever magic operates the thing, the momentous, twenty-meter tall stone doors just - slides open, easy as you please, giving an almighty screech but otherwise moving smoothly and easily. He can't even stop to appreciate that particular impossibility - there was some Chakra used, definitely, but a pittance of what it would have taken Itachi - shocked as he is by the sheer stupidity of literally storming the main fucking gate. 

 

The creatures - to their credit, Itachi admits grimly - don’t immediately lose their mind and abandon their tactical advantage, but remain as they were, shielded from the sunlight outside, and conveniently waiting behind the dozen ape-creatures who are a hair’s breadth away from snapping and turning on their captors. Their archers draw, and Itachi holds his breath, waiting, praying whatever attack isn’t as stupid as he fears it will be. 

 

It’s only partly as stupid, as it happens. A well-armoured unit of - men (?) approach cautiously, every second one holding a wide shield above himself and the man next to him, and the other one holding a long spear. Thank Father, they anticipated the very basic danger of a ranged attack. A storm of arrows falls on them, but none go through, their shields and armour serving the attackers well. 

 

Focused as he is on the battle, there is still something - off about the scene. Something doesn’t look right. The niggling feeling of ‘you’re missing something important, idiot’ is very much present even while he’s engrossed by the unit launching their spears with - absolutely too much strength, without Chakra, and he’s not sensing a lick of intentional Chakra use. That’s - something to keep in mind, certainly. 

 

Their attack is much more efficient than the creatures’ one was, and several ape-creatures get a vicious-looking hooked spear tip lodged in various body parts. One supremely unlucky creature falls, instantly dead, with a spear neatly de-braining it. 

 

That seems to be just about all the tactics either party is capable of because the apes are let off their leashes, and the creatures rush forward, all semblance of order forgotten. The attackers seem to be equally willing to fall into a berserker rage, and they throw down their shields, take up axes, hammers and various weaponry, and rush to meet them. 

 

Furious at the terminal stupidity of it all, Itachi realizes he can't possibly justify leaving the attackers to fend for themselves and turns on his Sharingan. Staying on the outskirts is best, for now, but the most important thing is to pick off the ape-giants that are wreaking havoc on the battlefield. 

 

Red eyes spinning, he casts about to see where he’s most needed when every thought in his head just - fizzles out. 

 

They aren’t men - not at all. With the added clarity of vision, he sees the attackers in minute detail. The bone structure. The wide-set features. The long beards and intricate braids. The lack of swords, and an overabundance of hammers. The thick fingers and wide shoulders. 

 

The Builders are here. The Builders are here and alive, and - dying. Granted, they’re good fighters, excellent even, for non-Chakra users. They swing huge axes with barely any effort and are more agile than their thick frames would suggest. But they’re outnumbered, the archers are picking them off, and they don’t seem to have a set strategy to dealing with the ape-giants, other than hacking at the back of the legs and trying to evade lethal swinging arms. It wasn’t working that well. 

 

Focus, damn you, snarls Itachi to himself, even as he’s forced to resort to basic breathing exercises to keep himself from drowning in a tidal wave of hysteria. Half-formed thoughts whirl into a vicious hurricane, scrambling his already compromised mind, even as every moment of inattention brings down another one of his charges down. 

 

Hold on - are they his charges? Well, yes. Of course they are. Aside from the fact that they built the Mountain, the Fortress that he’s come to love with a similar fervency he once had loved Konoha, he knows - he knows - that they are Father’s children. The two deities have been cornerstones of Itachi’s sanity for just about as long as he’s been in this new world, and there is nothing in him, not a single molecule of his sorry self, that will stand by while their children are being massacred in their own home. 

 

With that in mind, the last shred of calculation and sanity flees, and he gratefully concedes his battle with animal rage. He takes a running leap from the statue and angles himself to fall directly onto the head of an ape creature that was about to kill another brave warrior. He hooks his legs around the creature’s neck as he stabs two knives through the eyes and straight to the brain. Dead in an instant, the creature stumbles into a fall, and Itachi flips back, analyzing where he can do the most damage through the red haze. The Builders have enough sense to jump back, even as they gape at this new potential threat. 

 

These ones are safe, then. But the ape-giants have decimated their numbers, and they have to go. From the initial fifteen, ten monsters still stand, in various states of injury. From the hundred Builders, perhaps half are alive. Fuck. 

 

The white-skinned Abomination leader just about loses his mind when he spots Itachi. His underlings need little prompting to turn their attention to Itachi, and the tide of battle shifts from one moment to the next. The ape-giants are too far gone to follow instruction, but just about all other monsters switch their focus from the attackers to Itachi. Which is, as is often the case, both convenient and terribly dangerous. From what he’s seen, the Builders are pretty well used to fighting the Abominations, other than the ape-creatures. And yet, the only unit that is currently attacking them are, in fact, the ape-creatures. 

 

Thank fuck, but the unit of the Builders seems to have had an objective other than ‘die in vain’ because once they get over the shock of his presence, they close ranks, and inch back, slowly, trying to draw out the creatures without them noticing in the chaos of battle. 

 

It's a gruesome strategy, to sacrifice at least half of the unit just to draw out the enemy, but what does Itachi know, anyway. Either way, their strategy was fucked as soon as he appeared, because other than the ape-monsters, the Abominations are pretty focused on bringing him down. On his end, it’s taking every trick he has to avoid being skewered by the hundreds of arrows and various weaponry being aimed his way. 

 

Weaving between enemies is just about all he can manage, without resorting to blatant Chakra use, which he would be wise to keep as a last resort. He can’t spare the focus to pay attention to the Builders, but from what he can see in the periphery of his vision, they’ve abandoned their plan of drawing out the majority of the force, and are focusing on luring the ape-monsters outside. Mother willing, they have some sort of ranged attack for when they inevitably succeed, because not a single one of the monsters gives a fuck about sunlight anymore. 

 

Between leaps and weaves, Itachi cant actually deal any meaningful damage to the Abominations himself, but he’s tiny and slippery, so he focuses on making them deal the damage themselves. A stray arrow will kill an Abomination just as easily as it will Itachi. 

 

Still, he can't keep this up, not for any significant amount of time. Already he’s accumulated several grazes, and his armour is getting rather tattered. The less intelligent monsters have already died and the ones left have some sense in them - sense enough to surround him with their wolf-mounts and avoid being injured by friendly-fire. 

 

Now, then. A decision has to be made. He dives under the legs of the biggest wolf and escapes the increasingly deadly circle, but there’s a sea of enemies around him and only one real way out of it. 

 

He needs to lead them out. He needs to go out. Out of the Mountain. Out of his home. 

 

He sends a prayer-scream in his mind to Father and Mother, and some of the rising panic abates at their answering wave of support and pride. Right, then, time to get over himself. Also, time to stop fucking around

 

With a burst of Chakra, he stops his evading dance, draws the long blades strapped to his back, and whirls around, slashing the throat of the nearest Abomination warrior, flips over the other and buries the second blade in the back of its neck. Still in the air, his mobility is less than ideal, so the best he can do to avoid the axe flying towards his face is to twist and let it slice down his shoulder-blade. Thank fuck, but it didn’t cut anything important, just slightly limited his mobility. More than good enough. 

 

With both his Sharingan and less limited in his Chakra-use, it’s much easier to evade them, easy enough to allow slipping under the nearby monsters’ guards and slashing the weak spots. This has the intended result of enraging them to the point of madness so when he judges he’s at about a fourth of his Chakra capacity, he decides it’s time. 

 

He twirls and ducks and weaves, and leads the frothing mass of Abominations slowly but surely towards the opened gate. Enraged well past the point of sanity they barely notice what he’s doing, and they follow. 

 

When the time comes to take that step, that definitive step between the Mountain and the outside, he’d like to say he was too busy to notice. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Panic and fear slam into him, and he stumbles slightly, right into the path of a blade. It slashes down his ribs, into his side, and the near-blinding pain helps, actually. He turns the stumble into a roll, and throws the blade from his right hand, killing the creature that wounded him. He presses the newly-freed hand over the deepest part of the cut. Chakra alone won’t keep that closed. Wonderful

 

A burst of Chakra and he jumps forward, ahead of his pursuers, and for the first time raises his head to see the outside. Through the pain and the gibbering fear, there is a curl of satisfaction. Not so stupid, after all. There’s a well-fortified army not a hundred meters away from Itachi, and two units of armed Builders clad head to toe in plate armour rush towards them, even as steel-tipped arrows rain on his pursuers. The corpses of ape-giants lay in the field, not unlike giant pincushions, every inch of them covered in arrows and spears. 

 

He cant stop to take in the sight because army or not, the Abominations are still focused on bringing Itachi down at all costs. His mobility is now seriously compromised by the two wounds, and the tattered armour is more hindrance than anything else. The pain is easily ignored, but it’s still sometimes easy to forget that this body is less lethal and far more easily damaged than the previous one. His entire left side now is barely responsive, and the dangerous dance he’s been involved in relied on perfect balance and control. His Sharingan is useless if his body can't move fast enough for it to matter. 

 

Thank fuck, but the Builders move quickly even when carrying their bodyweight in armour. He weaves between them, idly noting that they’re about his size, slightly taller, and much broader. The Abominations crash into them like a wave and the cacophony of a pitched battle commences. 

 

Which doesn't really concern Itachi right this moment, because he’s got a moment for himself, which is dearly needed. He stands about thirty meters from an unmoving line of armoured Builders. Are they attacking right this moment? No. Good enough. Definitely enough to work with. He can still fight if he’s smart about it, but the rate of bleeding is - concerning. He will not be helping anyone if he passes out from bloodless. 

 

He needs fire. Fire and steel - it’s always served his family well. A Katon Jutsu would be handy, but he’s nothing if not resourceful. A curl of smoke is clearly visible, not far away, but an army stands between him and it. And there's nothing to suggest the Builders won’t cut him down if he tries to push past them. Even explaining himself is impossible. 

 

So - a plan. First stem the bleeding as much as possible, second, cauterize the wound somehow, third, stop being so overwhelmingly insane in front of potential allies. Easy-peasy. With some relief he tears off the sorry remains of his upper armour, taking off the mangled shirt while he’s at it. Filthy as it might be, it’s still the best bandage he’s got on hand. He’s out of blades, but a boot-knife does well enough at tearing the fabric into wide strips, wide enough to cover the wound. They won’t be long enough, but the ankle- and arm-wraps will be. 

 

With this at least, he has ample practice, so it's not longer than two minutes until his side is wrapped up in the worlds ugliest bandage, with bits of stained linen interspersed with leather for added pressure, and tied messily around his chest. The Chakra barrier on his shoulder stands and keeps that wound at least from bleeding, but it won’t stay that way for long. That one has to be cauterized as well. Joy. 

 

With a start, he realizes that the sound of battle has stopped. He whirls around, cursing himself for his lack of situational awareness. The rain of arrows and the heavily armoured warriors proved to be too much for the Abominations, and they ran back to the mountain, leaving countless dead on the field. On the Builders end, only a handful of them apart from the initial massacre are out of commission, injured or dead, it's hard to tell. 

 

Urgency bleeds out of him, and hysteria rushes in its place. Now that the Builders aren’t dying, Itachi’s fucked up mind is clawing at him to get away from the infernal sky and into the safety of the Mountain. To his clearing, and his crafts, and the nooks where he can calm down and lick his wounds in peace. There are, however, two units of warriors between and peace, that don’t seem keen on letting him escape. He could fight them, and lose probably, or try running, but these are Father’s children, and he won’t be the one to start a feud. So, some sort of introduction then, a show of good faith, and then hopefully they won’t mind letting him go to his own devices. 

 

He can't bring himself to think about the fact that he’s meeting the Builders, the people whose work he’s been admiring for decades, cut up like a hunk of meat, and more than half-naked, not to mention barefoot. His hair has long escaped its confines, and it, at least, provides some cover, falling around his body to his thighs like a curtain. Sage fucking wept, but he’s a disaster. 

 

A deep breath. Exhale. Now another. Remember your mother. Inspired, he channels his best Mikoto ‘I am the matriarch of a Noble and Ancient Clan, and you will all give me due respect or die screaming’. He straightens his spine and tries to match Mikoto’s arrogant and yet dignified chin-tilt. He might be going into this confrontation from a position of weakness, but he doesn’t need to fucking show it. 

 

A group of warriors behind him, and a group of warriors in front of him, he has no idea how to go about this. He doesn't speak their language, even if he could bring himself to talk, he doesn’t know who to go to, and his makeshift bandage grows heavy with blood. He looks about the silent army, trying to corral his frenzied thoughts into some semblance of order. Nothing really comes to mind, and he resigns himself to waiting silently. It's not like keeping the mind-bending panic from his face and body is not a wholly engrossing endeavour.

 

He doesn’t, in the end, wait too long. A group of three breaks off from the closed-ranks of the battle unit. The tallest, seemingly oldest among the three, walks in front, flanked by two warriors. Thank fuck, but the theatrically slow walk allows Itachi to observe them and prepare himself as best he can. 

 

All three of them are tall - taller than Itachi that is - but considerably shorter than the spirit-people - or the Abominations, for that matter. Everything Itachi has seen points to the Builders, Spirit-people and Humans being completely separate species, and this just confirms it. By the look of it, they hadn’t been involved in the fighting thus far, and their faces are uncovered - perhaps in a show of trust. Not that Itachi looks very dangerous as is, bleeding and beaten and barely dressed. 

 

The warrior at the head walks with the unmistakable air of a leader, and Itachi would have no trouble in guessing that without the silvery-metal crown placed on top of the salt and pepper mane. His two companions look considerably younger, from what little Itachi can guess, their faces unwrinkled and hair without so much as a speck of white. The Leader - their Kage? - shares a distinct similarity in his features with the other two - almost an even split. The black hair he shares with the warrior on the right, the green eyes with the warrior on the left. Relatives, perhaps? Although he doesn’t really know their species well enough to guess. 

 

There is little in the Kage’s eyes when they reach Itachi but guardedness, although when he spots the runes stretched over Itachi’s chest and arms, there is a glint of something fierce in them. Something that makes Itachi uneasy. It's not that he’s ashamed of his marks - that’s about the only thing he isn’t ashamed of at all. That’s his father’s words on his skin, and he honours them as best he can. Nevertheless, this Kage looks at them with a similar look like Fugaku had once had, as the Elders have had, as Sarutobi has had. Like he sees something valuable and wants to take it, keep it, have it under his thumb. 

 

The Builders’ Chakra is less - exclamative - than the Spirit-people’s had been, with a heavier flavour to it. Still, if the avarice in the Kage’s Chakra makes Itachi want to squirm, the blatant awe shining from his younger companions makes him want to hurl. They are definitely less practised than their Kage is at keeping their faces clear from their thoughts, and their fascination with the Runes is easily read in the shining eyes and twitching fingers. 

 

The bleeding isn’t slowing as much as he would like, so it’s in Itachi’s best interest to hurry this along. With that in mind, he resigns himself to the pain the movement will cause, and bows low, from the waist, keeping his back straight and his face lowered. He does respect the Builders, after all, and this warrior is by all accounts their Kage. He’s not Itachi’s Kage, not now, most likely not ever, but he has respect for him either way. 

 

The movement, as he feared, tears the wound open, and the added blood-flow is too much for the overwrought bandage to handle. As Itachi raises from his bow, the bandage gives up the battle with gravity and flops open, leaving Itachi with the pleasant task of trying to pretend to have dignity while completely naked from waist-up, and holding a heavily bleeding wound closed with his bare hand. 

 

The wound snaps the uncomfortable silence, and the Kage speaks in a language that’s completely new to Itachi. It’s - exactly what he would have expected if he had enough creativity to imagine it. It was all guttural, rolling consonants, and yet somehow very clean and precise. Far from the flowy, lilting tones of the Spirit-peoples’ language, these sounds were discrete, precise, and yet harsh at the same time. 

 

The Kage’s words cause some commotion in the army, but Itachi stands frozen where he is, keeping his blood in his body as best he can, trying to think of a way to extract himself from what is fast becoming pointless posturing. If not for the sharp gleam in the Kage’s eye and Itachi’s general unwillingness to disrespect his Father’s children, he’d have long thrown caution to the wind and just hightailed it back to the mountain. 

 

Alas, the Kage is watching him closely, and unlike the worry and respect in his two companions’ Chakra, his is much darker, heavy and possessive. It's not that he wants to harm Itachi, there is no ill-will there as far as he can judge such things, but he expects unquestioning obedience from his people, and it’s clear he considers Itachi his, already. What a mess

 

A fourth figure breaks from the army line, a civilian by all accounts, carrying a dozen small leather bags. He’s blond, sharp-eyed, and his stern unforgiving face doesn’t match the softness of his Chakra.

 

With a bow to the Kage, the two rumble at each other while watching Itachi, and real irritation starts snaking in next to the irrational fear and exhaustion weighing down Itachi’s mind. They’re discussing him, he doesn’t doubt it for a second, without making any attempt to include him in the conversation. They must reach some sort of agreement because the Kage gestures to Itachi in a clear ‘go-ahead’ motion. The newcomer nods and comes closer with brisk, purposeful steps, rummaging though his satchels as he goes. 

 

Not willing to take his eyes off the figure who is slowly morphing from a respected figure to a respected opponent, Itachi raises an eyebrow, tilting his head, channelling his Father rather than his mother. Fugaku could look as arrogant as a cat when he wanted to, and if there is a game Itachi can play in his sleep, it’s that one. In any case, this blatant disrespect calls for equally obnoxious behaviour. 

 

The Kage raises an eyebrow right back, and a dismissive smirk curls his lips. Just then, the newcomer reaches Itachi and reaches out to grab his unwounded shoulder. Now, even as dazed and tired as Itachi is, he is not so out of it to let himself be startled by a civilian stomping towards him with comically loud footsteps. That is not to say this will be allowed. 

 

He channels his Chakra into his good hand and moves as fast as he can, snatching the reaching limb well before it can touch him. With the added reinforcement, there will be no moving it, which must come as a surprise to the civilian, especially coming from an ostensibly half-starved child. Since Itachi is sadly committed to this posturing nonsense and his blood is up, he lets his Sharingan swirl to life and meets the civilian’s brown eyes. 

 

The poor soul exclaims something - likely a curse of some sort and tries to pull back. Unfortunately for him, Itachi is making a point that isn’t yet made. He holds the offending limb firmly, just on this side of painful, and waits for the civilian to stop trying to move away. When the civilian subsides, he turns back to the Kage, raises an eyebrow and releases him, letting the red seep from his eyes. The civilian scrambles back, cursing, but the Kage loses the dismissive edge to his smile. His mouth flattens, Chakra spiking with both greed and anger. Itachi may have made things worse for himself. More importantly, Itachi really needs to re-evaluate his future relationship with the Builders. Appreciative of them, he might be, and he sees it as his mission to protect them, but all of that can be done from afar. 

 

With a frustrated internal snarl, he centres himself as best he can. Blood-loss is getting to him, and the dizziness is going to be a problem soon. The Chakra holding his shoulder from bleeding is also not going to last much longer, and the odds that the Builders may prove - inhospitable - grow by the second. In any case, Itachi knows where his loyalties lie, and it’s definitely not with the sharp-eyed Kage who claims all that bears Father’s words for his own. 

 

It’s time to leave. He nods, deeply, but pointedly does not bow, and nods shortly to the other two warriors, whose Chakra seem to be bouncing from awe to fear to confusion since this little performance has begun. The civilian has retreated a considerable amount, and Itachi doesn’t spare him a glance. He suspects he might have been a healer of some sort, but any healer who doesn’t bother addressing a potential patient is not someone Itachi will pay any mind to, fuck him and his gentle Chakra. 

 

With that, he turns and walks toward the mountain - back to safety - back home - and tries to infuse his body language with absolute unwillingness to play nice with anyone stupid enough to disagree. They don’t make a move to stop him, but they don’t let him pass, either. The figure at their head, a fully armoured warrior, almost four times Itachi’s width, wears a helmet so he can’t read his expression, but the resigned and slightly angry twist to his otherwise steady Chakra makes him slightly sympathetic to Itachi. He’s just a warrior, following his Kage’s rules, such as they may be. Shame that Itachi is bleeding out and won’t be fucked with any more on this day. 

 

He channels as much Chakra as he dares into his left arm, shoulder to wrist, and pushes the warrior to the left slowly but with enough force that he can either move or fall. The soldier behind him is almost twitching with nervousness and fear, but he stands firm, and Itachi is about to do something truly unadvisable when a silent command must come from the Kage, because the soldiers part, making a clear path towards the mountain. God-fucking-damnit but he hates power plays. The relief in the soldiers' Chakra makes him even angrier and he can't help but throw a last disdainful look at the Kage, allowing his lips to twist into a displeased sneer. 

 

Definitely not his leader. 

 

*** 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

By the time Itachi stumbles back to his Clearing he’s worked through several cycles of rage-flavoured indignation followed by resignation and weariness, which all leaves him wrung out but comparatively calm. And thank fuck for that, because his wounds are many and varied, and first-aid will take what little presence of mind he still possesses. Food is next, and after the day he’s had, he earned some motherfucking treats. Strawberries, then, and raspberries and the sweetest of cherries, enough to drown a grown man. 

 

Fed and watered, he sits in the steam, letting the current do most of the work of cleaning off the filth from his skin, and thinks. Alright, so the Builders’ Kage is, well, a Kage. A possessive, absolute ruler who sees strength as a resource to own and wield. Does that matter? It really doesn’t. He’s not Itachi’s Kage. The admiration he feels towards the Builders is in no way indicative of his allegiance. His only true masters here are Mother and Father, and they are the only ones whose commands he will obey without pause. 

 

Relief washes through him, that is only partly due to the decreasing amount of monster-blood clogging up his senses. With that out of the way, what had he accomplished today? 

 

Intel, for one. Critical intel, both about the monsters and about the world in general. 

 

One, The Builders, for all their genius when it comes to craftwork, have a type of government that Itachi can't see himself being a part of. Their Kage’s rule is absolute, and his decisions are unwise, ruled by whims instead of logic. 

 

Two, they recognize his markings and hold them in high esteem. More of a confirmation of his presupposition, yeah, but significant enough to note. That the Builders are familiar with Father’s words was obvious by the runic inscriptions carved throughout the Fortress. What is interesting, is how awe-inspired the warriors accompanying the Kage were. Whether bearing such marks is simply rare, or because of the content of the words themselves, they’re important somehow. 

 

Three, leaving the Mountain is possible, and his fear is completely unfounded. Which, again, obvious but vital insight. Since the beginning, there was a part of Itachi that was convinced the prohibitive fear was a subconscious warning from Mother or Father not to leave the mountain. It's good to have confirmation that the paralyzing agoraphobia is in fact just one of many neuroses acquired by some trauma or another.  

 

Four, the Builders are waging war on the Abominations bellow, and, Father help them, but they will be massacred, if what he’s seen so far is an indication of how they conduct wars. Sending a unit of a hundred strong inside to die in hopes that will draw out an enemy is a plan worthy of an academy student. They’re the Builders, for Sage’s sake. They surely know about the balconies and hidden entrances. If there aren’t any, they can dig through the fucking walls if necessary. Stealth and subterfuge seemed to be concepts they - or at least their Kage - are entirely unfamiliar with. Which is fine if they weren't facing an enemy that not only has the overwhelming strategic advantage but also outnumbers them by a factor of ten at least. 

 

Five, with both the Builders and the Abominations roaming the upper levels, his home is pretty much fucked. The Wards keep the monsters out of his shrines and the campsite, but they shouldn’t affect the Builders in any way. His home in the forest is completely indefensible, and there is nothing he can do about it. The initial sparse campsite has grown into a sprawling, wonderful collection of camps, each devoted to a specific craft - one for carving, one for spinning, one for weaving, sewing, cooking, leatherwork, healing and that’s not even considering the Gardens. No, there will be no hiding or protecting it. He can only take things as they go, and deal with them as they happen. 

 

. ***

 

For the first four weeks, he divides his time evenly between his mental and physical recovery and watching the Builders like a hawk. For all of his worries, it seems that some, at least, were unfounded. After the initial crash, the Builders don’t commit their forces to a frontal attack. Instead, small teams of well-armed warriors sneak in somehow, using some hidden magical doorways because why now, and engage the Abominations using very effective guerrilla tactics. 

 

Someone in the Sage forsaken army must have enough of a grasp on strategy and tactics to understand the concept of choosing one's battlefield. In exact opposite of Itachi, the Builders are perfectly suited for battle in the Mines. Everything about them - their stature, impeccable night-vision, superior knowledge of the terrain and a sixth sense about the structural integrity of the tunnels around them - leads to the Abominations being completely outmatched. On the other hand, superior tactics or no, the sheer number of monsters is a problem that neither the Builders nor Itachi seem to have an answer for. 

 

And then there is the matter of the Demon. 

 

It’s hard to overstate how futile this whole thing is, once the fucking Demon is taken into account. The monsters, sure, the Builders will rip them out of their home if given enough time and a good military advisor. But as far as Itachi can see, the warriors are good, but none of them is on the levels of the legendary Shinobi, and they’d need a handful of those for this campaign to have a hope in succeeding. The whole enterprise is, in short, doomed to fail eventually. He can see how this ends, even if every single monster is killed. They will just respawn as soon the Demon cuts them all down with relish and slurps up all their souls 

 

***

 

By now Itachi’s compartmentalization has grown in leaps and bounds, and his mind had grown very accommodating to shunting bad memories to the shadowy corners, only visited under duress. So, everything regarding their inevitable gruesome deaths by demon gets buried deep, right in-between his relationship with Fugaku and every single thing to do with Sarutobi. 

 

The siege continues as does the fighting. He helps where he can, which ends up being pretty much negligible. The warriors pick their surroundings well, mostly staging ambushes in the narrow corridors where the Abominations can barely stand up, much less have any freedom of movement. It’s clever, and very much appeals to his Shinobi sensibilities - keeping the fighting tricky and dirty and not at all constrained by dubious notions of honour and bravery. 

 

Fighting in close quarters suits Itachi almost as badly as it does the monsters. His favoured style of combat relies heavily on tall ceilings and plenty of places to hide. There is little he can contribute in narrow corridors, other than his skill with a blade. Which, honestly, the warriors have in spades. So he tends to stay back, only interfering when he spots a warrior in mortal peril. Mostly, he helps by supplementing their rations when he can and eliminating whatever reinforcements the monsters might summon. 

 

The paths the Builders use are still a mystery to him, and one he’s in no particular hurry to solve. Things he needs are many and varied, but more ways out of his Mountain are not on the list - they’ve never seen the list. He is seriously impressed, though, especially by how deep they dare to go. Itachi certainly doesn’t dare follow them so close to the Evil. The biggest thing though, the overarching question that won’t let him rest is this: What are they buying time for? 

 

***

 

Rationally speaking, leaving is no longer an utter impossibility, now that he’s certain he won’t truly die the moment he steps one foot away from the mountain. Rationality doesn’t have much to do with it, as it turns out. Survival doesn’t quite meet the cost of rampant hysteria and tidal waves of panic spiced up with psychosomatic lances of pain piercing him at random. It’s not a fun ride, all told, and inevitable or not, he’s not putting himself through that for anything short of a very good reason. Since there is a perfectly serviceable balcony overlooking the area in front of the Main Gate he can spy on the Builders on, he doesn’t need to resort to such drastic measures. 

 

Which brings him to the current moment of numb disbelief. Oh, he thinks, that - makes sense? Maybe? Definitely not?

 

A settlement is being constructed at the foot of the mountain, right behind the long line of the Builders’ army. The dwellings aren’t houses but aren’t just tents either - caravans perhaps? It seems that they aren't banking on being finished with this siege any time soon. No, even though the settlement is still very much in its infancy, it shows unmistakably careful planning. The scope of it alone shows that thousands will live there, and not for any short amount of time either. No, it seems that this is to be a lengthy campaign, and the army is only a part of the forces being marshalled here. 

 

The need to know burns a near-physical wound in his belly. While he’s been too young to remember the Third, and too dead to remember the Fourth, he’s still studied the Shinobi Wars extensively, before. He’d do well to try and divorce the expectations learned then from this new world, he knows that. But the Elemental Nations were pretty much in perpetual conflict for hundreds of years, and that trend certainly didn't stop with the founding of Hidden Villages. When the Era of Shinobi Wars started, it was more or less commonly acknowledged peace is little more than necessary time to repopulate and gather resources. Hidden Villages were basically War Machines in their own rights, and were optimized for mobilizing great resources at great speed. This campaign, though, this was different. 

 

What it is, in fact, is fucking fascinating. Not the fighting, no, there is no beauty in killing this way or that, but building a settlement from the ground up, while simultaneously mounting a siege of a mountain - now, that’s beautiful. Batshit crazy, but these people hollowed out a mountain to build their castle, this is fucking tame. They're essentially building a livable city, presumably only for the duration of the campaign. In what wacky world does that make sense? 

 

Itachi has to see it

 

***

 

Two manias battle it out ruthlessly: curiosity and fear. The turmoil rages day after day until, to Itachi’s utter lack fo surprise, curiosity wins. Many parallels have been made between Uchiha and cats, and in this, he shows his heritage. There is a hope, a small sliver of a chance, that the intensity of the struggle will help with the actual acclimatization process. Which - yeah, it does, but only inasmuch as it leaves him too drained to properly experience the fear. 

 

It’s not that he doesn’t know what to expect here, he’s been through same exact shit back with the touch-training. Knowing, in this case, doesn’t do much except make sure he knows exactly what to dread. The first day, he manages to stay outside for less than ten minutes before breaking down into a miserable heap of bones and sweat and tears. By the end of the second week, he gets it up to an hour. 

 

An hour is good, he can work with an hour. By rough estimation, the settlement is about ten minutes away, if he hurries. Ten there, ten back, which leaves with him with glorious forty minutes to observe a town being born right before his eyes. 

 

***

 

He isn’t disappointed at all. Seeing the bustling settlement being built with a dizzying speed with his own eyes is entirely worth the soul-scarring drawbacks. There’s just so much going on, constantly. The civilian population keeps increasing, caravans arriving practically on the hour. He’s willing to bet that there is some inexplicable schedule to it all because every new caravan that arrives has a patch of land allowed to it, whether it’s a shack, a tent or just space for them to park their caravan. 

 

It bugs him relentlessly - what possible reason would a Kage have to drag his entire village to battle, no matter how lengthy the campaign might be. On the most basic level, protecting them will surely be a drain on their resources. Add to that the impossible logistics of keeping a town fed while simultaneously battling an entrenched fucking enemy - it’s insane. No, he’s missing something, there has to be some reason for this madness - there are children here! The first time he lays his eyes on a Builders’ child his heart shrieks in adoration - absolutely delightful, and so completely vulnerable. The number of adorable potential fucking hostages is fairly low, but it’s growing. 

 

Putting aside the why’s and how’s, the look and feel of the settlement is truly astounding. While the army isn’t taking part in the building, it seems that every able-bodied adult is, in fact, capable of building and creating things out of metal and wood and stone at truly prodigious speeds. Dwellings rise practically overnight, in carefully marked out spaces, and roads are being made at the same time, wide enough for wagons to pass through. Wells are being dug out en masse, and the settlement is quickly being divided into districts, organized by crafts. The biggest district, spanning almost a third of the settlement is the smithing district. Dozens of wagons amble by, groaning under the weight of the tools of the trade, and the material needed fo it. Healing district is next, judging by the number of cots hastily being thrown together in a large wooden barn-like house. The weavers are next to the healers, and then several more that Itachi can’t precisely name. 

 

The fascination with the whole affair provides the best possible fuel for his determination to get over the ridiculous hold-up. Only a month later, and he can push back the fear and nausea to the back burner for hours at a time. The last nail in the coffin of his agoraphobia is provided by the fucking roads, of all the banal things. 

 

Itachi thought they’d settle for sturdy dirt roads - if they felt the need to have roads at all - but boy, oh boy, was he mistaken. 

 

While the small paths between dwellings were rudimentary, gravel-covered things, the main road, going through the settlement to the army encampment and almost way to the mountain - that was a different animal altogether. 

 

The feat of engineering is perhaps the first glimpse Itachi has into the way they do things, and he can barely bring himself to tear himself away for the month it takes them to complete it. And what a feat it is. 

 

Completely straight, measured by a slew of incomprehensible devices, the planning crew first marked down where the road will lay. A peculiarly wide, but obviously pre-set width was measured and then dug with ploughs and spades until it resembled a freakishly precise ditch. A different crew of Builders started the complicated process of filling the ditch with several different layers of stone - all of them presumably chosen for some specific property. Each layer was different in both depth and type of laying - some carefully lain down, some ground into gravel, some mixed with sand that was carted in from somewhere. Then wide stones were set, glued in place almost by a complicated mix of materials, that might as well be called magic for all that Itachi can make heads or tails of the entire process. By the end of the month, the main road was almost two kilometres long, and several meters wide, stone-paved and metaled, cambered for drainage and flanked by footpaths, bridleways and drainage ditches. It’s madness, it’s genius - even the Daimyo's palace in the Elemental Nations had simple stone roads, with stone blocks embedded in the ground as evenly as possible. This road, though, will last for hundreds of years - and it was built in a month, for a campaign. Madness. 

 

His head spinning from what can be accomplished with a couple of hundred of determined Builders and - as far as he can tell - just some rock and water - Itachi regretfully decides that, as the summer is ending, it’s time to step up his hunting game. It breaks his heart, after seeing what marvels can be done, it’s clear that the Builders have a true purpose in their craft - and their lives are being thrown away so cheaply in battle. 

 

He packs up his few belongings and leaves his temporary shelter - he’s been hiding in the branches of particularly high and sturdy trees that are everywhere at the foot of the mountain. It helps his fear of the sky greatly, he’d found, to burrow into the deepest, oldest tree-branches he can find. Then it feels like he’s not outside at all. 

 

As interesting as they are, he can’t abandon his home just yet. His clearing was safe, last time he checked, but he misses Mother and Father with a fierce ache. Not to mention he is still far from recovered from his near-starvation. A month at least, back at the clearing. The Builders are keeping the monsters busy enough, so they shouldn’t have the time to bother Itachi too much. 

 

 

***

 

He’s in a much better state when he pokes his substantially less gaunt face out of the Mountain. He’s been sneaking peeks of the settlement here and there, but mostly he tried to keep away, keep the surprise. And it was worth it, absolutely. Roads are all built, wells are dug, several beautiful stone barracks erected for the army, not to mention entire districts dedicated to smiths, healers, weavers and so forth. There is no marketplace, but there are multiple communal food-storages, mess halls, even what he’s pretty certain is a school - or at least a day-care. It’s incredible. 

 

Since they build everything with great care, the roofs are as sturdy as he’s come to expect. Which makes roof-jumping his preferred way of travel. The Builders look up a fair bit more than the monsters do, but still less so than the average Konohan civilian. 

 

***

 

It doesn’t take long for a curious Uchiha to comb through the village and catalogue every single new addition to the settlement. He counts the new families, admires the ridiculously unnecessary decorations on the wells and coos over the baby-Builders which are growing in number. His two weeks of blissful exploring bring him here, though, and he’s grateful that he’d had the care-free period to cushion him against the chaos this new development will bring. 

 

There is, in fact, a small, innocuous camp on the very outskirts of the settlement, guarded by a pack of grim-faced warriors with more than simple professional duty. Their Chakra bristles with honest, personal dislike, just shy of crossing over into hatred. Which - fine, it wouldn’t be any rust on Itachi’s kunai, if the closely guarded semi-prisoner wasn’t, in fact, Hatake

 

It takes Itachi about two days of intense emoting using the ever-popular medium of slaughtering monsters, to get over himself enough to think in any depth about thins newest fucking complication. Izanami fucking wept, is it too much to ask that he can save one? All evidence points to ‘yes’, because Hatake managed to get himself - what? Captured? 

 

It doesn’t seem like he’s a captive, and thank fuck for that. First off, his guards seem to be perfectly happy to stay as far away from him as they can manage without leaving their post. Secondly, Hatake is as cool as a cucumber, both inwardly and outwardly. His Chakra conveys at most exasperation and annoyance, but not a shred of animosity. Which is sharply contrasted by the Builders who are practically choking on their animosity towards the silver-haired Spirit. It’s not hatred - yet, but it’s pretty fucking close. 

There is history there, and it looks to be the thorny kind. Whatever it is, Hatake is in good health, guards or no guards, and his camp is ridiculously lavish. He has a writing desk, for heaven’s sake, and countless stacks of books and crates. The horse standing near the tent - by all accounts Hatake’s horse - is frankly, impractically beautiful, and just as impractically large. Then again, it’s the first horse Itachi has seen so far in this new world, so what does he know, anyway. Maybe all horses here are beautiful showy things, about two and a half meters high at the withers. 

 

Shut up, he barks at his spiralling brain. I don’t care about the fucking horse, I care about Hatake. How the fuck did he end up here, and what happened to the rest of them?

 

Does it matter? 

 

No. It doesn’t. However the mad bastard came to be here, where to go from here is crystal fucking clear. Builders or no Builders, Hatake was his responsibility first, so he has prior claim. If he’s not a prisoner here - which everything points to being the case - he must need something, otherwise he’d have left. It’s not hard to reason out things from there. Hatake needs his help, and the quickest way to get him away from here - away from the war and the monsters and Builders with hateful fucking Chakra - is to see what he needs. 

 

***

 

He sneaks in a few hours later, with not insignificant difficulty. The Builders’ night-vision is impeccable, and their discipline is without reproach. They switch shifts every three hours and guard Hatake’s camp like they expected an ambush at every moment. 

 

Thank fuck but the camp is conveniently situated underneath the canopy of several trees with wonderfully thick branches he could squirrel over. It takes some doing, but with the right timing, he manages to drop down at the entrance-flap and squiggle inside without alerting the guards. 

 

Hatake is sitting down at his fancy fucking desk, writing something or other, and doesn’t so much as twitch when he spots Itachi’s unannounced entry. He finishes his line calmly, setting the writing instrument (a feather which, just - what?) and smiles a small, polite smile at him. His play at nonchalance is all well and good, but Itachi can feel his Chakra, and he’s not fooled at all. The spirit is all but drowning in happiness and worry in equal measure. Which is - good? 

 

The following few moments Itachi spends in a bit of a daze, acclimatizing himself to the intensity of emotion once again, and when he snaps into awareness, he finds himself sitting in a pile of cushions, with a cotton coverlet around his shoulders and a bowl of soup in his hands. 

 

Its decidedly awkward, especially since Yukata definitely weren’t made for lounging like this without it being both uncomfortably exposing and just plain ridiculous. The sheet helps some, in that regard, but it’s still alien. The soup, though, the soup is a delicious thing from heaven. Several biscuit type things are set in a plate next to him, and boy oh boy, they’re fucking wild. It’s unmistakably a Chakra-pill but in biscuit form. Except it’s absolutely not anything at all like a Chakra-pill, which are stimulants, and this emphatically is not. It’s an energy bar, perhaps? 

 

It’s magic, is what it is, and nobody will convince him otherwise. 

 

He was enthusiastic about the soup, sure, but the biscuits are a whole new fucking world, and he wolfs down four before he has any intention of slowing down. 

 

Satisfyingly full to the point of grossness, he turns his flagging attention to Hatake. His charge looks - approving, slightly amused, and very pleasantly surprised. Which, sure, the fact that Itachi is outside, and significantly less crazy-looking are all good things. Add to that that he for sure looks young and all kinds of vulnerable, covered by a fluffy blanket and eating soup and biscuits and yeah, he can see how it’s all-around a very encouraging improvement. 

 

It’s not like Itachi’s got any dignity left to lose, not when Hatake’s seen him though weeks of mental breakdowns and panic attacks. Even if that wasn’t the case, whatever dubious dignity he might have had is easily set aside when food comes into play, especially food that makes his Chakra bubble and sing and gurgle in happiness. 

 

He will learn how to make these fucking biscuits, and he will make them every day. 

 

But, onto the point. Hatake. 

 

For all that he missed the man, he certainly didn’t miss the miming. Thankfully, Hatake knows him well enough by now that he can easily respond to his facial cues, and Itachi, of course, can read his Chakra like a scroll. They strike a jerky conversation of gesticulations and short aborted sentences, but piece by piece the picture gets clearer. 

 

The fucking imbecile came back for him. Came back to help him, because he heard that the Builders are starting a war. Then he promptly delivered himself to the Builders’ Kage, knowing it would get him close to Itachi. The Kage, Itachi speculates, saw the value in the intel Hatake holds in his pretty silver head and promptly locked him up. 

 

Alright. Okay. Sure. 

 

No, really, it’s fine

 

It’s not fine. The selfish, lonely half of him sings and crows and dances with joy, and the other half, the rational side, wails in despair. Even if Itachi was good at convincing people, even if he knew exactly what to say, judging by the steely silver eyes, and the patient, implacable stillness of Hatake’s Chakra, he won’t have much luck with convincing him to leave this place. When it comes down to it, Itachi has never successfully convinced anyone of anything. 

 

His - what is Hatake to him, now? He’s certainly not his charge, a helper is demeaning, and friend is unthinkably presumptuous. Benefactor? Companion. Let’s go with that. 

 

His companion is unmoved by Itachi’s unenthused expression. With a sharp, no-nonsense attitude, he starts going over what he intends to accomplish, what he came to do, and how they will proceed. Which more or less boils down to teaching him the language, providing him with some necessary equipment he’s been missing in the mountain, and getting him away from the mountain, although the last one was more subtextual. 

 

How in Father’s name is he supposed to learn an entirely unfamiliar language, if he cannot speak, and doesn’t have any frame of reference is beyond him? But. Hatake is determined to try, and Itachi can’t say he’s not tempted by being forever free of charades. 

 

And, honestly, what cinches it, in the end, is pathetically simple: He missed Hatake, and this is a nice, convenient excuse to spend time with the man without feeling too intrusively pathetic. 

 

Which births the deal that Itachi will try and meet him every night, if possible, for lessons, and then spend the night there. There is no earthly reason to refuse, especially since Hatake can quite easily cut a hole in the roof of his tent, and Itachi can drop down straight from the tree. Also - magical biscuits. 

 

He makes a note to investigate the Builders’ animosity towards his companion. Respect or not, if they harm a single silvery strand of hair, there will be blood spilt. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

***

 

If he ends up living long enough to do so, looking back to this period will probably tell a tale of a rush of growth and learning.

 

Metaphors aside, his world has grown by leaps and bounds since he woke up in this world decades ago - a cave, a lake, a forest and now - the world, everything. Time, honest affection and a mesmerizing lack of trauma have done their part in whittling down his fear of the outside down to a perfectly manageable quirk. Sleeping without a roof over his head is - difficult - still, but his mind is perfectly willing to be tricked on that account. Even just being in an especially dense canopy is quite enough for his fears to quiet and the ants under his skin to disappear.

 

On a more - theoretical - level, there is something enchantingly sane in how he spends most of his days. It’s not unlike going to a civilian school, perhaps, but also similar to what he imagines living with an older sibling might have been. His evenings - and some afternoons - are spent with Hatake as a rule, learning and resting and existing in the same space with a trusted companion.

 

It’s all very grown-up, so much so that it makes him feel like a fraud. This is not his life. His life is missions and blood and guilt and shame. He doesn’t get friends and peaceful summer nights and wondrous biscuits. For all that it seems that his quiet days in the mountain are over, inevitable chains of duty reeling him in steadily - it does not seem such a cruel fate anymore. Not with the patient attention of Hatake, not with the endless rush of knowledge, not with the Builders being grateful for his aid, what little he can provide.

 

The delight of the Builders concerning his presence is another cornerstone of his newfound happiness. Well - not delight, perhaps, but the glaring absence of entitlement. The Builders - with the exception of their Kage - don’t consider him to be theirs, and they’re simply grateful that he chooses to aid them when he can. It makes him want to do more.

 

It’s peculiar that Itachi is as busy as he is, even after having abandoned almost all of his self-appointed tasks. Hatake, though, is an unexpectedly harsh taskmaster, in that he is determined beyond anything to fulfil his goal come hell or high water. The goal being, in this case, to see Itachi fluent in the most widely used language - Westeron, or Common - by the end of Winter. Half a year, from start to finish.

 

Itachi has many doubts. Hatake is a terrific instructor, patient and unforgivingly ambitious all at once, but the handicaps they face are - significant.

 

There is the matter of Itachi’s inability to vocalize so much as a syllable. He tries, day in and day out, but his throat closes around the word and irrational panic freezes him in place. It’s the last of the major neuroses his decades of isolation have wrought, but it’s a stubborn one. Time, Itachi suspects, is the only cure for this particular wound, even though it’s supremely inconvenient to be without a concrete way of communication, after being placed in an entirely different world.

 

The second difficulty lies in the completely alien fucking nature of the language. It’s completely reasonable, what with Itachi being from a different world entirely, but it doesn’t make it any easier to grasp. Try as he might, he can find no foothold in it, no point of similarity that he can build on. From the internal logic of it to the writing system - even the direction of writing is different. This Westeron is perhaps the first definite aspect of his new life he finds inferior to the previous one. Chikyūgo (A/n from the word Chikyū which means Earth, the language everyone spoke in the Elemental Nations) is, in his own mind, a vastly superior model, both in the sound and the feel of it. The words in Westeron are too - direct, too one-dimensional. There are shades to them, flavours and degrees of course, but nothing in compared to the poetry of Kanji, the symbolism and complexity of the terms and the elegant subtleties of Chikyūgo.

 

The Sharingan helps, but not as much as he’d hoped it would. Learning a language is, after all, a great deal more complex than simply memorizing information. The connections between sound and meaning have to be made and assimilated, understood and comprehended. Trying to speed through it only results in a spectacular headache and near-shut-down - he doesn’t pass out completely, but it’s a near thing. So he limits himself to short bursts of enhanced memorization and then an hour’s worth of meditation to let the information sink in and sort itself properly.

 

It works, is the thing. Slow and frustrating and utterly fascinating, he begins to understand some weeks later. As soon as they establish a base minimum of a lexicon, Hatake starts a slow and steady trickle of information about the new world.

 

Hatake’s name is the first new thing he’d learned. Silevon - a ridiculously difficult name to pronounce - doesn’t ask for his name yet, partly, Itachi suspects, because he believes Itachi doesn’t actually have one.

 

After that, the bare-bones of his new world - Arda - start becoming clearer. Some of it is similar to the Elemental Nations, the geography, the weather, time-keeping and so on. Most of it though is bananas.

 

The main points of difference are the three sentient species that populate the world. Utterly separate, evolutionary completely independent of each other, sentient species. Each one created by a different God, just to make it even more complicated. There are the Elves, or the Eldar, the Dwarves, or the Khazad, and Humans. Each speaks a different language, of course, and inhabit different kingdoms, which are something like countries but also not at all. Elves are the most supernaturally-inclined of the three, and from his observation and Silevon’s vague explanations, they straddle the line between this and the spirit world neatly, what with being legitimately immortal. The concept of immortality is comparatively easy to think around because the Spirit-people - Elves - are so otherworldly either way.

 

The Khazad, though, or Dwarves in the ‘Westeron’, they are the Builders and they are quite supernatural in their own way. Created by a different God than the Elves, this God - Valar, if he is to be precise - values Craft and Art and the working of things. The Dwarves are his children and are a mountain-dwelling species that live hundreds and hundreds of years, and if he understood it

 

In-between the learning, he gets to know his friend better and learns that his moniker was perhaps not so aptly given. Hatake he had called him because he is kind and loyal and calm in temperament. And yet, Silevon is vastly more complicated - as is appropriate - and he mirrors perhaps more the son than the father if he is to remain within the Hatake Clan. That, in the end, is what makes the switch from Hatake to Silevon easy in his mind. Hatake is his approximation of the kind and loyal and grieving Elf he met in the Mines. Silevon is the knowledgable, opinionated teacher, a historian who has lived through a lot of the history he studies.

 

There is a deep vein of cynicism in the immortal Elf, hidden cleverly behind polite words and an enigmatic smile. For a Chakra sensor though, it's obvious. Even aside from that, Silevon isn't too guarded with Itachi and doesn't try to hide his bitterness too much. It shows in the way he refuses to teach him the histories in any meaningful way, especially that of the Human race. The furthest he will come to expressing an opinion is to add yet another title to his ever-growing list of books he should read, once his language skills are up to par. He only glosses over the War with the Enemy in the broadest strokes and informs him even less about the Dwarven history.

 

It’s telling that a historian doesn't want to teach history. He's doing everything he can to not influence Itachi in any way, and it’s something he can respect. Oh, it’s frustrating, terribly so, but he trusts Silevon, trusts that there is a reason for this. The War as he understands has lasted for just under five thousand years - and he suspects Silevon has lived through a lot of them. Elves are immortal, but there is no polite way to ask.

 

What is important though, what Silevon does talk about, is Itachi’s heritage. The Elf thinks Itachi is a mix of Elf and Dwarf, two species that shouldn’t be able to reproduce if Itachi read between the lines correctly. Which is - almost certainly untrue. If anything, Itachi is a mix of Shinobi and Dwarf. He was, after all, created by Father - Aulë - and that’s pretty much the definition of a Dwarf.

 

Silevon doesn’t pry, and Itachi doesn’t volunteer any information. It remains an unspoken truce - Itachi doesn’t pry into Silevon’s life, and he does the same. Word by slow word, he learns the language, content to learn trivia instead of any information of substance.

 

 

***

 

Late Autumn comes and Itachi can't afford to spend most of his days quietly learning. Winter is around the corner, and the Dwarves fall into a frenzy of activity. Their attacks on the mountain halt and they focus everything they have on getting ready for the incoming snow.

 

The settlement is at most half-finished, and every civilian they have works tirelessly to finish what they can and gather what supplies they can. Which is very much an area Itachi can help.

 

The threat of the Kage - King, apparently - is still high enough that he doesn’t want to openly walk in the settlement - doesn’t think he’s welcome, come to it. His presence is still felt. The warriors are outfitted well, but the civilians are not. The forest around the mountain is overflowing with game - much more so than the forests in Konoha were. Wolves, bears, wild boars, and a slew of different tiger-sized cats roam the forest, and while boars and bears don’t pose much of a threat, the silver-haired cats about the size of a large tiger and twice as cunning - they are dangerous. In the weeks he spent stalking biggest pray he can find, he only managed to bring down three of them.

 

Silevon doesn’t need the furs - nor would it be wise to put any attention to their connection - and the fur of the animal is so rich and warm that it wouldn’t be out of place on a Daimyo - or a King for that matter.

 

The King can go fuck himself. Most of the animal skins he leaves at the biggest square of the settlement, content to let the Dwarves divide them as necessary. The white-silver tiger furs that match the silvery metal the Dwarves used for rune-work - those he gifts himself. He deposits the most beautiful of the three to a giant family of seven, six children and a civillian father, and the other two to the second and third largest families he can find. He doesn’t stay to see the reaction, but it’s as much a test as it is his wish to see a tiny Dwarf child bundled up in thick silver fur, playing in the snow. If the Kage takes it for himself, well. He won’t do anything overt about it probably, but it will be something to keep in mind for future reference.

 

***

 

His gifts and the more in-depth study of the Dwarven families lead him to consider the Kage’s - the King’s - family. Which is - interesting.

 

He doesn’t have much time to investigate - stalk them creepily - but between him and what little information Silevon has, he has a rudimentary picture.

 

King Thráin - a welcome relief pronouncing after all the Elven lilting nonsense - has three children, all of them present, all definitely under-age. The two warriors he’d seen when he first met the Kage are his sons, Prince Thorin and Prince Frerin. Princess Dis is the youngest, barely out of early childhood, all the more fierce for it. If there is a wife and mother, she’s certainly not in evidence - and he half-hopes she’s dead because she really should be here otherwise.

 

The royal children aren’t treated well. Or, rather, the royal children aren’t treated as all other young ones in the settlement are. They aren’t strictly speaking abused - not more than Itachi had been when he was young, but each of them is being mistreated in different, debilitating ways which won’t result in healthy adults.

 

Prince Thorin, the eldest, is almost fanatically hard-working, but the workload is physically impossible to complete. Prince Frerin is being derided for his lacking skill in weaponry and is dangerously depressed, and princess Dis is being ignored by pretty much everyone around her, excluding her brothers and cousins, who are too busy to have any time for her.

 

If Itachi wasn’t so busy hunting every large animal he can, he’d do something about it. Unfortunately, their mental health was less important than them living through the winter. He will revisit their situation once Spring arrives, and he sees if kidnapping three yung’uns will be necessary in the end.

 

***

 

Preparing for the winter would be much simpler if not for the wolves.

 

Well, and the Orcs, but it’s a bit unfair to fault them for attacking, what with being besieged.

 

As soon as the Dwarves halt their attacks, the Orcs gleefully start harrying them right back, with great vim and vigour. The shortened days work in their favour as well, since they only have a few hours of direct sunlight to avoid. The attacks are practically constant, sometimes several skirmishes blending into one another to create a horrific hours-long battle.

 

The Settlement is far from fortified yet - it’s far from finished yet - which leaves them vulnerable. The army is their only line of defence, so they are constantly on duty, keeping a well-armed line between the civilians and the monsters. The monsters - Orcs - sent out of the mountain are obviously cannon fodder, the kind the other Orcs would’ve killed themselves eagerly. Their numbers are formidable, nonetheless, and the Builders - Dwarves, c’mon, you know this - can’t afford to lose any warriors so early in the game. The tactical advantage is for once, in their favour, and they can't afford to not take advantage of it. They remain behind hastily thrown together palisades, and deal with the bands of Orcs as best they can.

 

With the army being completely busy, the civilians are left to defend themselves from the massive packs of wolves and various other animals attacking from the forest. Between attacks, the upcoming struggle and the civilians that keep fucking arriving, Itachi halts his studies, dons his armour and gets to work properly.

 

The wolf packs are smart, smarter than the Orcs by far, and guarding against them is a struggle. They’re fast, their Chakra is natural and no larger than an average animal’s, which makes it impossible to sense or track by, and they are - in keeping with the trend - fucking massive. Not ‘just-because-Itachi-is-tiny’ massive but ‘not-that-much-smaller-than-a-horse’ massive.

 

Unfortunately for them, smart or not, big or not, forests are where Itachi is at his strongest. He adapted to underground combat and had done so without protest, but Forests are his in a way not many things are.

 

It’s a dreary way to spend a couple of weeks. The nights are for patrols, and days are for sleeping - usually burrowing in Silevon’s still-warm blankets and furs. Not being a fool, he plans for the inevitable, and fashions several nests as high up as he can possibly get them - high enough that no industrious cat can get in. He can’t lug up much, not with how precarious the things are already, but bandages, weapons, spare clothes and emergency strips of dried meat are entirely doable. The wolves might not be a danger to him, nor the big cats, but something will be at some point. If he learned anything in the Mines, it’s that a good bolt-hole is a must-have in this wacky, wacky world.

 

The Dwarves have stopped guarding Silevon’s camp about three weeks into the winter when it became clear they have much bigger worries than a soft-spoken gentle-Elf who never even looked at them crossly. Since the Elf is on the very edge of the settlement, nobody pays any attention to the comings and goings anymore. Which is another thing that will doubtlessly come in handy, one of these days.

 

***

 

The last two months of the winter are - difficult. Food stores run low, warriors go hungry, sleep is hard to come by. Mistakes are made.

 

It’s not an exaggeration to say the Dwarves can’t afford losses. They are long-lived and take decades upon decades to grow to a fighting age, and then even more to get trained up to where they need to be. The Elemental Nations could whip up a platoon of Genin in ten years from birth to battlefield- eight if they’re feeling particularly blood-thirsty. The Dwarves could do so in about a hundred. The army they have now is about the only one they will get - there will be no warriors emerging from the civilian Settlement. Which nixes yet another possible use for the Settlement being facing there.

 

With the Dwarves dying left and right, mostly in a variation of death-by-perfectly-avoidable-misstep, Itachi can’t afford to stay on patrol-duty anymore. The wolves have more or less learned where Itachi has marked his territory, and have moved on to greener pastures, so he’s probably good to go to combat. The Dwarves are struggling, and Itachi is conveniently well-trained in fighting multiple opponents.

 

Hatake is wroth with the plan but doesn’t try to dissuade him. He plies him with magical biscuits, forces him to take some - and badgers him until he promises to rest as much as he can

 

One short stop to the mountain to get some orc-worthy armour, and one excruciatingly embarrassing picture-letter to the civilians in the settlement explaining that the wolves are gone for now, but they should keep an eye out for their Dwarflings just in case, and he’s good to go.

 

 

***

 

His armour, he admits, no matter how well-suited for shadow-assassinations, is not at all practical for open battle on the snow. It’s not something he can help, and the Orcs and the Dwarves certainly don’t bother, but it’s galling, to be decked out in blacks and reds and browns, standing in a field of white.

 

Well. White stained liberally with black and red, and Sage, those poor, ruined fields will take decades to recover from this. Fuck only knows what all the black blood seeping through the snow is doing to the soil. Then again, what does he know, anyway? Maybe orc-blood is especially nutritious for vegetation. He doubts it, but who knows, nothing is strange when compared to immortal beings who are more spirit than flesh.

 

***

 

The first week on the battlefield goes fairly well. He keeps the fighting dirty, tearing through the battlefield as fast as he can, killing as many as possible before retreating. At first, he thought to only injure them, since he could cover more ground that way, but the beasts are too good at shrugging off all injuries short of death.

 

His reception, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. The older, veteran fighters keep their cool, not paying him much mind, which is exactly as it should be. The younger, less trained soldiers, however, tend to be distracted by his small form flitting to and fro, and some even take offence at his dishonourable style of combat. The latter ones get taken to task pretty quickly, but the distraction can and would have been fatal - on more than one occasion Itachi had to pull gaping dwarves out of a path of a blade.

 

They can’t afford to make him leave, even if they wanted to, so they don’t even try. Instead, the more practical, experienced captain start waving him over when he joins the battle, and he tries not to stray too far from them. Since the regiments fight in shifts, he gets to know the captains pretty well after a couple of weeks, and they, him. Pretty soon, the more forward-thinking captains start devising strategies to count for Itachi’s presence. As quirky as Itachi is, there are all sorts in the army, and his idiosyncratic moments could be worked around.

 

The only times when Itachi abandons this strategy is when the King is on the battlefield - which, to his credit, is just as often as every other soldier. Less to his credit is the fact that both his sons are present at least twice as much - the two Princes fight at least one shift at the battlefield, followed by one shift with the hunters. In any case, when the King fights, so do his sons, and so does the King's right-hand dwarf, Fundin, and his two sons, Balin and Dwalin.

 

Honestly, as much as he likes Fundin’s stalwart Chakra and no-nonsense approach to life or battle, he hates being on the same battlefield with him. It’s not the Dwarf’s fault, far from it. It’s those goddamn kids.

 

He hate-hate-hates having the two adolescent Princes on the battlefield. They’re good Dwarves, bold and fearless, but also very inexperienced and criminally overworked. There’s mountains of talent there, and determination and focus to succeed, but their age guarantees that they are both smaller and weaker, and that they are prone to incredibly rash decisions and ill-thought-out plans. They don’t blindly rush in without a plan, but sometimes their plans are so bone-deep crazy that it doesn’t really matter. Which, sure, some warriors are skilled enough and old enough to be able to get away with a lot. These boys are not.

 

He tries shadowing them from afar, which loses him some years of life due to stress. Closer and closer he comes until he’s within jumping distance from the two maniacs, and even then he can barely keep up with their antics. Fundin, bless him, looks fit to cry from relief when Itachi gives up all notions of secrecy and openly starts guarding the two, and why wouldn’t he? Itachi doubts that the Princes were any less mad before Itachi came around when keeping them alive was up to Fundin. The two menaces are always in the thick of it, always right where the fighting is meanest, Prince Thorin charging in fearlessly and Prince Frerin following his lead. Fundin’s sons follow them and help where they can, but more than once Itachi had to pull an especially crazy manoeuvre to get the black- or blonde-haired maniac away from certain death. In a way, it’s not unlike a body-guarding mission, if one’s client had a death wish and a penchant for running towards death’s embrace with everything he has.

 

The King, curse him, loves this new development. It’s not like Itachi’s fondness for children and youths was subtle - he’s been throwing everything he can find at the Dwarflings in the Settlement from food to leather to furs. But his obvious guarding of the Princes gives him some sway over Itachi - and they’re both perfectly aware of it. It’s only a week of fighting, and already Itachi’s movements are predictable to some extent - if the Princes are fighting, their Shadow is not far behind.

 

Silevon finds the whole thing hilarious. Itachi still sleeps in his tent, when he does get to sleep, and it was perhaps stupid to inform him of the two maniacs, but he did, and the Elf hadn’t stopped dripping schadenfreude since. Itachi gets that it’s ironic for him to complain about a warrior’s age or lack of self-worth, he absolutely gets it. That doesn’t mean the two Princes aren’t idiots. Itachi has been born to fight - it was literally bred into him over generations. He knows his way around the battlefield and knows which risks he is about to take. The Princes, Father love them, have obviously never been in a battle before - and they shouldn’t be in one now. They’re both well-trained but have all the arrogance and sense of invincibility of youth, and it will only get better once one of them gets seriously injured or worse. And that’s a price that Itachi is simply not willing to pay.

 

***

 

The big question here, Itachi thinks, far from the first time in the past weeks, why are they stalling?

 

The Builders, sure, it’s obvious they’re in it for the long haul. But what are the Orcs waiting for? Winter is absolutely the perfect time for them to attack - they have the numbers, the Dwarves are exhausted and poorly supplied - why aren’t they attacking en masse? It would take some doing, but the Orcs have a fair shot at defeating them. What are they waiting for?

 

Itachi’s nerves are shot to hell. Keeping the Princes alive is an uphill battle, pun very much intended, and their decision-making abilities grow progressively worse, the more exhausted they grow. Keeping them both from death or injury takes every scrap of attention Itachi has, and other Dwarves suffer for it. The hierarchy is rigid enough that nobody but the King can take them to task about it, and the King is apparently a bloodthirsty maniac who encourages their madness. Whether he’s counting on Itachi or simply doesn’t care, or is just invested in fostering the Princes’ growing reputation of bravery and fearlessness, he doesn’t know - and he doesn’t much care. Whatever it is, nothing is being done.

 

The blonde Prince is at least aware of just how bone-headed they’re acting. The fact that he’s fine with it shows either a fanatical kind of loyalty towards his brother or a sincere death-wish. Itachi hopes it’s the former, even as he knows it’s likely a combination of the two. Prince Thorin is just plain half-mad, whether he was driven to it, or he was born that way. His overinflated sense of responsibility and the terminal lack of common-sense will see him dead one of these days, him or his brother.

 

Fundin tries his best, but he can only do so much. When the King is on the battlefield, and the Princes are under his direct purview, the old Dwarf is entirely powerless. Without Fundin there to keep an eye out and bark at them whenever they go too far, Itachi can't afford to stay more than two paces away from the pair, constantly watching for the next stupid stunt.

 

He gets no end of scrapes and bruises for his efforts, and at least Silevon isn’t laughing anymore. It’s been long enough that he’s as aware as Itachi is that one of them will die before long - and it very well might be Itachi.

 

***

 

Things come to a point, as these things do, a few days later. It’s an unremarkable skirmish, all told. Winter is crawling to a close, and the air is thick with maniacal anticipation. The warriors are beyond exhausted, the food-stores are all but depleted, but snow has stopped falling and there is hope in the horizon.

 

The Princes fight with their Kage today, and the two youths started their shift looking like they’re one swing away from passing out. Battle-light blazes from their dazed eyes, as if only mania and habit that keep them on their feet. Prince Thorin especially looks almost intoxicated, stumbling and lurching, moving erratically with unpredictable bursts of energy followed by lethargy. Prince Frerin isn’t as bad, definitely not as frenzied as his older brother, but nonetheless half-blind from exhaustion.

 

Itachi isn’t doing all that great either. If he’s awake, he’s fighting, and it’s been almost three months of this shit. His Chakra levels rarely have the time to replenish over the bare minimum in the few hours he has to sleep. It’s gotten bad enough he doesn’t dare keep his Sharingan on for more than a few seconds here and there. His armour is about as battered as he is, and there is simply no time to repair it properly. If it wasn’t for Silevon and his magical Chakra-replenishing biscuits, he would have had to call it quits long before.

 

- duck - grab - slide -roll - jump - throw -

 

He loses himself in the feel of battle, keeping an eye out still, just in case -

 

- a shout - a scream - young voice, cracking in terror - shouting - panic -

 

Breathe. Flex your Chakra - Sharingan. Turn, jump, runrunrun -

 

Thorin on the ground - a hammer is going to crush his head - the Sharingan maps the path clearly, he can see the mirage of the grisly scene it will leave if it’s allowed to connect - there isn’t enough time - fuck, this will hurt -

 

CrackCrackCrackCrack.

 

Whoosh.

 

SnapSnapSnap.

 

Exhale. Keep your jaw loose, don’t scream. Inhale. Asses.

 

Prince - alive, trembling. His brother - alive, wounded.

 

Injuries. Ribs, cracked. Hips - barely functional. Blood pooling in your mouth. Inhale. Breathing hurts but he can’t feel any fluids rattling inside. Right arm dislocated. Fingers - unresponsive. Exhale.

 

Hammer-wielding Orc is advancing back on the Prince that lays there like a log. Your fighting capability is - minimal.

 

Fuck this sword anyway.

 

Thwank

 

Shlick

 

Sword is lodged through the Orc's throat. Success.

 

Asses. Chakra - low. Pain - not paralyzing yet. Entire right side fucked to hell. Retreat.

 

And grab that fucking brat on the way.

 

His head is spinning, red spots make up over a half of his vision and his front grows warm from his own fucking blood. The circulating Chakra keeps him going, and keeps the pain away, which is everything. The Dwarves have formed a rough circle around their prone Prince, but that’s just not fucking enough. The little monster has been itching for a sword in his intestines for weeks now, who knows what the fuck he will do next. And Itachi didn’t just take a hammer to the ribs for the brat to just turn around and stick himself onto the nearest blade as soon as Itachi is out of sight.

 

He has Chakra enough to steady his good hand and yank the bratling to his feet and drag him back and away from the battlefield. Thank fuck the Dwarf doesn’t complain, stumbling behind without a word, not looking all that lucid frankly. The blonde brat follows closely, and Itachi is given a wide enough birth to know the Kage must have okayed it. Fuck him too, he’s all but signed away his son’s lives for whatever mercurial reasons royalty have for any of their bullshit.

 

Never mind all that. Keep calm, don’t swallow any blood, keep your Chakra nice and steady and controlled because you don’t have any to spare. Find a responsible fucking person - there. Fucking perfect. Fundin and his two sons sit next to a camp-fire, one of them has a splinted leg - fucking of course, that’s why they weren’t there to keep the brats alive.

 

He doesn’t say a word, but he doesn’t have to. A hush follows him, and he’s got the attention of every Dwarf present, Fundin very much included. He must make for quite a sight, limping and bloodied and obviously busted to hell and back. His helmet is lost too somewhere, hair somewhat in place, although a significant chunk has been torn, and that on top of everything bleeds like a motherfucker.

 

When he’s within a few paces he throws the princeling to Fundin who has stood up and is observing him warily. The blonde follows, not saying a word, and Itachi doesn’t spit the blood in his mouth at Fundin’s feet like he wants to do because he’s got class. He doesn’t stop the sneer from twisting his lips and the disgusted glance at the traumatized children shaking in Fundin’s arms. Fuck all this. These children deserve better. Itachi deserves better. There is an Elf nearby that can be counted upon to have a tunic and some bandages to spare, and a meeting with a nearby river to wash off the filth and the grime and see which fucking bones he needs to set.

 

Sage fucking wept.

 

 

Chapter Text

Silevon’s camp is agonizingly far, and the fact that half of Itachi’s body is shattered is fast making itself known. He is likely in shock since pain is at most a distant, foggy thing, and his thoughts taste woolly. Which is a worrying thing to feel of oneself. The anger, though, the anger is real and doesn’t look to be going anywhere. God fucking damn it, where do they even go from here?

The path he takes cuts away from the battlefield and straight into the forest, instead of the quicker way via the settlement. He has about ten minutes of movement left in him and this is the most he can do to confuse the trail somewhat. What trackers the dwarves have are not up to any level of skill, coupled with a lack of tracking-animals means that he’s not concerned they will track him by scent. Still, once he stops, he likely won’t be able to move for a week or nine, so it’s best to be as thorough as possible. 

 

Silevon is going to lose his shit. By some miracle, he had managed to not hold any grudges towards the Dwarves, for how they’ve been treating him. That said, the Elf doesn’t suffer fools well, if at all. He’s been all but begging Itachi to slow down, to let the Dwarves learn their lessons fairly. He was right. Itachi knew it then as he knows it now - the proof is somewhat unmistakable.

 

They can’t stay here. They really can't stay here. As soon as it’s physically possible - even probable - they’re going to Itachi’s forest Clearing, and the Dwarves can fucking deal. 

 

He can’t abandon them completely, as angry as he is right now. The civilians aren’t at fault that their Kage is a child-endangering maniac, and there are families living here, children and infants, and he doesn’t trust Thrain, Dwarf King to keep them safe and fed. Not anymore. 

 

The winter is ending, they will have an easier time of it. Itachi will certainly have an easier time of it. How long it will take to get his bones where they should be - and with what knowledge and resources he will do so - he doesn’t know. At least it will be warm soon. 

 

Silevon POV

 

It’s a pleasant winter day, as these things come. The wind carries the racket of battle away from his tent for once, it’s not snowing incessantly, and his work is going well. If they continue like this, he can go back to Lothlorien to report to his Lady, and even perhaps wheedle some more Lembas for Felador. 

 

He doesn’t want to leave his friend here - it could be considered immoral to do so, considering how severely under-age the child was. His mixed ancestry made it difficult to judge with any certainty, and Felador certainly didn’t weigh in on the issue one way or the other, but if he’s a day over a hundred, Silevon is going to eat his books. 

Not that it matters, in the end. Lady Galadriel herself couldn’t claw that child out of the Mountain if he didn’t want to leave - this he knows very well. He’s spent months now with the boy and has gotten to know him pretty well, considering.

He is truly an exceptional one. Felador’s kindness was never in question, nor his selflessness, but his cleverness, and curiosity, and, well, hedonism - those were new discoveries. For such a fierce warrior and an eerily strong magic-wielder, the child likes his creature-comforts - and likes them very unselfconsciously. He never fails to burrow himself into the softest surface available, and eats everything he can get his paws on. His clothes - the clothes the child made himself, from plant to shirt - were of exceptional quality, the linen woven in complex, repeating patterns. 

 

In that, he can honestly say Felador truly shows his Dwarven heritage. Everything he has, he’s made himself and to an admirable level of quality. He’s no master, not yet, but since he’s entirely self-taught, the items are wonderfully exotic, made to no specification Silevon has seen, and he’s been around for long enough to see, well, most things. 

 

Living with the boy was a pleasure, pure and simple. No matter the tragedy that brought them together, and no matter the wounds Silevon’s soul still carries, meeting Felador has been an undeserved but appreciated blessing. He feels - young, again. Like he can do things other than linger in the world like a ghost until Sauron finally kills them all, or they abandon their world for good. It’s - he’s forgotten, what it’s like to be inspired constantly, to wake up with glee, looking forward to the coming day. 

 

He should’ve really adopted himself a magical elf-dwarf genius child, he’s obviously been overdue one all these years. His child is really - 

 

Maimed. His child is, in fact, limping in right this very moment, usually impeccable grace of movement replaced by lurching, twisted thing. Blood drips in steady rivulets down his nose and from corners of his mouth and every inch of moon-pale skin is smudged with it. His armour - beautiful, leather contraption Silevon has personally strapped him in a few short hours back - is ripped to pieces, helmet lost entirely, and while most of his hair is still protected by the wire cage, a lock or five had likely escaped at some point, and was then torn off, taking the skin with it. 

 

Silevon is speechless. What on earth - 

 

It doesn’t matter. Your child - your friend - is beaten half to death, and you will make sure he doesn’t go the extra step, won’t you?

 

If he dies, so do I’, echoes in his mind, and his soul - settles, peace overtaking his howling mind. 

 

***

Before he gathers his wits enough to help, the child has limped to the chair and is slumped there now, a hiss escaping the clenched jaw. 

 

Careful now. He can’t tell how lucid his friend is right now, and Felador can be dangerous when startled. In this case, he’s more a danger to himself than to Silevon, but that’s neither here nor there. 

“Felador. Can you hear me?” 

 

The pitch-black eyes squint at him, clouded but not completely without reason. His pupils are dilated, which could be a sign of a concussion? Then again, Felador can also turn his irises red and black, and make them spin, so who knows?

“I - May I help? You’re welcome to do it yourself, naturally, but your injuries look to be - severe. It would be best, perhaps, if I assisted you?” 

 

An honest to Eru smile twitches in the corner of the blood-smudged lips, and the boy nods, wincing slightly at the movement. 

“Alright. Thank you. Close your eyes, my friend, and focus on your breathing”, he says, calm as he can. “I will help you. Just remain calm, and if at all possible try not to move.” 

On second thought, maybe he hadn’t exactly thought this through. He wants to help, and he will, but just - how? 

 

First thing’s first, let’s deal with the armour. 

“The armour is beyond help, I’m afraid. It needs to go.” 

 

A barely-there nod, but a nod still. That’s more than good enough. 

 

Originally it was held together with dozens and dozens of buckles, clasps and laces. Some of them are intact still but most are dented beyond use, and either way, Felador shouldn’t be moving if possible. Cutting it is. 

The leather is too sturdy to cut with any tools he has on hand, but thankfully Felador has brought a rudimentary armour-repair kit a few weeks back once it became clear he will be fighting every minute he can. Among the various pliers and needles and Eru knows what, there is a pair of wire-cutters, which will do nicely to cut through the seams. 

He reaches toward his injured friend and freezes. “Ah, my friend, I will have to touch you, both now and later. Is that acceptable?” 

 

Felador doesn’t quite huff, but this time it’s a real smile, curve and all, that brightens his face even though the blood and grime and - the rest.  

“Wonderful. Thank you.” 

 

It’s frankly an absurdly long-lasting process, but the child is barely conscious and is of no help. The way his hand is carefully held close and the extreme difficulty in breathing doesn’t reassure him at all. 

 

Stitch by agonizing stitch, the tattered armour comes off, and before he’s even a fourth of the way done, he has to remind himself to breathe and remain calm. 

 

The damage is - intense. Why he’s not screaming in agony is beyond him - must be part of the tragic backstory, because stoic or not, he’s seen this child through hundreds of violent panic-attacks. He’s seen him cry and scream and display all signs of being in pain. Why he’s so blasé when his body is… the way it is, is - not important right now, actually. 

His entire side is crushed, more or less. Four broken ribs, two in at least two places, dislocated shoulder, dislocated elbow, cracked forearm, four broken fingers, dislocated thumb, and a fractured hip-bone just to make things even better. Bruises, everywhere, and more are on the way. 

If Felador was human, he’d die from this. Silevon is no healer - he’s picked up the basics over the millennia, but he doesn’t know what to do about such grievous injuries. He can only hope that his hunch was right. If his heritage proves true, if he has some Eldar blood, he could live through this. 

By now, the boy is shaking, eyes almost completely glazed over, and a fever Silevon really doesn’t like is setting in. 

 

Right. Rest after - what, bandaging four cracked ribs and setting every major joint in his right side? How is he going to do that? How do you even bandage a broken rib?

 

Infection. Infection first. He’s already exhausted, and while the bones will potentially-maybe-possibly heal correctly, they might not get a chance to if he dies of infection from orc-blood or whatever poisons the foul creatures used in battle. 

 

Thankfully, for this at least, he is prepared. The basic healing salve is taught to every Elf over the age of majority, and Silevon has been making it since the Second Age. After Felador decided to fight day in and day out, he’s been making the thing by bucketfuls. 

 

Clean the boy, then, wash his wounds, spread the salve over - every exposed inch of his skin probably - and then bind them as best as possible. 

 

***

 

Cleaning Felador, by now 95% unconscious, is neither quick nor easy. Getting sufficient water warmed and sterilized takes some creative thinking. Thankfully they have a tub Felador has dragged from somewhere, but getting water from the well, filling the damn thing and then heating it takes some doing. 

 

The tent is pleasantly balmy by the time the water’s done, and there’s enough steam in the air that he’s certain all the books left out will be ruined. He’s bandages aplenty, at least, so, armed with the softest towel he has, a tub full of warm water and several bars of soap, he gets to work. 

 

Thank Eru that the child is unconscious, because even though the boy is more comfortable with touch, he’s now stark naked and Silevon will have to wash every inch of him himself. Accustomed or not, he wouldn’t have had an easy time with it. The hair alone takes almost an hour to clean, matted through with sticky black blood that has coagulated by now into a disgusting glue. 

 

Inch by inch, cut by cut, he manages to clean the child, and take stock of what he’s working with. The cuts are trivial mostly, they will heal without any need for intervention. He slathers them with the balm just in case, and the bruises too for good measure. Honestly, the bruises are more worrying than the cuts, deep and so dark that they almost blend in with the Childs rune-marks. 

 

The bones, though, he really doesn’t know what to do about the bones. The dislocations, fine, he knows roughly what they’re about, and it’s best to do it now when the child could be spared at least the worst of the pain. The fingers are also easy to splint, as is the fore-arm, but the ribs worry him endlessly. 

 

He just doesn’t know enough about anatomy or healing to know what to worry about, what to expect. He knows the bones shouldn’t be moved when healing, but how is the child to breathe? The amount of cracks, too, is concerning. Two of the ribs are cracked in more than one place, but how many more is beyond him. Could the rib-cage collapse? Is that a thing that can happen? Could his lungs be pierced by the bone? Is there bleeding under the skin that he should address - and if so, how would he go about it? 

 

***

 

The child slips in an out of conciseness for days, and Silevon cant do much more to help except make sure he’s hydrated and well-fed.

 

If he could trust the Dwarves healers to have his interests in mind, he’d have gladly handed Felador over, no matter that they’d likely throw him in the closest approximation to a prison-cell they can make on short notice. It hadn’t escaped his notice that the King has a rather unhealthy fascination with Felador and that Felador’s obvious magic is the only thing stopping the King from attempting a capture. 

No, he can’t risk it. He could be delivering his friend to very dubious care, where they might heal him, but also might take advantage of his weakened state to capture him or Eru knows what else. If he appears to be dying, he will revisit the point. Otherwise, he stays. 

 

***

 

Itachi POV

 

Coming back to consciousness is - trying. The pain is cold and unforgiving, so much so that it’s simply a blessing to slip back into sleep when his body demands it. Which it does. Often. 

He has to admit, he’s outdone himself this time. The pain is blinding, breathing is a just a hairsbreadth from being prohibitively painful, and pretty much every joint and muscle group burns in protest. How on earth he moved from the battlefield is beyond him - adrenaline, perhaps? Chakra fuckery? Mother’s blessing? 

 

Whatever it was, he could use some of it now. 

 

Not that it matters much, all said. Silevon hates being here almost as much as Itachi does, but there is simply no way for them - for Itachi - to move yet. Even setting aside the fact that he has seven cracks over four ribs, and a slew of other injuries on top, the snow is simply too high for anyone to leave just yet. 

 

In a weird stroke of luck Itachi is definitely suspicious of, a mystery he has been on-and-off curious about is answered: How in Father’s name did Silevon travel here with all this luggage, anyway? The elaborate tent, the table and chair, chests full of books, silverware, writing utensils, more than ten sets of clothes - it couldn’t have possibly fit on a horse no matter how unnecessarily large the animal was. 

As it turns out, the crazy bastard rode in on a cart. 

No joke, a ridiculously fancy, two-wheeled cart, that is cleverly constructed so as to be collapsable, and parts of it re-used for furniture. Such as the table, chair and cot he has in his tent. 

Which, yeah, on one hand, its ridiculously showy, to have ridden in on a fucking cart to an army operation, in a flamboyant show of wealth especially when contrasted with a people who obviously struggle to keep all of their civilians fed and watered. On the other hand, it’s got style, which absolutely deserves all the respect. It's a ballsy move, and Itachi won’t begrudge opulence of a literary immortal supernatural Elf. Silevon had literally hundreds and hundreds of years to gather his wealth, it would be ridiculous if he wasn’t rich 

 

Not to mention, it’s very convenient. As soon as the snows melt, they can pack up the tent - well, Silevon can pack up the tent and Itachi can lie on the cot and continue doing his best not to die - hide Itachi under all the stuff and calmly ride out of here. If they take a long way round, they will reach the balcony in about a week. 

Silevon is not happy with the plan per se. Which, yeah, is not overly surprising, seeing as how he was captured and tortured there not a year ago, and two of his friends - one of them being a pseudo-nephew - were basically tortured to death. Not a full hour goes by without him trying to convince Itachi to come with him to Lorien, his home, where his Lady can heal him properly. 

 

It's almost sad how utterly not tempted Itachi is. Which is in part because he is exactly where he wants to be, irritating Kings aside, but also the niggling suspicion that just because he loves this particular Elf, doesn’t mean he will like the rest. 

 

It’s entirely subtextual, but from everything, Silevon has said so far, and more tellingly all the things he has carefully not said, the picture he had painted of the Elves is not - flattering. Noble, yes, dignified and ultimately well-meaning. But also arrogant, condescending and convinced they are not only arbiters of justice but also of morality. Silevon is, according to everything he’s read between the lines so far, an exception rather than the rules. Even if they were kind and open-minded and accepting, he doubts they will look fondly on a Shinobi made out from blood and spite and little else. 

 

No, he has no real wish to go to the Elven kingdoms, even if he wasn’t invested in keeping the Dwarves alive. A break, sure, that’s doable, even deserved, but he won’t abandon them here. Especially since, sooner or later, they will realize they have to abandon this war, and when that happens Itachi needs to be here to help them extract themselves from the massacre they will bring upon themselves. A non-Chakra sensor won’t notice the Demon until its close enough to sense them back. 

 

Itachi’s place is here for now. 

 

***

 

Less said about Silevon’s filthy mood when he realizes their food-stores are low enough he will have to go out hunting thereby leave Itachi alone, the better. 

 

***

 

A considerably pressing problem Itachi can’t really solve makes itself known. His Chakra can’t replenish properly, not when it’s being eaten up at a bigger rate than his tortured body can produce. He’d have been dead already were it not for the biscuits. Silevon practically crams them down his throat, the last batch he had left, and it turns out the paste is just as tasty. 

Food is energy - and he desperately needs energy - so he resigns himself to spending every waking moment eating. Broths, soups, biscuits, soft cuts of meat, everything and anything his poor mistreated stomach can digest. 

 

When he’s not eating he’s sleeping, and two weeks in, the worst has passed. His fever goes down finally, and his Chakra starts replenishing a bit quicker. 

 

Silevon, who has been building up the determination to bring him to the Dwarves, practically faints in relief. He’s still in risk, yes, but if he'd caught an infection or some horrible complications, he’d have seen the symptoms by now, surely. 

 

With a clear head, his days are much improved, in that he can think his way through a simple statement. Such as ‘We need to leave’. There’s a nice, simple sentence for him to think about. 

 

They really do, though. They shouldn’t have stayed as long as they did, even before the injury. With the amount of hostility towards Silevon, it’s a miracle the civilians haven’t started accusing him of cursing their cows and curdling their milk. He’s far from safe, here, and there was no reason for them to stay when it comes down to it. Itachi needed to learn, yes, and Hatake was and is adamant about teaching him, but that didn’t mean staying in a hostile army camp. Itachi should’ve brought the Elf into the Mountain long ago, or barring that, he could’ve made his camp absolutely anywhere in the forest. 

 

It’s all moot, though. With Itachi firmly incapacitated and the snow still being impassable, they can only hunker down and hope no Dwarven guards think to make a random checkup. 

Silevon agrees, up to a point. 

 

***

 

Two weeks later and it’s pleasantly balmy outside, and Silevon’s bags are packed, neatly, his horse is shedding his poofy winter coat, and the cart is mostly assembled. 

His tent will be last to go, after he’s packed up everything on the cart, and bundled up Itachi into all the blanket he has so he looks like luggage himself. Itachi is the soul of dignity. 

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Sharing his Clearing with another living, breathing person is - surreal. The wards accept him with a slight hitch, a suggestion that they would be much less friendly if Itachi wasn’t the one escorting the new-comer. It’s either the Wards, various runes Itachi has carved around the Clearing, or his runic-stones that lay in Mother's Shrine still - it’s hard to tell, as intermeshed as they’ve grown over the years.

 

Silevon adores the forest mindlessly. It wasn’t obvious, before, how miserable he was surrounded by hostility and violence. And, true, the greenhouse-forest isn’t what it was before the siege began. Orcs roam the corridors, not venturing into the forest yet, but their presence is very much felt. Having said that, between the runes, the Wards, and Mother’s shrine, there is a hush on the Clearing, that immediately soothes Itachi - and to a lesser extent Silevon too.

 

Itachi worried, slightly, that the enmity between Dwarves and Elves could mimic their Creator’s views, and that Silevon wasn’t welcome in the Dwarven fortress. Thankfully, that worry is completely unfounded. He feels Mother’s voice cooing at the Elf, and calms. Silevon is his friend, and he doesn’t know how he’d take it if he wasn’t welcome for some banal reason. He sends his love and gratitude to Mother and receives somewhat exasperated love back. As if Gods had time for such petty squabbles.

 

Recovery is much easier, here. There’s more space, for one, and no need for secrecy. Silevon can flit from plant to plant, exclaiming in wonder and jubilation at each new supernaturally-blessed fruit and flower. He explores - everything, from Itachi’s garden to his various crafts.

 

As for Itachi, as much as he’d like to show him around, take him to Mother’s Shrine - and Father’s for that matter - he’s still very much in dire need of rest and recovery. The food goes a long way in helping him regain some of the critical weight he’d lost, and the warmth and sun on his bones soothe aching muscles and make it impossible not to be relaxed and calm.

 

They continue Itachi’s lessons, of course. It’s clear they both dearly need a distraction from all the unpleasantness, and since Itachi is bed-ridden they might as well continue. With more space and access to more resources, Silevon cobbles together a much larger writing desk than the one he had before.

 

Itachi, just about being able to sit up slightly, is thrilled at least a part of this - no more fucking feathers. His brushes are here, and his inks, which are just plain better than Silevon’s, no matter how much the Elf scoffs at the very idea.

 

His right arm is still fucked to hell, but he’s been ambidextrous for long enough that that doesn't matter much. Silevon is curious as fuck at his choice of writing implement but he doesn't comment, shrugging it off easily as another one of Itachi’s quirks.

 

He doesn't at all shrug off the fact that Itachi, completely absentmindedly, one day mentions his name. They’ve been going over how the naming systems differ in races and the meanings of names. Silevon used his as an example - Shining White (silef) Male (on) - with a fair bit of exasperation at his parent’s unimaginative naming choices.

 

Fascinated as he always is when he gets to learn something about the Elven language, which is beautiful but bizarrely difficult to learn, he absentmindedly scoffs, and scribbles down to the effect ‘at least your parents didn’t name you Weasel’.

 

He realizes his mistake only when Silevon freezes, guilt and shock and shame spiking his Chakra strong enough to make Itachi wince. Alarmed, he scans his surroundings - is there an enemy - he hadn’t sensed anything but - what -

 

No, nope, no enemies, just Silevon staring at him blankly, still as stone.

 

He’s still long enough for Itachi to place a hand on his, worried. The elf snaps back, and guilt floods into his expression.

 

“I am so sorry, my friend - I didn’t even - I thought - I didn’t even ask -”

 

Puzzled, but calmer now that he knows it’s nothing too serious, he arches a brow. What on earth?

 

Ah, the name.

 

He tries smiling, although he’s still too confused for it to be properly reassuring. It doesn’t - matter? To Itachi? It’s not like he talks about his life, his past, anything. Silevon didn’t ask, true, but that was kind of - implied? They don’t talk about their lives, really. They’re friends, Itachi loves him and trusts him and would kill for him - die for him - but that doesn’t mean they’re not both of them insanely reserved people. Moreover, it’s not like Itachi particularly wants to talk about his life, even if he wanted to. It’s all in the past, and he’s been literally made anew here. It doesn't matter.

 

The Elf certainly doesn't think so. He’s, in fact, drowning in guilt, still. Which, okay, maybe is odd that he hadn’t thought to ask Itachi his name, but honestly, the Elf probably though he didn't have one. There are only so many conclusions he can come to, since he met a child alone in the mountain - a feral, half-insane child that didn't speak any language spoken in this world. He probably thought he was abandoned as a babe or that his parents died before he learned how to talk. Or something.

 

‘Yes, I have a name. In this alphabet, it would be written oddly, but I will transcribe the letters as they sound when spoken.’ He writes down, off-balance and slightly miffed at this unnecessary drama. He pushes the note towards the Elf and grabs another parchment.

 

He has to pause a bit, to think about how it would’ve been written down. With everything he remembered about the pronunciation of the strange letters, it still takes a couple of tries to come up with a version that makes sense. In the end, he has a couple of choices that should be pronounced more or less correctly. He studies them for a minute, before a sense of ‘fuck it’ washes through him, and he chooses the shortest one. I-T-A-C-H-I. Nice and compact, much better than his other attempts.

 

He circles that one, and pushes the paper towards the Elf, who has calmed down some, guilt being joined by a burning curiosity. Ah. He hadn’t taken this into account. There is no way Silevon won’t want to learn his language. The very thought of it makes his head throb. There is simply no way - zero chance - that he will spend the next however many years teaching a very, very useless language. Nope, he’s not sacrificing himself on the altar of scholarly curiosity. Chikyūgo was a beautiful language, but it will die with Itachi.

 

Thankfully, Silevon doesn’t ask, still guilty enough to curb his instincts, and settles for studying the paper avidly. Honestly, its nothing groundbreaking.

 

Itachi’s failed attempts at writing by sound actually help, because he mispronounces the name only twice, before pronouncing it perfectly.

 

“Itachi,” he says carefully, “I’m sorry I didn’t ask. Can you forgive me?”

 

Itachi rolls his eyes. Drama.

 

‘Honestly, it’s fine, I don't care at all. It’s not important. Felador is a nice enough name. Does it mean anything?’ He writes down quickly, hoping to distract him with a question.

 

Silevon winces. “Ah, yes, it does. It would roughly be translated to ‘Cave-brother’. Which, in retrospect, is a bit on the nose. And it does matter. I should’ve asked - I'm certainly old enough to know not to make assumptions. Do you want to - should I stop calling you Felador?”

 

Itachi shrugs, completely done by the topic. ‘Call me whatever you want, honestly. Itachi is my name, but so is Felador. I can’t stress enough how unimportant it is, to me.’

 

Silevon looks fit to be tied, obviously chomping at the bit to continue arguing, but abstains heroically.

 

“Alright. I won’t pry, but I have to ask. Weasel? Really?”

 

This question. Fuck this question.

 

Laugh it up. Yes, my parents named their firstborn Weasel. It’s - not untraditional. There was a belief that giving your firstborn a fearsome name will ward off evil. I was a premature baby, and it was touch and go for a while there if I was going to live or not. Weasels were considered omens of death, and so. Itachi.

 

Huh, Silevon might actually faint from curiosity. Best nip this in the bud.

 

My life is. Complicated. I don’t want to talk about it - I don’t particularly want to remember it. Some parts, like my Clearing here, and some other details are fine but the rest of it - not so much.

 

Silevon, to his credit nods without hesitation. “Understandable. As I said, I won’t pry. There are parts of my life I don't enjoy talking about either.”

 

Itachi nods, arching his eyebrows and pursing his mouth.

 

Silevon huffs a small laugh, although his Chakra still aches with guilt. “Alright, alright, message received. Where were we?” He starts leafing through the parchments strewn about, and Itachi visibly sags in relief. Back to normal.

 

 

***

 

Weeks go by again, time being its usual capricious self, and all of a sudden most of Itachi’s bones - bar the ribs - are more or less healed. Which is an intensely emotional discovery. On one hand, it’s undoubtedly a relief everything is going as well as it is. On the other, healed bones mean very little, in the overall scheme of things. He had - completely irrationally - deluded himself into thinking that once the bones were healed, everything else will just slot into place.

 

Which just didn’t happen. He’s practically skeletal, everything hurts, what muscles weren’t torn have atrophied, and he needs to jump headfirst into draconian physiotherapy which would be great if moving combined with healing ribs wasn’t agony.

 

Silevon, bless him, tries to empathize, but it’s clear he’s completely out of his depth. He doesn’t understand why Itachi is so frustrated - so stuck on the fear that his body might not actually recover from this. Itachi feels - unmoored from his life, his purpose, his future. Nightmares start making a rapid comeback, heart-wrenching night-terrors that he doesn’t remember upon waking, but all feature helplessness and loss of freedom.

When even meditation fails to bring about any significant improvement, he gives up and drags his sorry amalgam of aches and pains to Mother’s Shrine. Silevon begs off and busies himself with his writings, and explorations of the forest. Itachi, idiot that he is, doesn't give much thought the Elf's uncharacteristic lack of curiosity.

 

Finally alone, a dam breaks, and he crumples in the pillowy moss, and - lets it all out. He unravels, tries to feel it all - the fear, the frustration, the horror of being physically incapable of fulfilling his role - yet again.

Ah. That is the thing, isn’t it? How depressing, that he didn’t even realize until now. It’s not the injuries themselves, it’s that he knows what it’s like to fight against the limitations of his own body and lose and lose and lose until the only things keeping him on his feet are insanity and grief. He fought, then, long past where his illness was terminal, blind and practically incapable of movement, he still fought. But fuck, he doesn’t think he has it in him to do it again. Not for anything.

Mother is there, as always, steady, comforting presence, but she doesn’t understand. The fears of losing your power, of being handicapped, caged, of being a slave to your own infirmity - they’re not things she can relate to. She sends love and support, and belief but it’s for once, not enough.

It’s something though. Her presence slows down his hurdling fall into manic depression. It’s enough to make him have vague hope. Enough to not try his hand at Hatake-style problem-solving. She knows how injured she is, and she still thinks he’s worthy. That’s not nothing.

 

Not enough, but not nothing.

 

***

 

Enough or not, Mother’s presence is undoubtedly better than staying in the Clearing. If nothing else - and there is plenty else - he can sleep there, unbothered by night-terrors. At this point in his recovery, sleeping is critically important and so he spends more and more time there. Which ultimately leads to Silevon having to visit.

 

Silevon has a weird relationship with the Mother’s Shrine. On one hand, he’s entranced by it, but there is a note of - awe is too tame a word. Whatever the complicated knot of emotions is, is not what he’d consider positive. Fear is notably present in the tangle, as is love, yearning, desperate sort of love, as well as something like a horror-stricken sort of pain.

All this from a fucking circle of stones next to a river.

Itachi doesn’t judge. For all that Itachi is devoted to Mother, the Elf might not feel the same. Also, with how deeply otherworldly the Elf feels to Itachi, it’s entirely possible that he feels Mother’s presence much more deeply than he does. Either way, being near the Shrine is clearly not good for the Elf.

Mother offers no guidance on the matter, except a melancholy acceptance and tender goodwill, which is just plain unhelpful. He’d hoped to introduce Silevon to a place of rest and recovery, but had managed to - not traumatize him, exactly, but definitely shake him. Well, then. This calls for drastic measures.

 

He collects his Carvings - not his Children, Mother, thankyou - from the Shrine and presents them to Silevon like any proud father - creator!

He’s somewhat flattered by the reaction honestly. Silevon adores them, pure and simple. He marvels over each one for hours, all but stroking them with affection, and yeah, okay, maybe they’re his children. He loves those fucking rocks, and not only because he can feel them. They’ve grown, is the thing, not in power, but complexity which is - not something that he considered possible. It’s probably Mother’s doing.

 

He considers for half a moment - what if Silevon were to keep one? The soft violet one, that encourages clear thoughts, and a steady stream of inspiration?

His mind recoils from the very notion. He can’t give them to anyone. They’re not - they’re - he doesn’t know what they are, but they’re not gifts to be given away.

 

The whole thing distracts him some but isn’t a permanent solution. No, the permanent solution won’t be anywhere as pleasant as this. He knows exactly what to do. He just - doesn’t have the strength to do it, just yet.

***

 

The campaign to convince Silevon to help him to Father’s Shrine is - not as arduous as he’d prepared himself for. Silevon might not be comfortable with such high supernatural exposure, but he’s nothing if not a dutiful caretaker. He is completely aware of Itachi’s spiralling, and is, frankly, desperate for a solution.

He doesn’t bother with even a token protest of the dangers of moving through the mountain in such a vulnerable state. Instead, he beams at him, proud - proud! - and exclaims that’s an excellent idea. Not a day later, and then the two are off, armed with a sword and some knives in Silevon’s case, and a pair of wooden crutches in Itachi’s. The elf drags behind him a primitive cart he’d cobbled together the previous day, filled with food, some furs, plenty of water and what medical supply they have available. It’s not wise to make this trip too often, and Itachi knows that once he gets himself within the Shrine’s range, he won’t leave for at least a day.

 

He needs - guidance. About himself, about his role in this wacky fucking world, about his complicated relationship with Father’s children.

 

***

 

In the end, he spends three days in front of the shrine.

 

Unlike Mother’s all-encompassing love, Father’s stern regard is just what he needed. He can be weak here, can let the poisonous anger and shame and fear bubble out of him without feeling like he’s bringing darkness into the world. Father’s blazing presence burns it all away, until he’s weak as a kitten, cried himself into dehydration, but - fixed.

 

Well. Kind of fixed. Re-cast perhaps, after all the impurities have been burned out with blood and tears.

 

It’s all very dramatic, and if he didn’t know better, he’d think Father made Uchiha back in the Elemental Nations as well. He just handles melodrama and bone-deep angst too well.

 

Silevon, other than a couple of moments on the first day, has stayed well away from Father’s shrine - from the entire floor. Which, fair. It’s pretty intense there, and if he was so unsettled by Mother’s gentle love, he’s wise to stay away from Father’s scorching attention.

 

***

With some of the depression lifted, it’s manageable to stubborn his way through the rest of it. He is not okay, still, but training is a good way of detaching himself from the world.

And boy, is there a long road ahead. Regaining the muscle tone he had is going to take years. Definitely longer than he has. If he’s smart about it, the worst of it should be over in three months or so. There’s no point in strength training or anything of that nature, but meditation combined with endless flexibility is not too much beyond him. Not beyond him, but also utterly, completely, inarguably loathsome. Whether the muscles haven’t healed properly from being torn up and down, or from it being a natural trait of healing, it’s not important. He slugs through it either way, under Silevon’s gimlet eye.

 

He needs little instruction on remaining careful, which is a miracle in of itself. Whatever his chances of recovery may be, they shoot right back to zero if he doesn’t take his body seriously. Something heals wrong, a sprain goes unnoticed amidst all the agony and bam, mobility is shot to hell. He can work around a little physical impairment, but only a little. He already doesn’t have his Genjutsu and Ninjutsu, if he loses Taijutsu and Kenjutsu as well, he might as well lie down and let the Orcs eat him.

When it all becomes too much, there’s plenty of fun shit to do, which can be spun into training if he’s careful about it. Picking fruit is, sadly, just about as extreme a workout as he’s capable for now, the bounty is its own reward. Gardening can be a very straining routine too, but the most important thing for him - for any Shinobi - is dexterity.

And what better way to make sure his newly healed fingers don’t grow stiff and useless than weaving. He’s accumulated enough linen thread, not to mention unspun material, to see him through hundreds of meters of fabric. He could afford to fuck around, let his fingers dance over the threads, and thoughts fly out of his head until there’s nothing but soft serenity.

 

It works out perfectly since Silevon has more than earned himself a gift. The best gift Itachi is fit to give is an Uchiha-style coat. It won’t be a Yukata, nor a proper Kimono, but something enough like it to count, while also being something he will wear.

 

***

 

Itachi prefers grey and blacks, but Silevon is a showy, flamboyant soul at heart, no matter how severe his clothing choices are. He needs something more eye-catching.

Extracting indigo dye is a delightful, messy process, one that he’d learned at his fathers’ knee, back when Fugaku still had enough heart to care about life. Mikoto loathed ‘women’s work’ more than death itself, no matter the careful mirage of a dutiful housewife presented to the outsiders’ eyes. Itachi’s been cultivating the plant for a number of years now, idly thinking it would be handy at some point - and indigo silk was very much his style, no matter how unpractical it might be. By the time he’s beaten the water enough for the dye to settle at the bottom of the vessel, he’s pleasantly sore, and Silevon is completely certain of his lunacy.

 

The batch he makes is enough to dye quite a bit more than he needs right now, so he stores the rest away as best he can without any screwable containers. Which means a stone pot with a matching lid which he hangs off a tree. Yellow dye is much less complicated to make - some onions, and a couple of roots of an otherwise disgusting plant, a warm bath and voila, a beautiful, vibrant yellow thread that only stinks a tiny bit.

 

From start to finish, it takes about a month and the end result of fabric is, well, gorgeous but so fucking impractical, it makes his head spin. Because his stitching and embroidery are just about what one’d expect from the firstborn male Heir of a Noble Clan, he weaves the pattern with contrasting colours instead. Most of the fabric is dark dark indigo, a shade darker than strictly speaking traditional, and the contrasting yellow delineates the repeating pattern. His sewing is at best serviceable, but it’s good enough for a simple design like this.

In all garments like this, the collar is the most important part, and for that, he weaves the indigo with the yellow that he twists tightly with thin gold wire, which is a finicky, annoying thing to make, only really possible for smaller pieces like collars. The gold wire is used for edging as well, to add some strength and keep it from fraying.

 

Overall, it’s a very Elemental Nations piece, more so than anything he’s made in this life so far. The sewing might be lacking, compared to the quality of the fabric and the beautiful dye, but the gold thread makes up for it, making the stitches appear purposefully obvious rather than incidentally so. And the weave was, objectively, gorgeous. Sharingan is good for avoiding mistakes and fixing those he made when he wasn’t using it. Not to mention, it did wonder on his psyche, to remember with perfect clarity days of peace while doing something he loved for a person he loved.

 

Silevon is leaving soon. It’s something they haven’t discussed, but are both aware of. He already stayed longer than he expected to, and now that Itachi is fluent in the language - as fluent as possible, without actually speaking it - and aware of the world to some extent, his self-imposed mission is done. He’s not a fighter, nor would he be welcome to help even if he was one, and he misses his home.

 

When summer arrives, Itachi is - reasonably healed. He doesn’t have any visible scars which is honestly unsettling, and he doesn’t look like a famine victim, although not by much. He moves without pain - without much pain - and he’s bendy as a cat, which is nice.

When the Elf starts getting antsy, their established serenity crumbling bit by bit, Itachi knows it’s time to say goodbye.

 

***

 

The farewells are - bittersweet, especially on Silevon’s part. He doesn’t understand why Itachi is staying and is honestly hurt that he won’t join him. On his end, Itachi can’t explain what ties him to the mountain. When he tries to explain, finally, fed up with constant misunderstandings and assumptions, writing a long, rambling essay about how he feels the two deities in his mind, that he can talk to them and hear them answer, heartbreak pierces through the Elf’s Chakra strong enough to hurt. Which is fair - it’s not an easy life, to be a champion of a God, much less two. The tasks that will be appointed to him will be harrowing, and he will fulfil them die - it’s the nature of the thing.

 

Honestly, it’s not a bad deal for Itachi, who will absolutely take the bad with the good, since the good is the soul-deep certainty that two Gods love him and accept him as he is, trauma and psychoses and all.

 

When it’s time to leave, he presents Silevon with his coat, and the reaction is - more emotional than he’s prepared for. Silevon is good at keeping emotions from his face and body, good at smiling when he wants to cry, but now his composure breaks. The Elf cries and laughs and praises him effusively and round and round they go, with Itachi blushing and downplaying, and Silevon gushing and admiring.

 

He dons the ridiculous coat proudly, when he leaves, and looks stunning, riding in a fancy cart, dressed in purples and golds, silver hair caught in a high pony-tail. Hatake among the Orochi, he thinks fondly, and the pain is drowned by love as he watches him leave.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Honestly, Itachi didn’t plan on stalking the royal family as extensively as he ended up doing. The plan was to briefly check up on the foolhardy Princes and swiftly move on to more pleasant pursuits. Fundin, for example, is exemplary company, and there is a number of dwarflings he would very much like to delight in.

 

The problem is, the relationship between the royal family is somehow more toxic than ever. Whether someone has talked to the Princes, or if it was the shock of Itachi’s presumed death by hammer, they lost some of their blinders. There is a weight in their eyes that wasn’t present before, and the love they must hold for their father is at best tinted by new realizations.

 

On a purely practical level, their hard-bought wisdom has done them a world of good, fighting-wise. They don’t rush into battle before thinking it through, falling back on more defensive moves more often than not, aware of the risks always present in battle.

 

It’s not an easy realization, after all, that your mistakes will be paid by others - and it’s a lesson the Princes should have long since learned, being who they are. There is a whole army worth of dwarves who will lay down their lives to save their Princes’ and doubtlessly many had done so. Itachi was perhaps slightly more dramatic about it all, for it to have made so much of an impact.

 

His stalking of the two Princes brings him to the Princess, who he hadn’t honestly given much thought before. She is markedly younger than her brothers, young enough that even the Kage couldn’t excuse her being present in battle. Beyond that she looked to have a good head on her shoulders, so Itachi didn’t worry too much about the only sensible member of the family.

 

Which was, as it happens, a complete misreading of the situation. Princess Dis, the dwarf-child he had interacted least, she had changed most profoundly. Between the three royal siblings, she is constrained most, has the least freedom due to her age and position, so she’s kept well away, tending to the sick and helping with the busywork - what busywork there was that was appropriate for a Princess to do. Healing, mostly, which is an unmitigated disaster on all fronts.

 

Healing is a beautiful, honourable profession, true, but it was clear to anyone who cared to look that the Princess is as suited to healing as Mikoto, Konoha’s Red Death was. The girl is a warrior through and through and had both the wits for it and plenty talent on top to ensure she’d be an exceptional one. He spied on enough of her covert training sessions in her rooms to be convinced that with the minimal training she’s had, she’d hold her own against either of her brothers, once her body had some time to grow. Even now, Itachi would place his bets on her to emerge victorious between the there - she has a streak of viciousness a mile wide, and a fondness for trickery that would keep her alive when all else fails. Oh, in a fair, moderated contest of skills, they would have her beat on strength and superior training, which bodes badly only for an eventual career in show-fighting.

 

***

 

The more he looks, the more concrete picture he gets of the three siblings. He can’t help it - they’re so comprehensively fucked up, he can’t look away. Their mental ruin is contrasted further still by all the Dwarves around them, who as a rule have a solid strain of good sense running through them.  How is it that such practical people managed to be led by a family of headcases is a mystery.

 

Prince Thorin, now that he’s tempered some and is aware of the terrible weight on his shoulders, reminds Itachi slightly of himself, back when he was the hope of the Uchiha Clan. The stress-lines are less obvious, but the rest of it is there. The expectations his father puts on him are impossible to meet, and yet he tries, time and again. He works as much as he physically can, fulfils his duties to the best of his abilities, and the only recognition he gets is the performative, possessive kind when his Royal father props him up as a symbol of the strength of his line. In private, there is nothing but bitter words and guilt-tripping. It was bad before the young warrior was aware of the Kings manipulation and disregard. His eyes are opened now, for better or for worse, much like Itachi’s were once, and it makes the situation that much more tragic. The dwarf is trapped by his sense of responsibility and honour, the helpless love he feels for his father, and the impossible standard of his position.

 

Prince Frerin, on the other hand, reminds him of Kakashi Hatake, in a way. The boy - and he really is young, in comparison - wasn’t born with a heart for battle, for all that he’s good at it. Which he is - excellent with throwing knives, but superb with a pair of mid-sized blades that complement his speed. The darkness in his father is not news to him, sadly, but it affects him nonetheless. More problematic than that is the galloping fall into apathy and depression. The signs are there, and while Itachi doesn’t know that the boy will actively try to hurt himself, the battlefield is a dangerous place to be if one is not certain if life is worth living. 

 

Princess Dís, tragically, reminds Itachi of no-one else but Sasuke, and the very notion enrages and enthrals him beyond reason. Oh, there are differences, certainly. One such difference being the lack of jealousy. The Kage treats his firstborn badly enough that the little Princess didn’t find anything there to be envious of. No, if she loves her father, she despises him more, and the steel-spined girl saves all her love for her brothers and practically no-one else. The hero-worship of her brothers, especially Prince Thorin is so reminiscent of Sasuke, that it makes Itachi’s heart bleed, especially when the two overwhelmed Dwarves brush her off.

 

Which is kind of the crux of the matter? The three siblings are by all accounts exceptional young Dwarves, with skills that perfectly complemented each other. They should make for a formidable unit, and they even have a common enemy - Thrain - to unite them in purpose and yet - that hadn’t happened.

 

Thorin is drowning in guilt and self-recrimination, Frerin is on the verge of giving up, and Dis is ignored and growing cynically used to the status quo. And the King - perplexingly - is not only not trying to fix anything, he is actively pitting them against each other. He plays on Thorin’s self-hatred, tries to make Frerin jealous of his older brother, all the while ignoring Dis’s very existence.

 

That, Itachi doesn’t understand. The King isn’t entirely made from malice - for all that he apparently despises his children, he is an exceptionally devoted ruler, and his people love him. Why is he purposefully weakening his line? He must be worried about the future, and these are his heirs - why is he deliberately trying to break them?

 

It makes no sense, and Itachi won’t stand for it. He is regrettably fond of Thorin and Frerin, but princess Dis brought Sasuke’s ghost alive for a moment - he cherishes her mindlessly.

 

There is work to be done. The little Dwarf-queen won’t be brought low by petty Kings or overwhelmed brothers. Not while Itachi is here.

 

***

 

Opening move: It’s entirely possible Itachi is something of a showy bastard himself. Maybe its why he gets along with Silevon as well as he does. Either way, since the battles are once again fought inside of the Mountain, where Itachi has little to contribute, he chooses to announce his alive-status by going in the opposite direction. The royal family has a house in the centre of the Settlement, as well as a large tent at the army camp. The King and his sons reside mostly in the tent, but the Princess splits her time between the Settlement and the campsite when she’s summoned by the King.

 

Itachi spends two days stalking the forest for the fiercest Jaguar, with nary a scar on its fur, kills it and carefully prepares the pelt. Hunting cats is always an experience, and this particular jaguar was a fierce fighter, who got in a fair few swipes and bites. The skin, however, is a beautiful piece, and its size means the Princess can make a full-sized coat and have material left-over.

 

After it’s dried and tanned, he drops down into the main square of the settlement in broad daylight, carrying the bundle, for once walking the paths nonchalantly like an everyday person. Clad in a light-grey yukata, and pale leather boots, his marks are contrasted sharply when combined with his pale skin.

 

The princess is caught unawares, standing at the front door of the house, staring blankly at this new development, and he bows to her with respect. Without waiting for their shock to wane, and for them to realize they really should be stopping him, he deposits the bundle at the foot of the house, and jumps up-up-up to the roofs, and away. Frantic voices follow in his wake, and he pays them no mind. The goal was to cheer up the Princess and make sure the martyr Princes know for certain Itachi isn’t dead. This was certainly a memorable enough performance to count.

 

***

 

Move and countermove: The settlement throws an impromptu celebration, the Princess makes an announcement, and the King’s Chakra is a study in corruption. Whatever is eating the Dwarf, whatever desperation clouds his mind - because nobody that hates his children is anything but corrupt - has influenced his opinion of Itachi, also. The only things Itachi can sense from him during the Princess’ announcement, are greed, rage and jealousy. The King would rather see Itachi dead, or at least permanently maimed, than loyal to what he perceives to be the least valuable of his children.

 

Tough shit. Dis is a treasure and without a doubt his favourite Royal from the lot.

 

***

 

Next step, give Frerin a book. He doesn’t have a clue which books would interest him, since they’re written in their language, but that doesn’t mean he can’t visit the library in the Mountain and snatch the most beautiful tome he can find.

If he’s right, the golden-haired dwarf would be best served if someone encouraged him to develop in ways other than violence. So - books and generally beautiful things that have nothing to do with battle - a carving, an instrument, a plate - the mountain is full of areas the orcs can't reach, that are full of beautiful things for Itachi to pilfer.

 

A problem of delivery presents itself. He doesn’t deliver the book personally, because that would mean breaking into the army encampment, which would be more provocative than he means to be at this time. He’s skirting the line between open enmity with the King after all and doesn’t want to cross it.

 

Writing is possible, but he’d have to use Westeron, and he doesn’t want to communicate with Father’s children in anything but Father’s language. They know his marks, but whatever regard that gives him could backfire immediately if they think him some sort of imposter or fraud. Chikyūgo is the pathetic second option, which is impossible for obvious reasons. He settles for a drawing - ink, a brush and a piece of parchment, and with the use of the Sharingan, it’s easy to produce a good likeness. He might not have a speck of artistic talent that pertains drawing, but he was trained in this too, once upon a time. All UPF (Uchiha Police Force) members were, in capturing a likeness quickly and with precision, since the availability of cameras was an extravagance of the extremely wealthy. A bit of gold wire ties the parchment to the book and that’s that done.

 

He places the book in the same way he did the furs, in broad daylight and to the Princess. She’s as unreadable as the stone, her Chakra a deep, rolling avalanche of anger. It would be concerning if that wasn’t her baseline state since he’s started stalking her. He bows to her, as low as before, lower than he would perhaps anyone alive here, today, and jumps up and away.

 

***

 

Countermove has the royal family forced to spend some time together. They figured out Itachi doesn’t dare go too far into the army campsite, so that’s where the family meetings happen. But they do happen.

 

All three siblings exit these meetings worse for wear, and if there is any cohesion in their relationship, Itachi hasn’t seen it. If anything, there is just more friction. The furs were left for Dis to keep, but the book was taken away from Frerin almost immediately since it wasn’t Itachi’s to give.

 

Which - touche.

 

***

 

Prince Thorin is the most difficult one to choose a token to. Especially since the young Dwarf is just about drowning in guilt and shame, convinced this is Itachi’s way of communicating his lack of regard. Which is just patently ridiculous.

 

Itachi doesn’t dislike him personally. He just spent too long hating himself, deeply and passionately, and anyone who reminds him of himself - well. He scrutinizes them that much more, picks them apart, and finds things to criticize, fair or not. It's his own bias, and he knows it’s there.

 

So, what would one gift an heir to the throne of a Dwarven kingdom? A fiercely beloved figure to his people, heavily abused child of a manipulative, uncaring monarch, and brother to two exceptionally different dwarves who love him more than life itself. A young Dwarf drowning under the weight and unattainable expectations of his position. A boy purposefully set out to fail by his father.

 

Something to remind him of the goal. Thorin doesn’t have a Sasuke. Or, rather, he does, but he’s not aware of it. Right now he thinks it’s all for the Throne or his People or whatever abstract, nebulous concept like that. He’d sleep much better once he knows it’s all for his siblings, then the children, then everybody else.

 

The gift to Thorin takes some doing. He has an image in his mind that he wants to paint, but regular parchment won’t do. Silk would be ideal, but linen is possible if more time-consuming. He has a roll of finely woven white linen that would suit, and after a few tries with stretching and priming it, he has succeeded. The image is clear in his mind, but the Sharingan isn’t that much of a help since the scene is imaginary. Sheet after sheet of parchment later, he’s satisfied with the result, and with his ability to reproduce it faithfully. He cheats outrageously by memorizing his arm movements and the brush strokes with the Sharingan, but then again, he’s a Shinobi, not a painter. He uses what skills he has.

 

The three siblings are hand-in-hand, no crowns in sight, no burdens or office, looking up into the future. He manages to capture Frerin’s sardonic smile, the proud line of Dis’ spine, and the fierce determination on Thorin’s face.

 

The style is definitely Uchiha, and not at all Dwarven - he hasn’t seen a single painting in the Mountain, it was all abstract carvings and minimalist lines. Nonetheless, the white and black of ink and linen are pretty minimalist too, and he’s not included any of the ornamentics that would distract from the point.

 

Once the canvas is dried and ready, the edges neatened with glue and wire, it’s ready.

 

Much like before, he delivers it to Princess Dis, whose Chakra is at this point bristling with irritation, obviously unhappy with what Itachi’s disruptions are doing to her family. Nevertheless, she accepts the offering regally, and the commotion when he escapes via the rooftops is much tamer. There are sentries though, several watchtowers that sprouted up while he was busy, with crossbow-bearing dwarves watching him sharply. They don’t attack, but Itachi’s movements are not going to remain so unnoticed.

 

***

Whatever the immediate reaction is to his gift, Itachi doesn’t know, but when Prince Thorin emerges a day after barricading himself in his tent, he is a changed Dwarf.

 

Itachi doesn't presume to be the catalyst or even a major factor. He is no more than the last drop, a push towards the conclusion of the metamorphosis the Prince was undergoing on his own. That doesn't stop a shiver of grief Itachi feels at the young Dwarf's loss of naivete. There is little of the child left in the Prince. His Chakra is - settled in a way, but at the same time not at all. Conducted whirlwind, perhaps. Nothing will make Prince Thorin anything other than a remarkably emotional Dwarf, nothing can dim the intensity with which he feels, but it’s structured now, somewhat

 

It's not unlike the training Shinobi go through when they start Chakra-work. Having a clear goal, being at peace with yourself, knowing what you want to accomplish - it’s all a necessary first step of strengthening your Spiritual Chakra, and having a handle on your Chakra in general.

 

Itachi doesn’t know if the Prince got to keep his gift - he very much doubts it, frankly - but he got to see it, got to feel it.

 

***

 

Miracle of miracles, the siblings come together, finally. Step by awkward step, they try. Princess Dis isn’t very welcome in the camps, so her brothers visit, regularly, with the excuse of visiting the settlement and seeing their people. They can’t quite schedule their visit so all three of them are together, but at least once a day, Prince Thorin or Prince Frerin are seen together with their sister.

 

Judging his work to be done, he retreats to the mountain once more. His armour is fucked, and there is little sense in being unprepared. A hush has fallen on the mountain, a tension thick and foreboding and he knows both sides are preparing furiously for whatever is coming next.

 

Itachi is - not tired, but weary of it. Silevon was a companion without compare, a had a way about him that eased his heart and made him forget just how pointless this loss of life is. Without him, it’s hard to remember. His ever-changing relationship with the Dwarves makes it difficult for any true loyalty to develop. If he had a contact within the Dwarves, if he could communicate with them, build real friendships, it would be easier perhaps. But so far his only connections here, real ones, are with two gods and an - objectively speaking - irrational fixation with an underaged Dwarf Princess.

 

Shinobi are those who endure when all is said and done, and he endured much worse for much longer. He’s weary and unhappy but he’s not miserable, he’s passingly healthy, and Mother and Father are there to guide him. It’s far from the worst of fates, no matter how sore his heart is from all this foolishness.

 

***

 

His new armour reflects his foray into apathy. The previous models were, or at least he’d done his utmost to make them be, things of beauty. Itachi was at heart a vain creature that appreciated beautiful things. With this armour, however, he didn’t much bother with making it anything but serviceable. He didn’t have the energy or the motivation to keep the lines straight and elegant, to avoid unnecessary additions and keep it all elegant and understated. No, this armour is something a killer wears.

 

Mobility is a chief concern, as it always is, so he settles on a black bodysuit, made out of multiple layers of tightly woven linen, fastened by laces and metal clasps. Leather parts are fastened on top, arm- and leg- braces, a chest piece and a neck-guard. His face is hidden behind a Hatake style face-mask that covers his face bellow the eyes. A complicated harness goes on top of it all, every inch of it covered with sheaths and pouches for throwing weapons. He is not fucking around with projectiles anymore. If he had but one knife left, he wouldn’t have had to throw himself in front of a hammer like a very small meat-shield. No, that lesson which he knew well once and had forgotten somehow, is well and truly etched in his bones now. Projectiles keep you alive.

 

His collection of throwing weapons is getting somewhat low - he still has enough to last him through the season, if he takes some care with them and tries to recover at least some, but a raid will be necessary.

 

Or - if his relationship with the Dwarves ever becomes at least passingly cordial, he can trade for proper throwing knives, perhaps even kunai and shūriken, as a custom order. It’s not altogether likely, but it could happen.

 

***

 

The tension builds and builds, and Itachi works and works. Several sets of armour - untouched, unused, uninspired, sitting on wooden approximations of Itachi’s body - show how unsettled he is by it all, as does the number of gifts given to the Dwarves. He left the royals alone, for his sake and their own, not having the patience or the ease of heart for their drama, but the children, oh, he had plenty to give to them.

 

Summer is at its end, and Autumn is around the corner, so the fruit selection is practically overwhelming. Itachi’s garden was always a comically prosperous place, but this year - and potentially every year since the Dwarves returned - Mother has seen fit to overwhelm them in good-will.

 

Baskets and barrels are made - clumsily and amateurishly but somewhat usable still - filled with strawberries and sweet cherries and grapes. The new addition to the garden - as far as he’s aware, at least - is a large striped spherical fruit about the size of Itachi’s torso, with an explosively sweet, red interior. They were somewhat messy to eat, but their sheer deliciousness more than made up for it. The Dwarflings share his high regard. 

 

The status quo breaks in Autumn.

 

Reinforcements arrive.

 

***

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The day begins like any other. Itachi is still decidedly in recovery, both mental and physical, and doesn’t take part in the skirmishes - not that there were many in recent weeks. 

 

The training goes as well as can be expected. He’s thinner and weaker than he should be, but his speed and flexibility have skyrocketed. Which is all sorts of odd - he ended up over-correcting wildly, since losing mobility - any mobility - is a death sentence for a Taijutsu-based Shinobi. That said, the results are - unexpected. 

 

When the Dwarven battle-horn thunders, he jumps into action, heart rabbiting. He throws on the lightest armour he has, not haphazardly because that way lies death, but not as carefully as he otherwise would have. What time he lost getting ready, he makes up by storming down the mountain, taking every short-cut, and skirting the line of recklessness. When he reaches the army encampment and is met by cheering faces and bright smiles, it’s clear his pessimism got the best of him. He skids to a stop, and can’t quite stop the sheepish feeling from overtaking him. 

 

With how hurried he was, he didn’t try very hard to stay out of sight, but then again, his presence is more or less expected in the Settlement by now. There are only so many battles you can fight in and so many dwarflings you can spoil until the novelty of your presence wears off. The warriors who catch sight of him nod or salute, but their attention is caught by an approaching army of Dwarves. 

 

As he’s gotten to expect, the Dwarven commander leads from the front. In this case, two Dwarves ride in front of a sizable army - well into thousands strong. That they’re not on foot is interesting enough to warrant a closer look, so he lopes around the encampment to a conveniently tall tree and turns on the Sharingan. 

 

Goats. The Dwarves are riding Goats. 

 

Which would absolutely make this bizarre enough, but no. The King might be astride a heavily armoured goat, sporting what looks to be metal-plated horns or at least a helmet to that effect, but his second in command does not. 

 

No, that particular gentledwarf rides a pig. 

 

What. 

 

***

 

Well, he reasons with himself only somewhat hysterically, why not a pig? What makes horses better suited for combat? Sure, they’re bigger, and have conveniently armour-able legs, and can stomp an Orc to death without hassle, but pigs had things going for them too. They were - smarter? Definitely smarter, and were more conveniently sized than horses, from a Dwarven perspective. 

 

These pigs, especially, were of an odd variety. They were bigger, and slightly leaner than their more culinary-oriented brethren, and sported tusks that were not at all decorative, judging by the wear and tear on them. Their eyes especially betrayed a keen intelligence and a vicious hunger that he didn’t quite know how to feel about. 

 

From that angle, it’s not the worst idea to make sure your mounts have a vested interest in killing your enemies. Herbivores would fight for you out of fear or love, but omnivores or even better carnivores have, as it were, skin in the game. Not that eating Orc would be something Itachi would recommend to any animal, as the stuff looked to be highly toxic, but there were other things in orkish deploy that would be perfectly edible for a pig of right size and temperament. That there size and temperament, to be precise. 

 

Once that mental hurdle was sufficiently rationalised, and all potential horrors concerning pigs and their meals firmly shunted to the back of his mind, he was free to turn to the more pressing matter. 

 

Such as the matter of the lunatic that equipped their goat-mount with a horned helmet. It takes a special kind of person to make a mould of their goat’s horns and cast an appropriately curved helmet, and that is the type of mind Itachi would rather not fuck with. Compared to the straightforward brutishness of the Dwarf King he was familiar with, he knew with crystal fucking clarity which commander he’d rather face in battle. 

 

***

 

Lord Nain is the name of the Lord goat-rider, and he is joined by his son Dain, and his wife Darla - Dain being the one with the vicious pig. 

 

It’s important to try to remain as unbiased as possible, no matter how helplessly charmed he is by their cheerful joviality and anachronistic taste in mounts. For the initial three days, he stalks their armies, carefully remaining out of sight, taking in everything from their armour, their supplies, to the general well-being of their soldiers. 

 

It’s all above reproach. The new army escorted another large batch of civilians - presumably, the ones that had to remind behind when the snow became impassable - and they did so with great care. Not a single dwarfing is gaunt or ill-dressed, not a single injury is left untreated. The warriors’ equipment is up to par - their armour of a higher quality but of a lesser make, and they bring with them sufficient supplies so as not to put a burden on the Settlement. 

 

On a personal level, their armies mesh well together, with no substantial animosity between the two groups bar from a rotten apple here and there. What’s infinitely more interesting, is that Lord Nain is perhaps the only person who can wring an honest-to-Mother positive emotion from King Thrain. His son Dain, who may or may not be a Prince, is a cheerful, happy young Dwarf, about the age of Frerin but perhaps half as mature. He’s obviously had training, what with those enormous arms the size of Itachi’s torso, and capable of enduring the ridiculous amount of weaponry and armour, but there is a gentleness in his gaze, and naiveté in the obvious way he worships the royal siblings, that Itachi despairs over. Why his parents felt the need to drag their obviously underaged and still perfectly innocent son to such a miserable war, Itachi doesn’t know, but the changes of the boy retaining any of it are nil. 

 

On a less grim note, Lord Nain is much less starry-eyed than his son, and the entire immediate family reminds Itachi fiercely of the Uzumaki - or their legend at least. Red-haired and fierce, quick to laugh but with an unmistakably foxy edge to their smiles, they are not to be underestimated. 

 

Case in point, King Thrain’s - quirks - don’t go unnoticed for longer than minutes. If what Itachi’s notes say is true, the difference between ‘King’ and ‘Lord’ is big enough that Lord Nain doesn’t have the authority to outright call out anything problematic he sees. But there are other avenues available to him, which he’s taking advantage of at every turn. 

 

His son is never alone with the King - one or both of his parents are present at all times, and they steer the conversation proficiently enough that Dain goes mostly unnoticed. When the two are called away, they’re quick to send Dain either to Princess Dis or to the Princes, all three typically not welcome in the King's presence too long. 

 

They try to shield the royal siblings, to their credit, with mixed results. They don’t have the authority to issue any orders, and while the King might not care where his children are, he would care if someone other than him was bossing them around. So they have to remain within the limits of polite invitations, issued to the King instead of the siblings themselves, and even then try not to draw any attention to how regular the invitations are. 

 

Prince Thorin doesn’t notice, of course, and weirdly, neither does Princess Dis, who Itachi had high hopes for. No, it’s Prince Frerin that spots the unlikely ally they have in Lord Nain and Lady Darla. Perhaps it’s because, out of the three, he’s the one benefiting most by their actions. Prince Thorin’s duties are too important for the Lord to interrupt, and while Lady Darla has the authority to call on Princess Dis pretty much without any obstacle, the Lady is not a warrior. She’s a social butterfly, with an even temper and a placid smile hiding many secrets. Doubtlessly she’d be the perfect mentor for Dis, who desperately needed to learn the skills Lady Darla wielded with faultless grace. Unfortunately, the Princess didn’t want to be a Princess. She wanted to be a warrior, and the notion of such ‘fripperies’ didn’t appeal to the temperamental girl at all. 

 

As it is, Frerin is quick to latch onto Dain and the two are neigh separable. For a few days, Itachi worries that jealousy will cause problems with the so recently united siblings, but Dain’s easy-going nature and hero-worship of Thorin doesn’t let any rifts form. He slides into the group easily, even though his role is definitely that of the youngest sibling despite him being older than Dis. Lord Dain and his Lady wife encourage the relationship easily and distract the King as much as possible. As long as Lord Nain is within sight of the King, the atmosphere is light and pleasant, and everyone from the Kings advisors to the General noticed. 

 

*** 

 

The size and modularity of the Settlement make a whole lot more sense, now, since the population of the civilians all but doubled overnight. It’s autumn already, and if not for the additional supplies, they wouldn’t make it through the winter. 

 

Since the new arrivals are not used to Itachi’s presence, he debates if he should still make his appearances as showy as he’s become accustomed to. These new arrivals could be more prone to instinctive violence when startled, and he doesn’t want to strain any tempers. Not so close to winter. On the other hand, they need to be at least peripherally aware of his existence and to believe the rumours to be true. Especially warriors. 

 

A gift for young Dain would be suitable, but he’s stuck. He doesn’t know the Dwarf, which makes the matter - complicated. A generic one would be trite, and a personal one could be either presumptuous or a complete miss. He racks his brains for a solution but gives up in the end. 

 

A battle would be good, but the Orcs are suspiciously quiet, ostensibly happy to stay inside the Mountain and let the Dwarves come to them. The Dwarves send a team in here and there, but they have their plates well and truly full. The new army needs to be established properly, the strategies and tactics need a complete overhaul, the chain of command is fucked to hell, and the Settlement that is, Gods willing, at full capacity needs to be finally fortified. 

 

In the end, Itachi faffs about for a perfect opportunity for a fucking introduction like a blushing maiden for long enough that it absolutely doesn’t matter at all. 

 

 

***

 

The first sign that something is off, is the fact that the attack came in broad daylight. Itachi sits in his Clearing, meditating when a battle-horn thunders and jerks him right the fuck out of  it. 

 

A skirmish has started - it’s being fought right now, in fact - and just - what?  He knows the Orcs’ aversion to sunlight is psycho-somatic at most, but it’s so far been the most reliable predictor of their behaviour - they avoid the sun against unless driven by extreme rage or fear. Why the fuck would they be breaking the pattern now? 

 

This time, this time he knows better than to run half-mad down the mountain. They’re fighting for real, this time, and he needs every fucking advantage he can get. 

 

The armour feels no less dour on his body than it had when he was making it. Black under-suit, black leather pieces, and endless loops of harness fitted on top. For all its ugliness and near-vulgarity, it’s quick to put on, and is eminently practical - even in his ANBU days, he didn’t have as much weaponry stashed about his person as he does now. 

 

The boots are last - well, boot, knives are last, but it still counts - and then he’s off. He doesn’t dare take a long way round, not when, by the sound of it, the skirmish is not a skirmish at all, but a proper pitched battle. 

 

Through the Main Gate, then, and hope for the best. As soon as he gets to the Hall, he takes to the walls, not quite up for jumping over the golden statues. The corridors are empty of Orcs, which is threatening in of itself. 

 

The longer he doesn’t see the Orcs, the more concerned he gets. Time, perhaps, is of the essence after all. He hadn’t had a good run in a while, anyway. 

 

***

 

Time, as it happens, was absolutely of the essence. The situation Itachi stumbles into is not a massacre, but it could become one at any point. Because the Orcs are still very much absent, and in their place, the Dwarves are fighting men. 

 

Ah - that’s what the Orcs were waiting for. Fucking reinforcements. 

 

***

 

Boy oh boy, did the Orcs luck out on their reinforcements. There are about two hundred men attacking, and about four hundred Dwarves defending, and it’s not at all an easy win for the Dwarves. 

 

The men are wickedly fast, well-armoured, and utterly ruthless. How they avoided the Dwarven archers in their initial approach is unclear, but now that they’re spread out and mixed with the Dwarves, the arches have to be careful with their shots. Add to that the speed with which the men are moving, never keeping in place for longer than a heartbeat - it makes it next to impossible for archers to do any significant damage. 

 

This style of combat is obviously unfamiliar to the Dwarves, most of which aren’t used to fighting well-trained men, instead of Orcs. These men keep switching their opponents, jumping from one Dwarf to the next in the blink of an eye, too fast for the Dwarves to counter. To their credit, the Dwarves banded together in simple but effective back-to-back clusters that made it easier to cover for each-other. 

 

For once, the Princes weren’t in evidence, which is a fucking blessing. The Dwarves might not be used to fighting men like this, but Itachi sure as hell is. If anything, he’s better suited for this than he is for the monsters - they might not use Chakra, but they definitely fight like Shinobi. And something supernatural is fuelling some of them, definitely. That’s simply too much strength for a baseline human to have - unless they’re a fourth species that Silevon was unaware of. 

 

Alright, that’s enough of that. 

 

He won’t get away with using his Sharingan sparingly in this battle. No, these warriors are truly dangerous, and they don’t play around with their food as far as he can tell. They aim to kill, every strike would be a strike too many. 

 

He can’t afford to announce your presence, here. At the same time, he hadn’t fought with the newly arrived Dwarves yet, and they might react badly. It would be better if - 

 

There. Fundin and Balin fight, Dwalin glaringly absent, which puts Balin at a disadvantage, as used as he is to having his brother there. 

 

- jump - flip - duckduckduck - 

 

- fuck, the attackers won’t let him join them that easily. He hadn’t so much as touched down before a man is bearing down on him, not giving so much as an inch. 

 

He lets his body fall into the well-practised movements, and he dances around his opponent as much as the man does the same. Fundin will survive a few minutes more, surely, and Itachi needs some first-hand intel now. 

 

His opponent is wary, possibly unused to someone who can match his speed. He’s good, but Itachi is better, and he feels something unclench slightly. He can afford to stall a few moments and get a feel of what to expect. 

 

Itachi’s doijutsu is the only thing that saves him, a moment later. The man dances forward, moving in an alien manner, and in a show of beautifully executed misdirection almost guts him with a hidden knife under the cover of a sweeping sword-strike. Nothing betrayed him, not a spike in Chakra, not a twitch in his eyes, nothing. If not for the predictive abilities of the Sharingan, Itachi would be dead on the spot. The knife was aimed precisely and unerringly at the weak-spot of his armour, above Itachi’s belly-button. 

 

Alright. So maybe he can’t really afford to observe too much.  

 

- duck, stab, roll, jump back - 

 

They’re certainly more hot-blooded than they appear at first glance. Not on the level of the Dwarves who slip in and out of battle-mania as easy as breathing. His opponent is getting visibly - interested in the battle. Not riled just yet, but his blood is definitely up. 

 

- jump - flip - stab - parry - crouch - slash - 

 

Fast, fuck but they’re fast, and not a lick of Chakra use so far - 

 

- backbend - fall into a roll - jump up - parryparryparry - crouch -

 

The faster they spin and twirl around each other, the more complicated it is to predict the man’s attacks. His initial assessment was off by a mile. They’re well trained, yes, but they’re also phenomenally instinctual fighters - at least this man is. Sharingan relies on reading the opponent’s intentions, and its greatest weakness are adaptable opponents who make split-second decisions. 

 

Case in point, in a truly bewildering feat of daring, the man changes his trajectory in the last moment, leaving himself open, but leaving a microscopic chance to dodge two blades flying his way - 

 

- swivel to the right, turn, duck, ankle knife and - 

 

The man falls to the ground, dead, and Itachi has a moment to breathe - 

 

- DUCK - roll - turn - knife - throw - crouch - parryparryparry - 

 

No, nope, no, zero moments to breathe. Zero time to fuck around, too. Three men surround him, moving in sync, and Itachi can’t afford to think anymore - 

 

- channel Chakra - jump - twist - crouch -  block - slash - 

 

He lets all conscious thought seep out of his head and a meditative focus slide in its place. These are no Orcs, and the price of his distraction will be death. 

 

*** 

 

The battle is brief, comparatively. From when Itachi joins to when they leave, no more than ten minutes go by. When the larger bulk of the army has finally had enough time to get their wits about them and storm to the battle en masse, the men retreat without hesitation. A man leads them, an otherwise unassuming man that nonetheless left a ring of dead Dwarves at his feet. 

 

If Itachi were to be crass, he’d say the Men had won, today. They certainly lost fewer combatants than the Dwarves had. That might be alleviated some by the storm of arrows the frustrated Dwarven archers send at their retreating backs. Judging by their speed and skill, Itachi very much doubts it. But he was wrong before. 

 

To his great relief, Fundin and Balin are both alive, even if the former now lacks a good chunk of his earlobe, and has more than a dozen wicked-looking slashes down his breastplate. His son is in a better state physically, but he’s way more shaken than his father is. Which, yeah, Itachi certainly wasn’t expecting a battle of this intensity to happen today. 

 

The dwarven reinforcements - led by Prince Thorin, Izanami fucking wept - don’t bother with trying to chase after the men, to the Prince’s credit. They focus instead of helping the injured and providing a merciful end to the dying. Nobody can spare a moment to gawk at Itachi, too focused on their fallen brethren, which Itachi is damn grateful for. 

 

He hadn’t escaped injury himself, not against enemies of this calibre, but he’s got nothing more serious than grazes and bruises. Nothing to be concerned by. 

 

With the King being absent, Itachi can afford to stay some longer, but his help is unnecessary. Prince Thorin’s Dwarves comb over the battlefield with brutal efficiency and care, and Itachi is plain superfluous here. 

 

Fundin. He digs out a roll of bandages and a packet of healing salve from one of his many pouches, and pads over to the now sitting down Dwarf. Unsurprisingly, he’s waved off any offer of assistance, but has allowed the fresh Dwarves to lead his trembling son away. There is a nice, safe person to help. 

 

It’s not the wisest of courses, it’s very unwise in fact, but. There is blood everywhere, the air all but tastes of copper, and - yeah. Itachi needs a break. 

 

He sits down gingerly next to Fundin and lets himself breathe. The ground is a disgusting muddy nightmare, and it reeks of death even more so close to the ground, but Fundin is a welcome presence. Perhaps he’s missing Silevon more than he’d thought. 

 

Perhaps he’s just killed men after a long, long time. Perhaps he’s shaken by it all, after all. 

 

The Dwarf huffs at him a little, and his steady Chakra pings a little with fondness, but it’s possible it’s wishful thinking. He is an unusually difficult Dwarf to read. Most of the powerful figures he meets basically bellow their emotions to the world - The King, his children, Silevon - all of them have potent, mercurial Chakra that is easily interpreted.  

 

Fundin, though, his Chakra barely twitches, is steady but implacable. Even in battle, it doesn’t jump from fear to rage and battle-lust like most of his comrades’ does. It’s just - even. Like the sea. 

 

It’s as unnerving as it is soothing right now. Even faced with new foes that the Dwarves are terribly unsuited for, he doesn’t despair. If he tries very hard, he can read the grief there, and the pain, but it’s overtaken but his relentless calm. He was a dwarf that truly had his priorities straight. 

 

“Ah, what a nightmare,” Fundin says, out of nowhere, making Itachi practically jump out of his skin. Fundin is talking - to him? In Westeron? Itachi doesn’t have the presence of mind to stop his flinch, and he turns to the Dwarf sharply. Is it so obvious he doesn’t speak the Dwarven tongue, even with the marks that he bears? 

 

“Calm down, lad. We’re all friends here. And even if we weren’t, I don’t think we can afford to keep you on the sidelines anymore. Not with this new devilry.” 

 

It’s easy for him to say, Itachi thinks, as he musters up enough energy for a feeble glare. 

 

“Ach, children, always so jumpy. You’re perfectly free to do as you please - I wouldn’t stop you even if I could. You won’t leave us to die, though, for whatever fool reason, so I know we will be seeing a lot more of each other in the coming days. If we hope to stay alive.” 

 

His heart is thundering inside his chest, still, but the words register as ‘true’ in whatever tiny part of his brain that isn’t chasing its own tail and screaming ‘he knows-he knows-he knows’. 

 

A wary nod is all he manages, while deep breaths and a lack of attention, either positive or negative, do wonders for the panic. Fundin’s presence is something of a buffer, in that his aura of calm rebuffs any well-meaning Dwarves that would otherwise approach. Fundin himself never once looks at Itachi, staring pensively at the Mountain. 

 

“You’d done well today, lad. I couldn’t watch over you as much as I’d like, but with what little I saw, I was damn impressed. Ach, I never’d have thunk it - Men and Orcs fighting together. What is this world coming to?” 

 

Hold the fucking show. Is this - praise? Approval? Is Fundin looking after Itachi? Really? 

 

It could be a lie, conceivably. They just encountered an enemy they are terribly badly matched to,  and now they want to secure a crucial resource. It could be. Then again, they don’t really need to bother, it’s very, very obvious Itachi is damn well secured by now. They need not waste any effort in manipulating him - although, if they wanted to, they couldn’t have sent a better Dwarf. Unreadable Chakra aside, Itachi’s daddy issues were a gift that very much kept on giving, and Fundin is very much a male authority figure that was hard to impress. 

 

Let’s just - ignore it. That’s a nice, safe option. 

 

He nods, keeping his face blank. 

 

The Dwarf hums, a perfectly agreeable sound that somehow makes Itachi think he’s laughing inside. 

 

“I should really thank you, you know. You’ve never stayed long enough for any of us to do so. But we’re all grateful, every single one of my Dwarves. Even the King, for all that he doesn’t show it.” 

 

A displeased huff escapes Itachi and he looks at Fundin with disapproval. This isn’t the script! He could leave, but he’s still reeling from all the murder, and if he escaped so keyed up, he’d spend several long, dreary days filled with nightmares and misery. 

 

Fundin’s beard twitches in what could have been a smile. 

 

“It had to be said, lad. Now -” he huffs, slowly getting back on his feet. He hadn’t bothered with the bandages, but salve coats the worst of the cuts. “I have to get back t’ my sons. The night is falling soon, and tomorrow’s going to be a long and unpleasant day full of debriefings. ” 

 

He looks at Itachi for the first time since their impromptu conversation began. “You can, of course, leave with my sincere well-wishes. Or - you could come with me. Balin and Dwalin are good lads, they won’t bother you none, and we have a nice, big tent where you can rest up some, and get a warm meal inside of you. It doesn’t sit well with me, that you get all the bad and none of the good if you get my meaning. If you fight with us, you’re owed a place to rest and warm your bones, and perhaps some music to keep the dreams away.” 

 

He bows his head in a wonderfully un-humble manner. “Up to you, lad.” 

 

Itachi, who is still sitting in the fucking mud, blinks up at him with all the intelligence of an over-bred show poodle. On your feet! He scrambles up belatedly, flustered and confused and - touched, honestly. 

 

He isn’t going to - do it, of course… Of course. Of course? 

 

Well, why the fuck not? Why not complicate his life any further? His life has been so simple and easy, this is just - perfect. 

 

Well, he’s certainly not going empty-handed. 

 

He bows to Fundin, cursing his lack of speech, far from the last time, and jumps away. He doesn’t have a lot to give, fruits and cloth and suchlike, but it’s a matter of principle. Some furs, perhaps? 

 

Fundin sighs a bit but murmurs a polite farewell. 

 

Well, the joke’s on him. One does not simply invite a Shinobi into his home. He didn’t learn much under Kakashi’s tutelage in ANBU, but he did acquire the vampiric interpretation of invitations. An invitation means free access. 

 

 

***

 

Three hours later he managed to clean the blood off himself and more importantly, his hair, throw on his nicest dark grey Yukata, but no Geta because he’s not that much of a diva, grab some nice furs and a cloth-bag full of raspberries and he’s off. 

 

He’s a bit hysterical, honestly. Some of it is the shock, true, the mood swings are truly a wondrous thing when they work in his favour, but he’s honestly quite flattered. Flattered and fucking lonely. He got spoiled with having Silevon present for so long, he got used to having a friend around to watch his back and such. 

 

There are rational reason too, enough to justify this insanity. Friendship and gifts, that’s all well and good, but the new attackers - they’re dangerous. Two hundred of them killed over fifty dwarves in about twenty minutes, and that was right in front of the Dwarven base. In contrast, the Dwarves got maybe five? Honestly, Itachi did just about the same amount of damage as the entire Dwarven platoon, which, yeah, he has Chakra and the Sharingan and all that, but those numbers don’t become less terrible either way. 

 

Until the Dwarves figure out a solid strategy and train their troops up enough to be able to implement those strategies, Itachi is their main line of defence. Not only because of his battle-prowess but because he is their only hope of intel. 

 

He doesn’t envy future-Itachi’s life, not at all. 

 

But present-Itachi has more pleasant things on his mind. Such as the impending dinner. Fundin is in for a surprise, because he may not have been aware of what he did, but he did it so. 

 

Now he will have a Shinobi house-guest - tent-guest - and it will be delightful. 

 

Fuck, but it’s nice when post-battle mania turns out this way, and not the panicking, shaking kind. 

 

**

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Where exactly Fundin’s tent is, is anyone’s guess. Itachi has tried to limit his snooping in the army encampment, as that could incite some - uncomfortable situations on both sides. Judging by Fundin’s position in the Army, he’d assume he’s in the officers’ district, close to the royal tent.

 

From there it’s hit and miss, and he has to rely on his Chakra sense. Without any roofs or trees to sneak over, he’s left with having to flex his stealth skills, and stay out of sight the traditional way.

 

With how much he stands out between the tall, burly dwarves, it would have been impossible if the atmosphere in the  camp wasn’t as dizzyingly chaotic as it is.

 

The Dwarves aren’t stoic people. Not at all. It’s honestly bewildering, even still, to see a people so comfortable with their grief. He doesn't think he will ever honestly understand it. Even the warriors - when they’re sad, they’re devastated, when they’re happy, they’re jubilant.

 

They’re devastated now, grieving and angry. A miasma of defeat and loss is thick enough to cut.  It takes longer than it should, but he manages to twist and twirl and avoid any unfriendly eyes and let his Chakra sense lead him to Fundin’s tent.

 

Now - it’s entirely possible he hadn’t planned this through. The wave of mania took him this far, but it seems his adrenaline-fueled courage is failing him at the last moment. Typical.

 

He’s not going to actually turn back now, is he? Really? He will not. He has a gift and everything, and either way, he could get spotted and then what? Why is he even thinking about this - he was invited, and he’s thus welcome. Now and forever, if he has anything to do about it.

 

Right? Right. You can do this - Sweet Amaterasu, what are you even thinking about - you’re not proposing to his firstborn, you’re accepting the offer of a meal by an ally.

 

Mikoto. Pretend you’re Mikoto.

 

Fuck, wait, no, you want them to like you. Mikoto was a stone-cold bitch to everyone that wasn’t her immediate family. Fugaku? Better, but also - massive asshole. Kisame? You too puny to pull off Kisame. Kakashi - ha! As if you would be having this bizarre inner dialogue if you could pull off a Kakashi. Think, idiot, think.

 

Assess the situation at least. Two Chakra signatures inside, awake, and - suspiciously quiet, actually. It’s almost as if -

 

Well - look at me, bona fide deductive genius. It’s almost as if they can see me through the flimsy fucking fabric tent, golly gee, fancy that, aha ha what a pickle.

 

I really can’t leave now. They know I came - they can see me. Wait. They don’t know it’s me, it could be a completely different fucking lunatic twitching in front of their tent. I should go the extra mile and add a muttering monologue, that will relax them. Sage, fuck, what am I even doing here?

 

“You can come in, lad - if it’s an invitation you’re waiting for you’ve already received one.”

 

Wow, that’s one beautiful fucking out. The gentledwarf just made you look not only not-crazy but also polite. Sage love him, that’s smooth.

 

His feet are apparently less socially incompetent than he is, because they’ve taken him inside already, and his hands and legs and back have also declared their independence, and have not only bowed his fucking body with zero input but have taken off his shoes and are currently presenting Fundin with the host-gifts.

 

What.

 

Alright, so Itachi is having some sort of breakdown in Fundin’s fucking tent but it’s - okay? As these things go? He’s making a better impression during the episode than before it, that much is sadly obvious. It’s not that bad, honestly -

 

Which is, of course, when his legs decide their brief but glorious bid at autonomy isn’t doing it for them anymore, and promptly drop the reigns. He stumbles to a stop - but where was he walking to - a chair?

 

It may well have been a chair, since Fundin’s son, the younger one with the splintered leg, sits at the table, very determinedly not looking his way. Which is. Odd - right? Fundin must have warned him to - what? Be polite? Not anger the potentially-murderous lunatic he had invited over for a visit? How would he have known? Whatever episode is happening right now, it’s definitely a new development.

 

He looks at Fundin, and he feels - lost. Not scared, or panicked, or even ashamed - those will all come later. Just utterly lost. What was he supposed to do, and why is this happening? He’s good, now, he healed and meditated and Father had fixed him weeks ago. He - this shouldn’t be happening, anymore.

 

He’s sitting down, and there is a drink in his hand.

 

- sniff -

 

Tea, of some sort. It’s some sort of strong, purple blend. Honey - lots of honey. Some lemon. Some cinnamon, and isn’t that wild, he hadn’t smelled cinnamon in fucking ages.

 

Smells delicious.

 

Fundin and his sons converse faux casually. Fundin puts on a good show, but not good enough to fool a trained Shinobi. His Chakra is steady, still, but there’s tension in his shoulders, and a flat glint in his eyes. Dwalin gives the game away completely of course, but he’s practically a teenager. He does his best, probably, but he’s sitting ramrod straight, and his attempt at normal-volume conversation is way off. Itachi doesn’t understand a word of what they’re saying, but he doesn’t need to, to know it’s the banal variety of small talk that amateurs inevitably fall back to when they want to appear normal.

 

Alright. So. This is happening.

 

- sip -

 

The tea is - Sage the tea. The tea is an emotional fucking experience. On one hand, it’s more delicious than any beverage has a right to be. On the other - Itachi knows tea. Itachi performed his first tea ceremony when he was two. He had tutors especially to teach him to pick out different tones of tea from the scent, never mind the flavour. He knows his fucking tea, and this is just - not. It’s a delicious, warm, cloyingly sweet beverage that he adores with all his heart but it’s not tea.

 

The weirdness of the intensity of his feelings towards the tea, and the bizarre internal rant that followed nudges him out of his catatonia a bit. He doesn’t step into awareness, as much as he sort of oozes into it, flops into it like a limp noodle.

 

- blink -

 

“We haven’t been officially introduced, lad, for all that you likely know our names, heights, and shoe sizes. So, for the sake of formality, Fundin, son of Farin, at your service.”

 

Fundin bows slightly in his chair, a surprisingly smooth, practised movement. Not something that Itachi dares to replicate - dead or not, Mikoto will pluck his spine out of his body if he ever tried anything the like.

 

He scrambles up, limbs cooperating less than he’d like, but more than he’d feared, and he stands on slightly shaking feet. The bow is jerky too, but within Mikoto’s acceptable parameters, which is absolutely good enough.

 

Fundin looks at him, cool as a cucumber, but Itachi’s been calibrating his Chakra-sense to him, somewhat, and is getting better at reading the quiet emotions behind the lake of calm. His Chakra definitely rippled with something - sad. Not angry, at all, but - melancholy, perhaps?

 

“This,” he sweeps out with one arm, “is my son, Dwalin.”

 

The young Dwarf bows from his seat, much like his father had - the gesture may have been performed with the son’s limited mobility, actually. He echoes the procedural greeting, the deep voice at odds with how damnably young he looks and feels.

 

Itachi, now completely at a loss of what to do, faced with a stoic army captain and an almost-teenager staring at him with fascination, edges towards his seat slowly. This situation has spun so far out of his control, he has no idea not only how to proceed, but also how to extract himself later. He’s too - fuzzy in the head, too confused and off-balance and if ever there was a time for a sneak-ambush or an unexpected attack where Itachi can vent, it’s now.

 

Why did he come here, what the fuck was going through his mind? He would’ve been lonely and jittery for a few days, but he wouldn’t be here, with an audience and no way to communicate with them. Is he here for dinner? For drinks? Do they want to - talk to him? Interrogate him? What?

 

Some of it must have shown on his face, because Fundin leans forward slightly, eyes sharpening. “I didn’t invite you here for any reason but an honest wish to help, if possible. You’ve been a gift to us, and while we are grateful, you can’t do much with gratitude alone.”

 

He pauses, visibly gathering his thoughts. “You’re a mystery, lad, I’m not going to deny being damn curious. But the very least I - we - can do, is to accept you sharing what you will if you will.”

 

Itachi can practically hear his muscles unclenching slightly. It’s not enough, he’s still unmoored and has little idea of what he’s doing, but this is clearly Fundin’s show. His son looks fit to explode from curiosity but follows the unspoken instruction gamely. Alright, he can accept his loss of control, since Fundin seems to be a good commander. He can follow instruction - it’s practically what he’s best at. Problems arise when he starts organizing things himself.

 

Finally, somewhat in control of his actions, he nods, grimacing internally. He got used to communicating with Silevon through writing over the months. He wasn’t clever enough to bring a brush and some parchment, so it’s only his own fault really.

 

Fundin is still looking at him patiently, so he gestures to his throat and shakes his head slightly. Fundin, to his credit, doesn’t even blink.

 

“I figured it was something like this, although I didn’t want to assume. It doesn’t much matter. You can communicate in other ways, or not at all. We’re here to offer comfort. If you want to get more comfortable, there are other seats. If you’re interested in dinner, you are welcome to stay where you are.”

 

The thought of food makes bile rise to his throat, even though he really should eat something. He doesn’t have any weight to lose, after all. That doesn’t help, funnily enough.

 

He mimes writing, and Fundin beams at him - well, smiles slightly, but his Chakra twitches happily. What an odd Dwarf.

 

“Dwalin and I have already eaten, but there’s still plenty leftover. Think about it while I get us something to write on.”

 

He bustles off, practically before he finished speaking, and then it’s just Dwalin and him. Awkward. Tenuously, he nods at the Dwarf, whose eyes widen with - happiness? Awe? Trepidation? Nervousness? It’s hard to read Chakra of teenagers, they feel so many things at once at just about the greatest possible volume. He whispers something under his breath, a Dwarven word full of rolling consonants, and sharp vowels. A curse of some sort?

 

For all his curiosity, the young Dwarf is as stumped at beginning a conversation as Itachi is. He’s a warrior himself and has all the hallmarks of being an exceptional one - much like his father - when he’s grown up fully. Unlike his gentler brother, Dwalin seems to be invested in battle enough that he’s likely to become a soldier in the future - if he’s not one already. He looks to be older than the Prince anyway, and is perhaps already set in his career?

 

Thankfully Fundin doesn’t make them wait for long and is back with a stack of paper - and some more fucking feathers. That’s what you get, for not thinking properly. You could’ve had a nice brush, but now you suffer.

 

“Alright lads, here we are. If I understood you correctly, you are up for some conversation?”

 

Itachi nods, uncertain but willing enough. He can’t possibly eat, he’s arrived not half an hour ago, and whatever comfort Fundin wanted to give, is impossible since he’s just about as anxious as physically possible. It would be for the best if at least there was some use of him coming here, and they can establish some base facts.

 

That doesn’t at all mean that, faced with a blank piece of paper, his mind isn’t tragically blank.

 

His name. That’s how this goes, right? An introduction.

 

‘My name is Itachi.’ Something more, come on. ‘At your service.’ There. That’s good.

 

He slides the paper towards Fundin, twisting his lips in the closest approximation of a smile.

 

Fundin reads it quickly and looks delighted.

 

“Excellent! It’s nice to put a name to the face, as it were, Master Itachi.”

 

Fuck no. He lunges towards the paper, face burning in mortification.

 

‘Just Itachi, please, or you can choose a name more to your liking. No ‘master’, please. I’m not a master of anything, and that’s just as it should be.’

 

Fundin’s eyebrows are well and truly raised, almost disappearing into the wild copper mane. “It’s just an expression, lad. It would be - presumptions of me to address you without an honorific, especially since you’re a master of your Craft.”

 

‘Please, presume away. Itachi or boy if you have to. And I’m certainly not a master of any Craft.’

 

A trickle of concern sneaks into Fundin’s expression. “I will certainly not call you ‘boy’. Chiefly because you’re not, in fact, a boy. But surely you’re a Master Warrior? We’ve certainly not got any that are your betters?”

 

Dwalin perks up at these words, staring at Itachi with blank incomprehension mixed with horror. Oh boy. Careful. Just because Itachi sees zero value in killing efficiently, doesn’t mean the young Dwarf doesn’t. Think. Silevon explained ad nauseam about the apprenticeship system they have in the world, so that could be a nice way out of this.

 

‘I’ve had no formal training,’ in this world, at least, ‘so I don’t qualify. If anything, I’m working towards a Mastery in Weaving. And Carving, perhaps.’

 

Fundin - gapes, placid mask well and truly gone. “No training - but - how? You - weaving? What?” He pauses, visibly gathering his composure.

 

Itachi is honestly a bit stung. He’s a good weaver. He likes it. And his stones are amazing. He needs to explain, though, without lying, because he really doesn’t want to lie to the kind Dwarf.

 

‘I’ve lived my whole life in the Mountain. I’m good at killing Orcs because I’ve been doing it for decades. But if I had to choose a craft, it would be weaving. Or carving. They’re beautiful disciplines. I’m passable in leather-craft if that’s - not appropriate.’

 

His attempt at an explanation doesn’t at all go well. If anything shock is replaced by horror before he aggressively blanks his face. Fuck, but Itachi is bad at conversation. Dwalin, who reads over his father’s shoulder, shares his father’s dismay.

 

“Itachi, lad.” He pauses, taking a deep breath. “I’ve nothing against weavers, it’s a fine craft, and it gladdens me that it brings you joy. But. I thought -” He visibly bites off the end of that sentence, and changes track. “Never mind what I thought. It doesn’t matter. But. Forgive this old Dwarf his nosiness, but, lad, how old are you?”

 

Aaaalright. How old is, he, actually? He was nineteen when he died, and he’s been here for - what. Thirty years? Thirty-five?

 

‘I don’t really know’ he scribbles, hedging. ‘I could estimate it between forty and fifty. Fifty-five perhaps.’

 

It doesn’t dawn on him until Fundin has already snatched the paper and is staring at it like he can’t actually read, that he’s being uncharacteristically open with information. He blames the dream-like quality of the entire evening - not a nightmare exactly, but a peculiar blend of confusion, fear and relief that are often present in dreams.

 

“Right.” Fundin swallows. “Your upper estimate is fifty-five, then. That’s. Alright.” He takes another long breath, and Itachi starts to regret - everything - fiercely. Silevon mentioned the Dwarves come of age at forty, and he’s well over that number. And it’s not like they have any stones to throw. Prince Frerin can’t be a day over thirty, with how young he looks. Even Fundin’s son can barely be fifty, and he’s on the battlefield more often than not.

 

“And you’ve mentioned you’ve lived your whole life in the Mountain? Alone?”

 

Dazed he might be, but he’s still more than capable enough to side-step a trap this obvious.

 

‘I don’t particularly want to talk about my life.’

 

Fundin doesn’t take offence, which is great, but something is definitely changed between them now. Itachi can sense how much more invested Fundin is. And how disturbed - and jealous - Dwalin is.

 

“Right. Forgive me, lad. I got a bit - carried away. Your life is your own, no matter how fantastical I might find it.” He pronounces every word with care, weighing it out in his mind, but he’s not insincere. Just tries to be tactful. His Chakra is, for once, not a blank expanse of serenity, clearly palpitating with confusion and grief and - guilt. What the fuck does he have to be guilty of? Hadn’t Itachi had enough of that with Silevon?

 

“I have to be honest with you, lad. Your age is a - problem. I like to think I’m an easy-going Dwarf, moreover a practical one, but even I’m going to be unsettled by the idea of a warrior so far under the age of adulthood on the battlefield. Not that there is much I could to about it.”

 

Bullshit.

 

‘Dwarves come of age at forty, and I’m a dwarf.’ Not a lie. Dwarves are children of Aulë, who made Itachi himself. By the very definition of the term, Itachi is a Dwarf.

 

Sorrow spikes again in Fundin’s Chakra, and why does Itachi make everyone he talks to sad? It’s not like he’s lying - Silevon said!

 

“You’re most definitely a Dwarf, lad, that was never in question. You carry Mahal’s words on your skin, clear for the world to see. But, lad, Dwarves don’t reach adulthood until sixty-five at the earliest. Typically it’s closer to seventy-five. My son, here, for example, is a prodigious warrior, on his way to be a master of his Craft. I wouldn’t have let him on the battlefield if things weren’t as dire as they are. And he’s seventy-six.”

 

Hold on.

 

‘The Princes, then. They’re younger than me.’

 

Fundin frowns, a conflicted expression flashing across his face, there one moment and gone the next. “I’m not at liberty to discuss their exact ages, but no, lad, they’re both older than you by over a decade.”

 

Holy fuck. Really? The brats are older than him? Prince Thorin, alright, perhaps, but Prince Frerin? Does that mean - is Dis actually his age? Little Dwarfling Dis?

 

He sits, staring blankly at Fundin, not a single clue about how he is to feel about this new development. No wonder his Chakra is so slow to grow - he’s not even into adulthood.

 

It’s impressive his hand isn’t shaking, and his handwriting is as legible as it is, he thinks absently. ‘That’s - interesting. It doesn’t change anything, though. All due respect to your ways, but I’ve been fighting Orcs far longer than any of your younger recruits have. I have my own reasons for fighting Orcs, and you can’t do much to stop me. You can’t even afford to try.’

 

That was perhaps more combative than necessary. His conscience twinges at him - there’s no need to be so rude to the only friendly soul within miles.

 

“Ain’t that the truth,” mutters Fundin, bitterness warring with frustration in his voice. “Mahal help us, but we can’t. If it were just Orcs…” He trails off, and sags slightly, looking - older somehow. “We’re all to be honorless hypocrites, then.”

 

Itachi draws back, shocked. Isn’t that a bit much? Dwalin certainly thinks so, because he alternates between trying to wordlessly comfort his father and shooting Itachi poisonous looks. Which, true, he does bring a bunch of misery to people he likes, Fundin is no exception apparently.

 

‘I apologize. My words were in bad taste, and not true besides. You’re of course free to do as you like. If you don’t want me in your battles, I will do my best to stay away. But, just as I don’t command you, you don’t command me. Nobody, commands me, in fact, apart from our Father, and his Lady Wife.’

 

There - that’s the plain truth. And he apologized. So. There.

 

Fundin doesn’t cheer up, exactly, but he stops visibly wilting before their eyes, which is absolutely good enough for now. “Lad,” he sighs, “you don’t understand what I’m upset about. We were and are and will be taking advantage of a Dwarf over a decade away from his adulthood to keep us alive in battle. That’s never acceptable. All of us here, from King to shoemaker, every single adult should fall to keep you alive.”

 

An incredulous snort escapes Itachi before he can think better of it. How - quaint. Either way, it’s perhaps best to change the optics of this.

 

‘We’re going in circles, Fundin son of Farin. You don’t want me to fight, but you know you can’t stop me.’ Alright, that’s still harsh. Itachi doesn’t need to convince Fundin of anything, not really, but he - wants to? The old Dwarf is, after all, driven by care for Itachi. There hasn’t been so much well-meaning attention in his life that he can afford to squander it easily. ‘You need to realize that the arbitrary ageing system is sabotaging your common sense. You’ve fought with me for two years now. All the reasons you have for not letting young Dwarves fight - I challenge you to name one that applies to me.’

 

Good enough, surely.

 

Fundin smiles slightly, not looking at all convinced. “Circles, indeed. I see where you’re coming from, lad. I even - sympathize. You’ve lived a life very different from that of your children, and we have no right to hold you to our standards. Perfectly well reasoned. Doesn’t do much to convince my heart we’re not failing you and ourselves irredeemably. But no matter. I’m a grown Dwarf, I can handle some weight on my conscience. Ultimately my wishes mean very little.”

 

He shakes his head, not unlike a great shaggy dog. “Well, lad, I know my hands are tied. I was of a mind to let you call the moves before this revelation, and it’s best that I stick to that plan, I think. So - what assistance will you accept from me - from us?”

 

Well. ‘Can you elaborate?’ He scribbles, not having the first clue how to begin to tackle such a dangerous fucking question.

 

Fundin and Dwalin share a look, filled with meaning Itachi has no hope in deciphering. “Certainly. Would you be willing to stay in the Camp, for example?”

 

Tension makes a rapid return, and adrenaline swiftly leeches out the fuzziness from the world. His eyes itch with the need to turn on the Sharingan.

 

‘I wasn’t aware that was within your authority to offer. Nor would I like to become - beholden - to your Monarchy.’

 

“Alright,” accepts Fundin easily, a faint note of relief audible in his voice, seemingly unaware of the bristling Shinobi in his tent. What’s more interesting than the old Dwarfs criminal lack of self-preservation instincts is the audible relief. He didn’t want Itachi to accept the offer. “That’s up to you. Would you accept provisions as, ah, compensation for your time and skills? Armour, weapons, food, healing, things of that nature. And, before you ask, it’s within my authority as the Army General to see to the well-being of my troops. You’d fall under the category of a consultant. I’ll throw together a contract and everything.”

 

Huh. That’s a very elegant solution, actually. Itachi is no mercenary, not now, not ever again, but depending on what they specify in the contract, it could be exactly what Itachi would want.

 

‘I would not be opposed to contract-work, is the contract itself is negotiated carefully, and with ample input from both sides. I have - outstanding obligations - that take precedence over anything else. As such, I cannot allow you or anyone else to command me in battle. I would, however, be open to sharing whatever information I have on the enemy. I could work with your troops as well, as well as your strategists. I am well-suited for fighting men, especially well-trained men. I got the impression your troops are not.’

 

Fundin’s beard twitches, even as his Chakra oozes smug relief. “That’s actually perfect, lad. As willing as I am to step back and not interfere in your life, you’d ask too much of me to command a Dwarf of fifty into battle.”

 

“As an outside consultant, though, you’d have some legal protections on your side. You’d have access - official legal access - to our civilian Settlement, and the right to a residence there. Army camp will be out of bounds, of course, at least without guards making sure you don’t stumble across any military secrets and things.”

 

Well, now that’s actually interesting. It’s mostly academic interest, of course. While it’s good to know the Dwarves have courts and a legal system beyond ‘do what the King commands with vim and vigour’, he doesn’t put much stock in it’s actual, practical power. The King is too much of a power-hungry asshole to be constrained with such things. If their courts were any good, they would prevent him from sending his under-aged sons to battle. Itachi didn’t miss the fact that Fundin didn’t confirm the Princes were of age to fight, and judging by the freakout of the last hour, Dwarves take child-endangerment pretty seriously. If the King can get away with flaunting an important cultural norm so openly, well. A robust legal system is nowhere in evidence, as far as Itachi is concerned.

 

On the other hand, the King can’t actually capture Itachi, much less contain him. And, power-hungry or not, he isn’t stupid, so he knows this. It’s likely that Itachi will, baring a total descend into raving lunacy on the King’s part, be left alone for the most part. For now, they need Itachi, at least until the War is over.

 

Fundin interrupts his internal monologue with audible amusement. “Let’s leave aside the matter of the contract for now. It’s getting late, and today has been a long and arduous day. An official debrief is scheduled for tomorrow, so it’s not going to be any easier. I’d offer you a place to sleep here, but it would be, honestly, wildly inappropriate considering… What we know now.”

 

Itachi hums, amused. Is it his potential status as a military consultant or the fact that he’s underage? It’s entirely possible Fundin didn’t have the right to invite him into the army camp at all. It’s hilarious in a way, to feel societal norms after all these years.

 

‘Alright. I will take my leave. My sincere gratitude for the company, Fundin son of Farin, and Dwalin son of Fundin.’

 

He makes a point of including the young Dwarf, and the blatant attempt at appealing to his vanity pays off - finally. Dwalin straightens, pulling his shoulders back proud to be included after being mostly ignored the entire evening. To be fair, most of the topics they covered didn’t really lend themselves to easy conversation. It doesn’t help that communicating with more than one person, when he has to write down his answers is almost impossible.

 

“Alright lad, take care. And please don’t disappear for months. If you have pressing business, a letter would do, drop a note to any of my soldiers and it will make it’s way to me quick-like. Whenever you have some time to spare, we’ll be glad to have you.“

 

They shuffle their way through procedural farewells and finally, finally, it’s over. What the fuck ever.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The child runs away, melting into the dark like so much mist, and Fundin is -

 

What is he? Sad? Terrified of the choices ahead of him, of them all? Struck dumb by this star-bright child that thrived in such darkness?

“Dwalin, my lad.” He sighs, finally releasing some of the tension that built up over the course of the impromptu meeting. “Thank you for your help, tonight. I fear what the lad might have resorted to, if he felt even more overwhelmed. ” 

Dwalin hums in reply, an uncharacteristically weary frown pulling the lines of his face into something a great deal older. “I’ve never seen anyone so - jumpy - during a simple get-together. He’s a fearsome warrior, Maker’s Chosen, Ozkif’uzghu for pity’s sake. And yet - without his armour, without his weapons, without the terrifying blood-runes spinning in his eyes - he’s just a terrified, traumatized Dwarfling.” 

 

Confused brown eyes meet his, and it’s all Fundin can do to grab onto what composure remains, and hope he can withstand another terrible conversation. Who would’ve thought that a humiliating loss on a battlefield will be the least difficult part of his day? 

“He said - he lived in the mountain his whole life - but.” His stoic, fearless son’s voice breaks, taking a bit of Fundin’s heart with it. “That’s not - possible? We - he - his parents - someone would’ve known - something?” 

 

“Oh, my lad. I don’t know what to think. He -” A shudder racks through Fundin’s bones, hard enough to make his teeth clench.  “I don’t think he’d lie, lad. I don’t think the poor pebble even knows why one would ever do such a thing. He’s - “ he breaks off again. Alright, let’s change tracks. “I think that the lad spoke - wrote - the truth, as he knows it. Whatever the circumstances of his birth, he grew up in Khazad-Dum, alone. He knows nothing, Dwalin, not his language, nor his customs, I don’t think he knows his own dark-name.” 

 

Both of them shudder violently, almost physically ill at the very notion of such - travesty. And why wouldn’t they be? To be without a dark-name, to be without the bone-deep knowledge of your own identity, purpose and value? It’s something that is an inalienable right of every Dwarf, high or low. To be without it - it’s not something Fundin can think about too long before succumbing to despair. 

Dwalin must be thinking along the same lines because he changes the topic as best he can. 

“Ozkif’uzghu, a weaver. Nobody will believe a word from my mouth, even if I were inclined to share it. Which I’m not.” 

Maker’s mercy, Ozkif’uzghu. What a grand name for a Dwarf barely of age to choose a craft. ’Battle-triumph’ it was intended to mean, but ‘Triumph in adversity is perhaps a more appropriate interpretation of little Itachi’s deed-name. And doesn’t that sting? He makes a note to try and use the moniker as little as he can. ‘Itachi’ is a queer name, for Durin’s folk, but it suits the little warrior well, and it’s his chosen name besides. Ozkif’uzghu is now a shade too tragic for him to use easily. 

 

“Ach, my lad. I fear I’ve unintentionally made our lives a great deal more complicated.” 

 

His son, who many think to be an unthinking, unfeeling brute, with an eye for blood and violence and little else, sends him s a sharp, annoyed glance. “Da, there is a Dwarf, practically the closest we’ve come to an avatar of our Maker including During fucking Deathless, who didnae know about Iglishmêk, or Khuzdul, or any of it. The hero - our hero - who kept Thorin and Frerin alive, whose been feeding our pebbles and guarding our ‘Dams, and fuck knows what else - he flinches, and twitches, and looks to be one unkind word away from crumbling. Never mind complicated, Da, how are we to fix this?” 

“I don’t know lad.” He admits easily, long since used to not having the answers to all of the questions his sons might pose. “I don’t think we can fix it. Many wrongs were committed, many terrible things happened uninterrupted over a long period of time, to have resulted in little Itachi. And yet, the runes tell their own story. We might have failed the lad, will by all accounts continue to fail him going forward, but he’s not without support. Mahal claimed him, has obviously found him worthy of his regard, and we both know how deep out Maker’s love goes. He is not without support, lad.” 

Dwalin’s eyebrows tell a story of unimpressed acceptance. “I’m sure Ozkif’uzghu’s spiritual life is healthy and thriving, Da, but that doesn’t absolve us of anything. I certainly don’t want to have ‘mistreating Mahal’s Chosen’ on my conscience when it’s time to go to the Halls.” 

An involuntary laugh rips from Fundin’s throat. “Indeed lad, that would be most unwise. But the matter of how to proceed is nonetheless - complicated.” 

 

He sighs. “Let me be frank, my lad. I don’t dare spread the word around, regarding Ozkif’uzghu’s - Itachi’s - circumstance. He might not have specified his wishes, but he looks to be a private sort. Plus there is the matter of the King to consider.” 

Ah, the King. It’s a worry never far from Fundin’s mind. He’s followed Thráin, son of Thrór faithfully and without complaint, but he’s not - blind. The Dwarf Fundin trained with, fought with, mourned with - he’s present only in flashes. To lose two Kings, one right after the other, to Gold-madness - it’s a tragedy Durin’s folk might not recover from easy - if at all. 

 

But does he dare speak treason out loud? If it’s only his own life he’d be putting at risk, it would be one thing. But there is Dwalin to consider. Stalwart, loyal Dwalin, who already switched his loyalty from King to Prince without much a to-do. His son - both his sons - will follow him without a thought. He needs to be careful, more careful than ever. 

“Listen, lad, and listen carefully. There are Dwarves who covet Ozkif’uzghu - covet Itachi - and would go to great lengths to bind him to Durin’s line. You know of what I speak, but it’s more than our lives’ worth to speak of such things carelessly.” He pauses and bores his eyes into his son’s stubborn ones until they relent. 

“Good, you understand. Itachi’s protection, other than his indomitable strength in battle, is his legendary status. If it came out - at this time - that he’s but a lone, traumatized young Dwarf, some will take advantage of that with glee and abandon. There are ways one might use to break a Dwarf other than blades and axes.” 

 

Dwalin’s lips twist into a sneer, and a cold glint cools the warm brown eyes. “I wouldn't spread the information around either way. But I don’t keep secrets from Thorin, as you know. Or Balin for that matter.” 

Good, more than good enough. “I wouldn’t expect you to, lad. There are no secret between brothers, and that’s how it should be. Darla and Lord Nain, for example, would make for excellent confidantes, I’m thinking. Prince Frerin, and Princess Dis, as well. If Lord Nain wants to bring his son into the fold, that’s his prerogative.” 

 

A thought comes to him, as he takes note of his son’s scowling features. “We’re not doing this to keep Itachi a secret. Our people deserve to know the truth. We’re keeping vital information from them, I know that well. Every single one of my soldiers will be wroth with me, once it becomes known I’ve allowed a Dwarf of fifty-five to defend them in battle and had taken the choice of behaving in an honourable fashion from them. And they will be right to be such.” 

“However,” he pauses, resolve firming in his stomach, as he finally accepts the weight of the task set to him. “I will put Itachi’s well-being ahead of their happiness, in this case. And it’s with his safety in mind that I say, we have to keep this a secret. I don’t know what our K - what some Dwarves might do, with the knowledge, but I don’t want to find out.” 

 

Dwalin scowl turns into something less angry and a great deal more resigned. “I know, Da. But we have to tell them something. The consultant farce you’ve cooked up is already ludicrous enough to require a lot of political support. You have to get official backing from our King, and preferably quite a few others. You’d essentially be treating Ozkif’uzghu as a civilian, Da, and that’s going to need a lot of fast-talking.”

“Not as much as you’d think.” An empty smile he hates tugs at Fundin’s lips. “I imagine I will get official commendation for it, even. To have brought in Ozkif’uzghu - in any capacity at all - will be an unparalleled success. The challenge will be keeping the contract above board, and stomping out any pesky little clauses that some will attempt to sneak in. But I have little doubt that anyone will object to the contract itself.” 

“Which is why you need Lord Nain?” His son is really stretching his political muscles today. He doesn't usually have much use for such considerations. “And Balin, of course,” he adds with the unflappable faith of a younger brother. 

“Darla, actually,” he muses. “That ‘Dam knows everything about everyone, and most importantly, nobody has anything on her. Once she’s on-board, we’re halfway there to a favourable contract.”  

 

Now, how to proceed. Spreading the information across their allies in a careful way. Hm. 

 

“It would be best if you informed your brother, lad.” He says, faux off-handedly. Dwalin sees right through him, of course, and a smug grin curves his lips as he nods. Which is fair, honestly. For all his outward placidity, it’s Balin who inherited the, ah, excitable Longbeard temperament. His eldest is a vicious thing, who guards his thoughts closely, and will hold a grudge for the rest of his days if need be. If he’s informed carelessly, there’s no telling what he will do, but a civil war would’ve been all but imminent. Balin is no less loyal to Thorin than his brother is. The difference between them was that Fundin is pretty sure Balin has been working out the logistics of deposing a King for a while now. One push too far and the lad might just decide to cut his losses and go straight for assassination. He’s always been a cuttingly practical Dwarf, his eldest. 

Fundin rubs a hand over his throbbing temples and tries to smush his headache into submissions. It never works, but he never stops trying. “Right. Well. You keep your more - proactive - instincts of your brother at bay, then, and I will meet with Darla.” 

Mahal wept, but they’re all doomed when a General starts playing a Diplomat. 

 

***

 

Getting an audience with Lady Darla is as easy as sending a lad with a message. Within the hour, he’s sitting in her cosy house, in the Civilian district, being served honey-cakes and a tall mug of spiced wine. A fire roars in the hearth, loud enough to make him think of home. Which is a blessing, and something the sharp-eyed Lady is very much aware of. 

 

It’s relatively late, but not late enough that his presence in the Lady’s home would cause any undue attention. Lord Nain is, as is more and more often the case, sequestered with the King. And thank Mahal for that. The King has been more - himself - since the Iron Hills Lord arrived than he’s been for a long while now. 

 

Apart from the procedural greetings, Darla spotted how rattled he is, and allowed him some time to gather his wits. She has her proper face on, the one he despises and admires in equal measure. The bow of her smile and the crinkle of her eyes tell a tale of friendly but distant acquaintances. “How may I be of service, Master Fundin?” Mahal wept, she even brought out the dimples. 

He sends an exasperated look her way, too tired and high-strung to have the energy to play these games. Durin knows he’s known Darla since they were both pebbles, horsing around through the Mines of Erebor, giving Lady Hrera no end of grief. 

“Not tonight, Darl’” he sighs, dropping his own masks, letting her see how serious the matter is. “I feel every one of my years tonight, and the weight of every single mistake.” 

 

Her eyes sharpen at the rarely-used childhood nickname, and she loses some of the honey-sweetness. “Something happened. Tell me.” The demand is sharp and thankfully this is the one time where he doesn’t have to try to keep anything back. 

 

“I had a meeting with Mahal’s Chosen, not two hours ago.” He breathes, words falling heavy in the silence of the room. “It was. Something.” 

Darla leans forward, intent written into every line of her tense body. “Will he prove to be an enemy? You know there are ways around that.” 

Mahal, he almost wished it was as simple as that. 

 

“Ach, no, I’m afraid the lad is as good as they come. Better even.” He swallows, chaotic emotions finally catching up with him, all the hopelessness and shame and helpless anger he couldn’t show in front of his son, coming to the surface. “He’s a child, Darl’. However old he is in truth, his upper estimate is fifty-five. And he’s lived every one of those years in Khazad-dum. Alone.” 

 

His friend freezes, expression caught between shock and anger, before it’s smoothed over. “You’re certain of this? Ozkif’uzghu is a youth? Absolutely certain?” 

 

He meets his eyes, and whatever darkness she sees there convinces her, because she inhales sharply and leans back. 

“This - complicates things. Is he - sane? Functional, even barely?” God, but he grieves the years that have made his friend so sharp, that this is the immediate reaction to a child left alone in an orc-infested tomb. He understands, of course, but he grieves still. 

“You’d like him - you will like him. He’s - terribly young in a lot of ways. Frightened, overwhelmed, jittery, wild. He doesn’t know how to be around people, and it shows. He doesn’t speak and communicates by writing. He-” he chokes on the word, before pulling himself together. Darla needs to know this and needs to know how serious it all is. “He doesn’t speak or write Khuzdul, only Common. He -” A deep breath, come on, once you get through this, Darla will make it better. “He introduced himself as ‘Itachi’ and.“ Inhale. Exhale. “It’s obviously the only name he knows.” 

 

It’s not often that the news is so grave that Lady of the Iron Hills lets them show on her face, but this, this is enough to do so. 

 

“Maker’s mercy, ‘Din.” She breathes, staring unseeingly into the fire. “Do you think it’s his - No. Never mind.” One of her hands starts unconsciously rubbing at her neck underneath her thick gold necklace, in an unconcious gesture he thought she’d long since trained herself not to use. “None of us will get through this sane, it seems.” Her tone is light, musing, thoughts obviously far away.

 

With a forceful shake of her dark hair, she snaps out of the uncharacteristically pensive mood. “Alright, then. No point in worrying about the past. The lad has lived as he’d lived, and there’s no changing it. His future, we can do something about - and ours.” 

 

She leans forward, every inch of her fire-forged steel. “Hear me, Fundin son of Farin. I will ask you this one time and not again. Is he sane? Is he going to be a friend to us? Because you’re asking a lot of me. I’ve worked a long time to get to where I am, and I’ve succeeded. My son’s position is unquestioned. My husband’s rule is uncontested. My own position as Lady of the Iron Hills is, if not well-liked, at least grudgingly accepted. You’re asking me to get involved in something that doesn’t concern me, that would make me, and more importantly, Dain, powerful enemies. And I will, if you tell me now that this lad, this Itachi, will be a friend to us. That it will be worth it.” 

 

Fundin pauses, giving the question it’s due attention. 

 

“I’ve met him the once, Darla, and I’m already risking my sons. Dwalin was present at our meeting, and he’s now informing Balin, and the two of them are figuring out what’s the safe amount of information to release to - others.” He pauses, frustrated not for the first time at how clumsy his words are when he needs them most. “I can’t guarantee he’ll be a friend to us, but I can tell you he likes me a fair bit more than he likes some other Dwarrow in charge. And you know yourself how recklessly the lad defended Thorin from harm. Currently, he’s a natural party and is happy to remain so. The lad is fiercely independent and has gone to great lengths to let me know how unwilling he is to be beholden to me or anyone else. I can’t give you any more.” 

 

Darla doesn’t do anything as pedestrian as paling, but something settles in her expression, like a clockwork piece sliding into place. “Alright. If you can risk your sons, I will risk my own. And we will both risk the Royal Three, quite irrespective of their wishes.” 

His overwrought heart tugs painfully at the mere mention of the three Royals. “Not like we can make it much worse, Darl’.” It’s an exaggeration, but only slight. “If anything, it might be best for the Three Jewels if we threw them at Itachi and hoped for the best. He’s certainly been more successful than both me or you at protecting them.” 

Darla’s face sours, and he knows what she’s thinking about. Fundin is a General, and Darla and Nain are rulers of the Iron Hills. And yet, neither of the them could do anything about Thorin’s - situation. Frerin, once the lad got his bearings back, was quick to understand the protection Nain was offering. He tried, to his credit, to extend that protection to Thorin and Dis, but unfortunately, while the King is happy enough to foist his useless second son to his most trusted friend, his firstborn is his favourite chew-toy. 

 

The littlest Durin, the brightest jewel of the Durin line, is too much of a child still to understand that Darla is her salvation, here. Not that Darla will take her, now. For all that Fundin and Darla are siblings in all but blood, and he loves the Lady as fiercely as anything, he knows his pseudo-sister can be proud as a cat and twice as vicious. Her journey to power was neither short not painless, and to be dismissed so readily by a bratling of a girl - well. If Fundin didn’t already plead her case ad nauseam, Darla would’ve without a single twinge to her conscience written little Dis off as useless and sat back to watch her crash and burn on her own. He managed to convince her to postpone her judgement for a little while, but it’s not going to last long. 

Mahal but he’s tired. 

 

Darla has little mercy, as is the norm. The only concession to his frayed nerves is that she averted her eyes, and now stares into the fire blankly. “Listen, ‘Din, you know my thoughts on this. The golden prince is already learning from Nain and is protected by his close friendship with Dain. The little princess plays at swords and useless dreams. Until she gets over herself, I will not have anything to do with her. Your responsibility now is Prince Thorin. The lad grew into his role beautifully. The civilians worship him, the soldiers are in awe of him, the Nobles twitter over him endlessly.” 

 

The fire reflects from her hazel eyes, making them glow orange and otherworldly, lending further weight to the already damning words. 

 

“He’s political power aplenty. None of that will help him if someone decides the Prince has outlived his entertainment-value. So, yes, that’s exactly what you should do. Throw the Prince at Ozkif’uzghu. Appeal to his better nature, or what have you. Because believe you me, now that the Prince is no longer in danger of falling onto a convenient axe out of sheer exhaustion, alternative methods will be used before long. Knives in the dark, poison in his ale, things of a more - subtle nature. And if Prince Thorin dies, he takes the house of Durin with him. I will be the first one to grab what I can carry and run straight back to the Iron Hills and let this fool venture die as it should’ve already.” 

 

“Fuck, Darl’ how in Mahal’s name will we get through this mess alive.” 

 

Her gaze moves from the flames to Fundin, and there is not a hint of humour in her eyes. “How naive of you to think we have any significant chance of living through this ‘War’ at all. The only thing that I will guarantee, is that my son will live to become the Lord of the Iron Hills, even if I have to go through a lot of good dwarrow to accomplish that.” 

 

He barks a laugh, amused terribly at the pit Durin’s folk have dug for themselves. “You should get together with Balin, one of these days. He’s missed you terribly.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

It takes over thirty-six hours of frantic weaving to leech the crimson from his mind and banish the ants crawling under his skin. He resurfaces exhausted, aching and fucking confused. The pitfalls in his psyche may be many and varied, but he'd thought he’d fixed some of them - or at least boarded them over. Apparently not.

 

It’s ironic - or perhaps just fucked up - that he’s perfectly comfortable with Fundin’s company on the battlefield. Switch the setting to something domestic and honest, and he falls apart like a faulty kunai tower.

 

The direct trigger of the episode is, ultimately, unimportant. He’d be wise to meditate on it, sure, but he doesn’t want to. So he won’t. There are other things to do, less whiny, sweaty things, such as spying for example. His body is aching and buzzing with nervous energy, and the absolute last thing he wants to do is spend more time in his head. Especially when there is important intel to be ferreted out - in his very Mountain.

 

It's not at all a trivial concern. The Dwarves won’t last a year if they don’t get a spy into the Mines to observe the Enemy numbers, their equipment, resources, their beliefs and weaknesses. The very notion of a Dwarven spy is a morbid joke. Itachi is their only hope.

 

Which is not to say that Itachi isn’t terribly curious about this new enemy, because he is. They’re good, thrillingly so, interestingly so, and they fight with abandon that he has to admire as a fellow reckless maniac.

 

Also, they are in league with the Orcs. Which just blows his mind on every single level. From what little he’s seen of the men, they’re, well, dignified. In that, they have indeed heard of and possess a modicum of dignity. If he had to imagine what type of human would willingly fight on the side of the Orcs, it would either be slaves the same Orcs tortured to insanity and then let loose on the enemies, or utterly depraved, barbaric dregs of humanity who got off on complete and utter destruction and death. These warriors fell into none of these categories. They killed, and fought viciously and underhandedly, and didn’t shy away from death, but they looked to be pretty sane, overall. The few he had encountered personally at least didn’t have the glint in their eyes that indicated sadism indulged in the extreme.

 

They must be in the Mines. The Orcs have a secret way in that they use to cart in their captives and presumably reinforcements, so the Men must have used the same. So, he simply needs to get down there.

 

Hunky fucking dory. Now he only needs to figure out how to manage that. Even setting aside the , frankly, traumatizing events of the previous time he stepped foot in the Mines, he doesn’t have a way in. If the enormous fucking staircase is not guarded to hell and back, Itachi will eat his swords.

 

The answer is, sadly, obvious, no matter how little he likes it. The Dwarves have been using small, secret tunnels to send their units into the Mountain. Which means Fundin. Several long moments go by in intense resentment of the situation. If winter wasn’t around the fucking corner, he  could’ve just spied on them from the comfort of the nearest high surface.

 

Unfortunately, or fortunately, as the case may be, the Dwarves aren’t crazy enough to tax their forces even further by continuing their attacks, when they have oh so many other things to wrap up. If last winter was harrowing, what with constant needling attacks by the Orcs, this Winter will be hell. The men are smart enough to not bother with repetitive frontline attacks, but instead try their hand at sneak-attacks, poisoning the water supply, general sabotage and so on. If the Dwarves don’t wall in themselves properly, they will be beyond Itachi’s help.

 

***

 

Gathering his courage, though, is neither quick nor painless. Communicating via scribbled notes doesn’t mesh well with the levels of anxiety he’s got going on. It’s too slow, the time between question and reply too long, and all the while he can feel the eyes on him. Silevon, bless him, took pains to look away nonchalantly whenever they were communicating in this manner. Which was partly because the Elf is also an awkward duck, but partly because he knew well what a head-case Itachi is. Fundin, for all his kind nature, doesn’t know how overwhelmingly coo-coo his occasional dinner-guest is.

 

Well, he has something of a clue now, but nowhere near enough. He tries to treat Itachi with kindness and respect, which it’s obvious and heartwarming but also sometimes comes off as pressure when Itachi can’t respond properly, caught in one bout of anxiety or another.

 

Not that there is an alternative, honestly. He needs that information, and honestly, he needs to get used to being around the Dwarves.

 

Pre-prepared answers and questions would help, wouldn’t they? He’s a clever guy, he can more or less guess what the bulk of their conversation will be like. And it’s not like he’s making a social visit. A quick in-and-out, grab the locations of the hidden doors and then off he goes.

 

A list. He needs a list.

 

***

 

Slinking back into the Dwarven settlement feels both like victory and defeat. The restless ache in his belly is matched with a fluttering of pride - even anticipation. The entire evening will likely prove to be uncomfortable in the extreme, but it will also be a step in the right direction, both mission-wise and sanity-wise. The only way, he repeats ad nauseam, to get better at talking to people is to talk to people.

 

With how keyed in he is, the Dwarves don’t have a Genin’s chance in Iwa of noticing him. It’s not stalling, it’s stealth-training. He may have been invited, hell, Fundin may already have a preliminary contract for him, but someday that might not be the case, and it’s always good to be on top of your stealth-game.

 

Pathetic as lies can get, really.

 

Father must be looking over him when he’s finally arrived in front of the tent, wringing his hands like a teenager with a crush, Fundin is present, awake and alone. That’s - convenient.

 

He can’t stay in front of the tent, and he was kind of invited, so - he could go inside. Movements embarrassingly halting and jerky, he steps inside the softly illuminated tent and forces his eyes to meet Fundin’s amused ones.

 

“Itachi, lad,” he says, Chakra rippling with good humour. “You’re a welcome sight. Come in, come in, make yourself comfortable. ” He motions him inside, standing from the table.

 

“I don’t have anything other than water or ale to offer, I’m afraid. My boys are with the Princes, and we’ve already eaten. I can send someone if you’d care for some food?”

 

The absolute last thing he wants right now is food, and his mouth twists at the very notion. Fundin huffs a laugh. “Can’t say I expected you to, but it’s only polite to ask.”

 

“Now, then,” He waits until Itachi is seated, and bustles off to get the drinks. “We’ve a few things to discuss, don’t we. I have news from the debriefing, as paltry as it may be, and I’ve spoken to the King and Lord Nain about your potential position in our ranks.”

 

“But first,” he says, placing a wonderfully intricate steel glasses on the table, with a plate of something that looks to be biscuits. “I imagine you’ve news or questions of your own. As much as I enjoy your company, I doubt this is purely a social call.”

 

Itachi sits, dazed from the outpouring of welcome and good cheer. Thankfully, the Dwarf must have cottoned on that the weight of his attention is more than Itachi can handle right now, because he busies himself around the tent, placing a heavy bundle of paper on the table, a pot of ink and some infernal feathers, humming under his breath, giving Itachi some time to compose himself.

 

Deep breath. In - out. In - out. Good. You’re halfway to sane already, isn’t that something.

 

To buy some time he opens the leather bag he has slung around his shoulders, and takes out first the host-gift, then his writing supplies, and finally the pre-prepared bits of parchment with questions.

 

With some more time to prepare, his host-gift is better thought out. It’s a leather and linen document case, a fine piece he’s made with Silevon in mind before he settled on the coat. He arranges his brushes carefully, and slides the gift towards Fundin with a half-bow and tries not to be as uncoordinated as he feels.

 

The whimsical humming stutters to a stop, and if Itachi wasn’t such a coward, he’d look up to see Fundin’s reaction. Since he is, in fact, a cowardly coward that cowers, his eyes are trained on the table. It’s not that he doubts the gift itself - it’s perfectly fine, especially for a ceremonial gift - but. He’s given a gift, something that he’s made with his own two hands to a Dwarf - a Builder! It’s inevitably going to be pathetic in comparison.

 

“Lad, Itachi, this is…” He trails off, Chakra rippling with shock and - guilt? “Is this your own work?”

 

The incredulous tone and the random question throw some of the confusion off. Of course it’s Itachi’s work, whose could it be? Prince Frerin’s gift got confiscated within the day, he’s not putting his host in that position.

 

It’s enough to help him gather some courage and meet Fundin’s eyes. The old Dwarf looks as conflicted as he’s ever seen him, and even slightly - embarrassed?

 

“Listen, lad, I’m flattered, really. You’re a wonderful young Dwarf, and someday you will make someone very happy, but you’re - lad, you’re younger than my sons. I can’t - I hope you didn’t think I expected - I wasn’t - I just wanted - ”

 

Itachi, truly lost now, watches the stoic old gentledwarf break into a blush, Chakra screaming guilt and shame. Alright. It seems he isn’t the only one destined to fall into a strange episode during these little meetings.

 

He holds a hand up, interrupting the increasingly harried stutters, and reaches for his inks. He’d planned carefully, but not even his lists and forethought could’ve resulted in having a pre-prepared answer for this.

 

‘What.’ He scribbles, as fast as he physically can, because Fundin is throwing off some truly concerning vibes. He doesn’t even have a better question to ask. Just - what?

 

Fundin grabs the paper like his life depends on it, and stares at the single word like Itachi has just offered him the solution to all of his troubles. He reads it a time or twenty, and takes in a deep breath, a blank mask sliding into place, only slightly undermined by the crimson blush high on his cheekbones.

 

“I’m sorry lad - I shouldn’t have assumed. Of course you don’t know-” he breaks off, inhales sharply, and his Chakra settles into something less hysterical and a great deal more sad.

 

“Itachi, lad, are you aware of the significance of a gift a Dwarf might give another eligible, single Dwarf?”

 

Hold the fucking show. Eligible? Single? Dread starts creeping up Itachi’s spine. Of all the complications he had feared -

 

‘It’s a host-gift. You’re the host. I’m a guest. Guests give their hosts host-gifts. As thanks.’

 

His note is as choppy as his thoughts are. It’s all very appropriate.

 

Fundin’s face is as serene as a block of ice, and his Chakra stills, before smoothing out into an artificial calm. Huh, Fundin’s got some Chakra training, conscious or not. Now if his mind were kind enough to continue moving along that nice, safe direction that would be excellent. It won’t of course, because his mind is many things, but kind wasn’t one of them.

 

The Dwarf inhales once more, the intensity of his gaze belying the carefully constructed impassivity of his expression.

 

“Listen, lad, I’m going to be honest with you. You’ve, by our ways, just offered me a courting-gift. I don’t know - you know what? I won’t ask. I just - You have to know this.”

 

Itachi blinks at him. There’s nothing to say here, nothing to reply to. Its too ridiculous to even give any thought to, much less take seriously.

 

’I gave gifts to the Royal siblings. And the children. I’m pretty sure there’s not a single Dwarfling I haven’t given gifts to, over the years. And you. I gave you gifts last time I visited. Host-gifts. For the host.’

 

Still as impassive as ever, Fundin nods at him, a furrow appearing in his brow. “As for the royals, you’ve never gave them anything in person. You declare your intention to court a Dwarf by bringing them a gift, made by your own hand. If your intended is of age, you address them directly, if not, you address the head of their family. I’m both, as it happens. As for the gifts you brought us last time, - they were supplies, lad, a bolt of fabric and some food. Today you’ve presented me with a finished piece, in the craft you claim as your own. That’s - important. To us.”

 

Another blink. He doesn’t even - he’s not even embarrassed. It’s too ridiculous. Courting? What?

 

‘I apologize for the misunderstanding. I meant to honour you, thank you for inviting me. Host-gifts were taught to me to be a common courtesy.’

 

“I gathered as much. Just - no gifts, alright? If you want to give something made from your hands to a friend, you trade for it, even if it’s only a ceremonial exchange. I’ve traded a set of blades for a ribbon, once. It’s - cultural. Children are fine, but it would be polite to give the gift to the parents, and then they would pass it on if it’s appropriate.”

 

Some of the impassivity melts from his face, and the old Dwarf lets his frame sag. “I'm too old for this, lad. You near gave me a heart-attack. But listen, you’re - hm. Listen. Okay. So.” He takes in a deep breath, visibly gathering composure, acute embarrassment all but radiating from his skin.

 

“If you plan on staying with us for any length of time, you will be - The other Dwarves might.” He sighs, slumping in his seat. “I didn’t plan on having to explain this. If Narila was here - never mind.”

 

“I can only be blunt lad. You will get courting-gifts if you only sit tight for long enough to be presented with them. You’re a - hero - to our people. Some will be too intimidated to approach you - most will - but there’s a good amount of Dwarves with little sense who think with things other than their brains if you excuse my language.”

 

Blink. Blink. Blink.

 

‘I don’t have to accept them if I understood you correctly?’

 

“Of course not. You - I -” Inhale, exhale. “You don’t have to do a damn thing, lad. But - you might - want to? Maybe? Not yet, of course, not for another couple of decades, and even then -” Inhale, exhale. “Alright, how about this. I would be willing, if you want, to handle such matters in your stead, with your written permission. Above-board stuff, contracts, witnesses, all that.”

 

Itachi’s head throbs. Courting? Contracts? What?

 

‘I feel you might be - over-exaggerating. You’re in a war. I’m in a war by proxy. Who thinks about such things in a time like this?’

 

Fundin sighs. “I don’t know how to explain - you’re a good lad, but you’re new to our ways. I don’t want to scare you away, and I fear that that’s exactly what I’m doing here. But I have to be honest with you, for my own soul’s sake.” Another significant pause. At least they’re getting less frequent? “Don’t take this the wrong way, I’m a widowed Dwarf, and I have no interest in you or anyone else. I have no rat in this race, as it were. I’m telling you as a friend. You’re a fetching lad, famous for courage and honour, incredibly skilled, and our Maker’s favourite. You’re an incredibly valuable figure, and there is no shortage of Dwarves that will want to bind you to their families in whatever way they can. Even if we disregard things like romance and such notions, your political and social value cannot be overstated.”

 

Fuck this.

 

‘You handle it, then. I am, apparently, not of-age to court, and you’ve been nothing but helpful so far. But keep in mind, I am not your King’s subject - or your own, for that matter. Your laws have very little hold on me, other than what I voluntarily choose to allow. If anyone tries to trap me against my will, there is nothing you or anyone can do to prevent me from leaving. That’s just a fact.’

 

“Alright, lad. We’ll - we’ll continue this discussion when Balin writes up the appropriate documents. Maker’s mercy, I didnae expect my night to go this way.”

 

You and me both buddy. Itachi’s only saving grace is that the whole situation is so - inappropriately hilarious, that his over-active shame-impulse doesn’t have anything to grab onto.

 

‘Indeed. Moving on to more pressing issues, then. I came to take you up on your offer of information. Namely, the hidden doors into the Mines. At this time, I am only familiar with the staircase next to the Gate, which is under heavy guard.’

 

Fundin is apparently just as ready to leave the uncomfortable topics behind them, and he jumps on the change.

 

“I can write you a map of those, no issue there. Note how I’m carefully not asking your plans. To be perfectly frank with you, I am happy to believe your interest to be of a purely academical nature.” He says, a bitter little smile punctuated the end of that statement, and Itachi has learned by now to take his blessings where he can and avoid that particular emotional pitfall.

 

“In other news,” continues the Dwarf, visibly shaking off his morose thoughts. “We’ve vanishingly little knowledge about our new foe, other than they’re mannish servants of the Enemy, likely from Rhûn in the East, or Harad in the South. We’ve had little dealings with them if any, so we don’t know more.”

 

Itachi shrugs, unconcerned. He wouldn’t trust second-hand information regardless. The Dwarves have proven to have deep-set prejudices against at least one sentient race, and from what he’s read between the lines, the Elves are guilty of the same. Unless Mother or Father weigh in on the issue, he’s going to rely solely on his own council.

 

’No matter. Even if you were familiar with them, it wouldn’t explain how they came to be here, and why the Orcs are suffering them to live. Or, indeed, why the Men are suffering the Orcs to live.’

 

A deep scowl flashes over Fundin’s features before it’s wiped away. “It’s certainly nothing we’d expected. We won’t know more until we clash with them a few more times. Which will, Mahal-willing, not be before Spring. From what I’ve seen of the men, their armour and fighting-style aren’t geared towards cold-protection. Our Maker has made us sturdy and unaffected by such matters, but the Men have little such protection - hopefully.”

 

That is an excellent point, actually. Winters at the Mountain are deadly, vicious things. The men rely on speed, and their gear is appropriate for that. Perhaps they came prepared, but there is a clear advantage there.

 

‘That is true.’ He writes slowly, thinking through the implications. ‘I imagine you will also be busy preparing for the winter and won’t be sending units to the Mines?’ Fuck, but he hopes they don’t. Even on the Dwarven turf, the Men were incredibly dangerous foes. If they lose the tactical advantage, they’re fucked.

 

Fundin grunts, or sighs, it could be either, really. “Aye, lad. We have plenty to keep us busy, chief concern being throwing together proper fortification for the civilians. We can’t afford to split our forces like last year, and you apparently won’t be here to keep our pebbles safe from wolves and tigers and Durin knows what else roams the damn forest.”

 

Pebbles? What a strange thing to say.

 

‘Indeed. I won’t be available for a few weeks at the very least, but likely around a month. My home in the Mountain has thus far remained safe, so in case your King isn’t amenable to granting me entry into the civilian Settlement, I will remain there.’

 

“Ach!” Fundin shakes his head furiously. “I completely forgot. I had an audience with King Thrain and Lord Nain, and they’re in complete agreement with my proposal. A contract is in the works, written by both my son Balin and Lord Nain’s wife, Lady Darla. I am, of course, there to oversee the contract and make sure it’s to everyone’s satisfaction.”

 

Huh. That is - suspicious as fuck, but also good news.

 

Before he has time to scribble whatever vague reply he ended up with, Fundin clears his throat, in a slightly cautious manner. “Ah, and there’s also the matter of Iglishmêk.” He pauses, obviously uncomfortable, but forges on. “Balin suggested that you might benefit from learning Iglishmêk, sign language we use, that most every Dwarf in the Settlement is proficient in. It might, ah, ease your communication issue.”

 

How very diplomatic. Every Dwarf in the Settlement, carefully not implying nor offering any opinion on Itachi’s utter lack of cultural heritage. That doesn’t mean his suggestion isn’t a stroke of genius.

 

‘I would be in your debt, yours and your son’s.’ He hesitates, before continuing to write. It’s best to not have any outstanding debts at this time. ‘I would be willing to offer lessons in turn, in whatever fashion my instructor would require. If that’s not appropriate, because of my lack of official qualification, I could offer some of my work instead. Linen cloth, leathers, furs, things of that nature. Thirdly, I could provide whatever items from the mountain you might require - I have free access to the upper levels and am familiar with the area. I’m confident I could locate the item reliably.’

 

There. Nice and proper and with little room for a misunderstanding.

 

Fundin’s Chakra ripples with amusement. “Lad, you underestimate our gratitude. Every one of us would instruct you and be glad for the privilege. But I understand the impulse to keep everything above-board. Another contract, do you think? And who would you be comfortable with as an instructor?”

 

Itachi shrugs, a bit self-conscious now. ‘Would you be willing to arrange it, also? I have no preference as to the instructor so I suppose it would be whoever would be best served with my services?’

 

Fundin nods, eyes far away. “I would love to. So we’re up to three contracts, now. Balin will be delighted. He’s only gotten his Mastership a few years ago, and already he’s working with such distinguished figures.

 

Itachi snorts. ‘I’m sure.’ Oh, bother. ‘In the spirit of complete honesty and transparency, should I offer compensation for your son’s work?’

 

“Absolutely not, lad. He’s doing his job, and is compensated by the Crown.” Fundin’s eyes twinkle, honest to Sage, twinkle. “You underestimate your fame, Itachi lad. You honour our family by relying on us in such delicate matters. Balin is getting work far above his seniority, because of you.”

 

Right.

 

***

 

“Before you go, lad, just one more thing.”

 

Mother’s mercy, what now.

 

“I would like to, if you agree, of course, to introduce you to some close friends of mine, when and if you have the time for such things.” The Dwarf pauses, gauging Itachi’s reaction, which, good luck with that. Itachi has precisely zero idea what he’s feeling on a good day, never mind now.

 

‘Why?’ He writes, wincing slightly at how rude it looks. It’s efficient though, and the word encapsulates a lot of what he’s feeling right now.

 

Fundin smile is a perfectly sphinx-like expression that sits oddly on his broad and weathered face. “Well, there are many reasons. I know a lot of Dwarves that would love to meet you, for one. Two, I think you, personally, could benefit from a larger selection of Dwarves in your life, especially those closer to your own age. Three, from the little I have come to know you, you don’t seem the sort to enjoy your near-mythical fame, and meeting some Dwarves in person is a good way to dispel that fame.”

 

He hesitates slightly eyes scanning Itachi carefully. He’s nervous about four.

 

“Four, I hope to give you some friends, some real connections so you have a good reason to take care of yourself. I have had enough soldiers under my command to know what tends to happen to those that have no anchors in their life to pull them back when necessary.”

 

Holy shit, okay. That was - blunt.

 

‘I don’t mind, honestly, but I’m also not very stable, especially in bigger groups. There’s also the matter of communication to consider. Whoever you think would like to meet me should know those things. That I will bolt if I’m overwhelmed, and I can’t always predict when that might happen. That I am going to be difficult to communicate with, and that I’m honestly nothing special.’

 

Blunt for blunt - that’s fair, right?

 

Fundin nods, not a hint of amusement present in his face or Chakra. He expected some sort of joke or something, but no, the old Dwarf reads the whole thing and nods firmly.

 

“Alright, lad, thank you for your honesty. I will abide by your wishes, and will only introduce you to those people that I believe will follow your conditions to the letter.”

 

Conditions? Who said anything about conditions? Itachi just wanted to save Fundin some embarrassment, and warn him beforehand that he’s organizing playdates with a person whose a few kunai short of a full brace.

 

***

 

Itachi begs off quickly after that, strangely at peace, a comprehensive map of the mountain in his hands detailing the location and opening mechanisms of the doors. Disregarding the initial bit of weirdness, Dwarven propensity towards contracts works well with Itachi. He’s well aware of his lacking people-skills, and making deals verbally never once failed to end in tragedy. He knows now where he stands. He’s also on the way to make a proper friend, and Fundin is an excellent contact within the Dwarves.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

***

Gathering supplies for an extended stay in the Mines is almost nostalgic. His movements are rote, as he gets ready. The main upgrade to his gear is a large leather pack filled with food and bandages and, predictably, projectile weapons. Why it’s taken so long to think of such a straightforward solution to many, many worries, is beyond him. Yes, it limits his mobility some, but it’s more important than ever to be properly supplied, now that his movements in the Mines will be exponentially more dangerous.

After packing, the first thing to do is to examine each and every secret door that Fundin marked on the map, and set up some strategically placed bolt-holes. There are eight doors all in all, and he hopes to Father that they won’t deposit him too deep into the Mines. The first ten or so levels are safe enough, but he really isn’t comfortable with going any lower than that.

A whole week is spent in setting up three hidden camps to his satisfaction. It’s dull work, but he’s learned by now about the importance of having a safe place to retreat to and lick his wounds in peace.

In the end, choosing which entrance to use is arbitrary. It’s vanishingly likely the first one will be appropriate, anyway. So, he picks the one with the most beautiful door.

***

The corridor is a narrow, winding thing, empty of all life, and it deposits him on the second-highest level of the mines. It would be perfect if it wasn’t too well guarded for Itachi to have the slightest chance of infiltration. It’s a residential area with a beautifully high ceiling which would be perfect, if not for the multitude of human Chakra-signatures.

The second and third corridors are equally unusable, but the fourth deposits him in the deep part of the Mine, not far away from the place Itachi first woke up in. The giant staircase is somehow even larger than what he remembers from decades ago, but other than the Demon’s presence being that much stronger, it’s very convenient. He wrestles his heart into control, clenches his shaking jaw and starts sneaking.

***

The Orcs - or the Men - haven’t thought it important to guard the entrance into the upper levels of the Mines, which is fair enough, really. That doesn’t mean it’s in any way easy to stay out of sight.

Where before the Orcs were concentrated to the upper levels, they are now absolutely everywhere. He had to take to the ceilings immediately, to avoid Orcs crawling about in their thousands. It’s plain alarming, not only how numerous they are, but how eerily disciplined. They barely shriek now and don’t dare to do much more than scuffle. He hasn’t seen a single human yet, but the parts where he can move safely are very few. Only the large chambers with high ceilings are safe.

Finding a path to the lake takes some creative thinking, as previously deserted chambers and corridors are now filled with restless Orcs. If they had their wolf-mounts with them, he’d have no chance. As it is, he manages to reach his Lake after two long days.

It would be immeasurably simpler if he could kill Orcs that stand in his way, but with how well they’re behaving, the appearance of corpses will be suspicious, and he has no easy place to stash the corpses.

***

The Lake is as pristine as he remembers it. The resources are paltry as expected since they brought everything they could with them when they escaped. The stash of weapons is pleasing, though. Even after all these years, his initial months of intense scavenging make his life better.

He doesn’t really want to dally here, though. Just long enough to fish up some food, salt it and set it aside. Forty or so large fish will do. His bandages are limited to what he brought himself, but he hopes to avoid any fighting if at all possible.

***

It takes almost a full week to find a suitable path from the Lake to the upper levels where the men are situated. He ends up following the wire-paths he built for Silevon, mostly because they were placed in conveniently high chambers and tunnels.

On the fourth level down, he still hadn’t encountered a single human. He has, however, spotted the White Orc - Azog, as Silevon speculated the Orcs name was. And what a wild concept that was, Orcs having names. If they weren’t so happy to eat children - and each other - he’d have been uncomfortable with that level of individuality in the monsters. It implied a level of self-awareness he genuinely didn’t think the Orcs were capable of. Alas, self-aware or not, they do in fact consider baby-bones to be the height of fashion, so his mind is blessedly free from any moral quandaries.

Azog is - in a bad way. He is no smaller or weaker than he remembers him to be, nor any less wickedly cunning, but it’s clear that he is no longer truly in command. No, that dubious honour falls to whoever was whipping the Orc on the regular. Livid marks criss-cross the Orcs broad back, and one of his eyes is missing. There are shackles on his wrists, thick grotesque things that were obviously used to humiliate, but also to subdue.

A strange cocktail of emotions rushes through Itachi, entirely involuntarily. It had to be one of the humans that did this. It’s - fucked up, no matter how he looks at it. Azog is a monster, no doubt, but he is also a creation, a product, a result. His monstrous-ness was bred into him on purpose and by design. There is no point in debating the matter of free-will, and Itachi still very much wants to kill him, but this is - worse. This is torture. Which, yeah, Itachi has zero (0) stones to throw, considering the sheer volume of fucked up things he himself had done to much less deserving targets, but still. It doesn’t sit well with him. He will kill the Orcs someday, but it’s going to have an element of mercy, now. Which doesn’t, strangely enough, make him feel any better.

What a fucked up situation. Is it wrong to torture a torturer? Is it wrong to be monstrous to a monster?

Enough.

Whatever the case may be, the Men are clearly in charge now. Azog isn’t subdued as such, there is likely nothing in him but hate and anger, but obedience must be bred into him as well. He polices his Orcs with ruthlessness Itachi hadn’t seen so far, and he patrols the chambers relentlessly.

Now, where are the men? He dares to flex his Chakra sense slightly, just enough to include the level above. Ah. Hello, humans.

Not a single Orkish signature to be found, as far as he can tell. Humans, though, in their hundreds. They’re segmented in a way that suggests being divided into units. It’s an army-camp there, then?

Considering the impossible logistics of it all gives Itachi a headache, so he doesn’t bother. The main thing now is to find a way to sneak inside. He knows several ways up, and only one includes a high enough ceiling for him to scale without the guards noticing him.

Joy.

***

He does, in the end, manage. The guards have shifts, and just before the last shift ends, the soldiers' attention is low enough that Itachi dares to lizard across the ceiling into the large chamber.

Huh. An army indeed.

The first thing he notices is how clean everything is. Since he knows this part of the mountain only from when the Orcs were the only inhabitants, it’s surprising now to notice the glaring lack of bone-piles, rotting corpses strewn about, and the general filth Orcs produce. Now, the floors are more or less clean, the stench is decidedly diminished, and the chamber is turned into a neat army camp, tents and all.

There are about one hundred and twenty men in this chamber, divided into four groups of thirty. The atmosphere is orderly but not stifling. Apart from the guards, the Men are milling about their tasks. A large area is set up as a training ring, and nine pairs of men do their best to bludgeon each other to death. A drill-sergeant of some sort sits to the side and barks instructions, with a stern but ultimately non-violent manner.

It’s all very - normal. The discipline is higher than he’d seen in an army-camp but there are still men sitting about here and there in small groups, eating or chatting in low tones.

Itachi is very unsettled. He was hoping for some horror-show of cruelty, some clear weakness he could take advantage of. So far they seem more like ANBU than anything else.

He doesn’t dare stay longer, for fear of discovery. He waits until the guards are most distracted, and slinks away.

***

They are definitely dangerous, he thinks, settling down into a pseudo-meditative state, safe at his lake.

What do you know? What did you see?

They’re a vastly superior version of the men he’s seen before. He chides himself immediately for the unfair comparison. Itachi has, until now, seen less than a hundred men, all of them slaves in the mines. It’s unfair to compare torture victims to warriors in their prime.

But, even if he were to imagine the captives as the best versions of themselves, they would still be less impressive. These warriors were - powerful. Tall, and dark-skinned, varying from shade or two darker than Kumo Shinobi to a deep brown he’s not encountered so far. He can’t deny he’s envious. His pale skin certainly does him no favours when trying to blend into the shadows.

Their equipment is of excellent quality, although it speaks of wealth rather than extraordinary skill. Its the level of craftsmanship he’d expect from a non-Chakra-using species, and not even the best one. Nevertheless, just because the gear isn’t superb doesn’t make it anything less than excellent. The materials are all of high quality as well.

The flamboyant design doesn’t detract a lot from the practicality, aside from how noticeable they are. The leather and metal pieces are beautifully made, and more often than not engraved with wonderfully intricate designs. Still, there is an illusion of impracticality that is entirely false. The eye is distracted by the engravings and the flashy colours, so it misses the cleverly hidden sheaths and brutally practical streamlined lines of the armour. It’s all misdirection. He approves of the Shinobi-like mind-set.

In this, he’s reminded of the Orochi. For all their near-mythical levels of lethality, their armour was said to be flashy as fuck. Reds were prevalent, as were purples, greens and golds.

The men have clearly divided the mountain. They don’t really guard the mines, apart from the main level but they’re alert, disciplined and are keeping a close eye on the Orcs.

***

It takes about two weeks more to find his way to the largest chamber, underneath the Main Gate. He couldn’t return to his lake since he started moving through the areas occupied by humans, which left him irritatingly weakened. He slept on the highest darkest corner he can find when he absolutely had to, and less said about the acrobatics getting to a water-source required, the better. Sometimes he lucked out and managed to sneak into a house inaccessible to the men, but nowhere near as often he’d like.

Thank fuck, but his go-to bolt-hole in the large Chamber is still available. He sleeps for a solid twelve hours, once he reaches the oasis of safety, and spends another twelve on meditation to get himself where he should be. It's truly a stroke of luck to have the safe-house, so he can afford to settle in here and observe the army to his heart’s content. The men have no Chakra-sensing abilities, nor any animals that can track Itachi by scent. As long as he stays inside, he’s golden. There’s water here, enough food to last him two weeks, and so he settles in to wait.

He’d come to expect that the look and feel of the place are very different, and he’s not disappointed. Whoever these men are, they’re rich, patient and take pains to showcase their wealth. The hierarchy, as far as he can tell is fairly rigid, with the foot-soldiers in the level just above the Orcs, and the officers and such setting up camp in this level.

The hierarchy directly correlates with the grandeur. The opulence grows exponentially, and the tent of, what is likely the guy in charge, is ridiculous. It’s only a tent in a very loose approximation of the term, in that its walls are made out of cloth. Other than that, it’s just a portable palace, more or less. Golds, reds and purples are the theme, as per the norm, and it’s highest point it’s over ten meters high, with several smaller wings swanning from the centre.

As for the command-structure, well, it’s as obvious as it is deeply fucked up. There is a Commander, the most worrying of the lot, who has six Captains, or Generals or something along those lines. They’re all youngish men, some obviously warriors, some with the look of a pampered noble, each and every one in different stages of complete lunacy.

In a way, it’s a good thing? Whatever stereotypical evil Itachi hoped to see in the soldiers, the men in charge made up for it in spades.

The Commander is, obviously, the worst of the lot. Everything he does, everything he is, reminds him starkly of Danzou. Beginning with the obvious seal-work on his skin.

The man is tall, old, and covered head to foot in swirling black marks that have Chakra dripping from them. Notably, it’s Chakra that doesn’t match the man’s signature, which is disturbing as fuck. He’s channelling some energy, or some energy is channelled through him, its very unclear how it all works.

But, whatever the cause, the man is a lunatic. A functional, sadistic, textbook-evil, lunatic.

***

When he first managed to slither inside the main chamber, he knew this could be his one and only shot at getting some good intel. The soldiers are ultimately unimportant since it’s obvious they follow the chain of command fanatically. So, the only way to know anything is to figure out what the guy in charge is like.

After the first day of observing said chain of command, a lot of Itachi’s moral quandaries are settled. For all that he had come to appreciate the soldiers, for all that he genuinely liked their sense of style, their skill in battle, their quiet, affable nature, they also are completely a-okay with keeping slaves.

Not like the Orcs did, oh no. These unfortunate souls are subdued, broken in a way that makes their situation much, much more twisted. They’re communal goods, but only for the upper class - or the officer-class, it’s hard to tell, and their living conditions are, comparatively speaking, better than they could’ve been. They have their cots, they have free access to food and water, and they’re not killed on the regular like they would’ve been under Orkish command.

For all that, the empty-eyed men and women are more of a - commodity. They’re not servants, in the traditional sense. The soldiers clean and cook for the most part. The captives, let’s call them, are there purely as pleasurable past-time.

How they’re kept in line, Itachi doesn’t know. He suspects drugs of some sort. They’re all pinnacles of beauty and strength, obvious muscles and long, sleek lines, power in every move they make. Apart from purely aesthetically-oriented chains, they go about unrestrained. What fucked up method was used to suppress their will to that extent, Itachi doesn’t know, and hopes to Father that nobody else does, except these here men that he will kill himself. The knowledge, Mother willing, dies with these assholes.

***

The first horribly monstrous thing happens before long. Whether this is a regular thing, or if he is just lucky - if it’s luck that could orchestrate something like this - doesn’t matter. But on the fifth day of his spying operation, their Commander has some sort of epiphany, or a fit, or something in that vein, and promptly gives up the reigns of passable-sanity.

The already tense atmosphere in the Chamber freezes. Fear and anticipation and fanaticism is thick in the air as a man - a soldier, Itachi is almost certain - bound and gagged is set onto a platform. The Commander then proceeds to put on a real-life honest-to-fuck human sacrificial ritual. The worst part - fuck, there are so, so many worst parts, everything this fucking guy does is in a very tangible way, the worst part - the most dangerous part of that whole shebang is that it - works.

The Commander, a now shaking, convulsing frothing figure on the floor, is obviously channelling some sort of energy that is consuming the dying man’s Chakra. Its also visually very dramatic, with black clouds and swirling shapes, and blood being sucked into the stone, leaving a corpse that very much resembles a prune.

So that happened. It’s - what? Blood magic? Is that a thing here? The proof is somewhat conclusive, especially since Itachi, idiot that he is, forgot to turn off his Sharingan, and will now recall this gruesome fucking horror show for the rest of his days.

Alright, it’s disassociation time. What did you see? Apart from the obvious, let’s never ever focus on the obvious ever again.

The marks on the Commander - they were moving, swirling across his body, almost gaining the third dimension. So it could be some sort of - contract? With a - demon? Sage, he sounds like a child even to his own ear. Not that he has a better explanation. And fuck, Hidan had his own fucked up little game with a literal God of Death and Suffering, so what the fuck does Itachi know.

Whatever they did, whatever they summoned, it’s the source of their enhancements. The Commander and four of his six Captains are similarly marked, although the Captains emit a drastically weaker aura. So. It’s a cult, then. A black-magic cult. Fuck but he needs better terminology.

Another point in favour of a black-magic cult is the obvious rapture on the faces of the marked officers. Rapture isn’t the best term perhaps, as there is a degree of very aware malice to their twisted smiles. How he managed to stumble across people somehow more gruesome than Jashinists is anyone's guess, but whatever one might say about Hidan, his delight in killing and torture was innocent in a gruesome way. The results were ultimately the same, but it said something about these men, that the pain the sacrifice was feeling as he died was very much a part of the experience, irrespective of the swirling, toxic Chakra that touched them.

In the interest of preserving what little composure he has, he focuses instead on the other two Captains who are unadorned with the marks.

They’re both tall, powerful men, with long limbs packed with muscles. The first man looks - almost envious, although who he’s envious of is anyone’s guess. He’s restless under the blank facade, muscles clenching and unclenching, microscopic beads of sweat beading on his bare arms.

The second man, however, a stone-faced man with a striking sort of physique, too rough to be called beautiful but too symmetrical to be called plain. Now, that man looked honest to Sage bored. Nothing showed in his disturbingly pale eyes, other than - apathy, perhaps? Boredom?

It’s very disturbing, mostly because, in the face of such objectively unnatural workings unfolding in front of his eyes, the man sports a similar expression one might when confronted with a particularly wearisome bit of legislation, or perhaps a badly delivered sales-pitch.

The cultists are still in throes of rapture, and the Commander has managed to regain enough bodily autonomy to stop writing on the ground like the worm he is. He stands now, shivering, drenched in sweat, and with a feverish, demented look in his eyes. His voice is pleasant, at least, an incongruously soothing tenor, which works surprisingly well with delivering whatever cultish speech he spews. It’s not too long after that the marked captains leave to work off their ill-gotten energy in whatever depraved ways they have available to them, and the Commander approaches his two remaining captains.

The two men fall to one knee without hesitation, but their bodies are a study in contrasts. Where the first one is properly humble, spine perfectly curved in a show of supplication, the other one manages to - well, not parody the movement, but make a mockery of it still. The seemingly submissive position doesn’t at all make him relinquish any of the obvious power held in his body. Only to an untrained eye would his body appear relaxed, but it’s clear as day to Itachi this, like his attire and everything else, is all misdirection. The sense of danger, of a ruthless, competent fighter who is not to be trifled with - it’s present even with the man bowed low, kneeling and seemingly helpless.

Well. That there. That’s useful to know. The chain of command is not at all monolithic, is it? There are weaknesses there, exploitable weaknesses. The four cultists are barely human anymore, more automatons to carry out the commanders will without question. These two, though, these two are interesting.

The Commander shares Itachi’s interest. He’s fixed on the two figures, eying the stubborn man with both pleasure and hatred. And a whole lot of possessiveness. It’s genuinely baffling that any man can be so overwhelmingly disturbing.

He must have given them leave to rise because the two unfurl from their kneeling bows. Yet again, the two are a dichotomy. The servile man stands up slowly, uncertainly, consciously hunching over to make his imposing body look harmless. The second man, though, doesn’t even try to hide the fluidity of movement and the level of mastery he has over his body.

The conversation that follows is revealing, even if the language is, of course, incomprehensible. The Commander baits the men, obviously. Both of them are aware of it, and the first goes through his replies with a clumsily demure approach. It gets him nowhere, of course, but the second one, the interesting one, his replies are short, flat, almost dismissive in nature. He’s not defiant, is the thing. He just doesn’t care, at all.

It’s not surprising that the interesting man is dragged off somewhere, presumably to be punished in some way. He allows the manhandling of the obviously weaker men with aplomb, not once showing any emotion other than boredom.

The other unmarked stares at the scene with - envy? Not jealousy. The poor, twisted bastard looks to be, at least to Itachi’s eye, envious of the man being dragged off to fuck knows what.

Who the fuck are these people?

***

He’s set to leave after that. He’s gotten just about all the information he can stomach, and the - evil - is getting to him. The relatively peaceful years could’ve made him soft, it’s definitely one option. But the sheer wealth and breadth of casual depravity, it’s taxing on his mind. It’s especially hard to watch when contrasted to all the ways they’re not evil at all. The soldiers are, generally speaking, good people. They don’t bother the slaves, they talk and laugh and joke with each other. They do their job well and go to bed with every appearance of a clear conscience. The officers are a different batch of poison altogether. The cultish ones are, as he suspected, beyond gone. When Itachi speculated, some time ago, what type of human would side with the Orcs, it’s these men that he had in mind. There is nothing useful, good or worth keeping in them. Killing them shouldn’t prove too much of a hassle either, as they don’t seem an especially clever bunch.

The other two captains, the Nihilist and the Masochist are - dangerous in a way that Itachi is both worried and thrilled by. The Masochist is - he doesn’t know what the fuck that man is, how he’s still alive, and what his goals are, but whatever his needs are, they’re not met. Day after day he looks at the Commander with clear yearning and it’s just - how difficult could it be to get hurt? Provoking your lunatic Commander is no difficult task. If he just didn’t grovel as much as he did, he’d be all set.

The Nihilist is just as confusing. He’s easily the strongest fighter there, and he proves it whenever the Commander hassles him into a spar with varying number of opponents. He’s not enhanced, just strong, with preternaturally good instincts for battle, and a lifetime of skill behind him. He’s a genius, a prodigy pure and simple. In a pitched battle, if Itachi had access to his Chakra and ample space to move, they’d be about evenly matched. With the Sharingan, he could maybe win - maybe. Predicting an attack is of no use if he can’t match his speed or have the strength to compete. And the Nihilist is faster, bigger, stronger and older than he is.

The only question, then, is why the mad bastard is here? He obviously isn’t there for the black magic or whatever the Cult is about. The Commander baits and punishes and picks at him relentlessly, the other officers despise him, or fear him, or envy him, it doesn’t really matter. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t abuse the slaves, doesn’t have any romantic or physical relationship with a soldier under him - why is he there? It could potentially be the money, or power or somesuch banality but it’s not likely.

Setting the matter of the incomprehensible enemies aside, it’s obviously time to go. Now if only he could actually do so, that would be amazing.

***

Three weeks. Three fucking weeks of sneaking and slithering and slinking across ceilings, through tiny holes, over roofs and even through an abandoned sewer pipe. Still, he went in and out and has intel to show for it, and only a few utterly trivial Orc corpses left in his wake.

Triumphant success. Now if only the intel wasn’t as worrying as it was. He has some knowledge of the enemy, at least, about their numbers and strengths and temperament. Some concrete knowledge about their supply lines, for example, would be real nice. But he’s not picky. That he managed to sneak in is a miracle in of itself, and is likely due to the fact that the Enemy doesn’t know about the Wall-walking aspect of his Chakra-work.

A bath. A bath and fucking berries by the bucket. And the green-melon. And freshly cooked juicy meat. And and and.

***

 

 

Chapter Text

The first thing, the absolute first thing to do, is to spend an almost satyrical amount of time getting clean. It’s winter, still, thank the Sage he hadn’t spent as long as he feared in the dystopian hell-pit that the Mines have somehow become. Winter or not, his garden is flourishing, and he can absolutely spend four hours picking lavender and getting it ready for his after-bath rituals.

 

Honestly, it takes a ridiculous amount of time to get the filth out of his hair properly. It’s grown to its maximum length by now, roughly to slightly bellow his hip-bones, and the weeks he spent spying on the men without the possibility of cleaning himself properly have left him with an - interesting situation. If he doesn’t want to cut the matted, tangled locks that make his head look like the nest of a particularly lazy bird, he needs to think outside of the box here.

 

Fish-oil, then. Lots and lots of fish-oil and patience. He finds a shallow creek in direct sunlight and plops himself in the warm water, sunning himself like a frog while also soaking his hair in oil, in hopes it will get slippery enough to detangle easier. It does - up to a point. And thus a bizarrely ineffectual ritual starts, of soaking his hair in oil, detangling what he can, washing it out with soap, and starting the whole process anew. All the while wasting resources that are in no way easy to procure, when living in an abandoned Greenhouse of a besieged, monster-infected Fortress. Sage.

 

The armour he wore is, for once, completely undamaged. It needs some upkeep, naturally, but he hadn’t gotten so much as a scratch. The linen segments of it would be easier to replace than to clean, but that’s doable. It’s not like he hasn’t several other sets to use in the meantime.

 

Once he’s clean, armour taken care of, it’s time for the ultimate indulgence. Perfume.

 

It’s honestly the paramount sign of arrogance, to voluntarily apply distinctive, trackable scent onto your body. So much so that in his - admittedly short - life in the Elemental Nations, precisely one Shinobi was screwy enough to do so. To nobody’s surprise, it was Orochimaru. The Snake-Sannin had a penchant towards distinctive almond scent. It drove everyone around him to distraction - a long-haired, perfumed man wearing bulky, flashy clothes that was nonetheless an assassin without equal.

 

Now, Itachi is arrogant, yes, and his vanity is by now self-evident. He is also sufficiently divorced from his life in the Elemental Nations to indulge some of his more - fannish - impulses. Towards Orochimaru, for example. There is no point in denying it, not for him, not for most Uchiha. Orochimaru was their catnip, the contradiction they were bespelled by. On one hand, he was everything they believed strength to be: dignified, eloquent, beautiful, dangerous, noble. And yet, he was also irreverent, vain to the point of madness, dismissive of tradition for tradition’s sake, and most importantly, actively flaunting every single social norm he could.

 

Itachi - well. It’s not really possible to say what he believed, before, since he was an empty husk for most of those years. Now, though, now he had consciously and unconsciously started to mimic the Sanin to a considerable effect. The hair, the clothes, the thorough embracing of androgyny on all levels. The fucking perfume. The signs are there.

 

Sweet Amaterasu, what a wild concept. An Orochi-Uchiha Dwarf. What.

 

***

 

The cart Silevon made all those months ago is still present and in working condition. Since the following days are to be spent in one location and one location alone, he fills the whole damn thing with food, water and furs, dons his prettiest, most useless soft grey Yukata and off he goes.

 

He takes his time, winding up the stairs, marvelling at how quiet it is now that the men are keeping the Orcs in check. It’s winter still, so there is not much natural light, and without the shrieks and screams of Orcs, nor the pitched cacophony of battle, it’s calm like he hadn’t experienced in years. Since before he’d met Silevon, actually.

 

It would take him a few hours from his Clearing to the Shrine if he were to hurry. At the pace he set, lugging along a cart up all those fucking stairs, it takes him over a day. By the time he reaches Father’s shrine, his mood has improved by leaps and bounds. It’s absolutely worth the loss of supplies.

 

Father’s Shrine is as pristine as the day he’s made it. Dust doesn’t gather all that much, and Itachi doesn’t dare leave a mess behind whenever he visits. It’s been so long - years - since he visited purely for his own sake, just for the pleasure of Father’s company, and an unhurried bid for his advice. There are important worries now, yes, but they’re not so pressing that he cannot afford this.

 

“I’ve missed you.” He admits with ease. His voice is - distracting. It’s not a surprise that it’s raspy, wobbly and prone to breaking. What is odd is that it’s dropped, distractingly so. It could be a Dwarf thing. He adds it to his list of things to be dysphoric about and puts it out of his mind.

 

“Your children are - vexing.” A smile creeps on his face, and it sits oddly there. It’s been a long time since he’s had something to smile about. “They cause me no end of worry - and I, them.”

 

A ghostly hand rustles through his locks, and he sighs in contentment. His vocal cords ache and itch, unused to speaking, but it doesn’t matter. He has days ahead of nothing to do but spend time with his God and let him know of all the irritating things his children have done.

 

***

 

Refreshingly content with his lot in life, he’s feeling gracious enough to write down a comprehensive report about his findings. He includes everything his artificially eidetic mind can recall, from the important strategic information to the random trivia such as the men’s favoured drink and the type of fastening on their shoes. The result ends up being around thirty pages long, which is a bit much, but then again, he was asked to be a military consultant. And there is no such thing as useless information, especially when it regards a superior enemy you’ve absolutely no idea about.

 

He’s nowhere enough patience or free time to duplicate the massive report, but then again, the Dwarves have scribes and such, and that’s surely their job.

 

Feeling gracious, he fills several bags worth of berries and various sweet fruit his garden has to offer, and then it’s off to the Dwarves.

 

Since it’s still winter, and there are likely to be battles in the near future, he’s dressed in a streamlined version of his casual-armour. Pale leather boots, white linen variant of Hakama cut close to the leg, but not so tight to be considered leggings. Bandages tie them from ankle to knee to keep them in place. An equally white linen shirt is tucked into the high-waist of the Hakama, complete with a Kakashi-style white face-mask that covers his face to the nose. The leather pieces are pretty sparse, honestly, but cover the prominent weak-spots quite well. In accordance with the weather, he condescends to wear a leather coat on top. The helmet can go burn in Hell, because he’s just spent weeks upon weeks wearing the damn thing, and he’s not putting himself through that again so soon. His hair is tied up in a loose pony-tail, to further emphasize just how much he’s visiting in a civilian capacity. The swords detract from that statement, sure, but it’s not like he’s going to leave them in the Mountain.

 

 

***

 

Well. That is. A thing.

 

By some unholy magic, the Dwarves managed to build honest to Sage stone walls around the Settlement in the scant months Itachi has spent in the Mines.

 

He feels - strongly about this. They’re not at all trivial walls, either, approximately six meters high and half a meter wide, with a hastily thrown-together guard-tower every twenty meters or so. The gate, though, the gate is a work of art. Eight or so meters high, with three separate vertically-closing gates made out of iron. Three. Separate. Gates.

 

What.

 

All they’re missing is a fucking moat filled with whatever man-eating reptiles they have in this wackadoodle world and they’re good to go.

 

Bizarrely well-fortified gates aside, how in Father’s name did they manage this? Even assuming that it was mostly built by civilians, which is not at all unlikely, where did they get the materials? They couldn’t have imported all those thousands of tons of stone, surely. They had to have built a quarry.

 

Or perhaps accessed one that was there already.

 

Which is just. Did these assholes - were those expeditions into the mountain motherfucking scouting expeditions to find the fucking storage units? Did - while Itachi was perched in the ceilings like a gargoyle, oozing across the darkest, filthiest corners he could find - did the Dwarves actually have a scavenging operation going on? Have they been working on this for years on the fucking sly, and Itachi hadn’t noticed a goddamn thing?

 

What the actual fuck.

 

Because the stone used to build the wall, it’s nice. Not something they just randomly dug out of the ground - not that Itachi has ever in his life observed a stone quarry or has the first fucking clue about what goes on in there.

 

He has so many questions.

 

***

 

The army camp has nothing quite as ridiculous as the town has - yet. They’re in the process of erecting stone and iron palisade, which is entirely reasonable and could’ve been used elsewhere you crazy fucks. The gate is, entirely predictably, a monstrosity. It’s increasingly likely that the Dwarves have a fascination with gates that goes beyond what the mortal eye can see. On the positive side, at least the architect was somewhat reasonable in that they didn't insist on three gates, but settled for one.

 

One six-meter high, four-meters wide, double-sided wood and iron gate.

 

Why not?

 

A small part of him that isn’t gibbering is kind of vindicated by how ridiculous the gate looks like at this point. Only about a sixth of the palisade is finished, so the monstrosity just - stands there, unconnected to anything. Like an asshole.

 

Which isn’t fair. It’s all rather magnificent, truth be told. It’s once again made clear that the Dwarves, for all their bluster, are really ill-suited for war. This - silliness - with the town and the gates and the fucking walls, it’s a lunatic’s idea of what a siege looks like. You don’t besiege a castle by building another fucking castle right next to it and then outlasting them.

 

No matter. He came here for a reason, and that wasn’t to gape like a fishwife.

 

A young Dwarf in a soldiers uniform stands next to the ridiculous gate, Mother-willing not guiding the thing like a twit, which would be perhaps the most - diplomatic way to go about this. He could sneak in, dump his report on Fundin’s desk and spend the rest of his days cooing over bundled up Dwarflings playing in the snow, but he shouldn’t. He isn’t even sorely tempted, in truth.

 

He’s kind of - missed Fundin. A bit. He’s been on his mind, him and his bewildering insistence on helping Itachi become less deranged. Also, he’s in a disgustingly cheery mood, he’s completed his mission with suspicious levels of success, and he kind of wants to show off a little. Prove that Fundin wasn’t wrong to put his faith in him. That he can be a reliable, profitable ally when he wants to be.

 

Or something.

 

Either way, he ambles towards the guard, who is a million miles away, and doesn’t notice until there are less than three meters between them.

 

The kid is, well. A combination of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed that tries and fails at appearing serious and imposing - not at all an uncommon sight among teenagers of any race. Which, yeah, it’s bad luck that he now has to deal with Itachi, but he recovers fairly well. As it turns out, Fundin was proactive enough to spread the word about Itachi, and his possible presence at the camp, because the unnamed Dwarf stutters something unintelligible, turns on his heel and marches inside, glancing back every now and again to make sure Itachi is following.

 

Huh.

 

Itachi follows like a good guest, making sure to look around the army camp as he goes. The Army encampment has gotten some revamping, too, as if someone decided the Dwarves didn’t already have enough shit to make, they might as well pave some paths all nice and neat-like. A lot of the tents are replaced by wooden bungalow-type structures, and there are training rings every hundred meters. Which he knows, because his guide (!) took the scenic route to Fundin’s tent.

 

It’s the first time Itachi has had official sanction to be, well, anywhere, so he basks in the quaintness of it all.

 

Since it’s not at all clear that this level of access won’t be a one-off type of thing, he makes sure to drink in everything, from the placements of the storage-houses to the weapon-storage racks groaning under the weight of all that sharp steel. The weapons are perhaps communal. Or the crime of swiping someone’s axe is punishable by beheading every person involved. It’s anyone’s guess, really.

 

He’s ever so slightly disappointed when they reach Fundin’s tent, that the tour is over. It’s been nice, to stroll around, and easy enough to ignore the stunned looks cast his way. The disappointment is overshadowed by, well, eagerness, honestly. It’s going to be interesting, this day, he just knows it.

 

His guide stops at the flap of the tent, rattles out something official-sounding to the Dwarves inside, turns on his heel, nods at Itachi weakly and walks away. Itachi would be more amused by this if he wasn’t distracted by the multiple Chakra-signatures in the tent. He spreads his awareness slightly and focuses. There are six Dwarves inside, situated in a way that suggests they’re sitting around a table.

 

Decisions, decisions. On one hand, interrupting people at work is just plain rude. On the other, he has just spent weeks in the Sage forsaken Mines to get this intel, and by God, he will report it. Not to mention, while some of the signatures in the tent are familiar, the bright, slippery bonfire of Chakra he will recognize anywhere. Prince Frerin the Golden, hm? It would be nice to get an official introduction to a Dwarf he has inadvertently been borderline scandalous to.

 

Fundin takes the decision out of his hands as it were, because he’s quick to greet him.

 

“Itachi, lad, you’re a sight for sore eyes. Come in, come in, warm your bones.” The Dwarfs voice is easy-going and cordial as ever, but his Chakra is - not tense, perhaps, but definitely anticipatory.

 

Itachi steps inside, and bows to the Dwarf, taking care to dry his boots before stepping onto the thick carpets. For a moment, he debates taking them off, but the Dwarves are all wearing their own clunky leather and steel monstrosities, so he decides against it. Next time, though, next time he’s bringing some slippers, because tracking in mud on such lovely carpets is just wrong. Mikoto’s ghost frowns on him with hell-fire in her eyes, so he reluctantly lowers his face-mask and lets it bunch up around his neck. It’s the height of rudeness to wear such things in polite company.

 

The other five Dwarves have stopped talking, focusing their attention on his slow entry into the tent. He recognizes most of them, actually. They’ve split into two camps, adults and youths. On the Adults side, there’s Balin, Fundin’s older son - one of the more handsome Dwarves he’s seen thus far, a spitting image of his Father, only younger and fairer in colouring. Lord Nain, he’s stalked long enough that he feels like he knows him personally. An unfamiliar Dwarf, red-headed with shaved temples and an impressive scowl sits quietly, utterly unimpressed by the interruption. On the younger side, there’s Prince Frerin which he knew already and Dain.

 

It seems that whatever work he’s interrupted could be set aside for now because apart from the unfamiliar Dwarf - who he’s pretty sure is a Captain he has worked with in the past - everyone looks pretty determined to analyze Itachi.

 

Fundin, an air of good cheer sharpened into a blade, bustles him into the nearest unoccupied chair. Itachi doesn’t have any defence against weaponized affability, so he sits where instructed and observes the Dwarves surreptitiously while unpacking his supplies. No host-gift this time, but he had brought some lovely strawberries for Fundin. Since he’s not, in fact, a plant, nobody can possibly assume it’s a gift made by his own hands. He sets the pouch of berries on the table, followed by his writing utensils, and finally the carefully wrapped up report. Sharp eyes follow his every move, scrutinizing each item he brings to the table, and it takes some serious effort to feign nonchalance.

 

Thankfully, Fundin returns quickly, a jug of tea in hand, and a silver cup that he sets in front of Itachi, along with a plate of delicious-looking cakes.

 

“First thing’s first, lad. Introductions are in order.” Says Fundin, arm sweeping in a somewhat theatrical movement, eyes glinting with mischief. Itachi scrambles to his feet and shrouds himself in as much dignity as he can.

 

“In order of seniority, there sits Nain son of Grór, Lord of the Iron Hills. Next, we have Nirsi, son of Hrig, captain of the Army. My son Balin you’re familiar with in passing. Last but not least are Prince Frerin the Golden, and Master Dain, Son and Heir of Lord Nain.” That’s - a lot to take in. Thank the Sage that he’s already familiar with most of the names and titles, or he’d be absolutely lost. He makes a point in bowing politely, as each Dwarf is introduced, including young Dain who is definitely unused to such formality being directed his way.

 

“My friends.” Continues Fundin after a brief pause. “It’s my pleasure to introduce Itachi, whose work you’ve been familiar with, I’m sure.” Itachi can’t resist throwing a sardonic look at the Dwarf who is definitely having too much fun with these introductions. The silence that falls on the tent is tense but not too uncomfortable, so Itachi sits down and busies himself with writing.

 

‘I apologize for interrupting your work. If you would prefer I could come at a later time. I have no outstanding plans for the following few days.’

 

“Nonsense,” grins Fundin, eyes sharpening into something a great deal more implacable. “We’re just about finished anyway, and I’ve been waiting for you to emerge from the Mines for weeks.” The cheerful tone gets a dangerous, metallic twang at the end there, and Itachi shifts his attention slightly to observe his host more carefully. Huh. Fundin was worried. And is vindictive about it.

 

The rest of the Dwarves stiffen as well, having caught both the tone and the implication. Wonderful.

 

Lord Nain leans forward casually, a wide smile clearly visible behind the bushy beard. “Itachi, was it? I’ve heard a bit about you in the recent weeks - moreso than the general chatter. What’s this about the Mines, then?”

 

Fundin looks about as apologetic as a cat on a bad day, and sits back, happy to let Itachi handle this.

 

A pang of irritation twinges through Itachi, but he smothers it without difficulty. It’s a good thing, he notes idly, while scribbling his reply to the Red-headed Lord, that he’s in such a good mood today. Fundin really should know better. If things had gone badly, or if Itachi hadn’t spent three days chatting and decompressing with Father, he’d have walked out just about now, and damn the rest.

 

‘Indeed, Lord Nain. Since I’ve been living in the Fortress for a number of decades now, I am very familiar with both the Upper- and Lower-levels of the Mountain. I have just returned from a two-month-long trip to the Mines, gathering intel about the Men that have joined forces with the Orcs.’ Joined forces, enslaved to do their bidding, no need to be pedantic about it. 

 

The jovial smile spasms on the Lords face, as he reads the note out loud, seemingly under his breath but loud enough for the rest of them to hear. It’s a touchingly considerate gesture, and he raised his already high esteem of the Dwarf in his mind.

 

The atmosphere in the tent falls into something a great deal more serious. Fundin winces slightly and sends an apologetic glance his way. Which is unnecessary, really. It’s not like Itachi is offended.

 

“You’ve spent two months in the Mines? Spying on the enemy?” Asks the unfamiliar Captain - Nirsi, his name was. There is a fair bit of incredulity in his voice, which makes Itachi rise an imperious eyebrow right back. Is he doubting him?

 

‘Indeed. I’ve discussed becoming a Military Consultant with the emphasis of information gathering. This is me keeping up my end of the bargain.’ The note goes to Captain Nirsi, who reads it under his breath in a similar manner as Lord Nain. While that’s going on, Itachi takes the opportunity to slide his report to Fundin with a nod.

 

Silence falls once again, as Fundin leafs through the thick sheath of parchment without so much as a single expression, Chakra still as stone. Itachi leaves him to it, ignoring the stares from the other Dwarves as best he can, and busies himself with the cakes in front of him. Which really deserve more attention than he can give them right now because they’re divine.

 

Fundin finishes rapidly scanning the text and sits back in his seat, eyes closed visibly gathering his composure.

 

“This is - impressive work, lad.” He says, voice dead. “I admit I am - disturbed by the level of detail you included.”

 

Bullshit.

 

‘It was necessary. Is necessary. You and the Captains need this information, need to know their numbers, their habits, their resources. There will be no fighting any lengthy campaign without it. When you were just engaging the Orcs, you could’ve muddled without, perhaps, but not anymore.’

 

Fundin clenches his jaw and doesn’t reply for a long moment. “You’re right, of course. We need the information. We need you more, though. From what little I glimpsed from your report, you spent weeks spying on their Commander, right at the centre of their power. If you’d have been spotted, not even your magic would’ve saved you.”

 

Itachi nods, not conceding the point, but acknowledging it. ‘It’s debatable if they could find me in the Mines. They’re unfamiliar with the terrain, they have no tracking abilities for whatever fool reason, and I can walk on walls. But I understand your point. You would’ve lost a valuable military asset. Its a risk, I suppose, that you’re going to have to live with.’

 

A flare of temper flashes in Fundin’s eyes. He pushes off the table without a word and goes off to do whatever he does when he needs to calm down.

 

Every Dwarf looks like they would like to say something, but Balin is the first. “Do you plan on making those excursions into almost-certain death often? Because I have to be honest with you, Master Itachi, risking your life so recklessly isn’t in the contract we’ve written.”

 

A bubble of amusement makes it’s way up, up, up, all the way into his throat and curves his lips in a crooked little smile. Touchy, touchy.

 

‘Just Itachi, please. The term ‘Master’ has held some troubling implications in my life thusfar. As for the ‘excursions’, I suppose it will depend on the contract. I already set some hard limits regarding which services I am available to offer, last time I met with your father. Other than those, I am open to negotiation. I am curious, however, as to how a contract might forbid risking one’s life when one is actively involved in a war.’

 

To his credit, the sharp-eyed Dwarf smirks at him, not at all offended at the sass. “You underestimate bureaucrats, Itachi, if you think that there is anything a contract may not forbid.”

 

Itachi nods his head, acknowledging the point. Clever.

 

Captain Nirsi hums, voice a deep, raspy sound that suggests heavy scarring somewhere important. “I look forward to reading your report. We’ve been stumped, you might say, as to the strategies we might employ going forward. Your information might help us decide on a concrete approach. I myself am an unofficial demolitions expert, and if we decide to go that route, your knowledge of the mines would be invaluable.”

 

Oh shit, that’s a bad idea. No bombs, please, not where there is attention you don’t want to attract. Not for the last time, he curses the lack of evidence he has regarding the malicious presence he feels in the Mountain. If the Dwarves had any Chakra sense, they’d have sensed it already. If they don’t, he needs better proof than ‘I sense great evil’.

 

Not to mention the King, maniac that he is, might decide to attack head-on and doom every living creature all at once.

 

Slowly he puts his brush to paper, mind whirling about how to phrase this, exactly. ‘I would naturally be willing to work with your scribes to produce a detailed accounting of the Mountain. However, I wouldn’t recommend any demolition teams go deep into the Mines at this time. The upper three levels are guarded almost beyond my abilities to infiltrate, and lower ones are filled with Orcs to the brim. If you were to ask me, I’d suggest you focus your expertise in this area to traps outside of the Mountain. The one concrete weakness, besides their Commanders complete insanity, is their inferior technology.’

 

There. Nice and polite and even constructive. Ten out of ten.

 

“Interesting idea, lad. I can’t say we’ve done much sabotage of that nature, as it were. Not our style. But we’ve not been in a War like this one, either, so a new approach might just be what the Maker ordered.” Captain Nirsi says, face resolutely set in a vaguely unimpressed expression. “Either way, with your leave, My Prince, Lord Nain, I have work to do, still, and you’ve official things to discuss doubtlessly, that neither involve nor interest me.” With that, not waiting for said leave for so much as a second, the Dwarf stands up and start leaving. He’s massive, Itachi notes with some interest. Not in height, although he’s among the bigger Dwarves, but in breadth. His arms alone could snap Itachi like a twig.

 

Fundin snaps out of whatever busywork he was using to distract himself into composure, and escorts his guest out. When he returns he sits back to the table, face still set in a blank mask, but most of the tension notably absent.

 

“Right, well, I suggest we set aside the matter of the report for now. Lord Nain, as the King’s second in command, is an appropriate recipient, I think. The matter of the contracts is, perhaps, the most pressing one.”

 

“Yes, but,” interrupts Lord Nain mildly, “I believe there is still something Price Frerin would like to say.”

 

The Golden Prince shoots a panicked look at the Lord, but swallows and steels himself. “Indeed. I would like to - That is, I’ve been meaning to - We’ve been meaning to - No, I am glad for the opportunity to.” The Dwarf stutters to a stop and inhales sharply. “I would like to thank you. Personally. Not as a Prince of Durin line, and not just for saving my life - our lives - in battle. But for the gifts as well.” A violent blush rises from beneath the Prince’s high-necked tunic. “Oh, pardon me, not gifts. Loans. Items you’ve lent us to keep our spirits up. It’s. We treasure them. Especially Thorin. He will be devastated that he missed you. The loaned painting is one of his most treasured possessions.”

 

Itachi - melts. The otherwise cynical young Dwarf is at this moment, a monument to sincerity and humility. He’s a better Dwarf than Itachi that’s for sure. He’d never have had the courage to be so openly vulnerable in front of a stranger.

 

‘I won’t say there’s no need for thanks, because you’ve the right to do whatever you please. I will say that I am repaid many times over by your appreciation of my - attempts at being supportive, let’s say. You’re Father’s Children, and keeping you safe and happy is my privilege.’

 

Frerin blush intensifies if anything at Itachi’s attempt at diplomacy, but Lord Nain rescues his pseudo-protege. “Well said, Itachi. We all share the gratitude, and those few that were lucky enough to get a glimpse of your, ah, loan to Prince Thorin, are appreciative of it. We’re a nation rich in artists, but your style is unknown to us, and thus precious.”

 

Itachi feels a blush of his own attempting to form. He smothers it as best he can, but he can’t deny he’s flustered. ‘My thanks, Lord Nain. It’s a style I’m comfortable with, but it’s not my chosen Craft. As I’ve mentioned to Master Fundin, I am working towards a Mastery in Weaving and Carving, even without official instruction.’

 

A gleam of mischief enters Lord Nain’s ice-blue eyes. “He might have mentioned that, yes. Something about a host-gift.”

 

Itachi surpasses a twitch at the unwelcome reminder. Fundin harrumphs, saving him from a reply. “Yes, well. Minor gaffes aside, Itachi is a skilled weaver, and there are several Masters in the civilian part of town that would be lucky to enter into an apprenticeship-contract with him as soon as we’ve some time to breathe.”

 

Little Dain, who was so far content to observe the conversation silently, gapes. “Pardon me, but. Ozkif’uzghu, my lord, you’re a legendary warrior already, Deed-name and all. Wouldn’t you, perhaps…” The young Dwarf falters at the sharp looks the adults send his way and starts stuttering apologies.

 

Itachi takes pity on him. ‘No offence was taken, Master Nain. I am a skilled warrior, perhaps, but I like weaving and carving. Fighting is no hardship, and of course, during a war, I will use my time in such a way to best benefit the effort. But it’s not something I want to do, as such. Weaving is - calming, and beautiful, and I take great pleasure in it. Carving also is a passion of mine. It’s exciting, creative and rewarding.’

 

He pauses, uncertain, but decides the young Dwarf who is obviously training to become a Master Warrior needs some encouragement. ‘Fighting, defending your family and people, it’s a noble profession, one which you or anyone could take great pride in. It’s just not for me.’

 

There he tried. And hasn’t succeeded, or at least hasn’t completely succeeded. The little Lord obviously doesn’t understand but isn’t hurt by his words, so that’s something.

 

“As you say, Ozkif’uzghu.” He says simply, eyes sceptical as only the young can manage.

 

Fundin jumps in, cutting off Balin, who has a scheming look in his eye. “Before we go off on yet another tangent, lad, we’ve some contracts to sign. Its a stroke of luck you came about when such prominent Dwarves were present, that can serve as witnesses. With both Lord Nain here and our Prince as the representative of the King, we can finalize the matter here and now.”

 

Prince Frerin, more on solid ground now, picks up the thread of the conversation smoothly. “There are, as Master Fundin informed us, three contracts in question here, and only one requires ratification by the Crown. The other two are private matters, and thus can be signed in private if that’s what you wish.”

 

‘I don’t mind either way. Whatever suits you, honestly. I would only request either a copy in common with a written vow from, say, Master Balin, guaranteeing the validity of the translation, or an interpretation from one of you, with the same written guarantee. ’

 

“I’m afraid Balin wouldn’t be an appropriate Dwarf to ask, as it would present a conflict of interest. He did write the things. Lord Nain, however, would be ideal. He’s impartial, and has little stakes here, apart from the obvious.”

 

Itachi shrugs, unconcerned. ‘Whatever you think is best. Ultimately, it’s in your best interest to play fair with me. I would appreciate the chance to stay in the civilian Town you’ve built, and the opportunity to get to know our Father’s Children in person. Those are all things I can, ultimately, live without.’

 

Balin leans forward, eyes sparkling, and lips curving into a sharp smile. “Well said, Ozkif’uzghu. I look forward to working with you in the future.”

 

Lord Nain interrupts what is shaping to be a nice little sniping session. “Alright, lads, I see where this is heading, and I’ve half a mind to throw you both to my Lady Wife and wash my hands of the whole affair. Unfortunately, or fortunately, as the case may be, there’s still work to do. So.” He grabs the stack of papers in front of Balin, divided into three neat piles. “Let’s get to it.”

 

The next few moments are a flurry of activity, but between one moment and the next Itachi finds himself sitting between Nain and Dain, three different contracts in front of him. Opposite him sit Frerin and Balin, with Fundin squeezed in-between.

 

The first contract is, surprisingly, the simplest to go through. The King must have really wanted Itachi on-hand because the language is clear and inviting, and very favourable to Itachi - at least he thinks so. Itachi, as a civilian-consultant, will offer whatever military intelligence he thinks is important to the best of his knowledge, and in return, he is offered food and keep in the civilian settlement. No concrete ‘working hours’ are set, and while Itachi is encouraged to sit in as many strategy meetings as he can, he’s only required to work closely with Fundin. The duration of which to be set between them, to mutual satisfaction. Whether he wants to join in the battles is up to him, although in that case, he would be expected to at least inform the Dwarves in charge of that particular battle, so they can adjust their strategies.

 

He signs it without much fanfare, although he’s the only one to think so. A cheer rises from the Dwarves around him, beginning with Dain, but spreading even to the adults. Lord Nain thumps his hand on the table and exclaims happily. Dain looks as happy as a clam, and Balin all but preens in satisfaction. Frerin grabs the official signed copy and stares at it with disbelief for a long few moments. He hands it to Nain, with an air of someone who expected the whole venture to fall through at the last moment.

 

The Dwarves obviously put much stock in the business of contracts. Itachi has no such faith. He waits patiently for the Dwarves to settle before pointing to the remaining two contracts.

 

Fundin clears his throat pointedly. “Right, lads, two more to go.”

 

“I’m not familiar with these two, I admit,” says Lord Nain, not looking at them pointedly. “Since they’re private, they weren’t brought up in the King’s Council. If you want, the rest of us can clear out and you can handle it with Fundin and his son privately?”

 

How many times are to go through this? ‘I don’t mind your presence. Let’s just get this done.’ Writes Itachi, getting slightly impatient with the glacial pace of the whole affair.

 

“Alright lad,” chuckles the Dwarven Lord. “If that’s your wish. Let’s see here, a contract empowering Fundin to act as an intermediary in all Courtship matters on your behalf until one or both parties decide the arrangement is unnecessary.” Nain’s tone grows more and more incredulous the more he reads, and he is shaking with repressed laughter by the time he’s finished. “Maker’s Mercy, Lad, that’ll light a fire under a lot of beards, let me tell you.”

 

Dain is blushing up a storm, but the Golden Prince nods in approval, not the slightest bit uncomfortable. “Its a very wise precaution.” He says, eyes far away. “Not many will dare try anything with Fundin, and by extension Balin. It’s not traditional as such but it’s a good idea.”

 

Fundin looks at Itachi, with a question in his eyes. Is he asking for Itachi to elaborate?

 

Fine. ‘I don’t think it’s necessary, personally, but I am unfamiliar with your ways. Also, as Fundin pointed out previously, I am not of-age for such things, so even in the vanishingly small chance I want to enter into such an arrangement, it would have to be handled by my head of House. I don’t have a head of House, as you can imagine, so it’s not the worst idea to put down the groundwork to avoid any potential complications in the future.’

 

“Right” mutters Nain, hilarity draining from his voice. “I keep forgetting that little nugget.”

 

He shares a long look with Fundin, which Itachi has little wish to interpret. “Definitely a good idea to avoid any potential drama.” Says Nain in the end, smile only slightly forced. “Frerin is right, Fundin and Balin are excellent buffers against any - unsavoury advances that could come your way.” 

 

Itachi shrugs. He’s been doing a lot of that lately.

 

This contract is slightly more involved, weirdly. Where the previous contract was an almost painfully dry document, not unlike a mission-request, this one has a long list of clauses and subclauses. They go through it line by painful line, and as it happens, there’s a glaring lack of loopholes. Most of them are various punishments Itachi can demand, if someone tries to trick him, or circumvent Fundin and so on and so forth. On his end, his only responsibility seems to be to leave everything to Fundin and consult him without fail if he meets someone he does wish to court.

 

They sign the ridiculous thing, Fundin and Itachi with Prince Frerin and Lord Nain as witnesses for good measure. There is no cheering or celebrating like before, only a sombre sort of grimness.

 

“And finally,” says Balin, a slightly weary cast to his features. “We have a modified trading contract. You’d be the contractor, in this case, and you would trade your goods or services with a suitable Dwarf. More precisely, the Dwarf in question would teach you Iglishmêk, and in return, you would offer lessons of an equal value, or failing that, goods made by your hand, or specific items you could retrieve from the Mountain.”

 

Itachi nods, finally curious. The other stuff is - irrelevant mostly. But this, this he wants.

 

“You also mentioned that you have no preference as to the instructor, and we should choose a Dwarf who would benefit most from your services.” There is an odd emphasis on the last part of the sentence that makes Itachi’s inner cat stand up and take note. He tilts his head slightly, wondering where the Dwarf is leading him so carefully but nods.

 

“In that case, My father, my brother and I came to the conclusion that Prince Thorin would be a perfect instructor for you. In return, you’d instruct him in matters of battle.”

 

Itachi leans back in his seat, eyes widening. What in Mother’s name -

 

Frerin jumps in, voice slightly nervous. “Thorin is one of our best warriors, and with your instruction, he will become superb. Not to mention, your instruction will keep him safe - safer than he is now - and his life is among the most valuable here. He will definitely benefit the most. His Iglishmêk is excellent too, and -”

 

Itachi raises his hands in surrender, more to stop the avalanche of words, but also to calm the young Dwarf.

 

‘I have no issues in having the Crown Prince as my instructor,” he writes. “So long as he’s in full agreement with the suggestion, and I’m not taking up what little free time he has. I am familiar with the Prince’s schedule. I will not add another burden to it.’

 

Prince Frerin deflates in relief - which is definitely too intense a reaction. Why are they so invested in the idea? Sure, he has some tricks to teach to the Prince, but honestly, the Dwarf needs no instruction at this point, only experience. Maybe it’s some of that supposed political power?

 

“Prince Thorin was volunteered by his Father, the King, to be your primary instructor in this matter. It would be - complicated - for him if you chose anyone else. Not bad of course, but complicated.”

 

’Shouldn’t he be here, then? To sign it?’

 

“Well.” Says Nain, mild tone in sharp contrast to the spike of intent in his Chakra. “Yes. He should. Would you be willing to wait for him to arrive?”

 

Every Dwarf in the room leans forward slightly, eyes alight with anticipation of his answer. Even Fundin’s Chakra ripples with, not glee exactly, perhaps closer to acute interest.

 

He really should consider that the Prince might actually be in danger. Practically every member of Prince Thorin’s family is present here, and they’re miserable at hiding their wish to forge some sort of relationship between the Prince and Itachi.

 

‘I could wait. As I said, I have no concrete plans for the following several days. The extended stay in the Mines has left me in a less than ideal state, physically speaking, so the only thing I planned on doing is train. And rest, I suppose.’ He scribbles the note, still thinking about the odd reactions from the Dwarves. ‘I don’t want to disturb his work, however.’

 

Balin cuts in, a beatific smile on his lips. “Yes, yes, indeed. Well, then, I would suggest that we could stop by the training ground and settle this in person, as it were. I’m sure Dain, for example, would be willing to go ahead of us and warn the Prince, so he’s not taken by surprise. Would that be acceptable?”

 

Again, with the manoeuvring. It’s - odd. He doesn’t mind, exactly, but he doesn’t not mind, which just makes him sound petulant even in his own head. They’re obviously trying to throw Itachi at the Prince, as some sort of protection, most like. There was real worry, real fear, in Prince Frerin’s voice when he was trying to convince Itachi that his brother is an ideal Dwarf to teach him Iglishmêk. Which, okay, Itachi might not be the most politically savvy person alive, but there are inherent dangers in the position of a Crown Prince that even he’s aware of. And this particular Crown Prince doesn’t even have the proper protections from his Royal Father.

 

Do they want Itachi to train the Prince, or to keep him safe from - unpleasant encounters of a shady nature? Perhaps they want to take advantage of Itachi’s overblown reputation and flaunt him in their enemies’ faces? That would be by far the simplest option, frankly. He’s used his own reputation in similar ways, before, when he used to stroll down Konoha every few months to remind certain Elders of the deal they made.

 

He throws a sharp glance to Fundin, who to his credit doesn’t so much as twitch. His Chakra shudders though, determination with a pinch of guilt and resignation. Hm.

 

Whatever they want from him, they would be best served if they approached him directly. His willingness to keep the Princes alive must be proven by now. But he will play along, for now.

 

‘On the face of it, I have no objections. It would be complicated, perhaps, to communicate without access to my writing equipment. You’d know better, in the end.’

 

He ignores the rest of the Dwarves and focuses on Fundin. He likes the rest of them just fine, but Fundin is the only one here who could be his friend someday. ‘Is this a good idea.’ He writes, staring down the Dwarf. It’s not complete truth he wants, of course. But he does want something.

 

“It is.” Confirms Fundin, not a hint of doubt either inwardly or outwardly. For better or for worse, the Dwarf is certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that they should make some sort of public statement, a declaration of friendship or somesuch nonsense between Itachi and Prince Thorin.

 

Father, your Children. Your Children are beyond fucking complicated.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

fight_test

 

 

Things move ridiculously fast, after his foray into affability. It’s not too difficult to reason out why, either. Itachi’s obstinacy in the face of social interaction is by now well established. They are invested in getting Itachi within guarding distance of the Crown Prince, and now that the opportunity fell into their laps, they are damn well not going to let it go.

 

Dain bolts from the room, with a garbled explanation that he’s going to inform Prince Thorin of his incoming company. The rest of the Dwarves pretend like nothing at all is out of the ordinary, and faux casually rise from the table.

 

Itachi can’t deny he’s curious. The rather obvious scheming is just a small part of it, too. Politics are simple when whittled down to base components. Prince Thorin has enemies in the court, perhaps the Nobles, perhaps his own father, and the people who love him figured that having a Shinobi on hand will go a long way towards keeping him safe. Nothing novel about that. But the way they’re going about it is not - false, in his eyes. They’re not manipulating him with false friendships and empty promises. They don’t really need to. He’s already proven willing to protect the Prince to his own detriment, without any encouragement. They’re - making it fair. It’s a novel concept.

 

This will be interesting.

 

***

 

The procession - as weird as it may look - is so performative that it naturally attracts the eyes of the entire army camp. Lord Nain walks sedately with Balin and Prince Frerin. Behind them, Itachi and Fundin walk, Itachi’s small frame barely visible behind his taller companions.

 

Their destination ends up being an area outside of the army campsite, a relatively flat field that’s been converted into rudimentary training grounds. A unit of a hundred or so Dwarves is - technically - training. They’re going through the motions, in the most hilariously theatrical way. Itachi knows these Dwarves. He’s been spying on them for years now. He knows how they train, when they train, how much they curse and complain and rib one another. Knows how deeply chaotic they are.

 

Now, though, not a sound is being heard outside sounds of combat and stern but polite commands being shouted by the drill-sergeants. Prince Thorin stands to the side, hissing at Dain, who is all but vibrating from excitement. Judging by the dishevelled clothes, wild hair and the flush sitting fetchingly on the Prince’s cheeks, Itachi guesses he’s done his best to neaten himself up, in the few minutes he had available. Which, yes, is adorable. It’s not like clean clothes are in any way possible in this situation - with the amount of mud the melting snow has produced, any physical activity would have left the Prince muddy to his teeth.

 

Honestly, Itachi feels a bit bad. It’s not his responsibility - it’s not even his idea, but the fact remains that this farce was sprung on him without any warning. The silly little contract was spun into something significant, and now the poor Dwarf has to manufacture some gravitas in an otherwise normal day of a soldier.

 

At least the warriors seem to appreciate it. They all but puff up as the procession comes near, and their moves grow even more scripted. They’re performing, Father above, what even is this? Whatever it is, the Chakra doesn’t lie. And goodness, but there is no misreading the overwhelmingly positive cloud of Chakra radiating from the unit. My, but they feel strongly.

 

The reach the Prince between one moment and the next, and after some procedural greetings, it’s Itachi’s turn. He steps in front, facing the dark-haired Prince and, in a split-second decision, figures he might as well have some fun with this. A formal bow would be appropriate, but why not go the extra step. He folds his right arm, resting a closed fist over his heart, as he bows, deeply, letting his hair fall next to him, exposing his neck. It’s heart-stoppingly inappropriate, and his inner-teenager shrieks in mortified glee. If Mikoto saw him - If Fugaku saw him - If Tamako-obaa-san saw him, bowing in a traditional secret, oh so secret, Uchiha fashion to the absolutely superlative version of an outsider, Merciful Amaterasu, they’d skin him alive and use his sorry hide to scare the pigeons away.

 

He can practically hear the overwhelmed Dwarf’s heart skip, and his Chakra fluctuates wildly, spiking with sheer panic. It’s - endearing, but also kind of reassuring. In any other situation, Itachi would be the poor sap flailing about and trying to wrestle his anxiety under control. It’s pure luck and divine intervention that Itachi is as serene as he is.

 

When he rises from his shameless bit of fun, the Prince is impressively blank-faced, for all his internal flailing. Dain, bless him, chirps the introductions.

 

“My prince, may I introduce Ozkif’uzghu, or Itachi as he prefers to be called. Itachi, Crown Prince of the Durin line, Prince Thorin.”

 

“Master Itachi,” the Prince says, with only the slightest hitch in the beginning. “I welcome you, on behalf of the Crown. House of Durin greets an invaluable ally in these fraught times.”

 

Itachi bows again, the standard version this time, in acknowledgement of the formal greeting.

 

Fundin, bless him, steps in fluently, breaking some of the stiff formality.

 

“My prince, Ozkif’uzghu has returned from his mission only days ago and has brought us first-hand information regarding the enemies we face. The report is with Lord Nain and will be reproduced as soon as possible. Additionally, the contract formalizing Itachi’s role in this War is signed, as discussed. We come to you now to finalize the matter of the contract between the two of you, in regards to Iglishmêk.”

 

A small fold-out table has materialized from somewhere, complete with a small ink bottle and a feather to write with. With grave solemnity that belies the hellish mix of panic and excitement wafting off the Crown Prince, Thorin signs his name in runic, blocky script right beneath Itachi’s name, written in both Common and in Kanji.

 

“Excellent. For the time being, individual copies will remain with Balin, which you can retrieve at your earliest convenience.”

 

Itachi nods at them both, keeping his face passive, wondering how exactly this little stand-off is going to resolve itself. He doesn’t feel any urgent need to extract himself. The discomfort from the attention is offset by his curiosity about the whole thing. What now? The contract is singed with great pomp and circumstance, great, awesome. Now what?

 

Lord Nain has reclaimed his offspring, and the two are chatting in low tones to the side. Fundin watches it all with great amusement in his Chakra. He hears more than he sees Frerin signalling something to his brother whose expressive face is ill-suited for any sustained impassivity. Chakra swirling in agitation, Prince Thorin twitches minutely, before settling some internal struggle.

 

“If you’re not otherwise engaged right now, you could - That is - Perhaps you wouldn’t be opposed in joining me for a spar? The Iglishmêk lessons can be also organized immediately, although for that it’s best to inquire with Balin who knows my schedule far better than I do.”

 

A spark of genuine interest joins the general feeling of hilarity at the whole mess. A spar. With the Crown Prince. Now. The poor Dwarf looks like he hadn’t intended to say anything of the like, and is now intensely regretting letting his brother goad him into it. Prince Frerin is drowning in schadenfreude, and the waves of laughing Chakra are doing weird things to Itachi’s mind.

 

He allows his lips to tilt into a smile, and he nods, sending a pointed glance to Fundin, to set some reasonable boundaries and terms. A ripple of shock thunders through not just the Prince but practically every Dwarf in the vicinity. Someone actually gasped, a real-life theatrical gasp. Was he not supposed to say yes? Pff. Amateurs.

 

Fundin sends Itachi a quelling glance, looking slightly betrayed. Did he also expect Itachi to have common sense? “Ah, my Prince, perhaps it’s best to define the situation a bit more. Would this spar be organized like a lesson, within the bounds of the contract, or like a friendly spar between fellow warriors? Because Itachi is, technically, a civilian, which would make a spar between him and a high-ranking officer in the army - complicated.”

 

The Prince is distracted enough from his bone-deep mortification by Fundin’s words.

 

“Ozkif’uzghu,” he says, voice flat as stone, ”is a civilian.”

 

Fundin is unmoved by the entirely valid amount of scepticism in the Prince’s tone. “Indeed, my Prince. A civilian consultant on military matters, but a civilian nonetheless.”

 

“Right,” Thorin says. “That at least is easily solved. As far as I’m concerned, it can be structured as an introductory lesson between Master and Student.”

 

The Prince’s equilibrium is immediately shattered when it’s not Fundin he’s addressing, but Itachi. “If that is suitable for you, of course.”

 

Itachi bows, again, keeping all amusement contained, and face solemn. With any luck, he won’t have to resort to broken pantomime to communicate for much longer, but for now-

 

He points to himself, then the Prince, and then to a sectioned off training area, slightly to the side, making sure to tilt his head to emphasize it’s a question and not a command. Honestly, he’s never taught anyone anything in his life, even including, to his eternal shame, little Sasuke. If they expect him to be in any way a proficient teacher, they’re in for a treat.

 

What he can do, is beat the Prince up until he’s improved. The pace and direction of the improvement will be ultimately not up to Itachi.

 

“Yes, that would be suitable.” Says Prince Thorin, swallowing audibly, dread joining the panic and embarrassment.

 

With another nod, Itachi turns to the most reliable person - Fundin - and starts getting ready. He hands the frozen Dwarf his leather bag, quickly joined by the sword harness sheathing the dual blades on his back. Since Fundin’s hands are getting full, the coat he’s just shrugged off goes into Balin’s hands, which prompts a second ripple of shock through the onlookers, followed by furious whispers. The onlookers being pretty much every Dwarf in the vicinity. Even the drill-sergeants bless their souls, don’t even pretend to be working anymore.

 

Free from the confines of the ridiculously stiff leather coat, it’s time for the most challenging part of preparation. Dealing with his hair.

 

Honestly, if he wasn’t as vain as he was, he’d have long since cut the damn thing. Braiding it is the only reliable way to keep it contained, but braiding it takes over an hour if he does it well. For now, the best thing he can do is to grab a couple of leather cords and try to tie it up in a high bun.

 

He is aware that Dwarves are - particular - with their hair. So he’s not even surprised by the third - largest yet - wave of shock that spreads when he takes out the hair-tie he had in place and starts the laborious process of wrestling the slippery mass into compliance. Fundin looks fit to expire from sheer parental disapproval, but Nain is failing spectacularly at swallowing down his chuckles.

 

From where he’s standing, the Dwarves are entirely hypocritical about this. They all generally have very attention-grabbing hair. Some have elaborate hair-styles, some wear it entirely loose, some shave geometrical patterns into it. And here is Itachi, with practically the tamest hair in the entire camp, and he’s somehow the scarlet woman. Even Prince Thorin, who is one of the more utilitarian Dwarves around, has a good number of beads and various jewellery braided into his mane.

 

Ridiculous. Once he’s got a passingly safe hold on the hair, he ties it up as best he can, and gives up. It will hold for a few minutes, probably. He should really pull up his face mask, but it would be terribly awkward to do it now. Plus it would imply a level of seriousness to their spar that he is just not ready to imply.

 

A hush has fallen, and Itachi ignores the fact everybody is staring at him. With a pointed sniff at Fundin, he reclaims his sword harness and turns to the Prince.

 

Thorin, red around the ears, looking everywhere but Itachi, has been at some point given a leader jerkin, obviously reinforced with some sort of metal. Itachi absolutely approves. He scans the thing carefully, noting how cleverly it was sewn to follow the lines of the body, and crease in the direction of movement. The steel reinforcement is just as cleverly done, and for such a simple thing it allows for maximum protection while sacrificing very little mobility. He nods at the Prince in approval. That there is clever thinking. Bulky armour is well and good, but the men are much weaker physically than the dwarves. It’s their speed they need to worry about, not that they could possibly cut through plate armour.

 

The poor dwarf stands stiff as a board, uncomfortable with Itachi’s close inspection of his person, but manages a faint nod, mumbling something about a name-day commission by his siblings.

 

Itachi can’t be the one leading the Prince anywhere, so he waits until the Dwarf pulls himself together enough to realize that, and tries to think through the latest of his impulsive decisions.

 

Alright. He’s to be a part-time instructor. Sure. It’s a good enough idea, even if it’s all likely to end up horribly complicated before long. Now, what to teach?

 

Fuck, everything, really. Prince Thorin is best at Kenjustu, obviously, but if he’s any distance-fighting skill he certainly doesn’t use it much. His Taijutsu is nonexistent, which is not technically his fault, as he’s not so far seen a Dwarf proficient in the Art. So, Kenjutsu and Taijutsu are the most pressing skills, then. And then also meditation, because the sheer emotionality of the Prince will drop him dead one day from sheer over-saturation. And possibly some rudimentary spiritual-Chakra control. And, and, and. No, stop. Kenjutsu and Taijutsu.

 

Taijutsu is going to take a while to learn - years, probably. It’s vital that the Prince learn it at some point, and Itachi will see it done, even if he has to draw taijutsu diagrams and make the Prince swear to learn them. But, for now, Kenjutsu. 

 

He snaps to attention when he notices the Prince, now armed with a great big steel sword has started walking towards the ring. Finally.

 

They don’t have any rituals in place to signify the beginning of a spar, here, but Itachi is an outsider civilian fighting royalty. It’s better to err on the side of more respect, than less. Plus, it makes the Dwarf blush which is adorable. A bow, then, before battle to show goodwill. It’s ingrained enough, even after all these years. His feet slide into the opening stance of Catspaw Kenjutsu stance, drawing only one blade to start with.

 

Anxiety and embarrassment bleed out of the Prince as soon as he’s in a familiar, comfortable setting. Face sets in a mask of concentration, Thorin assumes his own starting position. From first glance, his form is beyond reproach. He holds the enormous blade comfortably, his stance is a good neutral position, where he can attack and defend easily. Balance is perhaps not as good as he could be, but that could be attributed to a recent growth spurt.

 

Itachi nods, counting off with his fingers theatrically.

 

Three - two - one

 

Where he would usually begin a spar on the defensive side, this is not about Itachi. So he jumps forward, quick but not Chakra-enhanced, and starts testing the Prince’s defences.

 

He’s good. The long sword is about as long as Itachi is, weighing about the same too, and Thorin wields it with no apparent effort. He’s quick about it, too. It’s actually kind of reminiscent of Kisame. His old partner wielded a massive sword with deceptive speed, mostly by being insanely skilled at efficiently redirecting its momentum. It’s a style that relied heavily on the predictive ability of the wielder, combined with good instincts and a willingness to trust them. Thorin is still working out the ins and outs of the technique, but the groundwork is there. He understands the value of keeping his moves clean and extending the minimal effort he can. It’s not perfect yet, but he’s getting there. Where Itachi is an unapologetically showy fighter, Thorin is not. There is passion in his moves, yes, and drive, but he doesn’t try to make his moves beautiful.

 

There are holes in his defence, of course. Itachi would be a sorry teacher if he couldn’t find them. Now, if only he would fucking attack, they could see what his offence is like. They’ve been at it for good five to ten minutes already and not a single time has the Dwarf strayed from his strict defensive position. The closest he came was to push away Itachi’s blade with force.

 

With a huff and an entirely unnecessary twirling backflip, he disengages from the Dwarf, who almost stumbles back in surprise.

 

“What - you-” he huffs, only the slightest bit winded. Impressive. “Did I do something wrong?”

 

Itachi raises an eyebrow and waits for a moment to see if he will figure it out. No such luck, he just looks more and more repentant and is minutes away from scuffing his foot in the dirt like as schoolchild.

 

“Attack, lad.” Calls Fundin.

 

“Ah,” says Thorin, a slightly abashed smile appearing on his face, making him seem impossibly younger. Then, in a show of good humour, he grins. “Well, if this is to be a lesson, why not make it useful for everybody involved? This is a sign for ‘attack’” he says, folding his right hand into a position very much like a one-handed hand-seal pioneered by Kiri.

 

Well, now, this lesson has just gotten interesting. He beams at his - not student because he’s teaching now, not friend. His client? Mission objective? He grins at the Prince, and lopes forward, to observe the sign properly.

 

Itachi’s fingers are sadly unused to hand-seals, so it takes a few moments to mimic the position. This is an important one, though, so he flashes his Sharingan surreptitiously just to make sure he doesn’t forget. Forefinger and middle finger straight, ring finger and little finger bent as far as they go, and thumb thrust to the side, forming an L-shape. Easy enough.

 

He grins again at Thorin, who forgets his embarrassment and grins right back.

 

“While we’re at it,” says the Prince. “This -” he demonstrates the sign, “is a sign for ‘defend’.”

 

Not too difficult either. Hand angled horizontally, fingers straight and close together, only the middle finger is bent. Much like a shield, really.

 

He nods at the Prince, thrilled to be finally bridging the communication fucking canyon, and flips back, putting some distance between them.

 

With a crooked smile, he signs ‘attack’ and falls into a defensive position.

 

Well, now. This is much better. It’s not that the Prince is a bad defensive fighter, not at all. It just doesn’t come as natural to him as offence does. Where before the Dwarf’s face was screwed up in a scowl of concentration, now he’s blank-faced, completely surrendering himself to his instincts and the flow of battle.

 

Now Itachi has to work to defend himself. Thorin is stronger than he is without resorting to Chakra, and his instincts are excellent. He uses his bigger frame and longer reach to great effect, using even some slightly more underhanded moves, like elbowing him in mid-air when he flipped over a particularly inspired swing.

 

Staying on the defence is not completely natural for Itachi, and his more - lethal - instincts keep distracting him. Practicality aside, he really isn’t a good sparring partner. He doesn’t fight for fun, after all. Most of what he’s come to know, he learned through killing, and the last person he sparred with without KI was - Shisui probably.

 

He uses every trick he has, to stay away without using Chakra or the Sharingan, and yet, he’s definitely getting thrown around quite a bit.

 

Alright, let’s up the difficulty. He starts channelling small amounts of Chakra. A burst to the bottom of his feet, and he shoots in the air, twirling for effect. Adding a flourish, he flips in the air and lands smoothly behind Thorin.

 

The Dwarf whirls around, eyes sparkling in delight, improvising wildly with his footwork. God but someone needs to teach that Dwarf some structured Kata. It's obvious he’s trained to fight only slow, lumbering creatures, and not anyone lithe and agile. It’s a glaring weakness in the face of his future opponents.

 

His sword is really serving no purpose here, he realizes. Kunai would be ideal, but knives would do. Jumping back from the approaching blade, he sheaths the sword and draws his boot-knives. Good enough for blocking and re-directing.

 

The pattern of the battle shifts, with Thorin attacking more and more creatively, executing outlandish moves splendidly, and Itachi egging him on, ducking and jumping and twirling out of the way. By now he’s using Chakra pretty constantly to keep away from the glittering blade zipping about, and his - the Prince - is getting tired, even if the adrenaline keeps him going.

 

It’s time to wrap it up for today before exhaustion leads to any mistakes. He turns on his Sharingan - because this is going to be flashy as fuck, and he’s going to lose the entirety of his cred if he fucks it up - and pushes a stupid amount of Chakra into the soles of his feet. With a dull roar of Chakra exploding into the ground, sending mud everywhere, he explodes off the ground, whooping internally like a banshee, flying up up up over twenty meters before starting the descend.

 

The tricky part now, he thinks, Sharingan swirling as fast as it can go, is not only to land safely but to make it look impressive. Without pulping his knee-caps. That would be nice.

 

He has about two seconds of real-time to execute the fall, but time is screwy when a three-tomoe Sharingan is fucking with your brain. So - focus, you know what to do. The highest point of the arc - flip, stretch out your arms, careful, you’ve a hundredth of a second to time this right. Keep your body from spinning, you don’t need any additional horizontal momentum. Stretch out arm in front, set wide, reinforce every fucking bone and muscle from finger to mid-back because by God they will break otherwise. Almost there - straighten legs, curve your spine, more, more, touchdown, keep your wrists soft - throw legs back - reinforce ankles and feet - aaaand - land on all fours like a cat, nice and soft.

 

Wow, that was fucking insane. It’s not perhaps the showiest thing he’s ever done, because he at one point routinely summoned a giant sword-wielding skeleton with the power of his eyes. But for a Shinobi with no external Chakra-channeling capabilities, this is. Pretty fucking awesome.

 

Standing up is not as difficult as he feared, since he more or less feared the worst. Nothing is broken, he’s not even that tired. His head throbs some, as an aftereffect of intense Sharingan use without any warm-up, but he kept his muscles whole and redistributed the force perfectly. Awesome.

 

The Dwarves gape, at the show of magic, and Itachi stands, shaking out his hands and legs, basking in the adrenaline and euphoria singing in his veins. He can't help but grin at his - training partner, that’s good, his training partner. Prince Thorin has regrettably lost some of his earlier camaraderie, intimidated by Itachi’s theatrics, but he manages a small, uncertain grin. Absolutely good enough.

 

He bows the most flamboyant bow he can, while thoughts spin madly in his mind. Whatever doubts still lingered about the wisdom of training the Prince are dispelled. Working with Thorin is an excellent idea. The Dwarf is quick on his feet, has good instincts and most importantly, enjoys the work. He’s so caught up in the future plans for his - training partner - that he completely misses the cheering and the hooting from the onlookers. The Prince is blushing up a storm but grins through it gamely enough. Prince Frerin and Dain are hooting and cheering with the rest, and generally all the Dwarves Itachi is familiar with look fit to burst with happiness.

 

Itachi’s stupidly white clothes are ruined, though. He’s soaked with sweat and mud, and it's cold enough outside that they’re going to freeze if he doesn’t go somewhere warm. Fundin, everyone’s dad, is way ahead of him. He and Balin storm the training ground, Balin armed with Thorin’s coat, and Fundin with Itachi’s.

 

“That was a good show, lad.” He says under his breath, quiet enough that even Itachi has to work to hear him. “We couldn’t have hoped for better. Now, while I’m wary of overtaxing my good luck, I have to ask. Unless you’ve got other plans, would you like to come back to our tent, get some dry clothes on you, and some warm food in you? It would do my old heart a world of good to know you aren’t going through the snow with wet clothes and damp hair.”

 

That sound - terribly inappropriate, actually. Sage love them, their cultural norms are wacky as fuck. It’s terribly scandalizing to unbind one’s hair in public, but you can invite a minor to come back to your tent and offer your clothes for them to wear.

 

Which is not to say he won’t take advantage of it. It would be wise to go, probably, to leave on a high note, and all that, but - he doesn’t want to. He’s been in a good mood for the entire day, and - he doesn’t really want to be alone. He’s been alone for months, with only enemies for company, and he lost the strength for prolonged isolation, it seems.

 

He fiddles with his coat, buying some time, but he knows he will accept. It’s what he wants to do, after all, and has no clearly defined reason not to do it. He nods cautiously and is rewarded by a beaming smile.

 

“Wonderful, lad. Just wonderful.”

 

***

 

The Prince is whisked off by Balin practically the moment they finished their spar, only pausing for long enough to stammer some formalities. He’s unexpectedly timid for someone in his position, Itachi remarks, with slight unease. It won’t serve him well.

 

Fundin is equally quick with bustling Itachi off to his tent. He’s getting somewhat used to the Dwarf’s forceful care-taking methods, submits to the treatment without much fuss. Between one fussy remark and the next, he’s in a curtained off area of the tent, arms full with presumably Balin’s clothes, a wash-basin with warm water and entirely too many towels.

 

He luxuriates in the feeling of warm water and the silky texture of the soaps he was given. By the time he’s entirely clean, hair free of mud and twigs, wearing soft cotton clothes stupidly large on him, Fundin has already left to procure them some dinner. The entirely motherly Dwarf has stoked the fire to a fever-pitch, and the air inside the tent is beautifully warm.

 

There are blankets set on a nearby chair, so he wastes little time in cocooning himself in front of the fire. Happy and warm, he doesn’t bother with fighting the drowsiness. He drifts off.

 

***

 

Wakes up to hushed tones, sometime later, confused but too warm and content to care. His hair is everywhere, and he’s pleasantly toasty, and there is a divine smell of a stew coming his way. Life is good in Itachi-land.

 

Fundin and Balin whisper in what they likely consider to be quiet tones. They turn to him with identical looks of disbelief, as he works to disentangle himself from the unholy combination of long hair and frizzy blankets. There’s enough static in his hair to power an oven for a day, he’s sure. Giving it up as an impossible task, he surrenders to the indignity and stands up, poofy nightmare and all.

 

“Would you like some dinner?” coughs Balin, admirably hiding his laughter. Fundin is already plating three portions out of a small cast-iron cauldron so the question is largely rhetorical. He nods gamely, bowing slightly in thanks. The damn tunic slips form his shoulder, almost falling off entirely, and he sighs. Whatever hopes they had about Itachi being some fierce warrior must be crumbing. He doesn’t doubt for a moment that he looks like an underfed orphan Dwarfling. Which, okay, not entirely untrue.

 

“Get it while it’s hot.” Commands Fundin, spearing him with a gimlet eye. Like Itachi will ever refuse free food. Hmph.

 

 

***

 

A full stomach doesn’t help with Itachi’s drowsiness, not at all. Balin obviously itches to have a serious conversation, and yeah, they have important shit to discuss. He’s nonetheless one honey-cake away from passing out here and now.

 

A cup filled with a warm, dark liquid is set in front of him, and if it wasn’t for the bitter aroma wafting off it, he’d think Fundin is actively sabotaging his efforts at staying awake. Cautiously he sips what he’s assumed to be some type of Dwarvish tea.

 

It’s not tea. It’s bitter and heavy, and absofuckinglutely divine. He can feel the fuzziness recede, and awareness seeps in its place. This disgusting wonderful swill is a marvel, and he needs it in his life.

 

“You have a house, you know.” Says Balin, distracting Itachi from his internal love-letter to the brown swill in his cup. “In the civilian district.”

 

Itachi blinks at him, blindsided by this. He has a what now?

 

“Well,” Balin amends, “it’s a cabin. And it’s not completely finished, yet. But. It’s yours.”

 

Still confused, Itachi casts about for his writing equipment. This conversation is going to be weird, he can already tell.

 

‘Alright? I was unaware of it, so thank you for informing me. I don’t understand why you’re bringing it up now, though.’

 

Balin leans back, a calculating look on his face. “My main duty, even superseding my work as a Scribe, is managing Prince Thorin’s schedule.”

 

Itachi nods cautiously. He’s aware of this.

 

“As such, I’m free to inform you that organizing your lessons, both fighting and in Iglishmêk, will take some careful planning. It would be - easier - for me to do so if you would be willing to live in the Settlement. Both you and the Prince have hectic, often unpredictable schedules, and organizing a steady stream of lessons when I can't reach one or both of you is plain impossible.”

 

Huh. Okay, it’s not like Itachi hasn’t been throwing the concept around in his mind for a while now. It’s not like it would be that jarring of a change. He’s already spent a year living with Silevon, most of it in the Dwarven camp, and he’s not - he doesn’t like living alone, anymore.

 

‘I can tentatively agree. But. I can't make any guarantees that I will always be available. As you said, my schedule is hard to predict, and sometimes I will just leave. I have patrols, I have duties in the Mountain, and sometimes I will plain be overwhelmed and I will run away to decompress. Those limitations are unfortunately unavoidable for me. That's why I didn't want to join your army in any concrete capacity. I am simply not reliable enough, I’m afraid.’

 

Balin’s eye-roll is very much implied, even as his face remains a polite, professional mask. “That is understood, of course. I’m not asking to have you on-hand always. You’re stressed time and time again how important independence is to you, and I am not looking to change that. You living in the civilian District is enough.”

 

Itachi nods, somewhat spooked by the serious tone, but also relieved.

 

‘Then, I agree.’

 

“Which brings us handily to a topic I wanted to discuss,” says Fundin. “Which is the matter of your impending audience with the King.”

 

The what now, pardon me, excuse you?

 

He doesn’t have to write anything, his incredulous look is enough to prompt Fundin to explain further.

 

“The only reason he hasn’t summoned you so far is that you’ve proven yourself too elusive to do so. With you present more often, with three contracts with various high-standing Dwarves, he’s sure to rectify that.”

 

“And he won’t be wrong to do so, objectively speaking.” Jumps in Balin, tone intense. “You’ve signed a contract with his son - his under-aged son. With his blessing, yes, but he’s not beyond his rights to meet you, under the circumstances.”

 

Okay, fair point.

 

‘I am not - opposed to this? Theoretically? In contrast to you, if I’m not mistaken. Without betraying any confidences, could you elaborate?’

 

“The King is. Protective of his son. And appreciative of your - accomplishments. He will look to, ah, reward you. You should be aware of how heavy a King’s thanks can be.” Says Balin, weighing up every word carefully.

 

Itachi makes sure to inject every bit of disbelief and incredulity he can in the look he shoots the young Dwarf. Protective his shiny Kunai. The King is possessive, of the son he abuses, and of Itachi - of the Runes on Itachi’s skin, to be precise.

 

‘I can and will be respectful with the King, on account of my respect of his people, his family and his God. Ultimately, that’s how far his authority with me goes. He poses no threat to me.’

 

Slightly combative, yes, and he regrets his tone when several emotions flicker over Balin’s face, too fast to decipher properly, ending up with something between defeat and fear.

 

How to respond to this - how to apologize for whatever unintentional insult he’s given? He truly meant no offence. This is far from a hill he’ll die on. If Balin is hurt by the slight against the King, he’d just explained he will be respectful - and he really will. He, personally, only despises the King because of how he behaves towards Prince Thorin and his siblings. If he’s not mistaken, and he’s not, every single Dwarf in Thorin’s circle of friends and family despises the King for the exact same reason. He’s felt it personally - Balin feels nothing but disgust and an apathetic sort of murder-wish whenever Thorin and the King are in the same room together.

 

Fundin, after an intense stare-off with Balin, sighs, and speaks. “Listen, lad, there’s no point in worrying about this now. I skimmed over your report, and it’s - bad.” He winces slightly and hurries to explain. “Not the report, but it’s contents. As soon as the chain of command is brought up to date, we’ll likely have a lot of questions. I’ll try to spare you the tedium of going to the meetings, but we’ll have to go through them quickly enough. The winter is near finished, the men will attack soon and we’re nowhere near prepared.”

 

True enough. They did their best with fortifying their civilians and likely preventing a massacre, but that didn’t leave them much time to prepare.

 

‘I will do my best to join you, but I don’t often do that well in crowds. Plus, until the lessons with Iglishmêk bear some fruit, I’d prefer to communicate mainly with you. It’s - trying - to keep writing everything down like this.’

 

“Have you met Lady Darla?” Asks Balin, out of the blue.

 

Lady Darla would be the socialite wife of Lord Nain?

 

‘I have not. Why do you ask?’

 

Balin’s air of frustration dissipates some. “Well, she’s my Godmother, for one. She’s well connected and can help you with a lot of the cultural nuance that you aren’t familiar with. Also, her house is very close to yours, in the civilian District. It’s a very convenient place for us to meet when we want to discuss civilian matters. While nobody has raised any objection to you spending time here so far, mostly for fear of driving you away, technically you should only be in the army camp when discussing military matters.”

 

Well, that answers that question. It’s not appropriate for Itachi to be here, it’s just that nobody dares bring this up with Fundin.

 

‘I was actually meaning to bring this up with you. I have a few things to discuss with Prince Thorin in regards to our fighting lessons. Prince Frerin, as well, and perhaps your brother Dwalin? Would it be possible to arrange a meeting with him tonight? For example, at Lady Darla’s residence? Mine is, as I understand, still unfinished.’

 

“Of course,” says Balin, a fairly neutral smile on his face. “I could arrange that. The Princes are, I’m afraid, busy for the next few hours, and they’re always accompanied by either my brother or myself. They should be finished in a few hours. In the meantime, we can go visit Lady Darla.”

 

“You’ll like the Lady,” says Fundin. “You’re not dissimilar, I think, and she is a very good friend to have.”

 

For some reason, a chill goes down Itachi’s spine. He’s signed himself up for something, it’s just not clear what, exactly.

 

 

Chapter Text

***

 

He was, as he’s come to understand on a deep, terrifying level, entirely unprepared to deal with the shark-pit Balin threw him in with a smile and a wave.

 

***

 

Time is doing the thing again - the thing when it slows down and speeds up just to vex mortals. Itachi could swear the day has been at least a week-long, and it’s still going. He still has two meetings ahead of him, in fact. One is more important than the other, true, but both are significant in their own way.

 

The way to Lady Darla leads him through the three-door Gate, which is a delight. None of the Dwarves seem to find anything - odd - about having three separate vertical-doors open for them, operated by individual mechanisms. Whatever the machinery is, he doubts it’s anything as primitive as counterweights, but it works splendidly.  Well, it creaks and groans and growls in defiance, but he’s at least eighty per cent sure it’s all for effect.

 

With Fundin and Balin in evidence, Itachi apparently needs no guide - although, now that his own residence is being built, perhaps he’s just - free to come and go. How exciting is that?

 

Lady Darla’s home is an elegant two-story house, built in the Dwarven tried and true style from iron, stone and wood. The quality is obviously high, but it’s the subtle detailing that makes it truly shine. The iron elements snake across the wooden panels, following the grain enough to not stand out, but still crating intricate patterns. It’s all very appropriate for the Lord and Lady of Iron Hills.

 

Dain's pig and Nain’s goat laze around in the courtyard and watch the newcomers with deeply unsettling intelligence. The pig especially looks to be one set of claws away from an actual nightmare brought to life by unholy magic.

 

Disaster strikes as soon as they cross the fucking doorstep. A terrified young Dwarf greets them, oscillating between a shocked stupor and ingrained politeness. He hustles them inside, spiriting off Itachi’s bag and Fundin’s weapons, wisely leaving Itachi’s swords where they are without comment.

 

Lady Darla, as it happens, is in the middle of hosting a party of some kind. It’s not a type of a social event he’s familiar with. It’s completely unstructured, for one. Ladies and Gentledwarves swan to and fro, dressed in jarringly opulent fashions considering they’re, in fact besieging a mountain full of orcs and black-magic wielding cultists, with some demonic hellfire sprinkled on top. There are feathers, jewels might as well be tinted glass with how plentiful they are, and less said about the gold the better.

 

Naturally, since Fundin has in fact arrived with Itachi, the well-practised routine that most of these events tend to hold to, is shattered. The pitch of the conversation rises from a leisurely hum to an agitated buzz. The guests start flittering about, torn between glee abut the social capital this will bring them, and disquiet from Itachi’s blank, threatening manner.

 

He accepts zero responsibility for this particular clusterfuck. He wasn’t warned, and he can't stop casting betrayed looks Fundin’s way. He wasn’t prepared to deal with young Dwarves alternatively batting their lashes at him, and shrinking back in fear. He doesn’t try to be intimidating, it’s just his default behaviour when forced into these situations. It would be very appropriate with the Uchiha, he sulks internally. This is how they were taught to act - when in doubt, blank your face, keep your walk predatory and imply every single living thing in the world is too far beneath you to bother with.

 

Lady Darla, a vision of gold and green, lives up to her reputation as a consummate diplomat. She flutters about, soothing frayed tempers, wielding her dimples and tinkling laugh with devastating effect. Her path is depressingly easy to predict - the Lady follows Itachi as he moves around the room, handling the trail of social destruction he leaves in his wake.

 

Fundin is, to be fair, a mass of nerves. Which he should be. What was he thinking, bringing Itachi here? This is the absolutely best possible outcome. If he were a little more keyed in, a smidgeon more traumatized, he’d have escaped to the ceiling, after starting a fire or three to serve as  distractions.

 

After a miserable half-hour, Lady Darla manages to throw out her guests, without insulting any, even managing to spin this disaster into a social coup for the guests. She and Balin go about dismissing the help for the night and locking up the house, leaving Fundin and Itachi alone in the room.

 

Itachi tries to release the newly generated tension but doesn’t entirely succeed. With a last betrayed glance, he retreats to the corner to meditate. The day is still long ahead, and he will accomplish nothing wound as tightly as he is. He places his swords in front of him, comfortable in a lotus-position, and breathes.

 

***

 

The Lady returns some twenty minutes later, and if Itachi couldn’t identity her Chakra signature, he would think her an intruder.

 

She changed out of her bejewelled dress, for one, and washed away the makeup he wasn’t even aware she was wearing. The difference is - stark. No trace of the cheerful, elegant Lady remains, instead a sharp, hawkish warrior stands in her place. He had forgotten how much makeup, the right angle and expression can change someone. Her face is less round now, longer and sharper. Her lips don’t have that plump, inviting smile anymore, but are curved into a tight, crooked line that looks much meaner.

 

She’s not angry, though. Viciously satisfied, he’d guess, but it’s impossible to say. He’s started to rely too much on Chakra-sensing, because there was not a trace of the shark in her, half an hour ago.

 

What.

 

He stands up from his vulnerable position, wary now. Thankfully he’s worked through some of his irrational tension already because this is important, dangerous and interesting all in one.

 

“Well, Fundin, you old fox,” the Lady cackles. “You’ve outdone yourself. I don’t know how you orchestrated this, but I couldn’t have done any better.” She sprawls in a comfortable looking chair, head tilted in an offhandedly arrogant pose. “This will be on everyone’s lips before the hour is out.”

 

She looks at her audience, Fundin and Balin sitting next to the fire, and Itachi crouching warily in the corner like a spooked animal.

 

“Sit down, lad. You’ve done wonderfully, and you’ve my honest thanks.”

 

Itachi absolutely doesn’t want to sit anywhere, until something starts making sense. He’s in a nice, defensible position here, close to the exit, far away from the predator that was perfectly hidden in their midst.

 

Fundin sighs. “This wasn’t planned, Darla. I - miscalculated.” He turns to Itachi, an uncomfortably repentant expression on his face. “I apologize, lad. I forgot Darla would be entertaining, or I would’ve warned you.”

 

“Hold on,” the lady says, an already mean smile growing meaner still. “This wasn’t planned? You didn’t couch the lad?” She throws her head back and laughs. Like a hyena. “Well, that makes it even better. I was worried that you couldn’t keep the act up, but if this is how you behave normally, well, my work is half done for me, isn’t it.”

 

“Ease up, Darla. You’re frightening the lad.” Sighs Fundin.

 

Itachi could be offended, but he isn’t because he speaks nothing but the truth.

 

“Nonsense,” she says, waving her hand airily. “Come, lad, sit. You’ve made my life simpler, even if you didn’t plan on doing so.”

 

He could run. He could. Nothing in his contract said he was supposed to endure these - circumstances.

 

He sits down. There is something about this Dwarf-lady that makes him tense and relax at the same time. A truly duplicitous Dwarf - he didn’t think they came in that model.

 

“Good. Ordinarily, we would’ve met either much earlier, or much later than now. Unfortunately, the circumstances have changed around us, as it were, and we’re now to be unlikely allies. I am Darla, daughter of Hrís, wife of Lord Nain, and Lady of Iron Hills.”

 

How is he to reply, exactly? His bag has been given to the servant, at Fundin’s insistence, and the only things he has with him are his weapons.

 

Fundin winces. “Ah, Darla, would you mind finding something for the lad to write on? I’m afraid your staff has whisked his supplies into places unknown.”

 

“Of course,” scoffs the Lady. “Everything you need is on the desk on the left.”

 

Itachi does not move, sitting where he was bid, watching the Lady like a hawk. She’s equally invested in hr observation of him. “So I gather you’ve begun your lessons with our Prince Thorin? Between the War, Iglishmêk lessons and training the Prince, you’ll be spending a lot of time with us.”

 

He nods, keeping everything from his face but blank detachment. Fundin arrives with the writing supplies, and nothing more is said until the setup is complete. The setting is - tense. The two of them sit, across a short desk, meant for decoration rather than use. He will either have to bend over it like a simpleton, or -

 

He slides from his chair, and into a seiza, the desk now at the perfect height for writing. He tilts his chin just-so and dares her to make a comment. He’s not without fangs, even if he sees little value in showing them so readily.

 

A glint of - approval - lights in the cold green eyes, and the Lady continues smoothly. “This will send the Nobles into a tizzy, you’re aware? They won’t like their mouthpiece developing a mind of his own.”

 

A bad feeling trickles down Itachi’s feeling. The Lady is fearless. She’s outright saying what Fundin and Balin have been hinting at time and time again. Which is probably why they’ve brought him here. Keeping his head down, he sneaks a glance to Fundin and Balin under his eyelashes. Indeed, while Balin looks between vindicated and relieved about the topic at hand, Fundin looks pained. And slightly afraid.

 

‘Mouthpiece?’ He writes, taking the obvious bait.

 

Darla bares her teeth. “Oh yes, we’ve been hearing a lot about what you stand for. What you, as Mahal’s Chosen, would endorse, what you would condemn, how you would see us behave - that sort of thing. It was very convenient when you were helpfully never actually here, never available for comment, and on top of it all, wonderfully mute. But now - now things change.”

 

It’s entirely possible that he is mistaken about how terrible this conversation is going to be.

 

‘I’m not - that. You know that, surely? I’m not a prophet or anything of that nature.’

 

Darla cuts her hand through the air, both dismissive and impatient. “It doesn’t matter, does it? It worked, it still works. The people you saved, the Dwarflings you fed and clothed, the impossible, veneer before seen fresh fruit in the winter, they left an impression. The warriors may call you Ozkif’uzghu, but among the common-folk, you’re named Jarteig’dríf. Bringer of miracles.”

 

What on earth? What is he supposed to say here, exactly?

 

‘I don’t know what to say, exactly. Do you want me to - stop? Confront someone?’ He writes, with complete sincerity.

 

“The fact that you’re going to be around is enough. You’re very - memorable. Very different from what the Nobles would like you to be, but exactly what the people need. As long as you’re here, visible, being exactly what you are, you’ll do excellently.”

 

‘So, what, that was a - warning? That the nobles will take steps to remove me, to stop me from wielding whatever authority you think I have?’

 

A pang of genuine shock goes through Darla, and he sees both Balin and Fundin wince slightly from the corner of his eye.

 

“Itachi,” says Darla, for once sounding completely honest. “Did you not hear a word of what I’ve just said. You’re revered among our people. You’re - almost holy. Never mind the people, if you asked it of him, Prince Thorin will place you on the Throne himself.”

 

Well, now.

 

‘No need for hyperbole, Lady Darla. I’m on board for whatever Prince-guarding scheme you’ve been herding me into. You don’t need to bother anymore.’

 

The Lady’s eyes narrow into slits, and her mouth thins into an unhappy grimace. There is still no anger in her, but unhappiness and frustration is a heavy fog. “Fundin, why don’t you take Balin, and go see about - something. Away from here. Itachi and I have a few things to discuss. In fact, why don’t you return with the Princes, when they’ve completed whatever fool thing they’re being bid to do.”

 

Adrenaline joins the apprehension, making Itachi’s focus sharpen further still. On one hand, he doesn’t want to be alone with this sharp-eyed, jagged-edged Lady who says openly what no-one else dares to. On the other hand, it’s exactly what he wants to do. If he leaves now, he doubts he will be welcome again. And, even taking into account her genuinely disagreeable manner, he likes the Lady. She’s an unholy mix of Mikoto Uchiha and Shikaku Nara, unapologetically vicious, and perfectly willing to tear Itachi to shreds to suit her purpose. Mothers - what else was he expecting.

 

Balin stands without comment, not at all as happy as Itachi assumed he would be. Looking back, this was exactly what the Dwarf wanted, when he pushed for this meeting. Aside from grim resignation, Itachi can’t sense any triumph or satisfaction in either Balin or Fundin. It makes him respect them some, but that doesn’t stop him from sending a cold glance his way. While their scheming in regards to Thorin wasn't manipulation, this with Darla, this was. They manoeuvred him into this, under debatably false pretences, and the only thing that remains to be seen is if the Lady was a part of it or an unwilling participant like Itachi.

 

Fundin looks old when he raises, and he accepts Itachi’s condemnation with stoic resignation.

 

Which, okay. It’s not that he’s betrayed, exactly. He is something, though. A part of it is the fact they brought him here deliberately, but the fact that they’re leaving, just like that - well. It’s complicated.

 

“Off you go.” Darla says, not taking her eyes off Itachi.

 

With murmured farewells, the two Dwarves clear out, and a strange mix of contradictory emotions fills him. A part of him tenses, a part of him relaxes. He doesn’t have to play nice with the ruthless lady in front of him. She’s likely miles more vicious than he could hope to be, anyway. The anticipated anxiety fails to rise, but a sense of an impending attack sings in his blood. This is a battle, without a doubt. There will be blood spilt, before the end.

 

“I think I can tell why they threw you to me, now. They’re cowards, essentially, but they mean well. It’s a conversation you need to have, or it would be worse for everyone. Well, I say everyone. Everyone I care about. So - let’s talk about how you’re lying to yourself, shall we?”

 

Itachi, now more comfortable with dropping some of the trappings of civility, lets the coldness shine from his eyes.

 

‘I’m sure you’re going to explain.’

 

“Indeed I will. You’re doing some impressive mental gymnastics, in order to remain free from any responsibility towards the Khazad. But you’ve already involved yourself. It's because of your actions and your actions alone that you are in the position you’re in. You don’t get to be childish, anymore. You don’t get to say ‘this doesn’t concern me’ and only involve yourself when it suits you.”

 

It’s Itachi’s turn to bare his teeth. ‘I have done nothing. I never accepted anything from your King, I don’t owe you - any of you - anything.’

 

A flash of temper. “First off, that’s a criminally oversimplified way of looking at this situation. But we’ll get back to that. You did accept Fundin’s help. He put his reputation on the line for you. He’s been working up to the position he holds his entire life. He proclaimed himself your Champion - with your acceptance. He approached the King, he wrote the contracts, he involved both his sons in this. What you do reflects on him. If you decide to spit on the King, as deserved as it might be, you can just fly off with whatever magic you have at your disposal. The consequences will be felt by Fundin, who vouched for you.

 

Itachi’s certainty that he’s in the right - falters. The disquiet her words produce, the fact he feels the blow on a physical level - that’s significant. She’s - right. In this at least.

 

“But let’s set Fundin aside. He’s an adult, all three of them are, they are ultimately responsible for their own actions. What about the three Royals? You’ve directly inserted yourself into their lives. What do you think happens to Prince Thorin, who you’ve bound in so many honour-debts he will be obligated to defend you from any attack? Do you want to put him in that position? What about Princess Dis? Before you came along, she had basically no support - at least nothing she would accept. You approached her on your own accord, not a single Dwarf asked you to. You’ve put her under your protection publicly and on several occasions. What do you think happens to her if you fuck off to do whatever you want to do?”

 

True. All true. He wrestles his mind into calm, as his anxiety rises. He has no reply either. ‘I just wanted to help.’ He writes, in the end. A pathetic reply, but it’s the only one he has.

 

“I don’t particularity care what you wanted to do. I’m here to burst your bubble and to make you confront your hypocrisy. You want to protect those you see as vulnerable, but only so far. You don’t get to be a child and a protector. Choose one. If you don’t want to do this, quit now. It’s not too late to distance the Royals from you. Not all - Thorin is too invested, both personally and politically. He will follow where you lead. But Princess Dis could be distanced if you decide you can’t be what she deserves you to be. You don’t even have to leave - you can declare yourself a civilian in truth, an underaged Dwarf. You would have a happy life here, in the civilian District. I will personally arrange a suitable apprenticeship.”

 

Without his conscious wish, he stands up, ready to leave, run away from this vicious Lady binding him so effectively. Chains rattle in his head, the sound of freedom flying away.

 

“Sit down, boy. We’re not finished here.” There is not an ounce of fear in her. Which is impressive because Itachi is afraid of himself. He’s - unbalanced, so much so that he doesn’t know what he’s going to do.

 

‘Don’t. Antagonize. Me. Now. I don’t threaten you when I say this. I’m not what you would call sane. I spent decades in the Mountain, alone, doing my duty to our Father. Our Maker. It left its mark. I - snap sometimes.’

 

Lady Darla nods, faintly apologetic, but not at all repentant. “I get that. I get you will never be only ours. You deny your status as our prophet, but it’s what you are. You’re Mahal’s Chosen, and His will is going to supersede ours. That’s literally written on your skin. I just want you to stop with statements like ‘your king has no authority on me’ or ‘your nobles can’t harm me’. Because they can. They can punish the ones you made yourself responsible for. What will you do when that happens? When you disrespect the King, and Prince Frerin is flogged? Kill him? What happens if you make a friend among the common-folk, and a Noble you anger starts mistreating him?”

 

She pauses for a moment, visibly calming herself. “My point is - you’re too strong to harm directly - that much is hilariously obvious. That doesn’t mean you can't be hurt, it just means your enemies have to be creative about it.”

 

His dissociation techniques are - failing. He pushes his emotions down as best he can, but they keep bubbling up to the surface, painting his vision red and drawing a high-pitched ring echo in his ears.

 

‘Why do you even care?’ He writes, desperate to change the topic from Itachi’s failings. Her motivation is not the most mysterious thing in the world, but it would do.

 

“Because my son adores you.” Says the Lady, with a terrible note of honesty in her voice. “He’s not in love with you, thank Mahal, but he might as well be. You’re everything he talks about, him and his Royal cousins. He’s one of those who would be harmed, to get to you. And I won’t have that. I can and will protect him even from you. But it wouldn’t be fair to you, to jump to those measures without confronting you, first. Without giving you a chance.”

 

‘I - I don’t want this.’ He writes, defeated. There’s a lot of things he can fight against, a lot of claims and offers he can dismiss, but a mother’s concern is not among them. ‘I don’t want this responsibility. I am - weak. And damaged - barely clawing myself to sanity on a good day. I just - I didn’t want to be alone.’ His writing grows progressively messier, as the tremble in his hands grows increasingly pronounced. ‘I can’t be alone anymore. But I’m - I’m a killer. I can’t be what you want me to be.’

 

His hand slips on the last words, ink spilling onto the papers. He stares at the stain with such focus he doesn’t see the movement in his periphery. When a hand touches him on the shoulder cautiously, he startles - badly. He throws himself back, back, back, up a wall, into the shadows.

 

Snapping back into awareness, he sees the Lady, who sat back into her armchair, slumped, rubbing a hand over her face.

 

“Curse us all for fools,” She mutters tiredly.

 

Keeping her voice deliberately casual, she speaks in louder tones. “You can stay there if you want, but I would appreciate it if you could come down. I - I would like to apologize.”

 

He blinks. Apologize? The Iron Lady?

 

A huff. “Yes, child. I - went overboard. I - Just - come down, okay?”

 

When he doesn’t move so much as a muscle, she sighs and stands up. She takes a turn around the room, collecting various items he doesn’t pay attention to. She reaches into a cupboard here, a desk there, and sits back, placing a full tray on the table.

 

“Here - tea and cakes. Come on, come down, I will - I will stop. Just - please.”

 

The ‘please’ is what cinches it. Numb and still shaking with adrenaline, he inches back down.

 

“There’s a good lad. Come on, eat. I’ve made the cakes myself, and they’re spectacular.”

 

He waits until she’s sitting down, a good two meters between them, but he sits down eventually. The cakes do look good, don’t they? Golden and soft, they look like they would melt in his mouth. The very thought of eating makes sweat bead on his forehead.

 

He looks at her again, but she looks between him and the cakes with hope, so he - he will try. She said please. The cakes are wonderfully soft in his hand. His stomach twists, but - one bite. Just one bite.

 

He takes a bite. It’s just as soft as he imagined it would be, but his stomach - freezes, twists, rolls -

 

Godfuckigndamnit. He turns his Sharingan on automatically and looks wildly around the room. There! He lunges toward the vase conveniently only a few meters away and heaves.

 

He hears a soft curse, and a figure approaching him, and he tenses, ready to run, ready to fight.

 

Another sigh, but the figure backs away. He relaxes.

 

He heaves for another long moment, emptying his stomach of the wonderful stew from before, before slumping into a miserable, sweaty ball. He loses a few minutes in getting himself together. When he’s finally aware of his surroundings, Darla sits where she was, face set in an impassive mask, but hands are clenched hard enough to rip steel.

 

“Damn Fundin, and damn Balin, and damn me.” She mutters.

 

There is no pity in her eyes, or in her Chakra. Just - anger, most of it self-directed. No regret, either, which makes his appreciation grow into something stronger. She’s angry on his behalf, furious with herself, but she doesn’t regret anything. He respects that.

 

“Is there anything I can do to help? If you want me to leave, I will.”

 

Itachi shakes his head, too tired to care.

 

“There's a pitcher of water on the table next to you. If you’re up for walking, the washroom is in the room next to this one. I am willing to help, but I don’t think you want me anywhere near right now.”

 

He takes her advice and stumbles to the washroom. It - he hasn’t lost control like this for a long time. Which, yeah, he gets why it happened. The Lady drives a hard point. She couldn’t have known how deeply Itachi fears being responsible. Not that it matters. If she knew, she wouldn’t have changed a single word.

 

She’s right, is the thing. Itachi has been trying to have it both ways. He kept divorcing himself from the situation, kept thinking of the Dwarves like a wonderful people that ultimately don’t have anything to do with him. Kind of like Silevon. Except Silevon is a single, self-sufficient, ancient Elf. The Dwarves are - come on say it. Admit it. They’re his people. They’re not a self-imposed mission. He’s - he’s involved himself. He wasn’t ordered by Father. He chose this, time and again.

 

And he - he could leave, but. He wants to continue. That’s the point. That’s what makes her words ring true. He won’t be able to stay away - he won’t be able to stay in the Mountain alone, anymore. One way or another, his fate is now tied with the Dwarves. It’s time to stop pretending. Stop making outs for himself. In or out. You know what your choice is, you’ve known for a long time. You’ve just been a coward. A hypocritical coward, too.

 

A wave of self-loathing rises, high, too high, cutting off his air. It’s only the death-grip he has on the sink that keeps him on his feet. He breathes through it. It’s - it’s irrational. You know it is. Just breathe.

 

Water, there, a tub full. He splashes water on his face but it’s not - enough. He is still spiralling and - 

 

Alright. Drastic measures it is. He takes in a deep breath and plunges his head in the tub.

 

Fuck, but it’s cold. His hysterical mind - blanks. The pitched ringing in his ears stops and it’s - quiet.

 

When he runs out of oxygen, he pushes out, and - it’s still quiet, thank fuck.

 

Although that doesn’t help with the fact his soaked hair is making an unholy mess of everything, thoroughly drenching him and everything around him.

 

There! A towel. He lunges towards it, like an idiot, hair trailing behind him, splashing water everywhere. Thank fuck but the towel is giant and fluffy and thick, and it stops - this - from growing even worse. Taking in the mess he’s made of the pristine washroom he can't stop a hysterical laugh from escaping. His life. He mops the water as best he can, but there’s not much he can do, really.

 

When he returns to the Lady, she’s just as stone-faced as she was before he left. The ice of her face breaks at the ridiculous image Itachi presents, wet and miserable, wrapped up in a soaked towel.

 

“Did you? Did you dunk your hair in the tub?” She asks slowly.

 

He nods, sheepish.

 

She blinks at him for a long moment, bewildered.

 

“You’re chaos incarnate, child.” She says weakly. “Just - can you sit down, please. I’ll just- bring you something warm to wear. Just sit next to the fire-place and try not to - fall into the fire, or damage yourself in any other way. Please. I’ve already damaged you enough.”

 

He’s wonderfully - empty. Well, not empty, more - fuzzy-headed, unburdened, perhaps? He sits next to the fire-place, and - doesn’t think about anything at all. His mouth tastes disgusting, he’s shaking like a leaf, and he feels exhausted, like he just - like he just had two panic-attacks back-to-back.

 

The lady return with a bundle of clothes.

 

“Look,” she says bluntly. Bluster is apparently how she deals with awkwardness. “You can wear my son’s clothes if you want to. They will be comically big on you since I don’t have anything from his younger years here. Or you can wear my clothes which will fit you better. You choose.”

 

She all but throws the clothes at him and turns on her heel. “I will be back in five minutes. Please be decent.”

 

With how unfocused he is, there's no space for any awkwardness. He only feels detached sort of curiosity.

 

Gender roles were, thank Mother, never one of his many, many complexes. Which makes the process of choosing what to wear that much more enjoyable. He just picks what he likes most - easy. He ends up with brown-green loose trousers, a matching tunic in browns and golds, thick and well-worn, and a pair of thick, fuzzy sock-slippers. Perfect. His hair is still in the towel, but he doesn’t want to ruin the clothes, so he leaves it as it is.

 

Getting out of his borrowed tunic and trousers is easier than it could’ve been, with how big they were on him. All dressed, he sits back in front of the fireplace and - drifts.

 

Darla return and her eyes - shift, when she looks at him. He doesn’t care enough to decipher it.

 

“Good lad. Are you comfortable?”

 

He nods.

 

She throws him a pillow and sits into a nearby chair.

 

“Alright. So - I won’t press you with anything serious right now. But just - tell me this. Do you want to call it a night? Fundin and the rest won’t be in for at least one or two hours, but if you don’t think you will be up for it, I can send them away. There’s a guest-room that’s yours if you want it.”

 

Itachi frowns. He’s fuzzy, yes, and tired, but there’s a niggling thought in his mind that doesn’t let him rest. He stands on wobbling legs, keeping the towel in place with both arms. Step by awkward step, he makes his way to the desk with his writing equipment.

 

‘Im - I'm not tired. I'm just - If you have the dark bitter not-tea that you drink, I will focus.’ He writes carefully, trying not to mess up the words.

 

She nods resolutely. “Alright. If that's what you want. You will tell me if you change your mind.” She orders, a stern look in her eyes.

 

He nods quickly, having completely submitted himself to her authority.

 

She sighs again but manages a small smile. “Alright, how about you and I sit next to the fire there, you let your hair out to dry, and I will teach you some Iglishmêk. How does that sound?”

 

He beams at her, wide and unconcerned. That’s an absolutely splendid idea.

 

She smiles back. Something is off about the expression, but Itachi doesn’t care to think about it. He makes his way to the fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

She might actually, genuinely skin Fundin alive.

 

She doesn't know how she will let this go. They - the fucking cowards - used her, to break a boy and didn’t have the balls to tell her what she’s working with. They talked about the boy’s hang-ups - Fundin was the one to bring it up. How concerned he was about Itachi’s detachment. How uncertain was about where the boy was - for months. How worried he was about having possibly undermined his own position in the court, on account of a Dwarf that just - disappeared for months and left him without any idea when or if he might return. How disastrous it would be if he squandered the King’s goodwill and his political capital.

 

And then he brought the boy to her.

 

She’s blindingly angry. Angry enough to be aware she’s irrational about it. That she will do stupid things if she doesn’t calm down.

 

The boy - Itachi - sits in front of the fire, looking like a - like a spirit, a vision sent from Mahal, not meant to be seen by mortal eyes. His usually guarded, unreadable face is relaxed, childish in a way he’s never allowed himself to be.

 

He looks dazed. He looks drugged. He looks beautiful. He looks broken.

 

She did this. She picked and cut and attacked, and went after every weakness like a vicious bitch she’s always known herself to be. Yes, it was important to have this conversation. Yes, it made Dain safer, to have Ozkif’uzghu stop distancing himself from them.

 

But - honestly. Can she justify this? Can she justify pushing the boy headfirst into battle-shock?

 

Well. Yes. Of course she can. That's a bad question. There is nothing, including killing everyone and everything, that she couldn’t justify if it involved her son's safety.

 

The question is, was this necessary? Could she - could they have achieved their goals without causing harm to a boy that only ever wanted to help?

 

Of course they could have. This - mess - wasn’t even a particularly wise way to go about it. It hinges on what the boy decides to do when he comes to his senses. Because he might be young, but he’s dangerous and unpredictable and Mahal’s Chosen. He could decide to wash his hands of them all, and she won’t blame him for a second. She might even congratulate his good sense.

 

But for now, they sit in front of the fire, the child dressed in her clothes, long hair draped everywhere. Looking like a daughter she was denied time and time again until Mahal declared her unable to bring life to the world. He sits and practices hand-signs, the peaceful smile on his face in sharp contrast with the spinning red eyes. What their purpose is she doesn’t dare ask, but they're terrifying in a way she's not yet become familiar with. Like she’s petting a drugged tiger who might come to his senses at any point and tear her to shreds.

 

She’s not a coward. If he wants to harm her, he’s within his rights to do so. She broke guest rights, without provocation. She harmed a boy not yet into his sixties willingly because it was the simplest way she knew to get what she wanted.

 

For an hour she walks him through the signs, the boy picking it up unnaturally quickly before she calls a break.

 

“If you want to have the meeting tonight, child, then you should start getting ready. If you have your own focusing techniques, try them. If you don’t I can instruct you in some.”

 

Itachi blinks at her, red turning into black, making her relax and tense at the same time. With an innocent smile, he focuses for a moment and then signs carefully.

 

/understood/accepted/no/ need assistance/

 

“Very good,” she praises, honestly impressed. He’s only had an hour of instruction, and he’s already making sentences. His form is flawless. Too flawless, actually. He mimicked her signs to a ridiculous degree, the angle of his finger is identical to hers, she’d bet her life on it. Fucking magic.

 

“I need to get ready myself, so I will leave you for a little while. If you need anything - anything - help yourself. If you need me, come and find me. I am available.”

 

The child already sunk into a strange pose, that looks damn uncomfortable. Hips just shouldn’t bend like that. Nevertheless, he looks serene so she doesn’t question it. Her eyes genuinely hurt at how peaceful and beautiful the boy is. Spun Mithril.

 

She leaves him to it and retreats into her rooms. Her anger has cooled some, but it left her with a forged blade that she will hurt someone with. Definitely herself. Possibly someone else too. It’s still not clear what precisely she is angry about, and until she knows without a shadow of a doubt, she best not act on it.

 

It’s time to be honest and calm.

 

Was she goaded, or manipulated into this? Not - exactly. Nobody forced her, nobody instructed or cajoled her into doing it. She acted with her nature, acted from her own conscience. She didn’t see a person, she saw an objective, an obstacle to her son’s safety - and her friends’ safety. So she dealt with the problem in the easiest way she knew.

 

Is she angry on behalf of herself? Kind of. She was used as a weapon, by her own friend. He could have warned her, he could have prepared her. Is that anger justified? No. She’s an adult. Nobody forced her. She could have been a better person. She could have simply not been a bad one. The responsibility is hers and hers alone. Let that go.

 

Is she angry on behalf of Itachi? Yes. Absolutely. At herself, mostly, but at others too. He was brought here, to be hurt. That’s - never okay. There is a definite note of betrayal there. Is it justified? Perhaps. It’s complicated. Can she take responsibility for hurting the boy, while also blaming Fundin and Balin for their role in it?

 

A rephrase. Is it reasonable to assume they knew how she would react? Absolutely. If not when they brought him in, then at the moment when she told them to leave. So - they didn’t hurt him, but they facilitated it. Is that enough to be angry about? Yes. They had more of a responsibility towards Itachi than she did. And she, as his hostess, had a lot of responsibility. They definitely betrayed his trust by letting it happen, knowing what they’re leaving him to.

 

Could they predict how bad the boy would react? Absolutely not. Does it matter? Kind of. It cools some of her anger, regardless. She’s too practical, and not moral enough to put much stock on principle alone.

 

Is she disappointed in her friends? Yes. So, so disappointed. They left it to her because they didn’t want to be the ones having a difficult conversation. They could have stayed, with the boy they claimed to care for and help make the conversation smoother. They could have had the conversation themselves. But they didn’t want to. Because, ultimately, they like her also only cared about the end result.

 

So - the conclusion is - what? She deserves to be angry on Itachi’s behalf and disappointed on her own. That’s - okay. She can work with that.

 

Her anger at herself is going to be more difficult to work through, but at least she will be able to sit through this meeting without causing further undeserved anger.

 

A vicious pang of sadness makes it’s way to her heart before she sacrifices it at the altar of determination. Sadness is useless. You wronged someone selfishly, fix it or live with it.

 

***

 

She dresses to signal her mood to her guests. A blood-red dress to show her anger. Steel bracelets without a gem in sight to show she’s not in the mood to play. Every piece of jewellery is sharp and pointy and bare. She pulls her hair back, into elaborate but practical braids and doesn’t bother with makeup. She wears her emotions plain, tonight. No games, no masks, no pretend.

 

Let’s see if they can handle her half as well as Itachi had.

 

***

 

When a messenger comes to inform her Fundin, his sons, the Crown Prince and his brothers and her husband and her son are arriving she goes to inform the boy.

 

He’s - improved. He’s lost the unfocused fuzzy look, and when she enters the room his eyes snap open. She can't read him. Nothing. A mithril sculpture. A monument to divine impassivity.

 

“My family, your student, his brother and my worthless friends will be here in fifteen minutes. Do you object with me being in the room with you?”

 

The unfathomable eyes observe her, judge her, and she bears it. It’s what she deserves.

 

He shakes his head.

 

“Alright. I want to apologize. Will you hear it?”

 

Another long moment of scrutiny, before his hands move, uncertain and certain at the same time.

 

/what/if/not/

 

She inclines her head slightly. “Then I will not bother you, and we will wait for the company in peace.”

 

The first break in his impassivity. The boy-god cocks his head.

 

/go/ahead/

 

Go time.

 

“My mistakes are these. I wronged you first as a guest under my roof. You visited me in good faith, and I betrayed your trust. Second, I wronged you because I aimed to hurt, not just to tell the truth. Third I wronged you because I didn’t take my own biases and preconceived notions into account. I caused you harm when I didn’t have to. Those are the ways I wronged you, and I offer you my apologies. Ask what you will of me, and if it doesn’t harm my husband or son, I will try to oblige.”

 

Not a flicker of expression. She might as well be talking to a statue.

 

/you/not/regret/

 

A statement, not a question. She answers it either way. “I regret only the unnecessary pain I caused you. Some of it was necessary, and for that, I make no apology. I may have aimed to hurt with my truths, but they were truths. I never lied. I am not responsible for the pain the truth itself caused. Only for the excess, caused by myself.”

 

The child nods and stands, no trace of weakness in sight. Reaching the table, he slides into the odd sitting-kneel and starts writing.

 

‘I accept your apology and I offer my own. I over-reacted. You’re right that you spoke the truth, and I needed the extra push in realizing it. You were perhaps more - forceful about it than necessary, or even wise, but I forgive you.’

 

The note is written in an almost mechanical script as if he’s so controlled that he’s hyper-focused on every stroke of the quill.

 

He continues writing another note, and she takes the time to let the relief that she was forgiven rush through her. She might have been ready for harsh consequences, but she’s not selfless enough to not be fucking relieved at being let off the hook so easily.

 

‘Your apology didn’t cover one thing, however, and it’s what I am most upset by. You kept pushing after I warned you to stop. I’m dangerous, Lady, and I could have hurt you. I could have killed you. That thought is - terrifying. Your sharp tongue could’ve ruined me, and it’s not even about forgiveness anymore. I can’t risk being around you if don’t promise - if you don’t swear - you will stop when I ask you to. That you won’t make me snap, for your own benefit.’

 

She nods and places a hand on her heart.

 

“I swear. On my husband’s life. I won’t swear on my son’s, because I would break any vow for his sake, I will do so without a thought. But on everything other than that, I swear.’

 

For some reason, that’s what makes him relax.

 

‘Then I say we’re even. I would consider you a close ally. As such, can you tell me why you’re so angry? I apologized.’

 

Mahal wept. “I am angry, my ally, first at myself because I am better than this. I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t. Secondly, I am angry because you were done badly not just by myself, but by Fundin and Balin. It’s -” stop before you say something you can't take back. “I don’t, in truth want to talk about it. It will colour your own view on the situation, and I’m still too upset to be rational about it.”

 

Itachi blinks at her, a shy, uncertain gesture, some of the child beneath the warrior shining though, before being wiped away. ‘As you wish. Will that impact our meeting tonight?’

 

“It will not.” She says, certain. “It’s just Fundin and Balin I have - issues with - and we’re all perfectly able to be adults about it. If someone asks - which Dain might - feel free to tell him to fuck right off. Or do whatever you wish.”

 

/understood/accepted/ Itachi signs, all traces of emotion wiped from his face once more.

 

Alright.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The meeting - one that he personally requested - is about to start. The other participants are practically around the corner, and here is Itachi, having something of an out-of-body experience.

 

On an impersonal level, he appreciates the ruthless pragmatism of the Iron Lady. She gambled and won, and that’s always worth respect. The thing is, she didn’t know what she was gambling on, or with. She could have been dead. He’s not been attacked like this - provoked with intent to cause psychological distress - in this life. Silevon and his companions lived through Itachi’s panic attacks in the Mines in great part because they genuinely didn’t intend to cause harm. The Lady aimed to hurt, aimed to provoke, and it’s luck alone that he doesn’t have her blood on his hands. He swore, he pleaded and he sacrificed - all to never have blood of innocents on his conscience.

 

He’s - he’s - he’s -

 

He’s never felt more like a child than he does now. Confused, hurt, afraid - the basic nature of the emotions make them that much stronger. So much so that his knees are shaking, and a relentless buzz is driving him up the wall. On the other hand, he has someone he trusts, now. Someone he understands. Darla managed to jump from /neutral-unimportant/ to /neutral-interesting/ to /neutral-dangerous/ to /aggressive-dangerous/ all the way to /important-ally-protect/

 

It’s too much for his heart to handle. His feelings about Balin and Fundin are similarly complicated but in the opposite direction. He has not even started to unravel the chaotic mess of emotions regarding his closest friend among the Dwarves who had - never mind.

 

Let’s just - just focus on getting through this night. You can be polite, and you don’t have the time to nurse your hurt feelings. The men might attack tomorrow. The men might attack tonight. There is no time.

 

Which brings up an important point. He reaches for the brush and paper.

 

‘I promised I would live in the civilian district. My house isn’t finished. You offered a room?’

 

Is it pathetic that, after everything, he is comfortable with staying here? Does he care? Not at all. When it comes down to it, Lady Darla has proven herself to be - well, a Kunoichi mother. He - respects that. He admires her unflinching resolve. She - she’s - magnificent. And terrible. Just thinking about her makes him want to cry, but also makes him want to hide the tears into her shoulder. Pathetic, he asked earlier? Without a doubt.

 

It is as it is.

 

“The guest room is yours, now and always.” She states, voice even and measured.

 

The Lady is fond of expressing her thoughts with her apparel. Everything speaks ‘anger’ and ‘danger’ and ‘don’t fuck with me now I swear to Kami’.

 

/thank-you/ he signs, a flicker of pleasure making itself known through the haze of confusion. The signs are a balm on his soul, and he can barely contain his eagerness to learn them all.

 

She nods, eyes hard, Chakra a deep, resounding well of anger. It’s rather intimidating, actually. There are flashes of other emotions - pain, relief, resignation. But they’re brief flashes, quickly folded into the tsunami of anger.

 

***

 

The company arrives, led by Lord Nain. He walks into the room with large energetic steps, but his jovial smile flickers on his face when he sees his wife’s expression and apparel. He sends an alarmed glance at Itachi, and almost does a double-take, before hiding it all behind a mask of good cheer.

 

“Well, now, my Love. I am speechless, so I best not speak.” He reaches for his son and squeezes his shoulder lightly. “Let’s just sit over there son, there’s a good lad.”

 

Dain - in no way as oblivious as his parents think he is - pats his father’s hand reassuringly while his eyes jump from Itachi to his mother, his shrewd look a perfect mix of his father’s cunning and his mother’s viciousness. Without a word, he sits down next to his father.

 

Prince Frerin and Prince Thorin are right behind them, a step ahead of Fundin, Balin and Dwalin. The Princes, obviously familiar with Darla, not to mention naturally intelligent Dwarves in their own right, cotton on to the tense atmosphere, and the fact that Itachi is dressed in either Dain’s or the Lady’s clothes. They bow to the Lady and to Itachi politely, and Itachi reciprocates with a formal but impersonal bow. Fundin, Balin and Dwalin are next, and oh boy, this is awkward.

 

Itachi can, truth be told, barely look at them. It’s mostly not their fault. He’s trying very hard to remain even and unruffled, and looking at them compromises that. So he doesn’t. He greets them with flawless courtesy, of course, but takes pains to avoid direct eye contact.

 

The Lady is much less reserved in her anger. The look she shoots at Fundin is pure fury, and the old Dwarf looks honestly taken aback at the intensity of the emotion. Balin is pale as a sheet, and while he plays a good game, Itachi can all but taste the pain and hurt that the Lady’s anger causes.

 

Dwalin, wise Dwarf that he is, throws his father and brother to the wolf, as it were, and stoically pretends nothing is wrong. The approach proves to be successful when he’s greeted evenly but without rancour. He quickly joins Thorin and Frerin throwing a curious look to his family.

 

“Alright,” says Nain, the very image of careless joy. “I realize I am but an observer to this meeting, so I will try to keep my remarks brief. Politeness demands I should be here, as your host. My body commands me to go to sleep as soon as possible. A compromise, then! I will stay with you for a little while, and if it proves to be a complicated matter, I trust you not to take offence if I beg leave.” 

 

Itachi nods. He has - no idea how to begin this. His original plan is scrapped, after the conversation he’s just had with Darla. The training plan is important, but it can wait for ten minutes.

 

Writing it all down will be tedious. ‘I will try and keep it brief then. Unfortunately, this means of communication isn’t without its limits. Speed being the chief one. Originally I planned on keeping the discussion solely about your training. I have several suggestions, from specific forms I think you would benefit from learning to some more radical ideas about battle-formations.’ 

 

He swallows, uncertain how exactly to approach this, before a resounding sense of fuck it reverberates through his very bones. What would Orochimaru say? If Orochimaru was ever inclined to play nice, ever.

 

‘Before I can continue on that, it was brought to my attention, that I have been unfair to you, your Highness, and to your siblings. I apologize. I have, good intentions aside, inserted myself into your lives, without giving you much of a choice. If you want me to back off, I will do so. Essentially I am trying to - clear the air, as it were. I have agreed to live in the civilian district on a more permanent basis. As such, it would be wise to establish a more - appropriate relationship.’

 

Prince Thorin reads the note under his breath, every Dwarf in the room growing stiffer with each word read. A fierce scowl appears on the Prince’s face.

 

“I don’t know what prompted this, Master Itachi, but I would disagree that you have anything to apologize about. Frerin?”

 

Prince Frerin keeps his thoughts from his face better, but he’s also less surprised than his brother is. He’s been sending speculative looks Fundin’s and Darla’s way since they walked in.

 

“I agree, of course. You’ve been nothing but a life-saver to myself and my siblings - often literally so. I would urge you not to take anything that might have been said unwisely to heart. I don’t know what you consider to be a more appropriate relationship, but something tells me none of us really want to find out.”

 

Lord Nain leans forward, amicable smile not faltering for so much as a moment. “Your situation is interestingly novel, that’s true. There is no precedent as to how you fit into our hierarchy. And yet, since everything about the situation is - unique - we’re all figuring it out as we go. So I would suggest we do just that and let time and our interactions evolve our relationship naturally. I'm sure that meddling - even well-intentioned meddling - would only serve to cause, ah, problems in the long run.”

 

The implication is caught by everyone, form fox-eyed Dain to stone-faced Fundin. Prince Thorin looks to be holding onto his composure by the skin of his teeth.

 

Itachi inclines his head, not hiding the stiffness of the move as well as he could’ve.

 

‘As you wish.’

 

Dwalin, content to sit quietly speaks. “You’ve mentioned something about training? It seems that we’ve exhausted the previous topic, at least for now.”

 

Confusion and exhaustion aside, Itachi can't help but feel a pang of fondness for the direct dwarf. How very practical.

 

‘Indeed. The men who will attack us soon - some of them are truly dangerous. Their best fighter would defeat me in a fair fight, and neither of us fights fair. Their leaders are well informed, and they’ve without a doubt tailored their tactics to our people specifically. You need to do the same, and adapt your tactics with them in mind.

 

‘Their main advantage is their advanced battlefield cooperation. They work with each other seamlessly. You need to counter that. My suggestion would be to form teams of three, let’s say. For example, the Princes and you, Master Dwalin. Prince Thorin would serve as the mid-range attacker, Prince Frerin would be long-range, and you would be the close-range, frontline fighter. The Unit would be well-balanced, and after some team-training, you’d compensate each other's weaknesses flawlessly. I would personally serve as a faster opponent to the team, and you can get used to fighting faster, sneakier opponents who fight dirty.’

 

Dwalin looks between offended and concerned for a moment. “Why the three of us? Why not two or four?”

 

Ah. He’s offended that Balin is not included

 

‘Individual training would still be a priority. In the long run, relying on rigid structures like a three-person team would cause more harm than good. However, we simply don’t have enough time to compensate for the speed and lack of intel. My priority is keeping the Princes alive, as you know. How that happens is, ultimately, not my business.’

 

Prince Thorin pales and blushes at the same time, as Dwalin reads the note out loud, not bothering with the polite pretence. “The idea has merit. Logistically, however, it’s challenging. Both me and Frerin have duties irrespective of training, and we’re rarely available at the same time. Balin?

 

Balin speaks for the first time since the meeting started, and Itachi instinctively blanks his face, focusing on a point above the Dwarf’s ear. “It can’t be done with any regularity. As it is, I can barely fit in your Iglishmêk lessons. If we schedule your Iglishmêk lessons to take place after dinner, you will have only a maximum of two to three hours for individual training during the day. The odds of Prince Frerin being available at the same time are vanishingly low.”

 

Itachi nods. ‘Alright. The only other solution I have would be that I join you during your sparring lessons with the army. You could set up a rotating amount of soldiers, and I could serve as your opponent. That way both you and your fellow soldiers can get used to fighting faster and more acrobatic fighters.’

 

“That is an excellent idea,” says Fundin, not a trace of emotion in his voice. “I volunteer the unit under my command immediately.”

 

Itachi inclines his head, using every skill he has to keep his composure from cracking. There’s a suspicious lump in his throat, and he refuses to let anything show. He refuses. It wouldn’t be warranted, even disregarding his pride. Fundin and Balin didn’t do anything to him. Stop this.

 

Alright, so he’s a little bit vindictive. ’As you wish. I have one more thing to bring up this evening, and then I will leave you to your rest. I want to request an audience with the King, at his earliest convenience. As you can personally attest, I am unfamiliar with your ways, so I would welcome advice you can provide. Would it be appropriate to bring a gift to show my gratitude?’ He hands the note to Lord Nain, and he leans back, posture relaxed and face impassive.

 

The already fraught atmosphere in the room chills even further. Every Chakra signature except Darla’s spikes with fear. Darla, though, she is proud.

 

Lord Nain looks impassively to Fundin who has buried his feelings under the mountain of resigned calm and doesn’t look in any way interested in contributing to the conversation. The Lord quirks a little smile. “An interesting proposal, to be sure. I can act as a messenger if you’d like. May I ask what brought this on?”

 

Itachi shrugs, feigning nonchalance. “I realized my ignorance was edging into hypocrisy. It is unworthy of me to take advantage of a King’s generosity and not express gratitude in return. Since I agreed to live in the town you’ve built, I need to show my willingness to obey the rules of the land, as it were. I might be an outsider, but I know respect.’ 

 

Lady Darla leans forward ever so slightly, lips stretched in a slightly mocking smile. “Very good, my ally. You will spend the night here, yes? I would suggest you go and retrieve what you intend to wear to a formal audience in the Court. My Lord,” she addresses Nain, “I have offered our guest room to Itachi until his own residence is finished. Is that acceptable.”

 

A wicked glint enters already laughing eyes. It’s a very interesting dichotomy, since his Chakra is completely still, cautious and evaluating. “My Lady’s wishes are my own.” He earns a humourless smirk for his efforts.

 

The Lady continues. “I will personally instruct you in the formalities tomorrow. The audience won’t be granted until the day after tomorrow at the earliest, so there is some time to prepare.” She pauses, entirely for effect. “We can't have you embarrassing us, after all.”

 

The Princes inhale in outrage and Fundin and Balin twitch. Itachi just leans back in his seat and bares his teeth at the Lady. She barks out a laugh but is content to enjoy the outrage she caused.

 

‘If I hurry, I can retrieve my things tonight, and be back before morning.’

 

The Lady snorts. “You’re entirely too shrimpy to be losing sleep, child. You will rest first, at least for a few hours. Then you can leave in the early morning and still be back before Nain even submits your request. But I am completely serious about instruction. Your act is good, but it won’t serve you with the King. You should only insult those you want to insult, after all.”

 

A spark of humour bubbles up from the chaotic tangle of emotions weighing his stomach down, and Itachi’s smirk gentles into something more sincere.

 

“Well, I’m terrified,” says Frerin cheerfully. Itachi is not fooled. The Dwarf’s Chakra is a panicked thing, lashing about in distress. The very mention of the King does this to his sons. How - morbidly nostalgic.

 

He meets Prince Thorin’s troubled eyes, wondering how to best approach this. Well, he already started with mimicking Orochimaru, he might as well continue. He relaxes further in his seat, mimicking Orochimaru’s languid sprawl as best he can. He adds a tilt of his chin, and a knowing smirk for effect, but keeps his eyes playful.

 

Reluctant humour joins the worry as the Prince unclenches slightly. There's nothing for him to say, really, with who he is. He can't warn him off the King, he can’t do much but hope.

 

Prince Thorin is, sadly, blinded by his own childhood when it comes to the King. He’s irrationally afraid of his father like any abused child would be. He cannot look at the situation rationally and realize that the King just isn’t such a danger to Itachi as he is to Thorin. Sure, Itachi accepts that he just won’t be able to go away if the King proves to be a nuisance but there are - avenues open to him. Balin has been, if he’s not mistaken, exploring those venues for a while now, even if only in thought. He won’t kill him, but if he proves to be completely insane, well. He won’t save him, perhaps.

 

They all grossly underestimate their new opponents, and the men are clever enough to know how demoralizing loss of a leader would be. They will be aiming for the Royals, he doesn’t doubt it for a second. Itachi knows his priorities well, and it’s limited to the people in this room. And the King - well. A battle is a dangerous thing to be, and all that.

 

Darla stands abruptly. “That brings the evening to a close I believe. Fundin, Balin, a word, if you please. And, you know what, Dwalin, you should join us too. My love, you can entertain our guests for a little while?”

 

“Of course darling,” agrees Lord Nain, well aware of which side his axe is sharpened. “We might even go about learning some Iglishmêk.”

 

***

 

Darla’s conversation doesn’t take up more than ten to twenty minutes, but it certainly feels much longer. He’s too exhausted to even consider not using the Sharingan, which terrifies his teachers. Well, kind of. Thorin is awestruck but definitely afraid. Frerin is just plain frightened.

 

He is pretty certain that if Dain and his father weren’t busy whispering about something the opposite corner of the room, they wouldn’t be afraid. Dain certainly wouldn’t be. Itachi suspects that, with the sheltered life the young Dwarf has lived, he doesn’t really know fear yet. Which makes him admire his parents even more, while jealousy rages in him. The Dwarf is almost fifty. Fifty years he has spent on this planet, fifty years and fear still hasn’t reached him in any meaningful way. It’s doubly impressive, considering how hardened his parents are. They certainly didn’t lack in fear and pain and grief in their lives. That they managed to keep whatever nightmares plague them away from their son is - fucking impressive.

 

Try as he might, he can't hide how ill-tempered he is. Its nothing personal of course, these Dwarves have been nothing but wonderful. Still, he’s confused, tired, hungry and - sad, kind of. Both Frerin and Thorin treat him with the utmost respect, practically walking on eggshells around him. It’s - he can’t spare the brainpower to think about it too much, honestly. They’re not stupid. They know something happened in the hours between the spar and this meeting, that soured their relations. Lady Darla wasn’t bothering to hide her hostility, and Itachi wasn’t capable of it.

 

Add to that Itachi’s uncharacteristic formality and biting apologies - well. They’re bound to come to their conclusions. Ultimately it doesn’t matter that much. Itachi is one hundred per cent done with polite interaction for the day.

 

Darla returns with Fundin and his sons, and it seems that the conversation went - well? Her anger has cooled some, but it seems it spread to the Fundin-sons. Fundin is unreadable, a sea of artificial calm Chakra without so much as a decipherable wave. Impressive as it is inconvenient.

 

Balin and Fundin leave with absentminded farewells, that sound entirely procedural. Dwalin sits next to Thorin and Frerin but casts blank looks Itachi’s way, that he doesn’t care to interpret. No more Chakra-sensing, no more people-pleasing, no more tonight. He turns off his Sharingan, and the exhaustion just - hits him. No more.

 

He stands, bowing to his instructors.

 

/finish/today/please/ he signs, straining his mind for the signs.

 

The language itself is a fascinating piece of linguistic wonder. Hand seals were steeped in mysticism and tradition and were ultimately crutches to be used for Chakra manipulation. ANBU hand-sings were closer to Iglishmêk but had a level of artifice that the Dwarven language didn’t.

 

ANBU didn’t, honestly, have the time to let the language evolve naturally, since it was invented in the Second Hokage’s reign. There was simply no need for such an involved silent language before. The Dwarves, though, they lived in Mines since practically their inception. Smiths and miners wouldn’t have much use for a spoken language, not in the din they spend their days in.

 

In the end, it’s a pleasure to learn it. Whoever designed the signs was a genius, because he can already see how easily they can be altered slightly to form fluid sentences, accents, sarcasm and a whole lot more. For now, though, crude signs have to be enough.

 

Thorin stands, quickly followed by Frerin. Now that his Sharingan isn’t on, the blonde Prince can finally look at him, but he’s still skittish.

 

“Of course, if that is your wish.”

 

God, he doesn’t want to explain. But appearing lazy would sadly be worse.

 

/recovering/from/battle/

 

It’s not strictly speaking true, but he doesn’t have specific signs for ‘mines’ or ‘mission’. With patience he in no way has, he blocks the ensuing waves of worry, and stammered inquiries. When they persist, he sends a pleading look Darla’s way.

 

“The boy just got out of the mines four days ago. He’s recovering.” She says curtly, apparently just as done as Itachi is.

 

“Well, in that case, we must not keep you from your rest.” Says Thorin, both flustered and determined.

 

“The Prince is right, shrimp. You need to do something about those black bags and hollow cheeks. There’s a market for woebegone under-fed Dwarfings, but it’s not one you particularly want to appeal to, I think. I bet you my sharpest hair-pin that even fed and watered, you’re a skinny little fawn, all cheekbones and bird-wrists.”

 

Well, he has just found a small pocket of energy. He arranges his face into the most pathetic expression, letting some of the hair stumble forward to frame his face. He rounds his eyes, twists his eyebrows just-so and turns his mouth just slightly downward.

 

The Lady snorts a laugh. “Off with you, little nightmare. There are honey-cakes in the kitchen if you can stomach them, and some savoury treats if that’s more your speed. Whatever you want, as long as you eat something. I left the door of your room open, and left some of my sleep-clothes there for you since you’ve been comfortable in wearing my clothes so far.”

 

He ignores the shocked gasps from the peanut gallery - if they’re so particular about clothes, they would’ve noticed his clothes belong to the Lady. Since they didn’t, it doesn’t count. That is how it works, he is beyond certain.

 

With a general bow to the rest of the room and a much deeper bow to the Lady, he makes his escape. Fuck, but he has had enough

 

 

***

 

 

 

Chapter Text

By the time Itachi has finished his unexpectedly involved monologue to Mother and Father, packed his things and scrambled back to the Town, it’s nearing mid-day.

 

“I don’t know why, considering I don’t have the first clue about where you live, but I expected you to be back earlier. I dearly hope you didn’t engage in any extracurricular Orc-slaying?” Lady Darla, lovely and dangerous, sits in the main room, curiosity and impatience warring on her face.

 

Not at all up for a discussion about his relationship with Mother and Father, he ignores the inquiry and sacrifices a pouch of raspberries picked for exactly this purpose.

 

“Alright, I’ll accept that. Let’s see what you brought, then?”

 

With how rushed he was, he doesn’t have much to offer to the lady. He brought exactly two outfits, a fresh set of armour he wears and a linen outfit he hopes would be appropriate for a formal audience.

 

The armour is a showy piece, one he hasn’t used so far. Dyed as close to black as he could get it with dyes he had on hand, it’s more leather than linen. It’s a departure of his usual style since the leather parts are fitted on top of the underclothes. In this case, he boiled only the chest piece and leg- and arm-guards and left the rest to remain as soft, supple leather that doesn’t limit his mobility. The linen undershirt is dyed black too, and the chest-piece is laced up in the back, with two lovely steel clasps on the shoulders. The sides are sewn together with pieces of the lovely wire made from the silvery metal that makes up the runes in the Mountain.

 

She starts with the civilian-friendly outfit fist. It’s good work, objectively speaking. It’s the best piece of fabric he’s done so far, that he hadn’t given away. It was supposed to be a Yukata, because he doesn’t dare attempt to make a formal Kimono any time soon, but he’s grown out of it enough that it would be completely indecent without leggings underneath. The plain sewing is offset by the lovely rhomboid weave in two shades of grey that work well together. He had vague plans to add an indigo collar to it, for some extra flair, but that’s definitely a project for a later time.

 

“Well, darling, you claimed your craft well. This weave is sublime. We haven’t anything like this. Something good came out of your ridiculous life, it made you original. Once this sad business is over, I claim your services.”

 

He bows, amused by the ruthless practicality, and something must have caught her eye because she freezes, Chakra jolting in surprise.

 

“But, let’s have a look-see at this armour of yours. Stand straight for me, darling.” Says Darla, in a deceptively calm voice.

 

Oh-kay. He shoots her a suspicious glance, not at all fooled by the airy smile. It’s not an unreasonable request, sadly, so he does as he was bid and submits to a detailed inspection of his person.

 

“Itachi,” she says evenly. “My darling ally. Precious, feral, mountain godling. Did you - did you use Mithril wire to sew with?”

 

Itachi cocks his head

 

She takes in a deep breath and her Chakra ripples and smoothes forcefully. “The wire you used here - where did you get it?”

 

/Mountain/ he signs, curious. Mithril? Sounds - important.

 

Darla pauses, snorts, and looks torn between crying and laughing.

 

“You - you beautiful tragedy. And you don’t even know - Mithril, darling, is our most revered ore. It’s - the amount of mithril-wire you used here could buy you this house and everything in it. More, even - I don’t even know how much. It’s - Khazad-dum, the chief Kingdom of the Dwarves, where you’ve been living, it’s the only Mithril-mine in the world. When it was lost, well, it became that much more precious. Apart from the beads the Royals wear, there are perhaps ten pieces accounted for in all the Dwarven Kingdoms. And you, darling nightmare, have been using it to sew with.”

 

Aright, this is exceeding his signing capabilities.

 

/is/be/problem/ he signs, getting down to to the point. He’s vaguely interested in the cultural significance, but it’s ultimately not his concern.

 

“The best kind of problem,” she sing-songs, a malicious smile on her lips. “The one that suits me and mine, and annoys everyone else. Oh, you will wear armour casually stitched with almost a meter of mithril-wire, and we will all get to watch nobles choke on their envy. Nobody will dare argue against you wearing it, and nobody will dare ask you for any. Dear me, I’d better spread the word, and quickly.”

 

A cynical smile fights its way through the impassive facade on Itachi’s face. He settles for inclining his head.

 

“How body-shy are you,” She asks, apropos of nothing.

 

He raises an eyebrow.

 

“Your marks, child.” She says, cutting an arm through the air in a show of impatience. Very emotive, these gestures “Some of the soldiers have seen them, and the word spread, but a lot of the noble civilians are cynical self-serving animals. It hasn’t been in their interest to discredit you so far, but it will be soon. It’s good planning to take that option away from them. So - what parts of your body are you good to expose?”

 

Well, there will be no signing this. Writing it is.

 

‘The very concept of modesty has passed me by, I’m afraid. I grew up alone with only the Valar and the Orcs for company. I wear clothes because I like to, but I’m not honestly fussed either way. However, if you’d like me to wear armour, there’s only so much skin I can show without it losing all meaning.’

 

The Lady tosses her hair, a distinctly scheming expression shaping her face. “Its theatre, child. It won’t be blades you have to defend yourself against, in there. Your best bet here is to take advantage of the myth surrounding you. Your marks are the source of most of it - other than the magic, of course. So - show as much skin as you can manage, without looking like a pleasure-smith. Which, considering your age, would be a line we definitely don’t even want to hint to.”

 

Pleasure-smith. Alright. He’s not even - he’s perfectly capable of ignoring that particular nugget for a decade or six.

 

“Now” she continues blithely, not at all sympathetic to Itachi’s frying sanity. “About your hair.”

 

That actually helps settle him - this is a topic he’s pretty interested in.

 

‘I don’t know much about your customs, in that regard. I don’t really hold to any of it. I keep it long because I like it that way, not much more thought behind it.’

 

A flash of discomfort skitters across her face, before smoothing into a mask of resolution. “That’s a sprawling topic I have no time to explain in any meaningful detail. Generally speaking, hair is an important part of our culture. We signify many things with the braids we wear, and the beads we choose. The beads especially carry a wealth of meaning - it shows the Kingdom you belong to, your family, your craft, your marital status and so on.”

 

A pause, and a sigh. “The fact you keep your hair unadorned and plain has spawned mythology of its own. It goes along the lines of you being unclaimed by any Kingdom, any Craft, any family - you belong to none, so you represent all. Something like that. Either way, leaving it plain is appropriate enough that I don’t need to worry about it.”

 

She pauses again, this time showing discomfort deliberately. Which absolutely makes him nervous. He won’t like it, whatever she’s thinking about. “Your marks and your magic are your biggest weapons, and you wield them to great effect. We’ll go over the protocols later so you know what’s expected. You don’t have to follow them, but you need to know what rules you’re breaking. But you have another weapon, and it’s not - ah. Not strictly speaking something your gender is taught about. Fundin would tell you you shouldn’t even be thinking about it. I disagree.”

 

Itachi knows what's coming, and can feel his stomach clench.

 

“Your beauty, child, is a knife in your arsenal. It’s - not what males are taught to use. Any Dwarf with integrity would skin me for mentioning it. But. Being otherworldly beautiful is a double-edged sword, and honestly, I’m worried that it might cut you if you’re not trained in its use.” 

 

Calm down. She’s not suggesting - she’s not. You won’t need to - no. She’s not expecting you to seduce anyone. She’s not.

 

‘Explain, please.’

 

To her credit, she looks him straight in the eye and speaks bluntly. “Dwarves covet beautiful things. You’re - explosively alluring. You will get - attention, not only because of your fame, or your accomplishments, or even your character. I’m - worried, I suppose, that having grown up - sheltered in some ways, you won’t be prepared.”

 

Oh, thank fuck. The fact that an unflappable Dwarf like Lady Darla is almost stammering with how uncomfortable she is means they don’t weaponize their sexuality in that way.

 

‘I don’t understand what you’re saying if I'm honest. You want to - warn me? Or teach me? What would you even teach me? Seduction?’

 

She leans back, appalled. “Merciful Mahal, no, of course not. We don’t - there are crafts that pertain to, well, pleasure-work, but they’re never - mercenary like that. Never mind that, for now. My point is that you will need to deal with advances, without over-reacting. There is going to be a double-standard, some things will be easier to get, some Dwarves will give you compliments or gifts, and try to trap you into believing some fool notion of reciprocity. I know you got Fundin to deal with all official courting requests, and that was if nothing else, a brilliant move on his part. But that won't be enough. He can’t shield you against unwanted compliments, manipulation, jealousy and so on.”

 

He tries for a reassuring smile, and it doesn’t do much, because the Lady is anything but reassured. ‘That’s a worry for the future, I think. For now, I am not likely to spend any time around civilians without you or any other Dwarves aware of how - insane I am. Nobody will dare try anything with you or the Princes or your Lord husband around.’

 

The Lady honest-to-Mother growls in frustration but lets it go. “I suppose it’s enough that you’re aware of the issue. We will revisit the topic once it’s relevant.”

 

Alright, time for a massive shift in topic. ‘Will the Prince be available for training today?

 

“Likely not.” She replies, still unhappy with Itachi’s flippancy about his supposed allure. “The Captains are meeting today to discuss your report, and bray at one another. Perhaps he will be free in the evening, but it’s doubtful.”

 

“No,” she continues after a minute pause, “you’re mine for the day. So - let’s start with the rules, child. There’s much to learn and not a lot of time to do it”

 

***

 

The meeting with the King comes quicker and slower than he likes. The hours in between - all forty of them - drag and run and slip through his fingers, and he really should be more nervous than he is.

 

Fundin and Balin barely spend a moment in his company. It - hurts to be isolated like that. It feels like he’s being punished for something, even though he knows they’re avoiding them out of some fool notion of guilt. After the audience is done with, he will have to shake some sense into them. There is no time for this. War is serious business, and the false sense of security is going to bite them all in the ass very soon.

 

As per the agreement, Lord Nain waits for him in front of the civilian town. The King had presumably found his tent in the army camp insufficiently grand to intimidate Itachi into behaving. Which, considering Itachi’s spent decades in the most majestic Castle in all the worlds, is a damn foolish thing to presume. The Lord of Iron Hills doesn’t bother with small-talk, his foxy smile for once absent, replaced by a stern, almost grave slash of lips. With a small nod, he turns on his heel and starts walking inside. Alright, then

 

Not for the last time, Itachi rolls his eyes inwardly at how ridiculous his outfit is. His practical battle-leathers are turned into a costume, just this side of vulgar. For all that Darla insisted it remain in good taste, he is one half-step away from a blatant fetish-bait. His arms are bare, as is the front of his neck. The chest piece has undergone something of a rebirth, in that some enterprising Dwarf had cut a v-shaped piece out, so his collarbones are visible. For some reason, the same Dwarf has added a piece on the back of the armour that goes around the back of his neck and is kept in place with a thin leather band high up on his throat. His hair is honestly the most practical part of the armour, and it will definitely be a bigger help than the cut-up leather at stopping a wayward blade. Sage. At least his marks are visible, blacks and reds on his pale skin spanning his bar arms, over his chest and all the way to his jawline.

 

The path is clear in front of them, but civilian Dwarves peek out of windows, behind tent-flaps, from every hidden nook and cranny a pair of curious eyes follow them. Itachi was couched by Lady Darla, but fierce as the Lady is, she has neither the resources nor the training to match Itachi’s teachers in his previous life. He keeps his face impassive, just shy of arrogant, his steps long and powerful, and lets his hair sway behind him like a banner. It’s all very dramatic.

 

He thought - stupidly - that the meeting would take place in the King’s civilian residence. Not so - he’s lead to a building that previously held no interest to him. It’s a large building, only one story high, but what it lacked in height it made up in volume. If there are less than ten rooms in the sprawling building he’d eat his socks.

 

As soon as he steps inside, it’s clear it’s not a structure built for living, but for bureaucracy. The corridor is unnecessarily wide, with polished stone tiles and a lovely high ceiling. Multiple smaller rooms connected with arches instead of doors are on both sides of the corridor, and at the end of it is a large stone arch leading to what is, by all accounts, a throne room.

 

Which, okay, someone had to build this fucking thing. These Dwarves will be the death of him. Who builds a throne room for a temporary residence, in a temporary town, during a siege?

 

Do these Dwarves even plan to win? How long do they think to fight a war - it’s been years already, and they seem not to be in any way impatient about it? He understands they are a long-lived species, but even for them, this must be ridiculous?

 

The King is in civilian attire, from what little Itachi knows of such things. His throne is at least not as gaudy as the monstrosity in the Mountain, so that’s something. It’s a stone and metal structure, imposing but in good taste - as much as a throne can be. Behind him is a sofa of sorts, where his children sit. Slightly to the right, is a second sofa, where Dain sits with his Lady mother.

 

The room is fuller than he expected - not that he had any concrete expectations. It suits, with how straightforward and grandiose the Dwarves tend to be. He really should’ve done some research over the years. He knows how numerous the Dwarves are, only civilians number in the tens of thousands, but he never thought about what that implied about the size and complexity of their Government. He took one look at the imposing Monarch with corrupted, bristling Chakra, and didn’t bother to look closer into it. Lady Darla was the first to mention ‘nobles’ but even that wasn’t enough to drive the idea home.

 

There is no way to flash his Sharingan unnoticed, not with the way every eye in the room is trained at him. So he tries to rely on the more traditional methods. Look and think. What do you see?

 

Itachi has been to the Daimyo’s court only once when he was officially named Clan Heir. The Dwarven court is an even mix of a Konohan Council meeting, and Daimyo’s court. The King sits on a throne, but it’s not raised. There is a large stone table in front of him, and on the sides are couches and arm-chairs, desks and smaller tables where scribes sit. The table sits - what - forty perhaps? A great deal more Dwarves sit in the sofas and chairs, but the Dwarves seated at the table are all older, dignified figures, some sharper than others. The onlookers are more - frivolous in most cases. Ladies dressed in opulent dresses, even some indolent looking young Gentledwarves with an almost - ornamental look to them. It’s - jarring, slightly. He’s spent a lot of time around Dwarves and found them to share a certain roughness and practicality of spirit. Not as universal as he thought, perhaps, because he doubts some of the lounging figures ever held a chisel never mind a smith’s hammer.

 

Immediately, a pang of guilt twangs through his heart. That thought is unworthy of you, of any rational being. Who appointed him to be the judge of propriety? Craft is what defines a Dwarf, yes, but there are many, many ways that edict can be interpreted. These Dwarves could be poets, or painters, or sex-workers. Who are you to judge them, kin-slayer?

 

Lord Nain has slowed his walk considerably, probably to give him the most possible time to orient himself in the new surroundings, but the room is only so big. All too soon they are at a respectable distance from the King, and when Nain bows, and takes his place at the kings right hand, it’s time to play.

 

The silence is oppressive. He was informed that he won’t be introduced to the King, that he needs to give first greeting which is - awkward, voiceless as he is.

 

He bows, to start with. It’s a proper bow, deep and dangerous, but not, as Prince Thorin’s jolt of Chakra attests, low as he bowed to him. Which, yeah. Fair. When he rises, the King speaks. His voice is as pleasant as his Chakra isn’t, a deep, commanding baritone that makes one want to sit up and obey. It’s entirely possible Itachi’s Daddy Issues are playing up again.

 

“Master Itachi, Ozkif’uzghu, Jarteig’dríf, grand titles for one so young. I greet you. Your presence in my court has been dearly missed.”

 

Okay, so, straight to the point.

 

/greetings/majesty/ He gestures, using Iglishmêk he practiced for quite a bit. /sorry/can/not/speak/I/voiceless/

 

“Ah, yes, it was brought to my attention. I see that the Iglishmêk lessons with my son have borne fruit already.”

 

/grateful/for/all/help/ He signs back, keeping his face impassive.

 

“Indeed.” The Dwarf says, a note of cruel amusement in his voice. “Nevertheless, for the purposes of this audience, I have arranged for a more - forgiving - medium.“

 

He points languidly towards a desk set slightly to the side, with writing equipment set on top of it, and a young Dwarf standing nervously next to it.

 

A bow, to buy some time. This is - not unexpected as such, but it seems like there is an insult there somewhere. Alright, best to spring the trap.

 

He still has a part to play, though. Orochimaru, again, then. He makes his steps fluid, adds a sway for effect and lets some of his Chakra out - not Killing Intent, of course, but - intent, perhaps. Which, judging by the whispers and quickened heartbeats works as intended. Perhaps even too well. The Dwarf who stands next to the table looks fit to faint. He’s young, brown-haired, with soulful brown eyes, and looks like he’d rather be in the jaws of a great white shark than here.

 

Never mind the boy - the table has several gold-tipped feathers laid on top of it. No way in hell will Itachi be wrestling with any feathers today. The offending instrument is discarded immediately, and his brushes put in their place. No need to make this more difficult than it needs to be. The paper is exquisite, almost as thick as a watercolour paper would be back in the Elemental Nations. Shame to waste it on this, but what does he know.

 

‘Your Majesty, I am grateful for the opportunity. Firstly, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to reside, at least for a time, in the town you’ve built. Your people have been kinder to me than I deserve. Secondly, I thank you for allowing your son to aid me. I understand his time is valuable, and I promise to be as good an instructor as I can be, to repay his kindness.’

 

The young Dwarf’s hands shake when he accepts the paper Itachi hands him. When he starts reading it out loud, it’s clear what the King’s plan was. The poor boy stutters, and his otherwise pleasant tenor cracks and wheezes. He’s pretty certain it’s only nerves, but the effect is - humiliating.

 

Now - who this bit of cruelty was intended to hurt, is the question? If it’s Itachi, it’s a rather basic ploy. The words would be cast in an insecure light. Which, okay. It’s more likely it’s some bizarre punishment for the speaker. The young Dwarf is humiliated and on the verge of a panic attack. It’s a very petty but an undeniably effective bit of sadism.

 

There is nothing to do, though. He can’t leave, he can’t refuse to be a party to this, and he can’t speak. What he can do, is to show his displeasure at such primitive attempts at controlling the conversation.

 

He leans back in his chair, throwing his shoulders back, and tilting his chin. Sharingan spins, cataloguing each snigger and cruel glance. He takes care to meet the worst offenders’ eyes and enjoys the - rather predictable - effect of petty malice quickly being overtaken by wariness. The King, to his credit, isn’t cowed, but an honestly amused smile curves his lips. Itachi raises his eyebrow slightly and tilts his head. Their standoff is broken by something akin to an amused huff from the power-hungry asshole, and he inclines his head slightly.

 

“I thank you for your kind words, Master Itachi. We’ve granted you no favours - what you’ve been given, you’ve earned a hundred-fold. Your deeds are already written in song. Before we continue, perhaps it’s best that young Darf takes a break, and a trip to the healer’s tent to deal with the terrible cold that is plaguing him. Larel will suit as his temporary replacement.”

 

A strange play. Not ineffective, and very multi-purpose, as it were. A test and a bit of petty sadism, all wrapped up nicely in a stunt with ultimately no consequences for anyone involved. Well - other than young Darf. The trembling Dwarf sets down the paper carefully, and bows to his King mutely, Chakra screaming with frustration and shame. As he bows, he overbalances, likely due to the full-body shakes. Itachi’s Sharingan is good for something, at least. He shoots out an arm, steadying the young Dwarf, preventing further embarrassment. A murmur goes through the chamber, growing stronger when he stands up and gives the Dwarf a respectful bow.

 

/thank-you/me/grateful/

 

Which, yeah, not the best idea he’s ever had, to engage the Dwarf further. He should’ve just bowed. Nothing for it, he nods again at the shocked Dwarf and resumes his seat.

 

“Thank you, my Lord,” stutters the Dwarf, before stumbling away, trying and failing at steadying his steps. The address, however, wasn’t the most, ah, politic thing the Dwarf could’ve said, nor the most appropriate. The King certainly isn’t best pleased. The King can also respectfully go fuck himself, so. There’s that.

 

A vastly different Dwarf walks towards him, older and the very image of respectability. Holding something of a grudge, he ignores him completely, focused on the King and his Chakra. He didn’t plan on covering much ground, today, the goal was to establish his presence in the Settlement, and as a genuine figure in the war. Someone to reckon with, as it were.

 

“Well, now that’s been settled, let’s move on. I’ve had a chance to go through your report, after much urging by my captains. I have to say, if your account is true, we’d benefit from your presence on the battlefield. My sons especially would benefit from your presence. They can get carried away on the battlefield, youthful enthusiasm and all that.”

 

Oooh, you asshole. He catches the frown before he can show how outrageous he finds that particular bit of nonsense, but he can’t stop the agitated spin of the Sharingan or the way his shoulders stiffen.

 

‘On the contrary, Your Majesty, your sons are exemplary warriors. I know that our contract states I would be tutoring Prince Thorin in combat, but it’s I fear not much more than a polite fiction. Prince Thorin needs no help from me or anyone to be a force in battle. In truth, the agreement is skewed in my favour, as my ignorance of Iglishmêk has been making communication - difficult. As you can, unfortunately, attest to.’

 

Itachi’s new voice is much better, and the older Dwarf’s deep baritone carries perfectly through the room, implying mature, settled confidence to Itachi’s statement. Which is a stroke of luck because he was exaggerating slightly. A necessary exaggeration, of course, since it’s not Itachi’s reputation that’s important here, it’s Prince Thorin’s. Itachi is apparently considered to be something like a prophet from Mahal, so his standing is secure. The Nobles haven’t seen the Prince fight, and he won’t allow them to believe the Prince's injuries and constant state of exhaustion are in any way caused by lack of skill. Prince Thorin’s mortified pallor quickly changes into disbelief and outrage. Thankfully Prince Frerin elbows him before he can do anything stupid like defend Itachi’s honour.

 

The King does not give up, as he perhaps should. “Oh, but you have been shadowing him in battle so closely - what were we supposed to think but that he requires your protection most?”

 

Well, now. He could say it’s a mission from Father, but that might be a step too far. He doesn’t want to make the King believe that his son is a threat to his rule and suggesting their Maker values Thorin’s life over his would definitely suggest that.

 

‘Nothing more than personal preference, I’m afraid. Prince Thorin fights with skill and grace I admired from the moment I first saw him on the battlefield.’

 

The Captains look supremely sceptical, perhaps remembering the time Itachi dragged Thorin bodily from battle, and the utterly pissed off manner of doing so. The nobles, oh the nobles are buying it. Thank fuck that he has the Sharingan on because he wants to remember every reaction perfectly. The dismissive ones write him off as a young Dwarf in love, which is a useful bit of misdirection. The thrilled ones are presumably Thorin’s allies or at least sympathetic towards the young Prince. The terrified ones, now those are most important. Those are the ones that have harmed or at least belittled the Prince openly and are now rethinking their wisdom.

 

The most important player - The King - is outwardly impassive, but his Chakra is a hurricane. There’s fury there, and possessive rage, but also greed and vindication.

 

“How wonderful, Master Itachi, that you hold my eldest in such high regard. It explains much, to be sure. The lessons are cast in a different light, too. Why, if you were an older Dwarf, I’d have to question your motives more closely, wouldn’t I?”

 

Perfect. He does feel bad for the mortified Dwarf reading his words with, it has to be said, impressive stoicism. Itachi lets a shy smile curve his lips, and he tilts his head slightly, mimicking bashfulness as he writes. ‘I wouldn’t dare to presume anything of that nature, your Majesty. Either way, as per my contract with Lord Fundin, he has been empowered to deal with any matters of the heart on my behalf. As I am not yet sixty, there is plenty of time still before it would be appropriate to think about things of that nature.’

 

A furious mutter goes though the hall at that, which is delicious. He threw that bit of personal information as bait, to switch the tide of the conversation away from poor Thorin who is pale as a sheet, and a step away from bolting from the room. Frerin is gleeful though, and Princess Dis looks torn between seething rage and sibling pride.

 

“So young, Master Itachi, to have lived the life you’ve lived. Alone in Khazad-dum for so long. Tell me, what happened with your parents?”

 

Well, this is going to be unpleasant. Not unexpected, the chances that the King wouldn’t jump at the opportunity were nonexistent. That doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable. The important thing now is not to lie.

 

‘I have lived my years on this world alone in the Mountain. The only parents I will claim are Father, or Mahal as you call him, who made me, and Mother, or Yavanna, who kept me sane.’

 

A note of caution flickers over the King’s face before it’s quickly folded into the pleasant facade. “Oh but surely you know something of the Dwarf who birthed you?”

 

Very convenient phrasing, thank you asshole. ‘If a Dwarf birthed me, I’ve not known them. My first memory of this world is being alone in the deep Mines of Khazad-dum. Over time I moved closer and closer to the surface before I reached the forest that used to be a greenhouse on the Upper Levels. I have made my home there, and have been living there since.’

 

Not a sound is heard, the Dwarf who is reading Itachi’s words voice is doing his job splendidly, even though his Chakra shows his inner turmoil. Regardless of how uncomfortable this whole thing makes him, he can’t help but enjoy the shock slightly. It helps that, in a chamber full of overly emotional Dwarves, he can’t pinpoint Darla’s, or Fundin’s Chakra signatures. They’re both blank-faced, and he doesn’t really want the distraction of knowing just what they feel about his life.

 

Interestingly, the King shows the first sign of decency so far. He’s been focused on his Chakra since he stepped a foot inside of the Chamber, so he can still read it well enough. His face is certainly screwed in a show of shocked tragedy, but his Chakra matches, awash with grief and sympathy. Not for long, the darker emotions overwhelm him after a moment or two, and the bit of empathy is buried underneath glee and possessiveness. He would think to use Itachi’s damage against him. Good luck. Everyone has learned how pointless it was to lead the Uchiha. Usually after a lot of blood and slaughter.

 

“A miracle, that you survived. Mahal’s Chosen you’re called, and I can think of nothing more to say. Only one chosen by our Maker would not only survive but thrive under such conditions, and nobody who looks upon you can deny you’re anything but thriving.” The King’s voice is solemn but injected with a healthy dose of entirely artificial paternal pride. If he couldn’t sense his emotions it would’ve worked, undoubtedly.

 

‘Thank you, your majesty. I do not consider my life to be a tragedy. I have Father and Mother with me, always, and that alone makes for a blessed life. Recently, they have seen fit to lead me to their children, and thus I am doubly blessed.’

 

The Reader’s voice wobbles at the end, the stoic Dwarf slightly overwhelmed by it all, and Itachi might have to rethink his grudge. As close as he is to Itachi, he knows the Dwarf is honestly moved by Itachi’s story.

 

The King stands. “Indeed, our Maker has chosen well. A feast, in honour of this fateful meeting. I regret you will only know our hospitality when it’s as limited to paltry army-rations, but once this war is done, we will dine in blessed halls of Khazad-dum, and you will know the true hospitality of Durin-folk.”

 

Nice, he admits grudgingly. The King lost control of the narrative, and done the best he could, and added a nice bit of pep-talk at the end. Itachi doesn’t bother with writing, but stands and bows, letting his hair fall around his head, brushing the floor.

 

“Thorin will escort you, but let’s keep young hearts safe, and have a chaperone, eh?” The King’s joke lands perfectly, causing laughter and cheers to break out. Well - Prince Thorin doesn’t appreciate it, sure, but Itachi kind of does. It’s a good spin, and it would allow Itachi to remain close to the Prince which was kind of the point of this whole exercise. 

 

“I would be happy to spend time with our Prince and the Ozkif’uzghu until the feast is ready,” says Nain, his grin practically splitting his face. Darla tinkles a dainty little parody of a laugh and joins in. “I would as well, your Majesty. It does my heart well, to see so much goodness in the world. It would be our privilege to host a small tea for your children and Master Itachi, for the interim.”

 

Thank fuck that the King genuinely likes Nain because he agrees without question. “Wonderful! A runner will be sent to your residence, then. Keep an eye on the children, eh?”

 

“It would be my honour, your Majesty.” Smiles Darla, an angelic smile on her lips.

 

And - done. A bow signifying the end of this bit of theatre, completely and utterly ready to leave.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

What the fuck was that?” hisses Thorin furiously the moment they step inside The Iron Lord’s house. Now that they’re sequestered inside, it’s easier to limit his Chakra sense to the confines of the house, more or less. And boy, are the Dwarves emotive today. Thorin is the worst off, the intensity of his emotions are - staggering.

 

For a long moment, Itachi allows himself to feel regret for this stunt. No matter what he wanted to accomplish - no matter that he did accomplish it - it was done at the cost of Thorin’s paralyzing shame and terror. That is never okay.

 

That is almost never okay, whispers his traitorous mind. It’s at least a little bit okay, if it was part of a ploy to get you within a reasonable distance of the Prince. He’s upset and embarrassed, but he will get over it. He will be alive for long enough to get over it.

 

That part of his mind is an asshole, and he tries to disregard it as a general rule. Whatever his reasons, the Prince does not exaggerate. He is terrifyingly hurt.

 

/have/to/write/ he signs, to little acknowledgment. Thorin nods sharply looking at his feet, bodily trembling.

 

Itachi sighs soundlessly and moves towards the writing desk. He can tell that he’s nowhere near finished with writing. Fuck his neurotic fucked up mind and fuck it to hell. He could be speaking right now, but no.

 

The royal children and Dain pile in after him, throwing questions at him one across the other, and he can't understand a single word anyone is saying. Darla and Nain follow speaking in hushed tones, and Itachi doesn't listen out of respect.

 

He ignores them all with some difficulty and sits down at the desk, glaring at the fucking papers. Thank god, but Dain shuffles towards him. “I could read your words if you want?” He says bashfully. Itachi nods fervently, absolutely done with passing notes like a schoolchild.

 

Darla's voice cuts through the din easily. “Quiet, children. He can’t answer you if he can't hear you. Now. One by one, if you please.”

 

She looks at Itachi, malicious glee mixed evenly with pride. “You did spectacularly well, my ally. I keep underestimating how much chaos you can cause when you want to, and this was a masterpiece. Truly, any worries I had were unwarranted. ”

 

He nods at her, as warmth spreads at the show of approval. Huh. He’s such a sap.

 

“Wonderfully,” Thorin says flatly. “He - he - he implied that - he - “

 

Itachi waits patiently, the guilt churning in his stomach being joined by incredulity. Being naive was one thing, but surely - surely the Prince has enough experience with politics to realize that the game played had little to do with romance. 

 

While Thorin is sputtering, he writes. ‘Before we continue, perhaps introductions are in order?’ 

 

He looks at Darla reproachfully, and she bares her teeth right back. “Oh, do excuse me, I was sidetracked by a pack of rampaging wargs in place of the well-behaved Royal children I was supposed to host. By all means, introductions first. Princess Dis, daughter of Rusla, may I introduce Itachi, Mahal’s Chosen, Ozkif’uzghu.”

 

He bows low to the Princess who is by all accounts moments away from lunging at his jugular. “At your service Master Itachi,” she grits out. “Now if we may move on, perhaps, to more pressing matters. Such as you proclaiming your love for my brother in front of my King and the entire Court?”

 

He could fight the small smile that wants to appear on his face, but there is no reason to, honestly. 

 

’Is that what I did? I said I admire him greatly, which I do. I said I was too young to even think about matters of the heart, which is also true. I spoke no lies.’

 

She is too angry or shocked to speak but the middle Prince isn’t. “You knew exactly how your words would be perceived. Why did you choose them?”

 

He looks at Thorin who is sitting down now, breathing deeply to try and calm his rampaging heart-rate.

 

‘First of all, correcting the Nobles’ assumptions is not my concern. I said the truth. Secondly, do you think it would have been wise to try to find an excuse to fight beside you and your brother? I repeat, me keeping you safe is, in fact, personal preference. There are other Dwarves worthy of my protection, after all. Do you think there was any excuse I could have used, that the King wouldn't be able to challenge with next to no effort?’

 

“So it’s - not true?” Presses Frerin. “You spun a tale to ensure you would keep your place next to us in battle?”

 

‘How is that what you got from my words. I said three times already, that I only said what I meant. I fight with you because I want to. Because you're all three of you wonderful Dwarves, that I will see live through this war come hell or high water.’

 

He looks at Thorin, who is not unearthed so much as a teaspoon of calm.

 

‘I do not currently hold any romantic feeling towards any of you, if that helps clear the matter in any way. If I did I would have offered you a courting gift, which I understand is the appropriate way to go about these things.’

 

“You’ve given all three of us gifts, though.” Says Dis, destroying what little composure Thorin has managed to build, and causing him to wheeze in distress.

 

Honestly, if he wasn’t as amused, he’d be offended. He’s never thought the very idea of courting him caused someone to go into a panic attack.

 

‘I wasn’t planning on courting all three of you, Princess,’ he writes. Dain manages to stave off his laughter until after he’s read the note, to his credit.

 

“The lad didn’t know anything about gifts, Dis,” says Darla, not a little amused herself. “We explained that already.”

 

Wait - Darla is here. Why is she allowing this chaos to continue? He sends her a reproachful look but she shakes her head, perfectly willing to let him dig his way out of this on his own. He glares at her but continues.

 

“So - you weren’t announcing your wish to court my brother,” says the Princes, stubborn to the last.

 

‘I said all I will on this matter.’ He writes and looks at them hopefully conveying how done he is with this line of questioning

 

Nain and a gaggle of servant bustle their way into the room, and they all quiet down, unwilling for strangers to hear anything they shouldn’t. Thank fuck that they have that much sense. Sage.

 

The pause in proceedings lets Thorin pull himself together some, which is something, and for blissful ten minutes until the servants leave, there's peace.

 

“Alright,” says Darla once the room is theirs once again. “If we’re done with this little exercise in circular reasoning, perhaps we can move on to more pressing matters.”

 

She looks at Itachi, with an unreadable face, but her Chakra thrums with pain. “I am sorry you were driven to discussing your past in public like that. I would like to say it wasn’t necessary, and while we could’ve perhaps gone about it in a different manner, your approach was beyond effective. Thank you, truly. It can’t have been anything but intensely unpleasant.”

 

Itachi nods easily, but since he lost his interpreter, he either has to pass notes along or - He looks at Dain beseechingly, and the young Dwarf bounces back up and joins him.

 

‘No need for thanks, Lady. It’s true, discussing my life is not something I greatly enjoy, but the discomfort grows smaller by the day. In any case, I wasn’t forced to share anything I expressly didn’t want to share.’

 

“Mahal’s Mercy, lad.” Says Nain, both voice and expression shockingly grim. He hasn’t so far seen the Dwarf lose his cheerful facade. “I wouldn’t wish the fate on anyone. To live alone, for decades, with Orcs for company. How are you even sane?”

 

The Lord flinches and looks like he would dearly like to snatch the words from the air, and not only because of the chilling glare his wife sends him. The younger generation, showing their age, leans forward in curiosity, Prince Thorin even forgetting his embarrassment for the time being.

 

He could not answer that - nobody would be offended. On the other hand, he’s not at all uncomfortable as he probably will be in the future, in great part because of the leftover euphoria of a job well done. He might as well, really. Plus it’s a good opportunity to warn the young ones.

 

‘I’m not, in fact, sane, Lord Nain. I stumble in and out of panic attacks - what you call battle-shock - constantly. I cannot speak, even if my voice works perfectly well, most likely because of all the decades I haven’t spoken to a living being. Before you arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to step one foot outside the Mountain, and even after you arrived and I had to leave, I could barely last an hour before panicking.’

 

The royal three draw back as if slapped, but the Iron Lord and his family are impassive. Dain didn’t so much as stutter when reading the note. Darla must have warned them - clever Dwarf. He shares a meaningful look with her and continues observing the Royal siblings.

 

‘That is important information for you to have. Number one - I’m not safe, or sane. When I’m overwhelmed, I can snap, and I can do so violently. If I start to panic, you should move away. If I warn you, you better listen, otherwise, you could be hurt, and that would be on me. Number two - it’s important for you to know that the worst wounds are always - always - of the mind, and not the body. If you’re hurt bad enough, or for long enough, you will get wounds that you may never recover from. I work on my mental health extensively, and yet I have more issues and neurosis than you can count.’

 

“That’s - awful.” Says Dis, for once losing her bluster.

 

From the mouth of babes, thinks Itachi, not unkindly.

 

‘It is as it is, Princess.’

 

“So you - you never knew your parents,” says Frerin, with an odd blend of horror and jealousy in his voice.

 

‘If a Dwarf lady birthed me, I don’t recall her at all. Your army was the first I saw of your kind. I didn’t even know what a Dwarf was - I called you Builders in my mind, because of the magnificence you’ve wrought in the Mountain.’

 

“You keep doing that.” Says Thorin out of the blue. “You keep referring to Dwarves as if you weren’t one. I thought at first it was your unwillingness to count yourself as one of us, as in a subject of the line of Durin, but it’s not.”

 

Ah.

 

‘I - forget sometimes. I didn’t know what I was before you came. There are some statues of Dwarves in the Mountain, but they’re massive, majestic things. I don’t speak Khuzdul, I didn’t know you called Father Mahal, I just knew you were his Children. It’s - complicated.’

 

A terrible pang of shame goes through Thorin’s Chakra, and he winces. “I don’t even know - that must have been awful. To not even know what you are.”

 

‘It’s not that bad, honestly. I knew I was made by Father, and so I must not have been anything terrible. Overall, while there are definite bad sides to growing up the way I had, there are upsides as well. There were no preconceptions, no expectations except the gentle love of Father and Mother. I didn’t have to be anything but precisely that what I wanted to be. I still don’t. It’s - freeing, I suppose.’

 

“Yes.” Breathes Dis. “It would be.”

 

He allows a gentle smile to tilt his lips. The Princess out of all of them struggled most with her place in the world.

 

Lost in her own world of fancy, Dis leans forward slightly. “Did you fight the Orcs?”

 

A sharp lance of annoyance goes through Darla, and even Lord Nain looks uncomfortable with the question. Which, yeah, the tone of wonder isn’t perhaps really appropriate for an objectively gruesome concept of a child fighting Orcs, voluntarily or otherwise.

 

Alright, so this is important. Take care what you write. ’I did.’ He writes slowly. ‘But, Princes, I had to fight and sneak my way out of the Mines, as a child barely grown. I was deep underground, with not so much as a stitch to wear, and between me and safety was a mine-full of Orcs. It wasn’t anything as heroic as you probably imagine. I had to eat bugs and bats and rats, bellow, just to survive. It’s not a good thing for children to have to fight. It’s just sometimes necessary.’

 

Frerin and Thorin lose what little colour returned since the shift in topic, and Darla closes her eyes in resignation. The Princess’ confidence wavers for a moment, but powers through it with the bullheadedness that made her the stubborn Dwarf she is.

 

“But later - when you grew up - you fought Orcs then?”

 

“Dis, for mercy’s sake,” mutters Frerin.

 

Fuck but she’s so much like Sasuke, it makes his head spin. The stubbornness, the social awkwardness, lack of basic common sense, it’s all there.

 

‘I did. I went bellow at least once a year. But, Princess, let me tell you something, and I mean this with all my heart. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a fighter, a warrior, but I have found that there is little joy to be found in battle for battle’s sake. It’s only ever worth it if you fight to protect those you love. Otherwise, it’s empty and brutal. I fought, and I fight still, but I can honestly tell you I’m never as happy in battle as I am behind my loom, or with my carving. Never.’

 

Thank Mother, but she doesn’t receive his words badly - she doesn’t even reject them outright. They confuse her, but she nods, deep in thought, and quiets down.

 

Lady Darla looks angry enough to chew steel, though. She’s a bad fit with the Princess, oddly enough. He hadn’t observed the two of them interacting before this night, but practically every word that Dis says annoys Dalra to no end. And vice versa, Dis ignores everything the Lady says with ironclad determination.

 

Prince Thorin noticed the Lady’s ill-temper because he stops staring at his hands and looks up at Itachi.

 

“I’m sorry you had to fight, for so long, and I’m sorry that you continue to fight still. I hope in the future you have the quiet life that you wish for, with friends and your loom and the peaceful life of a Master Weaver.”

 

Itachi melts. Goddamn, when he wants to be, Thorin can wield his blunt earnestness with devastating effect.

 

‘Fighting Orcs is simple. They make it simple. They’re so overwhelmingly, hopelessly unforgivable that killing them is a mercy. The men, though, that will be challenging.’

 

“Are they not evil?” Asks Nain, jumping at the change in topic like a drowning Dwarf. “It’s certainly what your report suggested.”

 

‘Not all of them, I don’t think. Most are just - soldiers, following their Commander. They’re - people. They tell jokes, and laugh, and train and sleep and eat and love.’

 

The Iron Lord knows exactly what Itachi’s talking about because his smile is a terrible, sad thing but he nods his understanding.

 

Dis doesn’t. Whatever bout of introspection Itachi’s words had caused, this is something she’s not willing to let go, apparently. “They’re the enemy. They’re working with the Orcs, there's nothing good in Men like that.”

 

He feels a pang of annoyance himself before it’s quickly smothered by the fact she’s never been in battle herself. She’s a child, who is due her black-and-white worldview. Her brothers, though, they should know better. And they don’t. They might have enough sense to read the room better, but there’s nothing in their Chakra but firm agreement.

 

Darla scoffs but ignores the Princess’ indignant look by pouring herself some tea.

 

‘They are the enemy, yes. And some of your enemies will be good people. People with daughters just like you, who are loyal to their family and their King just like you are. And because of that daughter that looks up to them, and because of that King that they’re loyal to, they will go to a war that doesn’t concern them. And they will meet me, and I will kill them, knowing full well they are good people, with daughters and sons and wives and husbands who wait and pray for their safe return. I will take that from them, and I will have to live with that weight for the rest of my life.’

 

It’s not Dain who reads the note this time, but Nain. He doesn’t want to burden the young Dwarf with speaking the words - he shouldn’t even be hearing them yet.

 

For all her outward unreadability, Darla’s Chakra is nothing but viciously satisfied. The Princess juts out her chin defensively but she’s quiet. That’s fine. She needed to hear it because she aspires to be a warrior. Thorin and Frerin needed to hear it more, though, and it’s to them he looks now sharply.

 

“You don’t hold back, lad.” Says Nain wearily. “Not in this, or anything. Bless you, I won't thank you for putting those thoughts into my son's mind, but I likely should.”

 

“He’s right.” He continues. ”Killing Orcs is easy because they’re monsters. Sometimes, though, it’s men you fight. Sometimes it’s even other Dwarves. It’s important to know early on what it takes to be an accomplished warrior, and not lose everything that makes you good.”

 

“How do you do it, then? If they’re good people, how do you kill them?” Thorin asks him

 

‘I try not to kill when I don’t have to. If you’re strong enough you don’t have to kill. It’s easier to kill than disable, after all. When I have to - well, for me it’s the easiest and the most difficult thing in the world. I simply believe the people I love to be more important. My loved ones are more important to me than theirs.’

 

“But,” Frerin jumps in, still dreadfully pale. “There are evil men. The Commander in the Mountain, he is an evil man.”

 

‘Yes. He is a mad, raving lunatic, who, and I can't stress this enough, you - all of you, Lord Nain included - will stay away from. He’s dangerous and wields black magic that I can't make heads or tails of. In fact the Commander and his six Captains - you will all let me handle them.’

 

“Gladly, lad,” says Nain dry as desert. “If only it were that simple. I have my own lives to protect, and I will wait for no Dwarf, Man or God to protect them in my stead while I draw breath.”

 

‘Alright,’ Itachi allows, grudgingly. ‘But avoid them as much as possible.’

 

Nain smirks, but nods.

 

“Well, this has been enlightening. You, little nightmare, can’t help but be horribly depressing with every word that comes out of your mouth. It’s the wrists and the soulful eyes, I’m sure. Everything you say is tinted so heavily with melancholy that the content almost doesn’t matter.”

 

She pauses and smirks. “To change the topic entirely, before you submerge us all into a pit of gloom we will not escape from in this life, let’s discuss the feast. Will you wear your Mithril armour or your own work?”

 

Mithril,” sputters Nain, as the young Dwarves start speaking over each other yet again. Itachi sends yet another reproachful look her way.

 

Thankfully she takes control of the situation herself. “Settle children. Yes, Itachi has unearthed some Mithril in the Mines. He’s been using it - and I will never get tired of saying this - to sew his armour with.

 

The newly settled children all start squawking again, this time including Lord Nain, and Itachi - needs a break. Which is exactly why the Lady engineered this, the witch.

 

/excuse-me/ he signs to the Dwarves barking questions at him, stands up and flees upstairs. Like fuck will he wear fetish armour a moment longer than he has to. He has a perfectly lovely grey Yukata, and a pair of soft linen leggings to wear underneath.

 

Children will be the death of him.

 

***

 

A Dwarfling runs to the house, just as Itachi is putting finishing touches on his outfit. It didn’t need much work, honestly, but he needed the added time to get himself together. He let his hair loose, again, and the Yukata feels heavenly on his skin. His swords would be awkward to carry on his back, and even more so on his hips, so he settles on strapping as many knives as he possibly can on his legs and around his waist.

 

Lady Darla has menaced the Royal three into behaving because, by the time he pads downstairs, they’re waiting by the door with their own versions of courtly masks on. Which, for Thorin and Dis, means vanishingly little. They try, bless their little hearts, but good actors they are not.

 

Lady, in her full socialite glory, tinkles and fawns over him for a good few moments, and he endures it with good humour. It’s - her mask - Sage wept - it’s magnificent. Nothing gives her away.

 

“Alright, my darlings.” She coos. “We mustn’t keep the King waiting.”

 

Dis’s teeth are audibly grating against one another, but she manages not to say anything.

 

“My Prince, if you would?” She turns to Thorin and beams at him with such force that Thorin almost steps back before he catches himself.

 

Resignation and mortification flood the Prince’s Chakra but he steps towards Itachi and offers his arm with the grim air of a Dwarf minutes from death.

 

Is he supposed to - touch him? Lead him, like some - pet? He looks between the arm and Darla, who only increases the intensity of her smile.

 

With some trepidation, he awkwardly links his arm with Thorin’s and tries to touch the Dwarf as little as possible. This is - supremely uncomfortable, and not only because of the stark difference in their height and build. It’s - a parody of intimacy. 

 

Well, he thinks grimly. It’s nobody’s fault but your own. Nobody made you style yourself a damsel in love. Now you get to be led by the arm like a thing and smile while doing it.

 

Father help him, it’s going to be a long night.

 

***

 

The feast goes by in a blur of drinks and pretension. Which is not entirely fair - the vast majority of the Dwarves were a spectacle unto themselves, singing and dancing and playing a slew of fascinating instruments.

 

If he were to be a casual observer, perhaps lurking in a nearby ceiling, he’d be spellbound by the event. As it is, he spends the evening surrounded by the worst of the nobles. The pandering, slithering kind with more ambition than sense, and even then, not sense enough to handle Itachi’s patented Uchiha icy sneer of disapproval. The King is entertained by Nain, and the two dwarves spend the evening reminiscing about old adventures.

 

Itachi mostly counts down the minutes, keeping his temper in check with everything he has and tries to be as menacing as possible to as many twittering fools as possible. It’s - not the most enjoyable way to pass the time, but there’s nothing for it.

 

The food is heavenly, though, which absolutely counts as this not being a complete waste of time. So. There’s that.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

When the attack comes, Itachi cannot quite reconcile the duality of the Dwarven response. The Dwarves are well-prepared - in comparison at least - and are perfectly capable of at least drawing even with the majority of the men. The officers, however, outclass them.

 

Which, considering he is now empathically invested in the lives of quite a number of the Dwarven upper-class, poses a very real existential threat to Itachi.

 

***

 

The attack comes at night. If the men expected the strategy to lend them some noteworthy advantage, they were entirely wrong.  Night/day cycles were a largely theoretical issue to a species that lives underground, and Dwarves are comfortably nocturnal if necessary. Their night vision is also impeccable. Since Itachi has spent over three weeks in the settlement, haranguing the guards as best he can, staging mock-attacks, and being a general nuisance, the Dwarves have a very efficient patrol route that alerts them to the incoming army well in advance.

 

The next mistake the attackers make is that they target the civilian settlement, without having updated their intel. The miraculously-sprouted six-meter high stone barrier is not something easily overcome. If this world has the technology to overcome this hurdle, Itachi isn't aware of it, and neither are the Dwarves, from what he's been told.

 

Whatever the case may be, the attacking army doesn’t let itself be caught between the walls and the Dwarves army, but instead retreats swiftly, and regroups as best they can in front of the army encampment.

 

All in all, the Dwarves have well and truly stacked the deck in their favour. They had time to mobilize a decent sized army, the incoming advance was disrupted, forcing the enemy to regroup as best they can. Under normal circumstances, one would expect the attack to fail miserably.

 

Unfortunately, the men are lead by the Nihilist. Which makes the whole thing - complicated.

 

***

 

Try as he might, Itachi can’t quite believe that he - a Shinobi - has somehow found himself here - one body in the army, waiting for the enemy to strike. His rightful place is in the shadows, or in the highest available point, or literally anywhere else but in the frontlines of a battalion of Dwarves, four hundred strong.

 

Unfortunately, Thorin son of fucking Thrain, is on the battlefield, accompanied by Frerin, Nain, Balin and Dwalin. Hopefully, the weeks of instruction were not for nothing, and they will stay together once the fighting starts. Even if they do - keeping an eye on five Dwarves, when he has the fucking Nihilist to worry about is going to be - something. It’s going to be something.

 

Not for the last time, he wishes fiercely he had a handy area-effect Genjutsu at his disposal. Cloaking his Mission Objectives in a nice subtle illusion that would make eyes slide over them would be fucking golden. Alas.

 

To their credit, the attackers don’t try storming the Dwarves en masse, but scatter, and run towards the Dwarves with speed and unpredictability that renders the archers once again pretty useless. That’s fine, the Dwarves aren’t relying on ranged attacks, not after last time. The first line of the army consists of the strongest fighters they have, each equipped with a shield wider and taller than they are. Without Chakra to augment their strength, and without mounts to trample them, the infantry shouldn’t be able to breach the line easily.

 

Which is a good plan instantly ruined by the fact that the swiftly approaching men start lobbing explosives at the Dwarves.

 

Chaos ensues. They’re not, in fact, traditional explosives, but something more akin to smoke-bombs. Sightly more destructive, yes, but geared towards distraction and limiting the visibility of battle. Which is perfect for the men, but utterly maddening to the Dwarves, and doubly so for Itachi who has five separate mission objectives to keep alive.

 

In the commotion, the Dwarven line of shields is comically easy to break, and between one moment and the next, a pitched battle ensues.

 

Itachi’s role is clear - he stays where he is and keeps Thorin and Frerin alive. One would think that would be a relatively easy task, but no. It’s not even the Dwarves' fault. They have learned their lessons well, and all both pairs of brothers close ranks and fight defensively for the most part. They’re not the problem.

 

The problem is that the men are very well informed indeed because as soon as they see either Prince, they zero in on them without a moment’s thought. They’re obviously aiming to eliminate the chain of command and capitalize on the chaos that would ensue.

 

Engaging them directly wouldn’t be efficient enough. He must be clever about this. His size and speed is an advantage here, so he weaves between the Dwarves and strikes at every kill-point he can reach. They’re good, but they’re not aiming for Itachi - even though they really should

 

He cuts down eleven men, and his Charges are all fighting fit, by the time Nihilist finds them.

 

***

 

Like his fellows, he dispassionately flies straight to Thorin who both recognizes the man from Itachi’s description, and is understandably rattled by the sight. And boy, is he right to do so. Tall and dressed in black and purple armour, dark skin splattered liberally with red, a slim blade in each arm, he’s the very definition of a formidable enemy.

 

Mind slightly spazzing out, he dispatches his current opponent with less finesse than he’d like, and leaves the poor man to choke on his blood on the ground. A burst of Chakra catapults him forward in the nick of time to intercept the whirling herald of death heading Thorin’s way. Sharingan lends him the knowledge of the attack, and Chakra lends him the strength to parry the blow, but the force of it thunders through him like electricity.

 

Hatake-pale eyes snap to him, and without a blink, the man switches targets. Itachi can’t really afford to split the focus between the deadliest opponent in this world so far, but there is really nothing he can do about it. The Royals are behind him - he can’t commit to the fight fully.

 

The Nihilist is a nightmare of strength. Itachi’s defence is good enough that the man is hard-pressed to find an opening, but Itachi can’t afford to so much as try to attack - not with how hard it is to fend off the man and have the slightest bit attention to spare to his charges.

 

Pretty quickly though, the already dismissive grey eyes glaze over with boredom, and the fucking bastard starts splitting his attention too. Case in point, he starts casually cutting down vulnerable Dwarves around them.

 

Itachi is stuck. He can’t defend the soldiers and leave the Prince vulnerable, but can't just let the man who is obviously mocking him slaughter Dwarves left and right. And he’s not imagining the mocking either - the man keeps throwing these little glances Itachi’s way, as his blade finds a way into a Dwarf’s neck, not two meters from Itachi.

 

Nain - thank every single fucking God - realizes what’s going on, and roars ‘Retreat’ right in Thorin’s ear. Relief floods Itachi, as his focus sharpens - finally.

 

Now, let’s fucking go, asshole.

 

For the first time, he leaps forward, using every bit of speed his Chakra will lend him, and catches one of Nihilist’s swords with two of his - right before that fucking sword would cut into a young Dwarf on the side. As reinforced as his muscles are, he can barely afford to channel any extra Chakra to them. He does so anyway, breathes through the burn and twists sharply, tearing the sword from the man’s arm.

 

It would be convenient if he could fall into mission-focus, but he’s - too fucking angry perhaps. Either way, his mind is caught between mission-focus and sheer blood-lust. While not ideal, the odd mix is not without its advantages, since it lends his instincts a distinctly more savage bent. Which, to make this situation somehow more fucked up than it already is, makes the man - interested.

 

On one hand - good, the rest of the Dwarves are safe from the man’s casual brutality, but very fucking bad because Itachi is now the sole focus of his attention.

 

Over and over they clash, the man’s longer reach and vastly superior strength giving him an advantage, but Itachi’s Sharingan and Chakra equalizing them. Neither of them is fighting to wound - the dance is lethal, lives hanging in the balance of every slash and parry.

 

A long line is cut down Itachi’s thigh, as payment for the horizontal cut across the Nihilist’s abdomen. Either of those attacks would be fatal if either of them was a millisecond slower, but they continue. Itachi’s Chakra barrier keeps his wound from bleeding excessively, but the man’s sheer volume means he’s nowhere near as bothered by blood-loss as Itachi is.

 

The delight in the man’s Chakra matches the sparkle in his eyes perfectly. He’s - loving this. To be fair, with the amount of blood-lust painting Itachi’s vision red, he’s enjoying it too. He can only hope Nain kept a close eye on Thorin because this battle ends when either the Nihilist retreats or one of them is dead.

 

Tripping the man is impossible, since he’s as agile as a dancer, but Itachi tries burying a knife into his calf and earns a cut down his chest, too deep to keep closed by Chakra barriers alone. He takes his vengeance by scoring a direct kick to the man’s ribs, hopefully cracking them, but bruising them severely at least.

 

Time becomes immaterial, and slowly all other thoughts about the battle, Thorin, the Dwarves, they all fade, until the only thing that’s left is the fight. Even his own health becomes a side-worry at best. There is a wide circle around them already, nobody being fool enough to get in the middle of the whirlwind of violence, which Itachi definitely appreciates. Any interruptions would be - discouraged violently, at this point. The Nihilist apparently agrees, because when another man attempts to jump Itachi from the back, the Nihilist’s sword is rammed down his throat without so much as a blink, before Itachi can finish whirling around. He bares his teeth, drenched in blood from a particularly ingenious elbow to the face, and the Nihilist - doesn’t grin but his mouth tilts up in an unmistakable smile.

 

True recklessness enters the battle, then. The man makes a grab to his hair and is rewarded by a knife to the face, the cut narrowly missing his eye. Itachi doesn’t escape unscathed, a giant hand closing on his shoulder and cracking his collarbone in the scant seconds before he tears away

 

Pain is as immaterial as the rest of it, and their dance doesn’t slow down for so much as a beat. With blood obscuring the man’s vision, he’s disadvantaged, but Itachi’s mobility is limited on the left side because of the fracture. He long since abandoned his swords in favour of two long knives, but with how inconvenient his left arm is behaving, it’s not going to be very useful going forward. To that end, he throws the knife at the man, Chakra giving it additional speed. The Nihilist bats it out of the air, as expected, but the moment leaves an opening and a cut now runs down his ribs, forming a skewed cross with the cut already present across his abdomen.

 

As evenly matched as they are, they’re both aware this will only end in mutual defeat - or mutual victory, depending on the viewpoint.

 

Their lives are saved by a Dwarven horn - reinforcements are coming.

 

The man curses under his breath, an actual curse, and it’s the first word he heard spoken by the man. His voice is raspy, as menacing as the rest of him, and a shiver of violent delight goes down Itachi’s spine.

 

With an honest to Father apologetic glance and a nod, the man jumps back, shouting to his men. It’s impressive how fluidly he’s moving, considering the dozens of cuts littering his torso, not to mention the cracked ribs. The men, having heard the Dwarves too, waste little time in disengaging, and swiftly start running back to the mountain.

 

Dwarves rush to follow, and its all Itachi can do to remain standing, now that his inexplicable battle to the death is so jarringly interrupted. With great effort, he gathers some composure and takes stock of himself.

 

He is not in any state to fight anyone - other than in a suicide run, perhaps. Chakra and adrenaline keep him on his feet but they won’t for long - not without an absolutely pressing matter. With that in mind, let’s go find out if there is, in fact, a pressing matter. The pain is still a distant foggy thing, which makes his run across the battlefield possible at all.

 

What do you see?

 

Well, from the look of it, the Dwarves did pretty well. No great piles of Dwarven bodies litter the ground, and quite a few men are among the fallen, so that’s good. Not really important, though.

 

Where are the fucking sons of Thrain?

 

With half a mind he acknowledges the stares of the Dwarves who haven’t given chase, but that’s not - important. Where are they?

 

A suicidally brave soldier tries to get his attention by grabbing his shoulder. Itachi doesn’t maim him but it’s a near thing. With how quickly he avoided the approaching hand, and how swiftly he whirled on the poor soul, it’s no wonder the young Dwarf stutters when he speaks. “The Princes are in the back, with Lord Nain, Ozkif’uzghu.”

 

Oh, thank fuck for that. With a sharp glance, the Dwarf supplies more concrete directions and he doesn’t spare him more than a nod before he darts off as quick as he can, to where the field medics have set up a field hospital of sorts.

 

Without too much rational thought left in him, he barrels into the clearing with his Sharingan still blazing and casts about for the Prices frantically. Dwarves start clucking at him immediately but he barely notices them, and nobody dares approach.

 

There. Thorin and Balin are on their feet, slightly to the side of a tightly clustered group of cots surrounded by eight medics. Immeasurable grief and fear twist their faces, and dread makes Itachi’s steps slow down, heart rabbiting in his chest. Focus. Assess. Thorin and Balin are fine. Next - Nain. He’s - not as fine, but alive. He’s lying on a cot, unconscious but absolutely alive judging by the strong pulse of his Chakra. Dwalin - unconscious - next to Nain, a healer doing something to his arm. Where the fuck is Frerin?

 

Holy fuck, there. A stretcher is being prepared for Frerin, who lies unconscious on a cot, being tended by three frantically working healers trying to do something about the jagged cut running from his shoulder, across his stomach and to his hip. He’s alive, but not by much. His Chakra flickers, and while he might survive this yet, it’s by no means a sure outcome.

 

Fuck. Can he help? Dizziness hits him suddenly, blood-loss and fear making his ears ring. What can he do? Fight? There’s nobody to fight. The Prince needs healing, but even if he had any Iryōjutsu training, his Chakra refuses to leave his body. What could he -

 

Hold the fucking show. His stones. His runic children. He carved his pinkish stone with precisely this in mind - to enhance healing. It wouldn’t heal on its own but it would perhaps carry him over the edge.

 

The stone is in the mountain. The mountain that the enemies are retreating to in this very moment.

 

He checks his Chakra levels - they’re about three-fourths down if he’s optimistic. A lot of it is being tied up in keeping his blood where it is. If he is to make it to the mountain and back, he can’t afford the additional drain

 

Having a concrete plan steadies him, and banishes the distracting buzzing in his ears. The pain is unfortunate, but nothing he can’t ignore. Focus. You have one shot at this, and if you pass out now, it’s going to be too late.

 

Thorin and Balin don’t notice his approach, focused as they are on their respective siblings. Nothing for it. He lays a careful hand on Thorin’s shoulder who whirls around with a snarl on his lips and a terrible fury in his red-rimmed eyes.

 

“Wha- Itachi!” His growl changes into an exclamation, and the Dwarf scans over multiple cuts and bruises littering Itachi’s torso. The armour has done it’s best, but with the number of close calls, it’s little more than bloody strips of leather and cloth.

 

/me/help/ he signs slowly, wrestling his glitching left hand into compliance. /but/me/need/help/

 

“Help - of course, you need help. Mahal’s mercy, you’re cut up like a hunk of beef. Lay down, I will call for a medic”

 

/no/you/help/ he signs, catching his eyes, letting urgency bleed into his eyes. /no/time/

 

Balin is thankfully more aware than Thorin is. “You can help? Who - Frerin? Can you help Frerin?”

 

/yes/but/need/go/mountain/first/

 

“You need to go to the mountain, to - what? Get something that will help Frerin?” Nod “And you need our help before you can go?”

 

A terrible hope rises in Thorin’s Chakra. “Truly? You can save my brother?”

 

Well fuck. He tries to inject as much sympathy into his helpless look as he shrugs.

 

/me/attempy/

 

“Alright.” Determination joins the empty helpless fury in Thorin’s eyes. “You need help - what can we do?’”

 

Nobody spares them any attention, so they grab a first-aid kit and a basin of water and retreat to the closest fire-pit. This will be unpleasant.

 

Indeed it is. One by one, they go over the biggest wounds, cleaning them. Balin has the steadiest hand among them, so he takes over stitching the smaller cuts. But the big one down his chest - down his heart - they have to cauterize.

 

The pain will cause him to lash out, so he leaves that for the end. When they’re finished with stitching him up, he manages to bat away the two Dwarves with some furious pantomime, and prepare. Teeth clenched on a bit of leather, he takes a red-hot blade and presses it as carefully on he can on the deepest part of the cut. The only bright spot here is that the Nihilist’s blade was thin and razor-sharp, and so it left behind a deep but precise cut that can be sealed with the thin side of the blade.

 

It’s - a new experience. He’s not been seriously burnt in this body before. It’s perhaps slightly less agonizing than it would’ve been, which is largely immaterial. He pants through it, even though it objectively only lasts a short while, before throwing the blade away.

 

Alright, he’s - good to go?

 

He tries standing, and dizziness sends him stumbling back down. Thorin jumps to help him up, but fuck, if he can't even stand up, he will not be able to get to the Mountain.

 

“You can barely walk.” Croaks Thorin, desperation and fear making his voice crack. “You will never make it to Khazad-dum.”

 

Itachi checks his Chakra - about a sixth left. It’s - not impossible to go to the Mountain and back, but it’s not too likely either. Frerin’s chances are worse, still, so he will try.

 

“Take a goat.” Says Balin.

 

Take a what now? His blank incomprehension must register because Balin huffs impatiently.

 

“You can ride a war-goat to the Mountain and back. In fact, you should take someone with you, to make sure.”

 

Itachi blinks at him stupidly, but Balin must take it as a refusal.

 

“If there is the slightest chance you can help save my Prince’s life, I will tie you to the goat myself and drag your sorry body to the mountain and back. This is no time for pride.” He snarls, fear stripping away any notion of diplomacy.

 

Another blink. Pride? Goats? A spark of intelligence lights up some tortured neurons somewhere, and he understands finally what he Dwarf is saying. It’s - a good idea, actually. His chances are drastically improved with a transport animal, and the risk of passing out in a ditch somewhere is much lower too.

 

He nods, and Balin deflates in relief. “Perfect. Who do you want going with you?”

 

Itachi shrugs, sluggish mind barely connecting sounds to concepts. The cauterization has apparently taken a lot out of him. Hopefully, the Dwarves will lend him some healers in the following days to deal with the infection that is probably already setting in the burnt flesh.

 

“I will go.” Snarls Thorin. “It’s my brother’s life on the line.”

 

“Alright,” says Balin, not the least bit surprised. “I will watch over them while you’re gone. But you need to inform a senior captain you’re leaving. I don’t have the authority to defuse the clusterfuck you’d cause by disappearing without a word.”

 

Thorin whirls on his heel and stalks off without a word, and Itachi is left to blink tiredly at the retreating back.

 

“Will you attack me if I touch you?” Asks Balin, trying and failing at keeping the tremble from his voice.

 

Attack? Balin? He shakes his head and musters a small smile. It is nice of him to think to ask.

 

“Perfect, then let’s go. The stables are this way, and Thorin is hopefully smart enough to meet us there.”

 

***

 

He’s likely slipping in and out of consciousness because it feels like no time at all has passed between the conversation with Balin, and sitting on the back of a war-goat making its way through the forest. Thorin rides exactly one goat-length behind him, close enough that his goat could nibble on Itachi’s goat's tail.

 

He examines that odd thought idly, wondering at the uncanny floatiness of his mind. Not surprising, considering, well, everything, but not ideal, since it’s Itachi leading the way. Thank Father that the animal he’s sitting on is, apparently, the Goddess Mother of all goats, since she follows instruction with an almost prescient intelligence.

 

Waves of terrified, howling Chakra coming from the Prince are slightly distracting, but even if he could talk, he wouldn’t. His bother is fighting for his life - he can empathize in silence.

 

What few moments of lucidity break through, he uses to choose the best way to the Clearing. The Main Gate is obviously out the question because that’s where the men are retreating to. The balcony is their only chance.

 

***

 

The fucking goat climbs like - she must be using Chakra. Itachi couldn’t scale this rock with his handy opposable thumbs without Chakra use, never mind four hooves and a dwarf on his back. The beautiful animals sent from heaven casually climb up the mountain like it’s a regular old stroll, and save them hours in going around. There’s a chance, still.

 

***

 

He blinks and they’re on the balcony, and he’s too numb to think about anything other than - steer - clearing - Mother - shrine -

 

***

 

He stumbles down his goat when Mother’s shrine is within eyesight. Tears prickle in his eyes when he finally registers both Mother’s and Fathers’ presence warming and steadying him. The strength of their combined care lends him strength and the haze clears slightly.

 

He turns around to Thorin who looks - not even slightly present. His face is twisted in pain and grief, and he’s not paying the slightest bit of attention on his surroundings. Thank fuck that there are no enemies here because they’d be cut down in seconds.

 

He waves to the grief-stricken Prince, to get his attention.

 

/we/here/you/wait/

 

He gets a numb nod for his efforts, but the Dwarf yanks the reins weakly and remains sitting on his mount with a blank look in his eyes. The earlier determination is all but gone, and animal fear is all that’s left in the Prince. He should have taken Balin,

 

Keeping his steps as careful as he can to avoid falling down and possibly breaking his fool neck somehow, he reaches the stone circle. More pain leaves him as soon as he steps inside, and he wails to Mother inside his head shamelessly. The answering wave of love is everything he hoped for. 

 

His stones - there. It’s certainly his imagination, but the pink stone looks to be shining more brightly than the rest. He reaches for it, and as soon as his bloody hand touches the polished surface, it sucks up the blood and glows even more intently. Alright then.

 

Stone in hand, he limps back to the Prince. Clarity leaves him the further away from the circle he goes, and pain once again sends its regards. It’s going to be a tricky ride.

 

It's time to climb the goat. It will be - unpleasant. He blinks stupidly at the animal for three long seconds and sighs.

 

He climbs the goat. It’s unpleasant.

 

Don’t drop the stone. Don’t fall off the goat.

 

***

 

Thankfully, the goat either remembers the way or knows the area enough to know how to return to the army camp, because he’s definitely losing time.

 

Don’t drop the stone. Don’t fall off the goat.

 

***

 

Thorin is a mute star of pain and grief, having apparently fallen deep into desperation, but he keeps going, aware enough of his surroundings and Itachi to steady him when he’s close to falling off the fucking goat.

 

***

 

They might make it yet. They’re practically there. Just a little more. His Chakra is - not critically low, perhaps a tenth left, which will leave him with a nasty hangover but he shouldn't fall into a Chakra-exhaustion coma.

 

Just a little more.

 

The stone. The goat.

 

***

 

The sight of the camp is the most beautiful thing he’s seen in a long while. Judging by the shouts of patrols, the Dwarves are aware of their return. He ignores it all, the approaching Dwarves and Thorin’s growled replies, slumped on his goat, fingers white-knuckled around the stone. Tunnel vision is not a new experience, not at all, but it’s useful right now, with how little focus he has left.

 

***

 

He loses the goat at some point, and walks now. Somehow. Voices are raised around him but nobody tries to stop him which is as it should be. He is not at his most lethal, but there are still knives on him somewhere.

 

A person steps in front of him. Who is it - Balin. The Dwarf says something but he the part of his mind in charge of speech recognition is as pulped as the rest of him. He watches the Dwarf’s mouth move and distantly knows there is some significance to it, but little more than that.

 

Perhaps Thorin is there, or Balin realizes what’s going on, because he turns around and waves a clear command to follow him. Unless he's leading him to Frerin, there will be blood spilt, and it won’t be only Itachi’s. 

 

Step - step - step. The stone - The goat - What goat? - Never mind - Keep moving - step - step

 

He’s in a tent - a flurry of healers run around - fucking yes!

 

His last thimble of energy is spent by shouldering his way through the throng of medics and placing his fiercely glowing pink stone on Frerin’s chest, right on his breast bone.

 

Mission - accomplished

 

Dark.

 

***

 

 

 

Chapter Text

His Lord’s roar of fury catches Lari’s attention, and he fumbles with his blade. The entire battle so far has been a barely-survivable strain on his nerves, the tide shifting sharply from victory to a crushing defeat and then back to victory with no rhyme or reason.

 

His opponents were, by and large, tricky bastards, but after the torture Ozkif’uzghu has put them through over the weeks, he can handle them well enough. Longevity is the name of the game, and nobody can outlast an Iron Hills miner, especially not weedy men from the South, no matter how quick on their feet they might be.

 

Well, nobody except the Demon. The entire mannish army has the Prince in their sights, but so far Lari and the rest of his unit have managed to keep most of them away. The few that they couldn’t stop, Ozkif’uzghu cut down without much a to-do.

 

Until the Demon came, scant minutes ago. For the first time, Lari’s iron-clad certainty that nothing and no-one can harm the Princes while Ozkif’uzghu stands is - shaken.

 

He can’t spare much focus. His own opponent is casually lethal as only very good warriors are. The most he can afford is to observe the battle from the corner of his eye. He doesn’t like what he sees. The mannish Captain has Ozkif’uzghu on the defensive. Behind him, Princes and Lord Fundin’s sons stand, helpless, fending off their own attackers. His Lord stands at their backs, two axes whirling a deadly warning to anyone who would attack his charges from the back. Which is all well and good, but. Should Ozkif’uzghu fall - it’s not going to go well for any of them.

 

A familiar sound tears him from his inattention, and he jerks his head back in the nick of time, the glittering blade catching on his helmet instead. With a snarl, he tries to counter-attack, but the clever bastard angles his sword up and twists so that he rips the helmet from his head, launching it up and away.

 

He turns to his opponent, chiding himself. No matter how much he wants to make sure his Princes and his Lord are alive and well, he will be of no use to anyone if he dies here and now.

 

He meets the man’s dark eyes and tries to feel any real resentment towards him but he - can’t. He can’t spot any revulsion or prejudice in the man’s eyes - and he’s good at spotting those. He’s had practice, plenty of it, and men aren’t stingy in that regard, free with glares and sneers alike. But his enemy now - doesn’t much care about him at all. If there is something there other than a sense of duty and obedience towards his commander, Lari hasn’t seen it.

 

Tire the bastard out, and cut him at the knees - it seems like the easiest way forward. His axe is longer and narrower than most - lighter too - so he dances with the man, keeping the blades away, not letting himself be confused by the flourishes and jumps and twirls. Keep your head in the game, and keep those blades in sight.

 

The hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and dread closes his throat. The first twinkle of emotion enters his enemy’s dark eyes. They dart over his shoulder, and a mix of fear and relief lights them up. The air shifts behind him and some part of him knows - these are the last moments of his life.

 

Time slows down. Well. If that’s how it will go, then he’s going to take this bastard down with him. The man is distracted and he makes his final play. With a roar, he swings his axe horizontally with his right hand and buries the knife in his left into the man’s side. The sound of an approaching blade is near, fast, too fast to hope to avoid, but his opponent at least is down and won’t be going up.

 

He waits, sending his love to his Maker with the whatever part of a second he has before the approaching blade ends him.

 

A much larger body of air whooshes, and somehow - somehow - Lari, son of Parin, is no longer a dead Dwarf standing.

 

He whirls around and blanches. The flinch jerks his entire body back, and he stumbles down, falling atop of his wheezing, fallen enemy. The sight is - what -

 

Ozkif’uzghu and the Demon are fighting - to simplify the matter to a comical degree. They’re fighting like lighting fights the hurricane - like Valar smite each-other.

 

Ozkif’uzghu’s smaller shape jumps and twirls and flies around the Demon like a vicious war-bird, blades moving through the air faster than the eye can see. The Demon dances with him, not moving anywhere near as quickly but still somehow managing to shift away from every blow, parry what he cannot avoid, and still have attention enough to attack back.

 

Mortal eyes aren’t meant to see this - any of this. A strange weight, a pulsing energy spreads from the fighters, blood-lust made tangible, audible, tastable. The circle around them widens, and Lari scrambles back as well, mind empty of everything but get-away-get-away-this-is-beyond-your-ken. His eyes fall down to his fallen enemy involuntarily. The man is still alive, left there to be trampled, and he - he can’t just- leave him there? Not when the Gods have started to play, not when War and Death are battling it our here and now.

 

With a snarled curse, he falls down to the ground, and slowly inches forward on his belly, hopefully moving slow enough to not garner the attention of the monsters. The noise is terrifying, as unnatural as the rest of it, but the blood-lust is terrifying enough that he keeps having to unfreeze his muscles. Blood falls on him and he shudders.

 

His unlucky opponent is pale, both hands on the wound left behind by Lari’s axe. He’s awake, and alive, for however long that may be, but he lies motionless, eyes wide, trained at the furious death-match unfolding not two meters from him.

 

How to do this? With some caution, he raises his head slightly, daring to look up -

 

He drops them immediately, heart pounding in his chest. Well, they definitely aren’t paying any attention to the mortals crawling in the mud.

 

No time for this. He climbs up to his knees and grabs the still man by his shoulders. He’s - shockingly light, considering his height. Lighter than Lari, for all that he’s twice his height.

 

“Keep quiet,” He hisses in the man’s ear, close enough to be able to see the racing pulse in his neck. “This is no place for us.”

 

A minuscule nod - good, the man speaks Westeron. He inches back, dragging the man, moving as fast as he dares, which is not fast at all. The titans clash above him again and again, not pausing for more than a moment, and it’s all he can do to just - move back, crawl away, keep to the ground where you will be overlooked.

 

The field around the two figures is almost clear, fear or respect had driven away men and Dwarves alike. There’s still fighting, of course, the sound and smell of battle is everywhere, but - There!

 

A path to the forest is open, and there is a chance - a small chance -

 

Abandoning all thought of subtlety, he stands, hikes his enemy on his shoulder, and books it to the forest. The man breathes still, a harsh, wheezing rattle of the chest, and he can’t quite understand what he’s doing - what in Mahal’s name is he thinking, dragging a fallen opponent away from battle - he should be there, fighting, protecting his Lord -

 

But he can’t. He cannot. He’s too rattled, too terrified by the sight and smell and soul-deep pressure of the clash between Ozkif’uzghu and the Demon.

 

He finds a dense group of shrubs, that would hopefully obscure the sight of both him and his enemy, and sets the man down, propping him against the tree. Exhausted and shaking, he falls down to the ground next to him, eyes falling shut, trying to focus on his breathing.

 

Maker’s mercy, this isn’t what he signed up for. War and battle he can do, Orcs of all shapes and sizes never gave him a pause, but Ozkif’uzghu’s magic, his soul screaming with rage and blood-lust - it’s not something he can think around.

 

Well, now, Lari, this is a fine pickle you’ve found yourself in.

 

Finally calm enough to stop trembling like a leaf, he forces some calm into his gibbering mind and opens his eyes.

 

His enemy lives, still. How that’s possible, he’s not entirely sure. The wound in his side is four centimetres deep, and the knife sticks out of his other side still. All that being said, the man is alive and is staring at him with an entirely unreadable expression on his face.

 

What now?

 

Say something.

 

“Well, fuck.” Is what comes out of his mouth, and, really, it sums up everything perfectly.

 

A small smirk curves his enemy’s lips. “It is so.” He says, words accented sharply, vowels wrapping around sharp consonants in an oddly melodic fashion.

 

“Name’s Lari.” Well, now, that was fucking stupid. Why are you introducing yourself to a man you almost gave your life to kill?

 

“Maat.” A spark of amusement light’s up newly-named Maat’s dark eyes. “Light shines on the day of our meeting.”

 

A bubble of mirth skitters up his overwrought heart, climbs his ragged throat and tilts his bleeding lips into a grin. He can appreciate sass in the face of approaching death as well as any Dwarf.

 

Maat coughs convulsively, blood bubbling down the corner of his mouth, staining his perplexing little face-veil even further.

 

No, but really, what now Lari, son of Parin? Will you sit next to a dying man - next to Maat - and watch him die slowly? No, of course, you won’t. Those are some mighty heavy chains to be dragging you down when the time comes to enter Mahal’s Halls.

 

Alright, so what do you have? He lost most of his weapons, and his armour is useless, but for a hidden section where he stashes the essentials. Bandages, a flask of high-proof spirits, a pipe, some tobacco, and a needle and thread.

 

“Well, Maat, my unlikely friend, let us see what we can do about your - situation.” He says wrestling off his plate chest-piece.

 

The man, head tilted back to help with increasingly heavy breathing, meets his eyes incredulously.

 

“First thing’s first, let’s get you out of that armour.”

 

Wariness enters hazy brown eyes, and the man's pulse quickens at his approach.

 

“Oh, none of that now. Your virtue is safe with me. But I cant damn well sew up that pesky cut of yours if I can barely see what I’m working with. Now, easy does it, just let the nice Dwarf work.”

 

His rambling confuses the man straight out of his wariness, and he forgets to be cautious. “There’s a lad. Now, if you have any idea how we should go about this, do tell me. Because from where I’m standing, the only way is to cut it.”

 

“Clasps are on the side.” Wheezes Maat. “You can roll it away.”

 

Lari beams. “Good to know, good to know. Now, I’m guessing the pain is quite - something. So why don’t you leave your right hand where it’s keeping your waist nice and closed and with your left grab this flask here. Now that, my lad, is Dwarrow-grade alcohol, that is. Take a nice swing, there we go, and it’s all going to feel much better soon.”

 

Indeed, after less than a minute, Maat’s brow smooths slightly, and he sags back onto the tree. “I thank you, Lari. We don’t have drink like this in Harad.”

 

“Harad, you say. Can’t say I know much about Harad, other than it being a port on the opposite end of the world. It doesn’t much surprise me you don’t have drinks like that, oh not at all. That, my lad, is my own little recipe. Brewed it myself, haven’t I, and made sure it's nice and fiery. Puts hair on your chest it does, and you can do with some more hair if you don’t mind me saying it.”

 

Maat listens to his babble with a genuine smile, if a small and pained one. “I’m honoured. A good man would tell you not to waste it on a dying enemy, but nobody would think to call me a good man.”

 

“Stuff and nonsense. Hold this.” Lari says, taking the flask back from Maat’s shaking hand, and replacing it with a knife. “Now this will sting, lad, but there’s nothing for it. My axe is a beauty, but not what you would call a sterile instrument. I won’t have my work ruined by a measly infection, no I won’t. You can bite down on this here piece of leather if you want?”

 

“I wouldn’t say no. Actually-” Maat pauses, an uncertain expression on his face that makes him look practically a boy. “Would you mind - removing my - how do you say - veil?”

 

Lari eyes the sorry bit of stained cloth. “I wouldn’t mind at all, lad. I’d be glad to, even. There’s more filth than thread in it, and it must smell pretty fucking awful.”

 

A spark of glee widens the tired brown eyes. “It’s very important, the veil. Very religious. Serious.” He says, mischief and humour adding a lilt to the raspy, wheezing voice. “I have, as luck would have it, never been very religious.”

 

“Good on you, lad.” Grins Lari, heart breaking a little. “Let me get rid of the wretched thing, then.”

 

With some luck and effort, he unties the lacing in the back, and undoes the clever little set of knots, and is left with a ruined linen rag, and a bare-faced boy.

 

He doesn’t say ‘who let a boy your age on the battlefield’ or ‘you can’t be a day over thirty in man-years’ or ‘I’m sorry for hurting you’. He just pastes a smile on his face and continues to babble.

 

“Well, Maat, my friend, let’s see about this cut, here. You’re doing a fine job with keeping pressure on it, but that’s not what I would call a solution. Deep breath, nice and easy, bite down on that leather.”

 

He pours as much alcohol as he dares on the cut. The liquid washes away some of the blood and grime, so he can see what he’s working with. It’s - not as bad as it could’ve been, but not by much.

 

“I’ll be honest, lad, I can’t say this will be pleasant, but we’ve more than half of our alcohol left, and that puny little knife-wound won’t need more than a splash. More than enough for both of us to get nice and sloshed after we sew you up nice and pretty.”

 

Mahal save him, he doesn’t know what will be worse - if the lad lives or he dies. Whatever the case may be, Lari son of Parin and Maat of Harad are both well and truly fucked.

 

***

 

“It would be better to let me die.” Whispers Maat, exhausted and barely lucid. “For you, but also for me. Easier.”

 

“None of that now,” replies Lari, cauterizing his needle as best he can. “You’re a fine young lad with plenty of joy ahead of you. I’m not going to let this little scratch get in the way of that. You just lie there, conserve your strength, and worry none.”

 

“Joy.” Says Maat, a terrible wistfulness audible through the pain and exhaustion. “My Commander, he is not a kind man. Should I survive this by some miracle, my days will not be long, or pleasant when I return.”

 

Lari closes his eyes for a moment, before steeling his resolve and shunting away all thoughts about the future to the back of his mind. “We will figure it out, lad. Every problem has a solution, even the tricky ones like that. With the right pickaxe and some clever thinking, you can dig your way out of the worst collapse.”

 

“I, as you say, bow to your superior knowledge. But keep it in mind, no? Dying here, with a friend - its good. Better than what most get.”

 

“Oh shut up.” Mutters Lari, resolutely not touched or worried in any way. “Nobody is dying here, not me, and definitely not you. You do your part, and I will do mine, and you will feel right as rock tomorrow, mark my words.”

 

***

 

The boy sleeps, a sleep of those exhausted beyond measure. For some reason not even known to himself, Lari has laid him down and placed the lad’s head in his lap. He cannot detect a fever - somehow - although it’s likely going to set in soon-like. It’s more difficult to ignore his worries now that it’s quiet, the battle is finished, and there is nothing left for him to do.

 

Well - that is a filthy lie. There are plenty of things for him to do. He just doesn’t want to do any of them. Will not, in fact, do any of them.

 

So - what now? Whatever mercy the Maker has provided him must be spent by now - the lad is still alive, after all. He might actually live through this.

 

It’s not his wounds, that worry him the most - and they worry him plenty. What do do with him, is the question? There is no way to sneak him into Lari’s tent - absolutely zero chance. And that’s in the case that Lari is welcome back himself. Anyone could have seen him run away from battle, with a man on his back. His life as he knew it could be over, and yet - and yet.

 

He doesn’t regret it, all said. He might in the future, depending, but he doesn’t now. He doesn’t know what changed, what part of him is dead, and what slithers in its place. The overwhelming fear shook something loose in him, the unspeakable brutality and majesty of two monsters going at each other. They were - symbols of their factions, Ozkif’uzghu being the end goal of any Dwarf, the image of everything that a Dwarf might wish to become. The mannish Captain presumably served a similar purpose for the men.

 

What, then, is the purpose of Lari, son of Parin? Is Ozkif’uzghu his goal? This is not what Lari is, and it is not what he wants to be. He killed before in self-defence, but what part of this is self-defence? Does self-defence include attacking? Killing an unarmed boy? Stepping over the still breathing bodies of men laying on the ground?

 

Does self-defence mean killing Maat? Maat who smiled, and laughed, and drank with him. Maat who did not have the heart to ask for death, even though there is little else for him going forward?

 

No. And if this means Lari, son of Parin, loses what little he has to his name, well. Tough shit. Lari, son of Parin, is a grown Dwarf, closer to his third century than his second. He can damn well take care of himself, even if he is no longer welcome in the fancy Mountains of the poncy Dwarven Lords.

 

***

 

Chapter Text

Waking up goes slowly. He stumbles in and out of - possibly drugged - sleep, most often to the sound of raised voices, but sometimes to blessed silence.

 

Each time he wakes up he gets another part of the puzzle about his situation. The relative lack of pain is a point for the ‘drugged’ column, as is the puzzling sense of calm. There is something he needs to know, an important fact to remember, and yet - nothing.

 

Was it - Thorin? Something about Thorin? And - goats?

 

He sleeps.

 

***

 

All in all, it takes about four days to wake up fully, with the partial command of his mind. Drugs played a part in that, he suspects, and he really needs to remember to investigate that bit properly, because Shinobi grade drugs aren’t easy to synthesize or administer. With how wobbly he still feels, he likely won’t remember, but hope springs eternal.

 

The room is empty, no patients, no medics, nothing. He needs information, he needs to know if Frerin is alive on a physical level.

 

Alright, let’s think about this. Is leaving an option? His Chakra levels are - entirely respectable, a little over half-full, which is, really, a major hurdle. Now to his wounds.

 

The moment he tries to move his sluggish arms, a lance of agony courses through his left side. Ah. Right. Cracked bones. In a cascade, other aches and pains make themselves known, particularly a burning, dull pain from the wound down his chest.

 

He could be mistaken, but cauterization almost always ends with infection, one way or another. In Elemental Nations such things were largely irrelevant - even a slightly competent medic could clear out infection with five minutes to work, and that’s only if they for some reason don’t have access to medical-grade Fuuinjutsu.

 

Here, though, it could be more problematic.

 

Nothing for it - he has to wait. Digging himself out of the mountain of furs stacked on top of him is an exercise in patience and pain-management, but he manages to shimmy up the bed, and sit up slightly, propped up by a slew of pillows. It’s a waiting game, now.

 

***

 

He doesn’t have to wait for long, in the end, although it doesn’t help him much. The medic that shuffles inside takes one look at Itachi sitting up in his bed, squeaks and runs right back outside.

 

Alright, then.

 

***

 

His next visitors are much more useful. A no-nonsense looking medic marches inside followed closely by Thorin, Balin and Dwalin. All three Dwarves are - not smiling, but there is no crushing weight of grief weighing them down, and their Chakra is more or less calm, which makes tentative hope rise in his chest. Surely - if something - unfortunate - happened, they wouldn’t be as content as they are?

 

The medic throws a cease-and-desist look to the three Dwarves, getting three mulish but more or less compliant looks for his efforts. Having established his authority, he turns to Itachi.

 

“Master Itachi, it is good to see you awake. Your continued sleep gave us worry. How are you feeling?”

 

Well, what now? He cant sign with one hand - he can barely move. Carefully keeping his body still, he points to his throat with his right hand and cuts his hand through the air horizontally. He can’t quite manage to keep the impatience from his face, though.

 

“Right, right, I apologize. Well, before we move on to the pressing concerns regarding your health, let me first inform you of the fact that Prince Frerin will, with the aid of your - device - recover with minimal complications.”

 

Relief punches through him, and his eyes slip closed entirely without his control. He didn’t fail. He helped. He helped. When he opens his eyes, he sneaks a glance to Thorin. Blue eyes meet his, and there’s so much gratitude there, but also - guilt? Really? Again? 

 

“Indeed, it wasn’t just Prince Frerin your device aided. With some trial and error, we determined it’s range, and we’ve been utilizing it with utmost care. Now, while I would gladly talk about nothing else but the wonder you’ve wrought, we need to discuss your injuries.”

 

He schools his face into something sombre and serious, but he can't quite bring himself to care too much. He knows more or less what he’s got going on, and it’s all perfectly survivable.

 

“Your main injuries are a cracked collarbone, and a fractured shoulder, which there’s not too much we can do about, and the wound on your chest.”

 

The Dwarven healer, thusfar unnamed, leans forward slightly, a steely glint of disapproval entering his eyes. “As I understand, you’ve cauterized the wound yourself, on the battlefield. I understand that the circumstances were - difficult - but I would discourage you from such measures in the future. As it is, the infection that set in was severe enough we had to physically remove the tissue before necrosis set in.”

 

He tries to twist his mouth into something solemn and repentant, but he falls short because the healer huffs in annoyance. “Mahal save me from foolhardy Dwarflings.”

 

It’s not difficult to smile an honest smile at the grouchy Dwarf. He appreciates his brisk manner, but he’s also so fucking relieved he could just float away. He helped.

 

“In any case,” continues the medic. “You’re on strict bed-rest for the time being. The infection is nowhere near as cleared out as we’d like, and should it flare up again, we won’t have an easy way to fix it. Your bones should heal without issue, but the chest-wound will give us grief yet.”

 

Bed-rest? Here?

 

His alarm must register with Thorin because he clears his throat, and weathers the hairy eyebrow aimed his way. “Does he have to remain here? Itachi has been staying with Lady Darla for weeks.” 

 

“We-ell.” Hums the medic. “A week in the healing-house, and after that, I will consider it.” He turns to Itachi, with a considering look. “It’s the best I can offer. After a week, if you want to be moved, we will move you. We owe you much, and if staying at the Lady’s house would make you more comfortable, we will make it happen.”

 

A week. Here. He eyes the healer, judging how serious he is, and sees nothing but a deep well of implacable certainty.

 

He nods gingerly, some of his unhappiness showing on his face.

 

The medic huffs out a laugh. “A week is nothing, you will sleep through most of it, mark my words. Alright, I will leave you with his Highness now, before he physically throws me out of the room. Someone will come later to check on your wound, and change the bandages.”

 

With a low bow, he turns and leaves, without so much as a glance in Thorin’s direction. Huh. The Dwarf must have made himself a nuisance for the healers.

 

Now that they’re alone, it seems like courage has deserted Thorin, because he stands at the door, avoiding Itachi’s eyes. He looks at Dwalin significantly, but he’s also uncharacteristically shy. Balin?

 

Balin is the right choice because he visibly straightens his spine and marches closer to Itachi’s bed.

 

“I don’t have the words to express my thanks. It’s - I - Just - Thank you.” His tone starts uncertain but grows more and more fervent as he goes on, and the last words are pretty difficult to understand, filled to the brim with emotion.

 

Since he is wholly cut off from any means of communication, he settles for a smile. There is more, though. Something keeps Thorin and Dwalin away, eyes trained to the ground.

 

“Right,” continues Balin, voice wavering with something other than gratitude. “Moving on. I have to - we have to - apologize. We didn’t -” 

 

What the fuck are they so concerned by? He raises his eyebrows, which goes unseen because Balin now looks to the floor too, seemingly lost his words.

 

“We didn’t use your stone on you.” Blurts out Dwalin. “We - in the beginning, we didn’t know about its range, and then when the healers noticed, we didn’t - we -”

 

Itachi is - incredulous. Is that really what they're worried about?

 

Carefully he raises his hand and waves for their attention. Three pairs of guilty eyes snap to him. He takes care to keep his smile gentle and his eyes playful as he rolls them dramatically.

 

Cautious relief joins the guilt, and Thorin takes a step forward.

 

“I am so sorry, Itachi. It should have been the absolute first thing we did, and until today we didn’t even think of it. When the healer mentioned this morning that you’re healing remarkably quickly, inexplicable sleep aside, we realized, and we’ve been talking about moving you, but then there was a dying patient, and we thought you would want us to - I’m sorry. After everything, we never quit taking advantage of you.” He finishes miserably.

 

Itachi rolls his eyes again, and mimes writing. Honestly, this conversation needs to be had, and quickly before sleep takes him again.

 

“Oh, right. Of course, I have everything here.” Rushes Thorin to say, taking out writing equipment from the bag slung over his shoulder. And! No feathers! This smells like Lady Darla’s work, especially since his brushes were left at her house.

 

“Lady Darla sends her well-wishes. She’s tending to her husband, and can’t visit just yet.” Says Thorin, voice a bit absent as he tries to figure out how to make this happen. In the end, with a tiny shrug, he simply rips the top of the small table next to Itachi’s bed and places the board with the papers and inks on the bed.

 

Writing is - tricky. He can only move his right hand, which is fine since he’s ambidextrous, but the angle is awkward, and moving sends warning lances of pain through him.

 

‘You were absolutely right to do what you did. Thank you. Now, please, tell me more about Frerin and Dain and the rest. Is the stone working?’

 

Thorin reads out the note in a shaking voice and sags in relief by the end of it. He’s not the only one, Balin and Dwalin exhale and their Chakra lightens almost instantly. They’ve never looked more similar than they do now, with wide smiles and teary eyes.

 

“Frerin is going to be live,” says Balin shakily. “Your device worked wonders on him. The healers said -” He pauses, swallowing. “They said he probably would not have made it through the night without your magic.”

 

“Lord Nain will be fine too.” Adds Balin. “He got a nasty concussion, which worried us in the beginning, but he’s on the mend firmly.”

 

‘I’m glad the stone worked. I admit it was a gamble. I’ve never actually tried using any of my carvings in such a way.’ Writes Itachi, fiercely proud of his rune-child.

 

“It works magnificently,” Breathes Thorin, eyes almost frantic. “When you placed it on Frerin’s chest - it - it glowed so brightly. Immediately, some of his colour returned, and - we watched a miracle take place in front of our eyes. It was - otherworldly.”

 

“Wait,” says Balin. “You have others? Other such miracles?”

 

‘Oh yes’, writes Itachi, happy as a clam to talk about his runes. ‘I have eleven stones, all in all. It took me - years to carve them, and they’re all beautiful and unique and mine.’

 

“Mahal,” breathes Balin. “Eleven magical devices, and you’re not even sixty.”

 

“Carve them.” Says Dwalin suddenly. “Didn’t you mention some time ago that you’re working towards mastery in carving?”

 

Itachi nods. ‘Well-remembered, Master Dwalin. Indeed, I spent a decade, years ago, learning how to carve, and how to infuse my life-force into the stones. That is the energy that powers them. Now, how long or how well they work, is anyone’s guess. My pink stone is the first one that I’ve tried to use since I made them.”

 

“Well,” says Thorin with a faint edge of hysteria audible in his voice. “I can safely say that your runic stone would count as a masterwork by anyone’s standard. I wouldn’t have thought enchanting would fall under the category of carving, but it’s not like we have any enchanters to weigh in on the issue.”

 

Itachi attempts a shrug and winces. That was supremely stupid. ‘I don’t know about enchanting - I carved the stone with my own hands. True, it’s a slightly more - mystical - process than regular carving, but the principle is the same. Kind of.’

 

A beautiful, entirely overwhelmed smile breaks out on Thorin’s face. “Whatever you say, Jarteig’dríf.”

 

He rolls his eyes. ‘No need for that, now. The important thing is that Frerin will recover and that the battle went well. What happened to you, may I ask?’

 

A cloud of darkness falls over Thorns face, and his smile dims. “We got attacked by another Captain. He went for Frerin and me, and it took all five of us to bring him down.”

 

“But we got him.” Grins Dwalin, an entirely unpleasant, savage baring of the teeth. “We got him.”

 

“A lot of good it would have done us, without Itachi’s magic.” Mutters Balin, eyes haunted. “He was - arrogant, which is what got him in the end. We couldn’t do much to him, not in the beginning. Lord Nain kept us alive, for the first few minutes, until we got used to the - magic - he was using. It was - despair, of some sort, but also physical enhancement. A thin little nothing of a man and he threw us around like rag-dolls. There were these - shadows, coming out of him, that moved almost independently.”

 

“He was a shit fighter.” Growls Thorin. “No training, no finesse. Just brute strength and fucking black magic.”

 

Well, shit. ‘That all sounds terrible.’ He writes, not really sure what else he could say.

 

“It was.” Shudders Balin. “He knocked out Lord Nain after a while, and then things got a little - hectic. Dwalin was next, the man threw him over ten meters away, knocked him out on the spot. Then it was the three of us and Frerin -”

 

“He wanted to buy us some time.” Says Thorin, eyes dark pools of misery. “He jumped at him, shouting at us to run and -”

 

“And he got injured,” says Balin, taking over when it’s clear Thorin needs a moment to compose himself. “Thorin lost his mind and rushed him. By that point, we’ve been fighting for a while, and I guess his magic isn’t infinite, because he started flagging, and the shadows disappeared. He was still strong, and unnaturally fast, but he finally had blind-spots.”

 

“Balin killed him.” Says Thorin, fiercely proud. “He was the only one with any sense in him. I was - lost. He waited until the time was right and just - stabbed him clean through the throat, just like that.”

 

Itachi looks at mild-mannered Balin and grins in appreciation. ‘Very well-done, Master Balin. Very well-done indeed.’

 

“Thank you kindly.” Says Balin, dry as dust. “I called for reinforcements immediately after that, and you know the rest.”

 

‘No matter how you look at it, we’ve dealt a blow to them. The man I fought is going to need some time to recover too, and he’s the best fighter they’ve got. He’s possibly the best fighter alive. We also have real intelligence now - the Captains’ weakness is endurance. You will know how to fight them, now.’

 

“A lot of good it will do us if the man you fought comes back.” Says Thorin, the well of cynicism in his voice deep enough to drown. “We all saw your fight. We could throw everything we have at him, and he will come out on top.”

 

We-ell now, that’s a ‘proceed with caution’ tone if ever there was one.

 

‘Good thing you have me to throw at him, then. I’m not out for the count yet.’

 

Thorin barks out an entirely too violent bark of laughter. “I don’t know if any of our hearts can take another fight like that, Itachi. I have to warn you you’ve gained a whole next level of legend with our people. The way the two of you fought - it was something out of a battle-master’s fever dream. The magic around you brought more than one fighter to their knees.”

 

“Fucking black magic. Shit makes everything unfair,” growls Dwalin.

 

Itachi pauses slightly, surprised. ’The man I fought wasn’t using magic. It was all his own skill, I’m afraid. If anyone was cheating, it was me. You know I have my own - enhancements.’

 

“Truly?” Says Balin, eyes wide. “He wasn’t using magic?”

 

’Not a lick. All pure skill and strength.’

 

“Does that make it better or worse?” Muses Thorin, a strained smile on his lips.

 

“Both. Definitely both.” Says Balin, nowhere near as calm as Itachi would like.

 

‘It doesn’t matter, in the end. Magic or not, he’s a formidable opponent, and all of you will stay away from him if you know what’s good for you. Run if you have to, but let me handle him.’

 

“Oh, gladly,” says Thorin wryly. “I don’t have a pressing wish to die gruesomely, I assure you. Let’s hope you’re always nearby when he’s near, then.”

 

“A more reliable strategy has never been thought up.” Mutters Balin waspishly, before pausing and inhaling deeply. “To shift the topic to more pleasant matters.”

 

“Like what?” Mutters Thorin. “I’m all out of pleasant thoughts.”

 

‘A moot point, I’m afraid.’ Writes Itachi, exhaustion catching up to him all too suddenly. ‘I’m about to pass out.’

 

***

 

Itachi is in his third night of healer-enforced hospital stay when the sound of an intruder jerks him out of his languid sleep. The healers run a tight ship, and keep to the schedule with a sort of grim obsession of people who work in hopelessly chaotic fields, and have to compensate somehow. So, it’s not the healers, and it’s not a visitor. Which makes it an enemy.

 

Which is a problem, considering Itachi is almost entirely immobile, shoulder and left arm bound in Dwarven version of a cast, and the wound on his chest not making anything easier. If the intruder can’t be reasoned with, his only weapon is intimidation.

 

Alright, then. He sits up as much as he can, and turns on his Sharingan, glaring at the intruder, Chakra focused into something resembling KI.

 

The intruder The Dwarf proceeds to promptly lose his mind. He’s silent, for all the good it does him because his Chakra practically screams in fear. He can hear the convulsive swallowing from his spot on the bed,  and the full-body tremble is both visible and audible.

 

Alright, then. His midnight assassin Dwarf is either supremely bad at his job or is in fact not an assassin. Which brings forth the question - why the fuck does he have a middle-aged, reasonably handsome Dwarf in his room at night? Especially a middle-aged, reasonably handsome Dwarf who is moments away from expiring from acute fear.

 

Joking about shit like this is all well and good, but this brings back some truly awful memories. He hoped - he prayed - he would never inspire blind terror in friends or enemies. This is ‘Itachi the Missing Nin’ level of fear, right there. This is ’S-ranked shinobi has come to slaughter me and my entire village and there’s nothing God or man can do to stop him’. Itachi’s stomach tightens, bile rising in his throat.

 

There is nothing he can really do to calm the Dwarf down, but perhaps this might help. He turns off his Sharingan, and sits up more fully, ignoring the sharp pangs of pain. Whatever brought the Dwarf here, it’s not going to be a simple thing. His writing equipment is close, thank fuck, a clever little folding tray connected to his bed that Thorin constructed two days ago. He brings up the tray, grabs his brush, and waits.

 

“My - my lord.” Whispers the Dwarf. “I beg your pardon - I didn’t mean to - to - alarm you in any way. I -” his shaking voice stutters to a stop and he inhales deeply. “Please don’t kill me. Or don’t kill me yet, not until I’ve had my say.”

 

Do the what to whom? A tendril of dread wraps around Itachi’s heart, almost like a herald of things to come. He was right, this is not going to be simple if that is the Dwarf’s opening salvo. He studies the Dwarf more closely, looking for something that would shed some light on this inexplicable situation. A warrior, likely, wounded, but nothing life-threatening. His Chakra is decent-sized, and it’s crushing, animal fear is sort of leashed together by desperate determination. For whatever reason, this Dwarf fears Itachi more than death itself, and yet he needs something from him more. Huh.

 

“My name is Lari, my Lord, Lari, son of Parin, and I’ve come to beg for your help.”

 

Okay, well, this tells him exactly nothing. He raises an arm holding a brush to his throat and shakes his head, hoping the Dwarf won’t think he’s threatening to choke or behead him or something like that.

 

‘Well-met, Lari, son of Parin. My name is Itachi. I am at your service. How might I help?’ There, hopefully the mildness of the message will convince the Dwarf Itachi will resist jumping up and eating him on the spot.

 

The Dwarf reads his note silently - which is almost weird, after all the weeks where everyone has been reading them out loud. Some of the shaking indeed stops, but it’s a trivial amount considering the amount of terror souring the air.

 

“Thank you, my Lord. Please believe me I wouldn’t bother you if I had anyone to turn to.”

 

‘Oh, I believe you. I can sense your fear. May I ask - have I hurt you in some way? Offended you? If so, I apologize.’

 

Lari, son of Parin, cringes as he reads the note. “No, my Lord, you saved my life, in fact. The man you fought a few days ago - the enemy Captain. He’d have stabbed me if you didn’t stop him. So - so - so - thank you, Lord Itachi.”

 

Ah, now he remembers. Strange, he thought the Dwarf to be much younger, a youth, in fact.

 

‘I’m glad you’re unharmed, and please - I’m no Lord. I doubt there is a drop of noble blood in these veins. But, please, I assure you I don’t mean you any harm. Do sit down, compose yourself. There should be some food here. The healers keep leaving me dishes since I wake at all hours. Please, help yourself.’

 

“Thank you, my Lord,” says Lari, sitting down into a chair stiffly, wholly on automatic - a Dwarf condemned. “I mean Itachi.” He cringes, uncomfortable with the familiarity. “I don’t have much time, I’m afraid. I'm here on behalf of a friend, you see, and he’s - not in a good way. He needs rest and healing, and I know of no place where I could take him to get it. Nobody would help him, or me, and I - I thought to ask if perhaps - ”

 

Itachi’s heart lightens, admiration for this Lari, son of Parin, soaring. At the same time, the very concept - the notion that somebody - anybody - was prevented from saving their friend us a concerning one. That the Dwarf was driven to approach someone who they were mortally terrified by. The implications of that concept sobers Itachi even further. There is a life on the line here, and if Itachi is the only one who will help, by God he will help.

 

‘I will help as I am able, I promise. There is not much I can do yet, however. I am bed-ridden, and won’t be mobile for weeks. If your friend needs rescuing, I’m afraid I won’t be able to help.’

 

“No, no, my Lord,” stutters Lari, frightened again by Itachi’s change in demeanour. “I - we - he’s.”

 

A look of terrified determination settles on his face, and he straightens in his seat. “He’s one of the men, you see. From Harad. We fought, and - and I - I almost killed him, and -” He inhales sharply, and forges on. “I dragged him from battle - he’s - his name is Maat and he’s just a lad, a good, honest lad that didn’t need to die -”

 

Talking about his friends lends courage to the Dwarf, and his voice evens out, words becoming solid, steely things. “Maat is my friend. I know he’s supposed to be the enemy but he’s not. I almost killed him, for reasons entirely out of my control - or his. I won’t hurt him myself, and I won’t let anyone else do it either. Not just because he is who he is and I am who I am. I won’t.”

 

Having said his piece, he sits defiantly, waiting for the hand of God - or in this case Itachi - to fall on him, whatever the outcome may be.

 

Itachi’s heart is shredded by this - this wonderful, noble soul that risked everything, sacrificed everything for a fallen enemy. He’s read stories about heroes like Lari, son of Parin, but hadn’t dared to hope that he’d ever meet one. It takes some doing to settle his own shaking hands, but he shifts his mind into a more meditative state and writes.

 

‘Master Lari, you deserve every commendation I can give and more. So much more. It takes true strength to do what you did, knowing how it would be received. I am completely at your disposal. Just give the word, and I will help if I am physically able.’

 

“Oh thank fuck.” Groans the Dwarf after reading his note frantically. He melts back into his chair, boneless from relief. “If - I didn’t even dare hope. But I had to try.”

 

“I hid him - in the forest. I don’t have a family that would notice my being gone, but plenty of Dwarrrow could have saw me run with him. I likely not welcome back. Even if I am, I wouldn’t be able to bring Maat. They would - kill him, or throw him in chains, fuck knows what the gold-mad King will do, and I won’t have it. We’ll run first. We’ll die first.”

 

‘I gather your Maat is in a similar situation with his side?’ Writes Itachi, trying to keep his head. It’s - difficult that there is so little he can do for these two unlikely companions. These two who have just become his role-models for the rest of eternity.

 

“Oh, much worse.” Mutters Lari, throwing a trembling hand over his eyes. “You’ve seen what his Commander is like. Maat hasn’t been as forthcoming as I’d like, but what little he told me - death would be a welcome relief from what would happen if he returned now.”

 

Itachi grimaces. ‘Yes, I’ve seen what happens to soldiers that displease that particular maniac. Not that our own maniac would be much better, in your Maat’s case. You’re right, you need to run. Can he move?’

 

Lari laughs, low and bitter. “Where would we run to? No Dwarven settlement will have him, no Human settlement would have either one of us, and we can’t walk to Harad, even should he for some reason want to return.”

 

All true. All the men in the Mountain - from Harad, apparently - all have a distinctly darker skin-tone than the men in these parts. He won’t be easy to hide, this Maat.

 

‘For now, you should go to my home in the Mountain. I built a clearing, in what used to be the greenhouses of Khazad-dum. You’ll be safe there. There are Wards - magic, you might say - that keep Orcs out - all servants of the Enemy, actually. I am pretty certain they will let your Maat through, with my permission. If they don’t, the forest is still safe - the Orcs don’t roam the upper levels now that the men are there, and the men built their camp in the Mines. I will come as soon as I’m able, and do something to let your friend enter.’

 

“How would we enter the mountain, begging your pardon,” asks Lari, a ray of desperate hope shining through his voice. “The Main Gate is surely watched.”

 

‘There is another way, which remains entirely our own. I will draw you a map. Now, can your Maat move?’

 

A weight settles back on Lari’s shoulders, and his eyes grow haunted. “He can be carried a little. His wounds - I sewed them up as best I could but - neither one of us really expected him to live this long. When the fever didn’t take him, and no infection set in, we thought the worst was over. We hoped too soon, as it happens. When he got worse instead of better, I decided to go to you. He needs supplies, bandages, salves, something. ”

 

Well, shit. ‘I could perhaps write a letter to Lady Darla empowering you to act in my name, but I don’t know if she’ll believe you. She’s not the easiest Dwarf to fool.’

 

Lari hiccups a small laugh. “No, our Lady is a fierce one. She’ll see through me in a flash, and claim my head as her due without a blink.”

 

Huh, an Iron Hills Dwarf, then. The note of pride is unmistakable, even if he is running away from it all.

 

‘You should check this room, see if there are any emergency supplies stashed about. Steal whatever you can, and move to the mountain as fast as you can. The garden there will feed a hundred Dwarves without issue, and I left plenty of supplies there.’

 

“Thank you, my lord. Truly, you - Thank you. Maat deserves your mercy, I swear on my Maker’s name. He’s a good lad.”

 

Itachi couldn’t stop the beaming smile from his face even if he tried. ‘If he was the worst man on earth, I’d still help you, because you deserve it. A more noble Dwarf there never was, Lari son of Parin. I would be honoured beyond measure to call you friend.’

 

“Ah, now, let’s not get carried away. I’m a Dwarf of entirely no consequence. Lari the Miner, plain as shale.”

 

‘Not so. And I’m sure your Maat agrees with me. Now, quick, grab what you can, don’t remember to take the food. There should be a storage closet somewhere around here, where the healers keep the bandages, and spirits and such. Wrap it all up in a bed-sheet if you have to, but you should be gone before the sun is up.’

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The chances of falling back to sleep post-Lari are nil. He’s too - he doesn’t even know what. Crushed by emotion, generally. His relationship with peace has always been a turbulent one, but he’s grown cynical in his old age. No matter how much he told himself peace was his goal, he never truly thought to meet someone like Lari. Someone who instinctively did the right thing, and then stuck by his decision, come hell or high water.

 

He’s in two minds about Lari in general. On one hand, he wants to crow his story to the heavens, wants to write stories of his bravery and erect monuments in his honour. Wants to be the first acolyte of the church of Lari the Kind and spread the word of his benevolent leader. On the other hand, he knows an Uchiha obsession when he sees one, especially in himself. This feels distinctly like the Fūinjutsu Affair, and this time he really cannot afford to get sucked into a project and emerge a decade later. He has responsibilities, for one. Lari will likely not survive the weight of Itachi’s devotion, for another.

 

It seems that Itachi’s days as an acolyte of the faith are cut before they can begin. Lari is going to be safer in anonymity, as will his Maat. (Both of them will benefit from some time in safety where they can develop their teachings, agrees the fucked up part of his brain. It’s always disturbing when the fucked up part is supportive of the supposedly sane part.) There will be time later for monuments and churches. For now, Itachi has yet another reason to try and hurry up his recovery so he can be of some use to both Lari and Maat, and to his own Dwarves.

 

***

 

The healers, of course, notice the glaring lack of supplies but they don’t dare question him further once he states he hasn’t seen anyone. If he was anyone but who he was, and if the hype about Itachi wasn’t quite as fever-pitched as it was, he likely wouldn’t have gotten away with such a nonsensical lie, but as it is, they chalk it up to a mystery and move on.

 

It’s not like he could conceivably be the perpetrator what with the gaping wound on his chest that he can’t even see. It certainly feels serious. Since evaluation by sight is beyond him, he can only guess as to it’s size. The ache is too spread out to know precisely where it is, but he assumes it stretches from his collarbone to bellow his belly-button. While it used to be a thin, precise wound, after the cauterization and the subsequent removal of infected flesh, it’s now about a hand wide, and jagged. The scarring will be - complicated. From the top of his head, he knows over a hundred recipes for scar-reducing salves, as most shinobi do, but the ingredients here are limited. He will likely have to get creative.

 

There’s a restless sort of energy coursing through him that doesn’t let him rest. He is redirecting his impending obsession as best he can, but is then left with a wave of focus and energy that he needs to spend on something.

 

God, he wishes he had his loom there, and two functional arms with which to use it. As it is, there is only one thing he knows that will keep him occupied, and in bed. Carving.

 

***

 

Thorin, as usual, comes to visit him around midday and is greeted with the sight of a scribbling Uchiha, covered in ink-stains, growling at the paper in his hands. 

 

Itachi - irritated beyond belief with his uncooperative mind, hears the dwarf enter, but it takes a few moments for that thought to cycle through the maze in his mind and jerk him out of his focus. With a disdainful sniff, he tears the paper in half and leans back to sulk.

 

“Is this a bad time?” Asks Thorin gingerly.

 

Itachi shakes his head and tries halfheartedly to banish the pout from his face with mixed success. With a last glare at the not insignificant pile of scrunched up papers, he grabs the brush again and writes a note.

 

‘Not at all. This is, believe it or not, an integral step in the carving process. I’m trying to come up with a new rune, you see, and I’m not having much luck with it.” He also doesn’t have Mother or Father, which were his sounding boards, so there’s that.

 

“Ah, I understand your frustration well. It’s difficult when the drive to create doesn’t exactly match the inspiration. I usually benefit from a distraction, in such cases.”

 

‘God, please, yes. Truth be told, carving would not be my first choice. There is simply no time to finish anything I could start. Even only one runic stone would take about half a year to finish - if I’m lucky. But I cant weave, and I have to do something.’

 

A sympathetic smile plays around Prince Thorin’s lips, as the Dwarf leans back and thinks for a moment. “You don’t seem the type to sit idly, no. Well, the simplest solution would be reading. Perhaps some texts in Westron could be dug up for you. Alternatively, there’s Iglishmêk. While I will personally be regrettably busy, it would be laughably easy to secure you a number of temporary instructors.”

 

Itachi beams at him. ‘That would be a marvel. I will be released to Lady Darla’s tender mercies in two days. I don’t think the Lady will mind me learning, if only because she’s sick to death of my scribbling.’ He pauses for a moment. ‘Would that be in violation of our contract? The last thing I want to do is to bring any of the frankly hellish punishments upon my head.’

 

“Not at all.” Grins Thorin. “If we want to be utterly beyond reproach, me arranging the temporary instructors would keep everything appropriate. Not that anyone would care. Even the most rabid Nobles wouldn't dare whisper anything against you for fear of being staked as blasphemers.”

 

Itachi rolls his eyes. ‘Very funny, your highness.’ He writes, taking care to arch his eyebrows as far as they can go.

 

Thorin grins at him, wide and dazzling. “My pleasure, Jarteig’dríf.”

 

Itachi rolls his eyes again and throws a bunched up paper at the fool.

 

‘Enough of that. I find myself eager for news, so please, regale me of the life outside of this room.’

 

With a faint smile, Thorin leans back into his chair, settling into a comfortable position. “Frerin’s condition is still - complicated. The healers are stumped, really. The damage to his heart alone should’ve killed him, but he’s alive and growing stronger by the day.”

 

Oh-kay. That sounds terrible. ‘That’s good to hear, that he’s getting better. Did he wake up yet?’

 

“A bit here and there, not for longer than a couple of moments. But he’s obviously improved. They have him on strong painkillers, so it’s no wonder he’s asleep more than most.”

 

Blue eyes meet his, glinting with good humour. “In other news, there was some commotion among the goats, which threw us all in a bit of a tizzy. We caught them all in the end but it took some doing. They’re usually incredibly well-behaved, so nobody knows what spooked them, so the guard is increased in case its some peculiar sort of sabotage.”

 

Itachi hums in absent acknowledgement but inside his obsession crows. This has Lari’s name written all over it. Obviously, his ingenuity is matched only by his kindness.

 

“Other than that, there’s nothing much to report. The King has been - elusive - since the battle, so nobody knows what our immediate plans are. The Generals are meeting on the hour, in meetings that boil down to panicking about your condition. Our entire strategy for dealing with your Captain is you being there to distract him.”

 

Itachi huffs out a laugh. ‘My Captain?’

 

Thorin’s easy smile shadows somewhat, brows tilted into a displeased angle. “Well, some call him the Demon, but I thought you would be - rankled by it. Honestly, I am too. I don’t deny his fellow Captains are steeped in black magic, but the fact that he is not even when he could be, speaks well of his character.”

 

Itachi scowls. ‘You were right to think so. He’s an honourable opponent, in his own twisted way. He even cut down a man that attacked me from the back in our duel.’

 

“Well,” replies Thorin somewhat sceptically. “He did cut down Dwarves just to get your attention, let’s not forget.”

 

Okay, true.

 

‘I did say twisted.’ Writes Itachi. ‘He’s not someone to figure out easily. He just - when I first saw him, I thought he didn’t care about anything. Seriously, it’s in my report. He had access to drink, drugs, slaves, fancy food, anything he would desire. He never took any of it, instead spending his days existing, reading when he was left alone, not bothering anyone.’

 

“He certainly cared about fighting you.” Says Thorin. “Both of you were deep in battle-rage, as deep as far as I’ve seen anyone fall. It was - obscenely frightening, to see such blood-lust from someone with your power.”

 

Ah, yes. The KI. He didn’t realize at the time, but he was channelling quite a lot of it in his fight, which most of the Dwarves attributed to the Nihilist. If they only knew.

 

Which brings to mind wonderful Lari, and his crippling fear of Itachi, and the endless survivor’s guilt.

 

‘How are you feeling? Really? You killed people - men, not mindless beasts. Are you coping?’

 

Thorin cycles through a number of emotions - shock, fear, rage, offence - before deflating, shoulders slumped and head bent. “Mahal wept, I don’t know. I am - functional during the day when I can rationalize everything sufficiently. But at night - I see their faces, I hear their huffs and grunts and cries of pain and - it’s not as simple as I hoped it would be.”

 

Yeah. This is - really to be expected. Even in Konoha, the entire purpose of the Academy pretty much boiled down to acclimatizing children to murder from a very young age. People - functional, thinking adults - they don’t have the ability to kill, without severe repercussions. Orcs were one thing, but other humans, other people - it’s hard. Even in Shinobi, where the indoctrination happened as young as five, and younger with Noble Clans, some just couldn't kill on command, without crippling emotional damage. Dwarves had no such training, no vast psychological knowledge about coping strategies, no Yamanaka to tie your mind into a pretzel until you are a functional being.

 

‘For fear of sounding preachy, and hypocritical and a slew of other much less complimentary things, I’d say you should be glad, to feel like this. Your mind is warning you, and you should take note. It’s good you’re struggling with killing - otherwise what would make us better than the orcs.’

 

A weak huff escapes the slumped Dwarf. “Yes, well, I’m glad you approve of my moral character. It’s - terrible. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I have to police my mind constantly because if I let my thoughts go where they would they immediately bombard me with the screams of the dying. And the worst part is, there is nothing I can do to stop it. I can’t not kill the men when they attack, because they would kill me and my men and the ‘Dams and the pebbles.”

 

A lance of sympathy goes through Itachi. This is damn familiar territory. ‘For now, there's nothing else we can do. But as soon as we’re better, we can train, and we can all become good enough that we don't have to kill them. We’re not strong enough for it yet, but we will be. And it will be worth it. You haven’t seen these men, Thorin but I have. I spied on them for weeks and I tell you - the evil ones are few, and those are beyond redemption. The rest are following their Commanders commands.’

 

Shrewd blue eyes flash with something akin to annoyance. ‘I’m not that stupid, you know. I know you’ve been priming all of us to kill as few of them as possible and let them retreat when they want to. I even agree with you. You don’t need to try so hard to convince me. It's not like I particularly want to kill a thousand men.”

 

‘Excellent’, he writes. ‘Then you and me, my friend, have some planning to do. Because I decided during the night that I will not allow this war to cripple us pointlessly. The name of the game is: sedition. The Orcs have to go, you will have no argument from me there, but if we play our cards right, we might just have an easier time with it.’

 

“Mahal’s mercy, it’s always sedition with you.” Groans Thorin theatrically, a note of humour trickling in. “No wonder Balin likes you as much as he does.”

 

A sparkly ball of smugness makes its home in Itachi’s belly. Honestly, he does plan to depose the rulers on both sides of the War he’s not even technically a part of, it’s pretty accurate to claim that sedition has become something of a way of life.

 

***

 

The days until he’s out of the healing house go by in a haze of pleasant calm. Thorin makes sure to visit him daily but doesn’t have the time for more than a brief exchange of pleasantries before his duties claim him once more.

 

Which all told doesn’t much matter because Itachi sleeps through most of it. With all his most pressing worries somewhat settled, his body takes no more shit and decides to take it’s wellbeing seriously. He’s awake to slurp down the mushy foods they allow him to eat and sleeps for the rest of it.

 

(The healers expect whinging about food, and their Chaka sings in surprised pleasure when Itachi eats it without complaint. Why they would expect whinging is anyone’s guess. Mush or not, A. It’s free food and B. It’s delicious. His absolute favourite is a stew of some sort, subtly flavoured, but warm and filling and a side of potatoes prepared in an ingenious way, mashed with some sort of dairy product - goat’s milk, he’d assume. It’s everything care-food should be, and Itachi happily accepts it with relish)

 

The transport, as it happens, was not only a bed with wheels. Oh no.

 

It’s a bed-train.

 

***

 

The Bed-Train Affair starts off with a bang. He wakes up pretty late, sleeping in with the delightful awareness that he’s exactly where he should be, doing exactly what she should be. Breakfast is there to greet him, not only mashed potatoes covered in melted goat’s cheese, but also a rice-dish straight out of the Elemental Nations. Long-grain rice cooked to hell and back in milk until it’s little more than pudding, sweetened with honey and flavoured with cinnamon. It’s - heaven. Usually, the Dwarves serve him large portions - they know by now how much an injured Shinobi can eat - but this is excessive even for him.

 

He eats every last grain, licks the spoon, licks the bowl, and then falls into a food-coma. Sunlight comes through the window of his room, warming his face, the heat under the furs is approximately that of an average volcano, and he’s just full enough to not be nauseous. Pain is a distant thing when he’s so damn comfortable. He dozes.

 

***

 

Around noon, he’s awakened by Thorin and Balin, who march inside with accomplished looks on their faces.

 

“Your transport is done.” Exclaims Thorin, voice vibrating with excitement. Behind him is a metal bed-frame, fully equipped with furs, pillows, sheets and the rest. It stands on four oddly-shaped wheels, gleaming and sparkling new.

 

He nods, not awake enough to write, so he compensates by making sure his smile is extra thankful. As expected the shy Dwarf blushes violently. Thorin’s innate shyness plays well with Itachi’s claim of likely courtship in the future, so he settles on rolling his eyes in friendly exasperation.

 

He catches Balin's eyes and then looks pointedly between himself and the bed with raised eyebrows.

 

“The healers will be here momentarily to make sure we don’t damage you in the transfer.” Answers Balin, an amused smile making him look, for once, his own age. “I wanted to ask if you are comfortable with being physically moved. It would be no issue if you are, we’d just slide a stretcher under you and move you that way.”

 

Entirely charmed by the gesture, he smiles and shakes his head. He’s well on his way of ridding himself of the irrational phobia of touch, and there’s little sense in minding the healers touching him. Someone bathed him, while he was unconscious. There’s no going back from that.

 

“Good,” he says and claps his hands. “Just a few moments and we can give this monstrosity of Thorin’s a whirl.”

 

Thorin’s? He catches the Dwarf’s eyes and tries to convey his question. “Ah, yes. Well. I’m a Master Smith. This is my design, even though our time-frame demanded some extra hands with the building and assembly.”

 

If he was touched before, he’s floored now. ‘Thank-you’ he mouthes, and beams at the Dwarf, who blushes again and averts his gaze immediately.

 

What a good day.

 

The two healers come in, not long after that, while Balin amusing Itachi with stories about their childhood. One is a tall, sturdy Dwarf, thick-armed and ginger-haired. The other is a Dwarf he knows and doesn’t like - the same healer he met years ago when the Dwarves first attacked the Mountain. The pale-haired healer that follows the Kings every word, that Itachi terrified to make a point. He’s seen him around, of course he had, but he avoided him as studiously as he could.

 

“Master Oin, Mistress Darfi.” Greets Thorin politely, and the two healers bow low, murmuring the procedural greetings. Balin, keen-eyed Dwarf that he is, noticed the look of dislike on Itachi’s face, mirrored by that of Oin.

 

“Have you met Master Itachi?” He inquires, mild as you please.

 

“Briefly.” Says Oin, voice even and posture stiff. “But we haven’t been properly introduced if that’s your question.”

 

Thorin’s genial expression shifts into wariness. He looks at Oin who is stiff and blank, and Itachi who has leaned back into his pillows, and watches the healer with half-lidded eyes full of idle disinterest.

 

“Master Itachi,” says Thorin cautiously. “May I introduce Healer Oin, son Groin, and Healer Darfi, daughter of Rinli. Master Oin, Mistress Darfi, may I introduce Master Itachi, Ozkif’uzghu as he is more widely known.”

 

“Pleasure,” says Oin crisply, not able - or willing - to keep the ice from his eyes. Lady Darfi echoes his greeting, with a wispy, gentle tone he hadn’t heard before in Dwarven-kind. Itachi nods at him languidly and looks away dismissively. He nods deeper to the lady-healer, who is interesting at least.

 

“Well,” says Balin, tone a great deal stiffer. “Shall we?”

 

Oin stays where he is, which is a wise decision on his part. Itachi doesn’t mind healers, in general, touching him, but he’s prevented this particular healer from touching him once, and it’s a trend he plans to continue. Mistress Darfi approaches him instead, smiling a professional, impersonal smile. “With your permission,” she says and, showing a fountain of good sense, waits for his permission. He nods, and the healer picks him up as if he weighs approximately as much as an apple. It’s a wonderfully comfortable hold, actually. His left side is supported by her body, her arm supports his head and back, and other arm steadies the rest of him.

 

He doesn’t even notice the steps in between, he’s too busy marvelling about being carried almost exactly like an infant. It’s fucking heartwarming is what it is, and not a little ridiculous in the best way. All too soon he’s arranged into the bed and he blinks, vaguely missing the rather parental contact.

 

“Thank you for your assistance,” Says Thorin formally, eyes darting between Oin and Itachi still, trying to discern the unexpected dislike.

 

“It is our privilege to serve the House of Durin.” Says Oin, with a pointed look towards Itachi. “My Prince, my Lord, Master Itachi,” he bows politely and leaves. His companion follows him, after similar polite farewells.

 

“Well, that was interesting.” Says Balin, with a curious expression. “I would be glad to hear what that was about, but we have things to do. Onwards!”

 

Thorin pushes the massive metal bed that runs smoothly as possible under the circumstances. Which, considering how badly his body reacts to unexpected movement, means some not so pleasant things in the near future. He’s emphatically not complaining. He’s got his own portable bed, full and covered with a mountain of furs to keep him warm. Quite aside from the personal element, and how touched he is that Thorin built a bed for him, the set-up is a fucking delight. The cobblestones and the vibrations produced by them will be less than ideal but are entirely trivial overall. He’s a Shinobi. He can damn well grit his teeth and paste a smile on his face until they reach the main road.

 

He’s wheeled out of the hospital with little drama, and with the focused attention of precisely every single Dwarf present in the building. The medics and apprentices, civilians and soldiers, everyone peeks at the spectacle of a tall, wheeled bed pushed out of the hospital by the Crown Prince. He closes his eyes and ignores it all.

 

***

 

Closing his eyes is, as it happens, a mistake, because instead of the jarring transition between the flat ground of the hospital and the cobblestone path, something - clicks, and the ride smoothens further

 

What?

 

He opens his eyes and stares dumbly at the - tracks.

 

Beyond flabbergasted, he looks at Thorin immediately. Did he make - metal tracks for the fucking bed?

 

What -

 

Well - evidence is there. There are, in fact, tracks, laid into the stone road, and the odd construction of the wheels on the bed make a whole lot more sense.

 

His incredulous look catches Thorin’s attention because he rubs a hand down his neck bashfully. “We may have repurposed some mine-cart parts for your bed. It works well, no?”

 

Too baffled to speak, he nods dumbly at the Prince.

 

These Dwarves will be the death of him.

 

***

 

The journey out of the hospital - the military hospital, to be precise - to the Lady’s residence in the Civilian district is an experience. The tracks run up to the large, stone road where some unholy magic smoothly disengages the wheels from the tracks and the ride continues.

 

The amount of attention hasn’t lessened, except that instead of healers and assorted staff, now they’re watched by soldiers. And boy, is he unprepared for the amount of awe and wonder in their faces and their Chakra. They mutter greetings under their breath, bowing almost without exception, and the only reason Itachi keeps a shred of his composure is Balin. Wonderful Balin cottons on to Itachi’s mounting discomfort, and smoothly continues his childhood tales. Truly, Itachi hears very little, but it gives him something to focus on other than the stifling regard.

 

It’s much, much worse when they reach the civilian settlement. The gossip vine brought news of the spectacle that is Thorin pushing Itachi’s bed, and the civilians all pour out of their homes to watch. The greetings are much louder, here, and much, much more outlandish. Well-wishes and profuse thanks are first spoken, then shouted his way. Some thank him for his magic that saved the Prince, some for keeping demons away - it’s legitimately difficult to understand.

 

Little Dwarflings run up to the bed, with trinkets and polished rocks on strings, too adorable for words. The adults he could nod to politely, but he’s helpless against the Dwarflings.

 

He nods and smiles at each one, and makes sure to take each offering handed to him by Balin or Thorin seriously, making sure to pair the gift with the face. When the crowd doesn’t look to be easing up, Prince Thorin has to step in.

 

“I thank you for your well-wishes, good-dwarves. Unfortunately, Master Itachi has just now been released from healers’ care. He needs rest and quiet. There will be time for thanks and gifts. For now, the cold is not a friend to our friend.”

 

Itachi, entirely numb by now, takes care to stretch his lips in the widest, kindest smile he has, and can’t resist the urge to flash his Sharingan. The sheer volume of uncomplicated goodwill aimed towards him - it’s something he wants to take with him to his grave. The red irises, instead of grasps of fear and alarm, cause a cheer to break out in the crowd.

 

Slowly, the gathered Dwarves part and they’re on their way again. Balin doesn’t bother with trying to distract him anymore, since he’s more or less entirely shut down, but he does pat his shoulder slightly.

 

These Dwarves will definitely be the death of him.

 

***

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

He sees very little of Thorin in the following weeks. Little of Lady Darla, for that matter. For all that he’s living in her house and that the Lady has few official duties, her days are dizzyingly full. She entertains for hours, managing the spread of information in all her spidery glory. The civilian side is hers to manage, and she is obviously spinning Itachi’s newfound goodwill with great effect.

 

He hasn’t received any gifts, but she’s informed him in the moments she has free, that Lord Fundin has more than a few polite inquiries into what exactly his role is regarding Itachi’s love-life. His public admiration of the Crown Prince stopped any direct courtship offers, thank the Sage, but it wasn’t enough to stop casual questions. Mother’s mercy.

 

Thorin, of course, is busy fighting the Orcs.

 

***

 

Because nothing is ever easy - doubly so in a war - the Orcs start attacking while Itachi is still bed-ridden. The first time he hears the familiar sounds of pitched battle through the window, he almost throws himself out of bed, damn the wounds. Thankfully, his Khuzdul instructor for the day is Balin, who capably bullies him into remaining where he is with little difficulty.

 

Following that first battle, the Orcs attack more or less daily. Balin, and to a lesser extent Dwalin and Dain, provide reports as reliably as possible, and their news isn’t encouraging. The men have managed to organize the Orcs into something slightly more efficient than a mindless, slavering horde. Not by much, of course, there is not much anyone could do to bring about any real intelligence in the creatures, but some. Enough to follow orders, at least. Indeed, several men lead the Orcs without fail, barking orders and doing their best to keep them in line.

 

Azog has so far not b