Thorin sends them away a fortnight before the rest are to gather, and tells them to make a journey of it. It will be good practice for them. If they are truly going to be allowed to go on the Quest for Erebor, to face and fight a dragon, they will need to know their strengths and weaknesses. Kili knows that Thorin thinks they are not prepared to travel together. His uncle is usually right - but this time, Kili thinks he is mistaken.

They go to their mother together, to say their farewells in person. He hopes she will not change her mind now and try to keep him home. She worries after him as much now as ever she did when he was young. It matters not at all to her that he is the best shot within a hundred leagues, or that he has satisfied Dwalin in all of his training. He can fight and protect himself now, just as any other Dwarf might.

"Excited?" Kili asks, grinning down at Fili - DOWN, by Mahal's beard! He has grown even taller than his brother, who used to seem able to reach the stars themselves if he had only stretched far enough. Fili snorts.

"Don't you remember what Balin has told us a hundred times, little brother? There is no place for games on such a quest. We do not go for sport or pleasure. It is a serious matter."

Kili laughs at that, throwing his head back. The sky is a brilliant, cloudless blue, and the sun shines warm upon their heads, and he and his brother are headed out on an adventure together. This time, they will share the sights and sounds in person, from beginning to glorious end. This time, they will not have to be torn apart. "Serious, indeed - but Fili, just you wait! Adventure, life on the road, a sword in your hand for a purpose - you're going to love it!" He grabs his brother's arm and squeezes it tight. Once, he would not have had to move a hand to convey the same sentiment - love and shared enthusiasm, with perhaps a hint of nerves. He could just have felt it, and opened the link wide, and let his brother share his soul.

It hurts, still, when he thinks about it, and his amusement dies away as his hand drops from Fili's arm. They would have been so much more use to Thorin on this quest if they were still linked. Then again, if the link still worked, he would likely have been left behind to do the job that had driven Fili to such heights of jealousy and resentment that he had broken that precious link they shared. They are less effective now. Communication is hard when everything has to be shaped into words and gestures, only shared in person or through tedious, slow writing. Sometimes, he looks at his brother, and he has no idea what Fili is thinking or feeling - and that is still a blow, even after all the long and silent years.

Their mother embraces them tight - too tight, until he thinks his ribs will snap - and presses a stone into his hand, bidding him to return to her. He tucks it away carefully. She thinks he is reckless now, ever since he returned from his journey with Thorin, and he does not dare tell her, nor anyone else, that he takes the wild risks and does mad things because he fears the emptiness from the broken link will drive him mad if he does not keep his mind whirling and spinning. He feels like half a Dwarf, sometimes.

Fili never seems to feel the loss - but Fili is changed, now. Kili hardly remembers his wild, golden brother. He came home to a careful, responsible young leader, and it chafes at him sometimes that it was Fili who broke their link, and only Kili left to suffer with it.

Dis bids them turn and kneel before they leave, and braids their hair carefully, in formal styles that Fili could probably define and give complete histories of. All Kili knows is that they pull at his scalp and make him itchy. He will take them out as soon as he can, and leave his hair to fall free, as he prefers it. Leave the dignified bearing to Fili, he figures - after all, he's the one who will need it.

They head off together, shouldering packs that are the same size now, and the first few hours of their journey are little more than a pleasant stroll. It is not until they reach an ancient stone bridge over the little river their mother had forbidden them from playing in as children that they stop - and it is Fili who brings them to a halt. They sit in the grass, in the sun, and enjoy the sound of the water as it rolls along beside them.

"You know," Fili says after a while. His voice is casual, but Kili has learned in the past twenty years to read many of his tones. He has had to. "I've never been further from home than this."

He hasn't, it is true - but Kili had forgotten that. He says nothing, and lets his arm bump against his brother's. It's not the link, to be sure, but it is one tiny point of shared connection between them. When Fili falls silent and says no more, Kili begins to hum deep in his throat - a song he had thought forgotten long ago.

"Don't you ever worry at all?" Fili bursts out after a while. Kili just looks at him, and tries not to laugh. "I mean it, brother! We are setting off on a dangerous quest! We have no idea what lies before us, except for the certainty of deadly peril! We may never pass this way again. Why does it not bother you?"

Kili stands up and wanders down to the edge of the water, filling his canteen at leisure. "Because there's nothing to fear," he says. "The worst has already happened."

He starts over the bridge, then, and doesn't stop to let Fili catch up. His brother's legs are long enough that he will make good time when he so chooses. Fili splutters behind him, sounding ready to launch into one of Balin's speeches about responsibility, and Kili just closes his eyes and walks on, feeling the road beneath his feet and the sun on his face. Fili will not understand, and Kili knows that he cannot explain. Let Fili and the rest think him reckless and irresponsible if they like. There is no fear left in the journey for Kili.

For the first week, they wander rather aimlessly in the direction of the Shire, practicing their skills along the way. Kili learns to look for small, portable game rather than the large kills that were preferred for feeding the settlement, and Fili discovers a thousand places in his clothing to hide knives, until he bristles like a porcupine. That is all very well, until the morning when he manages to stab himself in the thigh - not a deep cut, but certainly painful - and they are both crouched over in pain. Kili hisses as it begins to recede, and throws a handful of leaves at his brother, only half in jest.

"Grow up!" Fili snaps, already working to bandage the cut. "Stone and bone, Kili, aren't you ever going to start taking things seriously?"

Kili tries to stifle the upsurge of annoyance he feels at the question, but it bubbles up through him, and he turns away to scowl at an inoffensive rock. "You're not always so proper yourself, brother," he snaps. "Don't pretend you don't like a joke as much as the next Dwarf."

"That may be, but I'm not the one who causes chaos on purpose, am I?" Fili seethes as he pulls the binding tight on the wound, and Kili feels the pain at the same moment. Frustration and pain suddenly turning into anger, he spins on Fili, and cannot hold his tongue any longer.

"Why could you not have severed the link all the way?" Fili looks up at that, more than a little shocked, and it only seems to fuel Kili's rage. "If you were so eager to be rid of me from your life, why did you not do the thing properly? Why must we carry one another's pain, when there is no more link between us than that?"

"I didn't do it on purpose!" Fili looks taken aback by his own shout, and then looks up at Kili, face shifting slowly from anger to shame. "No, that's not true. I did, because you forced my hand. But I did not know what I was doing. I would not have pushed you away had I known that we would never get the link back."

"You left me alone," Kili says quietly, gesturing toward the wide world around them. "I thought you were dead, Fili." He advances on his brother, needed him to understand at least this part of it, this part of him. "Don't you see, that's why I fear nothing on this quest! The worst thing of all has already happened! Our link is gone, and I know what it is to lose you - and yet I got you back. There is nothing short of that which will ever frighten me again."

Fili looks as if he has taken a hard blow about the head in training, and it eases Kili's heart to see it. The rage bleeds away, and he is left with the jagged remnants of the link that ought to still bind them together. Instead, he sighs, and offers Fili a hand to haul him upright from the stump he has perched on to tend his wound. "Come on," he says quietly. "We've got a long road ahead of us."

They make it to the borders of the Shire in less time than Kili had expected. Fili has a natural skill with maps and path-finding, and for all that they aren't talking much, they work so well together that Kili secretly thinks they could fool most Dwarves into believing they are still linked. It is likely a result of the long decades they did share a link, and the way their lives have been entwined ever since. Fili tells him that the town of Bree will be the best place to wait for a few days while they finish outfitting themselves and replacing worn gear with newer, sturdier make.

But Bree is no Dwarven settlement, nor even a town of peaceful Hobbits, for all it's proximity to their lands. It bristles with angry Men who watch their borders with suspicion, and see no potential good that may come of Dwarves in their lands. They are watched at all times, and it sets Kili's teeth on edge. He behaves with nothing but the propriety and good manners that his elders have sought to drum into his head since he was no higher than Dwalin's knee, and yet he still hears the whispers and sees the glares behind their backs. They are not wanted there.

It is the morning they set out for one Mr. Burglar Boggins' home that it all comes to a head. Fili is checking his gear one last time, and checking to see that his twin swords, the prides of his personal armoury, are still just a sharp as they were the day before, when the Men come up from behind them both at once. It is clearly a coordinated attack. Kili is not certain until much later whether the sharp pain he feels across the back of his head was his own or his brother's, but he does not hesitate to find out. He ducks under the arms that try to entangle him, and lets a quick, sharp bark of laughter escape him. He and Fili know how to fight Men - but these particular Men clearly do not know how to fight Dwarves.

Kili thinks, looking back on their tactics, that even Dwalin would have been pleased. They fight as a single unit, with no words exchanged. He sweeps the legs out from under a heavy-set Man who is about to club Fili in the skull, and Fili slams the hilt of his sword into the Man's face without a second thought, leaving him groaning as the two Dwarves spin away to take on the next opponent. Kili knows exactly what his brother will do, where he will be, what tactics he will choose - and he can see that Fili predicts him just as well. The fight is over in fewer than five minutes, and they are not even breathing heavily as they look over the eight groaning bodies sprawled in the dust at their feet.

"Bit of a poor showing, really," Fili says with a smirk, dusting off his sleeves. "I'm not sure their hearts were in it."

Kili wrinkles his nose as he looks down at them, schooling his expression carefully. He will not display open amusement at their fate, because he has learned the folly of antagonising even an apparently-defeated foe too many times at Dwalin's capable hands. "You Men are fortunate you ran into us, and not our mother," he says, using the deepest, most serious tones he can muster. Fili is snickering at him behind his back, he knows. He doesn't even mind. "She would have taught you a thing or two about meddling with Dwarves. She once took out most of a pack of raiders single-handedly. You would have been no more than a nuisance to her. " They hoist their packs in unison, walking away from the site of the fight without a backward glance.

After a few minutes, Fili moves close enough to bump arms with Kili. "How's the head, little brother?"

"Standing higher than yours!" Kili shoots back, then stops to consider. "Glancing blow. I wasn't even certain it was my injury."

"I was," Fili mutters. "Yours always hurt more than my own."

For some reason, that makes Kili's throat go tight all of a sudden, and he stares forward at the gently rolling hills of this peaceful land. It is only a moment before Fili stops them both, grabbing his arm with a quick hand, and swings Kili around to face him.

"You must know," he says urgently. There is no laughter in him now. "I was wrong to break the link. It was my own fault, and no failing of yours, that lay behind the separation. I would give anything to have it back, my brother."

Kili feels something in his chest loosen that has been tight and hard for twenty years now - the certainty that he had done something unforgivable and pushed away his brother, the soul closest to his own. He grips Fili's arm in return, and tries his best to push everything he is feeling forward - not through a now-useless link, but through his own smile and gaze.

"I would as well," he says honestly. "But Fili, don't you see? We don't need it any longer. We fight together as well as any linked Dwarves I have ever seen."

"Because of the partial link?"

Kili shakes his head slowly. "No. When we were children, we were close because we were connected, mind and soul. Now, it is a closeness of our own choosing." He feels a smile bubbling up, and makes no effort to keep it down. "We are as linked as ever we were, brother."

Fili nods slowly, and releases his hold on Kili's arm to clap him on the back. They move on again in tandem - as brothers, bound together by something that has proven more durable than any link - and Kili hums an old song low in his throat as they march. They are strangers in strange lands, now, but his heart is light. His brother is at his side. They will not be parted.

So herein you see a project that was meant to take ten days, and wound up taking the better part of a year. I don't really quite know why it became so difficult to finish, but I am determined not to leave such things undone. I reread the story both in chronological order and in this mixed-up fashion once I had finished, and I actually like it both ways! The scrambled-time version is just a little more interesting, I think.

If you manage to make it all the way to the end, my sincere and unstinting thanks. This was a fun project despite the delay, and I'm pleased to have gotten to share it with you! I love you all.