Kíli had grown up on tales of Erebor. Vast chambers of green marble, mountains of gold, tapestries in royal colors… all this had been part of his imagination as a child, and it had stayed with him, only growing even grander and more glorious in his mind as time went on. But even though he had had decades to imagine what he would see when he finally arrived, nothing could prepare him for the splendor of the Lonely Mountain.
It was truly a magnificent sight. Even shattered and worn by time and rancid with the stench of dragon, Erebor exceeded anything Kíli could have dreamed. It had not been long since the battle, but Kíli had already done quite a bit of exploring in his spare time; however, it seemed that Fíli was determined to catch up, and at the moment, the elder brother had much more time to spare. In fact, Kíli's current mission was to find where his brother had gone, a task appointed to him by his uncle.
Kíli rounded a corner into yet another corridor, looking behind himself nervously; he thought he remembered how many turns he had made, but Erebor was vast and somewhat complicated to navigate. For Fíli's sake, he hoped he would be able to remember how to get back to Thorin's chambers in as little time as possible.
"Fíli?" he called, marveling at the way his voice echoed through the halls, even though it was still quiet and raspy. Of course, there was no answer. Kíli sighed. He had thought he heard telltale signs of his brother down this way… Suddenly, as he rounded another corner, he came upon a wide, open balcony, overlooking a wrecked hall that shone dimly with golden light. It never ceased to amaze Kíli how Erebor seemed to glow from within, though many places had not been greeted with the light of a torch for over a hundred years. Silhouetted against that golden light was a stocky frame with hair that seemed to fit into the general display, carefully combed and braided. Kíli smiled, relieved that his search was over, and joined his brother leaning against the railing.
"You're not supposed to be moving around so much, you know," he said, pushing his voice to be cheerful. "You're going to exhaust yourself."
Fíli did not respond; in fact, he did not seem to register that Kíli had joined him at all, continuing to stare out at the glowing scene before him. Kíli's smile faded.
"Fíli," he said, raising his voice; he winced at the burn in his throat and quietly hemmed. His brother blinked rapidly, as if he were coming out of a dream, and turned his head, meeting Kíli's gaze briefly. He offered a small smile and turned his attention back to the room, his eyes regaining their previous distracted look. Kíli sighed.
"Uncle wants you up in his chambers," Kíli said. "Both of us. He has tasks to assign."
Still no answer from Fíli. He merely turned his head slightly and nodded, and the wriggling beast of irritation that had settled itself into Kíli's gut began to move. Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, "Please, Fíli, talk to me."
Fíli's eyes widened and his brow pulled apart in distress, and immediately Kíli cursed himself for his impulsive nature. Haven't you learned by now? he scolded himself. You're only making him feel worse about it.
"Sorry," he mumbled, casting his gaze downward.
Fíli let out a soft sigh and rested his chin on his arms, lost in the view before him. Kíli waited, impatience burning inside him; he drummed his fingers against the railing, pursing his lips. Finally, after a long minute, Fíli pushed on the railing, leaning heavily on his left leg as he reached for his crutches. Kíli scrambled to assist him, placing one in each of his brother's hands, and Fíli flashed him a grateful smile. Kíli bit his lip and nodded in return as the beast in his gut roared. You don't know what happened, he reminded himself. He will tell you when he can.
But what if he never does? his mind shot back. Kíli shook the thought out of his head, glancing at his brother hobbling along beside him. It had been little more than a week since the battle; they were all still healing. Some of them had suffered more than others. Kíli had gotten off lightly, though that was miracle. If Tauriel had not gotten there in time, he would be dead… but it was not time to think of her now. Kíli pushed her image out of his mind, though he had a flickering thought that she still had his runestone. He glanced at Fíli again; his brother was quiet, focused, but Kíli could see discomfort in his expression. His eyes drifted down to the lump of a plaster cast under Fíli's right trouser leg, and he winced, remembering the mangled look it had when Kíli had found him—but worse than that had been the expression on his brother's face. Kíli blinked rapidly and swallowed. He needed to think of anything else.
"At least the stench of dragon is lessening," he said lightly.
Fíli did not reply; he was focused on staying balanced.
"Although," Kíli continued, "the stench of a bunch of old Dwarves ripe from the Iron Hills isn't helping much. They smell like goat." He paused, but Fíli did not react. "Or maybe that's the way they smell naturally."
A huff sounded from Fíli then, and Kíli grinned. At least he could still make his brother laugh.
"Dáin isn't so bad, though, once you get used to him," he said. "Well, as long as he's not cross. Which is, admittedly, most of the time." He thought for a moment. "I take it back. He's worse than Uncle and Mister Dwalin combined. Dáin doesn't just smell like a goat. He is a goat."
Fíli began to laugh silently, his chest bouncing; encouraged by Fíli's reaction, Kíli carried on, "No, not a goat… a boar. Just like the one he rode in on. Did you see that thing? Maybe they're related."
Fíli stopped suddenly and leaned heavily on his crutches, shaking with silent laughter.
"A boar…" Kíli continued thoughtfully. "Boar-headed, maybe, but certainly not boring. At least he's got that going for him. Uncle's speeches go on for ages. At least Dáin knows how to keep it short."
Fíli was shaking so hard with laughter by this point that he began to lose balance, and Kíli reached out quickly to steady him. He began to laugh as well, though his voice crackled; he stopped quickly to clear his throat. Fíli looked up at him, alarmed, but Kíli waved him off.
"I'm fine," he said, holding a hand over his throat to hide the bruising. "It's just sore."
Fíli's grin had already faded. His eyes drifted from Kíli's throat to the side of his face, and Kíli moved his hand to gingerly touch the gash that ran from his temple to his jaw. He forced a cheeky smile.
"It's going to scar, of course," he said, "but I think Thorin's will be better. Down the side of the face looks tough and all, but Thorin and Mister Dwalin will have matching scars, now. Right across his face…" He put on a pout. "I'll only look tough if you see me from the left side."
Fíli huffed again and looked down, shaking his head. Kíli could almost hear him: You're an idiot. But Fíli did not speak. Instead, he started off again towards Thorin's chambers, the only sound he made the clack of his crutches hitting the marble floor. After a few moments of watching Fíli's back, Kíli moved to catch up. He prattled on for a little longer, saying nothing of consequence, but hoping that something—anything—would prompt Fíli to reply, but the only voice that echoed through the halls was Kíli's. After several minutes, Kíli fell silent, discouraged; Fíli glanced at him, but still he said nothing.
They reached Thorin's chambers, and Kíli knocked lightly on the door.
"It's us, Uncle," he called.
"Come in," came Thorin's voice from the other side.
Kíli opened the door, holding it open so his brother could hobble his way inside; once Fíli was through, Kíli followed, closing the door behind him. Thorin sat in a chair by the fire, one hand resting on his ribs; his eyes turned to rest on Fíli and Kíli as they came in. He smiled at them affectionately and gestured to a chair across from him.
"Fíli, sit," he said. "You know you're not supposed to be moving around so much."
Fíli cast a confused glance at Kíli, but he did as he was asked; Kíli took his crutches, leaned them up against the wall, and stood beside his brother's chair.
"Kíli, you can sit if you'd like, too," said Thorin. He turned to look behind him at his bed, wincing as he twisted his torso. "On the bed, or I can call for another chair—"
"I'm fine," Kíli said, smiling. "I didn't get myself quite as banged up as you two did. I can stand."
Thorin smiled sheepishly, but Fíli bowed his head and sighed. Kíli rested a hand on his shoulder and squeezed, and Thorin focused his attention on his elder nephew.
"How are you doing, Fíli?" he said.
Fíli stared at Thorin with a furrowed brow, frowning.
"I thought you had tasks to assign us," Kíli said.
Thorin shook his head, still looking at Fíli. "I knew you'd both come if I implied it," he said. "Fíli, will you not speak to me?"
Fíli's eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open wordlessly. Kíli squeezed his shoulder again, and Fíli bit his lip and looked down, taking a few steadying breaths. Thorin looked on with sad eyes.
"Fíli," Thorin said again. He spoke slowly and gently. "You know that you are safe here, right? You have no reason to fear. No one is going to harm you in any way anymore."
"You can talk to us," Kíli added. "We can help you if we know what happened."
Suddenly, Fíli stood up, wobbling dangerously as he avoided putting pressure on his broken leg. Kíli dove to his brother's rescue, pulling one of Fíli's arms behind his neck and steadying him with an arm around his waist. Fíli leaned towards his crutches against the wall desperately, pulling Kíli with him.
"Fíli, what are you doing?" Kíli exclaimed.
"Please, Fíli, sit back down," Thorin said, his hands gripping the sides of his chair, though he did not rise. "You don't need to run."
Still Fíli did not give up. He reached again for his crutches, breathing hard out of his nose and clenching his teeth; Kíli looked to Thorin helplessly, and his uncle's gaze flickered between him and Fíli. After a moment's consideration, he nodded to Kíli and mouthed let him go. Kíli sighed and allowed Fíli to pull him towards the crutches, and Fíli snatched them up and fitted them under his arms. Immediately he started towards the door, which Kíli ran to open for him. Fíli hobbled out by himself, and Kíli did not follow; instead, he shut the door after his brother and rested his forehead against it, closing his eyes tightly.
Kíli pressed his temples harder into the cold stone.
"Kíli, don't you start, now, too."
With a deep sigh, Kíli pushed himself off the door and turned to face his uncle forlornly.
"I don't know how to help him," he said. "He won't speak, and if I bring up the fact that he won't speak, he just gives me this… panicked look. Or he does this." He gestured towards the door.
"I know," said Thorin gravely. "Come sit with me, lad."
Kíli wrinkled his nose at the word lad—he had been through enough in the past year to be free of such endearments—but he came back to the fire and sat in the seat Fíli had just vacated. Thorin looked him over, the light of the fire glinting in his deep blue eyes.
"And how are you doing?" he said. "We haven't had a real chance to speak."
Kíli shrugged. "I'm fine."
"You almost died, Kíli."
Kíli grinned cheekily. "Almost being the operative word."
Thorin frowned, his gaze drifting from the gash on Kíli's face to the bruising on his throat. "Are you sure you're all right?" he said. "No sudden fears, no nightmares…?"
Kíli shook his head. He could see where Thorin was going with this, but he really was fine. He'd been shaken up, of course, after being suddenly come upon by a huge, hideous orc, whose head had been held together by pieces of iron; he hadn't particularly enjoyed being pinned with a hand against his throat, but Tauriel had suddenly been there, and they had cut the orc down together. The slice he'd received on his face was a mere trifle when he considered that the blade had been intended to go through his chest. He would have stayed to thank her, but Fíli—
"I had a quick escape," he said. "Everything happened so fast… but really, I'm fine. I wasn't even thinking of myself. I was thinking of Fíli."
Thorin smiled. "One of you is always thinking about the other, it seems," he said.
"Well, you saw him," Kíli said. "Better than I could." He closed his eyes and bowed his head. "If I had just stayed with him… he told me he had it. I thought he would be fine."
"We didn't know there was an ambush waiting," Thorin said. "That is not your fault. I am the one who—" He stopped suddenly and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, his thumb gently rubbing against the gash on his face. "Well, whatever happened, we have to deal with it now."
"I wish I knew what they did to him," Kíli said bitterly. "If you had seen him, Uncle… when I finally got to him… I've never seen anyone look so terrified. It was… awful."
"Did he say anything to you then?" said Thorin. He started to lean forward, but he grimaced and sat back, resting a hand on his ribs.
Kíli shook his head. "I thought it was because he'd hit his head—that he was just dazed," he said. "I think he'd just come to when I found him. But he hasn't said a word since."
Thorin sighed and looked into the fire. "And Óin doesn't think he's lost the ability to speak… just the desire to."
"But how can we know that?" said Kíli. "He won't say a word—he won't even sign a word…"
"He's done this before," Thorin said, still staring into the flames.
Kíli blinked and furrowed his brow. He couldn't remember a single time in his life in which Fíli would not speak. Not in this way.
"When?" he said.
"After your father died," said Thorin. He turned his gaze back to Kíli. "He didn't speak for a quarter of a year after. It happens, sometimes. He was… he could speak, physically, but something was stopping him." He rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "I thought it was something children did. But he is reacting the same way he did then."
"Why did he start again?" Kíli asked, leaning forward.
Thorin raised his eyebrows and shook his head, shrugging. "I don't rightly know," he said. "I wasn't the first person he spoke to. Your mum says he just started again one day."
Kíli leaned back again in his chair, disappointed. "Oh."
"Speaking of which," said Thorin, "I actually could use your help with something. Those in the Blue Mountains will need to know that the mountain has been reclaimed. See if you can get Fíli to help you in making an official message. Address it to your mother and send it by one of the younger ravens—they will certainly wish to be of assistance."
"Shouldn't you be the one to send the message?" Kíli asked, rising to his feet.
Thorin smiled ruefully. "Perhaps," he said. "But if the letter is in yours and Fíli's writing, she'll know you are safe."
Kíli nodded, twisting his lips. Yes, they were safe—but they were so changed, especially Fíli. Would he be speaking by the time their mother arrived?
"And Kíli," said Thorin. "I think we should let Fíli be for now. We pushed him, and he did not react well. Let him be silent for now, if he wishes. It has only been several days."
And every day that passes is another in which we don't know what happened to him. Kíli nodded obediently. He let himself out, leaving his uncle in his chair, staring into the fire.
Fíli's door was closed. Kíli stood before it, hesitating. Should he knock? Was Fíli even there? He would not speak to tell Kíli to enter, and with his broken leg, it would be rude to assume that he would come to answer the door. Normally, he would just enter; the two of them had spent enough time together that privacy was not an issue. This new Fíli made him nervous, however; he did not yet know what would set him off. After a long minute of deliberation, he knocked loudly and waited a few moments.
"Fíli?" he called. "I'm coming in."
After a few more moments, Kíli pushed on the door, but it did not budge. Perplexed, he pushed again, but still the door did not move. A bolt of fear shot through Kíli's chest, but he attempted to push it away. He probably just wants time alone, he told himself. Still, the initial fear niggled in his gut, and he knocked harder on the door.
"Fíli, are you all right in there?" he said, louder than before. "The door is locked—I can't get in."
Still no answer from the other side of the door—not that Kíli was expecting it. Even so, the complete lack of response was making Kíli more than nervous, and he had half a mind to get someone to help him stave the door in. He could not remember a time in his life when he had ever been locked out of Fíli's room. He ran a hand through his hair. What was he supposed to do? On one hand, Fíli was probably fine, just sulking; on the other hand, he could be in there alone, having some kind of breakdown—
Suddenly, there was a click, and the door opened a crack.
Kíli let out a huge sigh of relief and pushed gently on the door. The crack widened, and he peered in timidly. Fíli was hobbling away from the door; he set his crutches down beside his bed, sat down on the mattress, and looked up at Kíli. As Kíli came closer, he saw that Fíli's eyes were rimmed with red, and guilt twisted in his gut. He swallowed.
"Hey," he said.
Fíli said nothing.
"Um," Kíli said, "I'm sorry. About earlier. I didn't mean to make you upset."
Fíli shrugged and looked off to the side, and Kíli bit his lip. That was probably about as close to forgiveness as he was going to get.
"Uncle wanted us to send a message to home—er, to Ered Luin," he said. He suddenly felt a twist of homesickness in his heart. It had not before occurred to him that this was supposed to be his home now, and he might never see Ered Luin again. But Erebor still felt empty. Too quiet. "He says if we write it, Mum will know that we're sa—that we're alive."
Fíli huffed and grinned, but the smile did not reach his eyes. Kíli shifted from one foot to the other.
"So, will you help me?" he said. "With writing the letter."
Fíli's eyes flickered back and forth as he considered; then he looked down at his broken leg.
"We can do it in here," Kíli said quickly. "I'll get something for us to write on—we can sit right on the bed. You don't even have to move."
At this, Fíli finally assented with a nod, and Kíli grinned. He pulled a paper out of Fíli's desk and grabbed the wooden tray he had used to bring Fíli meals for a few days after the battle, when he had been too dizzy to get up. Carefully, he balanced the inkwell and pen on top and settled beside his brother, who had pushed back on the bed to lean against the wall. He set the tray on his lap and twirled the pen in his hand, thinking.
"Dear Mum," he said. "We have reclaimed the smelly mountain."
Fíli snorted and shot Kíli a sideways glance, and Kíli grinned.
"Okay, maybe I shouldn't call it the smelly mountain," he said. "Although it is certainly that." He thought for a moment. Lonely Mountain was certainly fitting, but he kept that to himself. "Well, I suppose the first step is addressing it. To Mum or to all the Dwarves of Ered Luin?"
Fíli squinted for a moment and then took the tray off Kíli's lap; surprised, Kíli handed him the pen. The most he had expected from his brother was perhaps a signature. Fíli wrote To the esteemed Lady Dís, and the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains. Kíli blinked, staring at the words on the page.
"You… so you can communicate?" he said, pulling his eyes from the paper to his brother's face. "You could write things down—until you can speak again—"
Fíli's eyes widened, and he shook his head vigorously. Kíli furrowed his brow.
"Why not?" he said. "You're doing just fine right now, Fíli. You—you could even write down what's bothering you—so we can help you!"
Fíli dropped the pen onto the wooden tray, shaking his head more slowly now. His expression was pulled into genuine distress, and Kíli's heart jumped. You're doing it again.
"Or not," he said. "Y-you don't have to. It's fine, Fíli. Forget I said anything."
Fíli dropped his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath. Kíli moved closer to him until their shoulders were touching, and Fíli did not move away. They sat quietly for a few moments, and then Fíli opened his eyes and took the wooden tray off his lap, setting it on Kíli's. Kíli pressed his lips together and nodded. You did this. He picked up the pen and dipped it in the inkwell, thinking.
"You're better at this than me," he mumbled, pressing the end of the pen to his lips. He cast a surreptitious glance at his brother, but Fíli was staring out into nothing, seemingly unaware that Kíli had said anything. Kíli could feel his heart sinking. This was his brother's typical look these days, and he never gave any clue as to what he was thinking about.
"All right," he said quietly. "I'll just… write something, I guess."
Kíli had never been the best when it came to official duties. Fíli was the one who took these sorts of things seriously; he was the eldest and the heir, and their uncle had put much more pressure on him to make sure that he would one day be a great prince—and then king. Kíli had often been allowed to pass by with mediocre work. He had absorbed a great deal of information, of course—he wasn't hopeless—but the fact remained that if it was up to the two of them to deal with some kind of royal duty, Fíli would certainly be better at it. Kíli had a strong desire to ask Fíli to either tell him what to write or write the letter himself, but he had a feeling that he had just ruined his chances of getting Fíli to write anything anymore. He felt another surge of guilt rising. Everything he did in an attempt to help seemed to just make things worse.
"We send you greetings from Thorin II Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain," Kíli said, glancing at Fíli again. "What do you think? A good way to start?"
Fíli did not react. He was still staring out into space. Kíli cleared his throat.
"Fíli, I need your help," he said. "Can you stay with me here for just a little while?"
Finally, Fíli's gaze returned to the present, and he turned his head to look at the paper in Kíli's lap. He frowned and furrowed his brow, looking up at Kíli quizzically.
"I know, I haven't written anything," Kíli said, forcing down his burning frustration. "I'm asking for your help. You don't have to say anything. Just… let me know if what I'm putting down is good, somehow. I just need you to focus for a little bit. Please."
Fíli raised his eyebrows and nodded sheepishly; he pulled up his left knee and rested his elbow against it, supporting his head with his hand and looking down at the paper.
"So," Kíli said, "I'm thinking that I should start with salutations from Thorin. Just so they know he's alive and he's King now." Not that everyone was happy about that. Thranduil and Bard had settled into a grudging peace so far, especially since Bilbo had promised his portion of the treasure to them. Thranduil had returned the Arkenstone as a sign of good faith, and Thorin had returned the gesture by giving Thranduil the jeweled necklace he had desired for so long. The two had been exceedingly cordial to the each other ever since; Thorin had even offered the lower halls of Erebor to the elven soldiers as shelter from the wind and snow as they stayed to help with the wounded. It was an Elf that had given Fíli some kind of concoction to calm him so they could set his leg, as well, and Thorin had shown a remarkable amount of appreciation for his help. Grudging peace was better than icy hatred, Kíli supposed, but it didn't mean that everything was solved. Life was turning out to be more difficult than that.
Fíli nodded and tapped on the paper, and Kíli assumed he meant that it was good enough to start with. He wrote as neatly as he could, trying to match the straight, even lines of his brother's handwriting. His own was nowhere near as neat. He was too impatient for that.
They continued in this way for a while, Kíli making suggestions and Fíli approving them, and finally, they had a completed letter in hand. It was short, but contained all the necessary information, and Kíli was glad to be done. He signed his name at the bottom, and Fíli did the same.
"You're sure there's nothing else you'd like to add in your own hand?" Kíli said.
Fíli shook his head.
"All right, then," Kíli said, looking down at their work. "I'll send this off with a raven now. Thanks, Fíli."
Fíli offered his brother a wan smile, and Kíli picked up the tray and slid off the bed. He took a look back at Fíli; once again, his bright blue eyes were unfocused. Kíli licked his lips and left the room with his letter, heading for the passageway to outdoors.
A thought hit him then, and he stopped and turned, heading for his own room. He made his way to his own desk, pulled out another paper, and folded it carefully, ripping it along the lines he had just made. On the tiny scrap he had left, he scribbled another message:
Mum, come as quickly as you can. Something is wrong with Fíli.