Chapter 3 - Of Bitterness and Burdens

Thorin was no fool of a dwarf. He was wary. He was suspicious beyond belief. More than often harsh in his ways and hardened into solid stone by rough life and one too many downfalls. Though, true it was, he was blessed in many ways, more than an average dwarf, with his rich inheritance and the royal blood running in his veins, but he was also burdened more than most could imagine. Burdened with the duty his blood tied him into and with the high expectations his people had of him – they sought impossible from him, they wanted a rescuer, a hero. Someone who would stop all wrong and return the wealth and glory back to Durin's name. They wanted him to be grand, and glorious, and invincible. An immortal fighter, and a great King who was promised safe them all and restore the Lonely Mountain back to his dwarves. But how could Thorin do such things? He wasn't special. He wasn't what his people wanted him to be. He couldn't be. He was a dwarf, same as any, with real aging flesh and bones, and a mortal life. He couldn't do it all by himself, not even if he wanted to. But the expectations were high, and well it was known that dwarves were stubborn folk to let anyone or anything change their minds. There was only little Thorin could do or say to that.

Though, deeply troubled by the burning desires of his people, there was something that worried Thorin even more, and by time that worrisome though grew bigger and bigger, occupying more and more of his time. The inevitable truth was; he was getting old. He was no young dwarf anymore, he knew this well and was aware that others around him knew it too. He was getting older and-, he grimaced at the idea, -weaker. His body was still powerful as ever, strong and hardy with good stamina. But how long would that last? How many good years would he have? It was a concern for Thorin, for even now, he could already notice changes in him that he had well missed before – how sore his muscles were after training, how his back ached after long-distance rides, how his wounds tended to take longer to heal nowadays, and, above all, how bad his eyesight had become.

It was not an unusual thing for dwarves to have a bad vision, for they mostly lived in darker places, inside stone walls without any windows or sunlight, and so naturally their eyes just tended to be a tad more sensitive of light and brightness and vulnerable to permanent damage. The older a dwarf got, the worse his eyesight turned until it was gone altogether, and it was as simple as that, no questions asked. Thorin's vision had always been that of a shit one, even as a young lad the accuracy of his far-sight was hazy and so unstable he often caused nothing but embarrassing disasters during his training in archery, but, after the day he almost got fried by the dragon's fire, his eyesight had been growing alarmingly dull with each passing year. Thorin could already tell that if by any luck he ever managed to surpass the age of 200, his sight would be thoroughly gone and he would live whatever years he had left in complete pitch darkness. That was yet another hard-ass fact he couldn't change even if he wanted to, and so just had to learn to accept and deal with.

Thorin's future was not looking bright by any means, but before he allowed himself to submit to such a fate of turning into an old blind bat of a dwarf, he had to finish up what had started in his younger days and take back his crown. For his people's sake. For Durin's folk. For his family. For all those who were dead. For himself. The time was now. He had to seize this chance, march back to Erebor, and… well, wish for the best. He needed do it and felt a pressing urge in his bones that he needed to hurry the fuck up with it and had it done and over with before something awful had the chance to happen. Before he got too old, too blind, or, in the most realistic case, too dead to go for it. Granted, he was too stubborn to let himself die before seeing the grand halls of his beloved Lonely Mountain once more in his life, and this was something he had sworn in the name of his honor, in the name of his dead family members, and in the name of Mahal himself. Death-, Thorin scolded with darkness in his eyes, -would not have him, not before he had his Mountain back. And his throne. And the King's jewel. And all the Durin-damned treasure around it. This was for sure.

Perhaps Thorin was too stubborn to die, or perhaps he had just merely managed to escape the clutches of death itself for now, but that didn't mean he hadn't seen others fall and turn into stone all around him. Call it a curse, his own imagination, or something in between, but Thorin was sure he had the presence of death hovering constantly over him like a dark cloud, perhaps sometimes slightly lifting off and fading into a light grey smoke, but never fully disappearing. And always, when he least expected it, coming back with the rage of a storm, giving him nasty reminders of its' claim on him. Like a jealous husband, it controlled his life and never let him unguarded, never gave him the chance to escape and reach out for freedom, leaving him with dark thoughts and poisonous feelings. And with bunch of dead people at his feet. Thorin was bitter, so, so very bitter, and he had no need to deny this. Such was the way he had grown to be, always surrounded by pain and loss.

He had lost much during his life. More than he wanted to admit. Life had taken one grand fall into an endless pit after that fateful day when Erebor was taken by the dragon. Nothing had gone right after that. First, the Mountain was lost with the treasures inside and the Arkenstone somewhere among them, along with the throne he was promised to have one day. Then, when aid was most needed with his people, the elves of Mirkwook ignored their pleas of help, refused to take any part of their misfortune and so broke the trust and long-lasted alliance between dwarves and elves all over the Middle Earth. Thorin had been robbed and cheated out of his intended future, tossed and thrown around duties he had no previous experience of, forced to work like a slave and fight like a barbarian for his people's sake, he'd been manipulated, used and lied to, being told to take responsibilities beyond measure and forbid to show any signs of weakness in front of anyone. He'd lost people all around him to all possible kinds of deaths, lost his mad grandfather to the dirty hands of an enemy orc, lost his dear father to an unknown faith at the very same day, and most of all… The biggest regret and failure of his live, losing the life of his precious baby brother, one who had barely reached his teens yet, at that same battlefield, somewhere near the side-boards, abandoned to fight the enemy with only few dwarves by his side. Frerin wasn't even supposed to be there in the first place.

Now, before getting into the death of the youngest sibling of Durin's royal family, first one would have to know the fact that grown dwarves seldom shed tears. Homes could be lost, families ripped apart and death loom all around, and yet this stocky-build, short and hairy folk would not necessarily feel any sort of physical need to show their sorrow by leaking salty water from their eyes. Grief and heartache were often demonstrated with other ways, both physically and mentally, and usually crying was something of a last resort thing to do or then left completely for the children. Of course, this did not mean that adult dwarves were completely incapable to shed tears or feel the need to have one of those messy emotional breakdowns when shit started hitting the fan. No. It only meant they chose not to do so, no matter if they were public or all by themselves, for they were proud folk and could not bear the thought of showing this sort of vulnerability to the world around them. Tears were a clear sign of weakness. Revealing weakness lead to dying. Crying meant giving up. Giving up was not in the dwarvish nature.

Needless to say, Thorin wasn't a dwarf to cry, no matter of the situation. He didn't cry when Erebor was lost nor when the elves betrayed them and left them to wander off to the wilderness without any supplies. He didn't shed tears for his grandfather whose head was cut off right in his sight and then tossed right at him by the pale orc, nor for his father who went for the said enemy and was never seen again after the battle of Azanulbizar. He had lived through some pretty catastrophic moments, had seen death face to face and walked through roads of blood and shit up to his knees, and lived on to tell those tales with dry eyes. But there was always a certain breaking point for everyone, one point that did the impossible, one that managed to slither like a little slimy snake beyond that solid steel-wall that hid people's emotions and create a huge emotional blast there, cause chaos, panic and disaster. This point existed for everyone, no exceptions given, not even for the royals.

Thorin found his own breaking point once his soldiers lead him through the masses of corpses in front of the gates of Moria, to the dead, cold body of his younger brother, dirty and bloodied, and resting in an awkward position with his dark hair splattered all over the ground. That was the point when time and place froze around him, nothing moved or made a sound as the grown prince of Erebor stared in horror at what had become of his younger sibling. His sword, as grime-coated and bloody as he, fell from his hands with a soft thud, breaking the silence surrounding him and making the moment real again. Big fat tears began to pour down Thorin's cheeks and jaw, heavy and hot on his dirt-matted skin, as if the flow them could get rid of the awful image of his loved baby brother lying in front of him in a puddle of his own blood, with his mouth open and dulled Durin blue eyes staring at the ground in front of Thorin's feet, seeing nothing. The freshly made King Under the Mountain felt a burn, hotter than the dragon's fire, in his chest as he collapsed next to his dead, broken brother, and wailed loudly and held him against himself, praying Mahal and all the Valar to have mercy and give him back his Frerin. Out of respect, the soldiers next to him looked elsewhere, giving him his moment of weakness and then left him to himself to grief. For hours Thorin mourned, clutching to his brother like a child to his parents, pressing their foreheads together with a devastated need all while giving ugly cries and desperate pleads for Mahal to give his Frerin back or to take him instead. For hours he clutched and wailed and begged, for so long he no longer had the strength to keep himself awake, no longer had a voice to speak, and then when all had been said and done, for the last time, he passed out with Frerin near him.

No matter of the tears he wasted and the weak state he allowed himself into, Mahal remained silent and unresponsive to his pleas. He took Frerin into his halls that day, permanently away from Thorin and from the long, happy lives they should have had if only the dragon had never come to take the Mountain from them. That day, guilt and the shame of failing to protect his younger brother burned a hole in Thorin's heart, leaving an open scar that still even to this day sometimes ached like freshly made. And it was a good thing it ached, for he wanted it to hurt, wanted to be in pain for the rest of his life, just like he deserved to. As a punishment for letting his brother get killed. For letting down every single one of Durin's folk.

So yes, there was a burden on Thorin's shoulders that exhausted him with its' enormous weight every single day. The ghosts of his past, all the darkness and misery and death he had seen, haunted him in his dreams and nightmares almost nightly, from which he always woke up in the middle of the night, gasping for air and covered in cold sweat, and with his heart racing like a madman inside his chest. Preferring not to have to die from one of his nightly panic attacks, he grew reluctant going to sleep at all and eventually sought light rest for only few hours each night rather than allowing his body fall into a deep slumber that gave the chance for the dreams to terrorize him. But the lack of sleep and good rest he denied himself from put his body into a constant state of stress, straining him inside and outside more than he ever could have imagined and that only lead him to new kind of problems. With an alarm, he later realized that whatever evil it was that he had managed to intentionally block from his dreams and nightmares, only followed him when he was wide awake too.

The scary truth was, only short after Frerin had turned into stone, Thorin began to doubt his sanity. He dared not to speak it out loud, not even to his closest companions, but inside he was unnerved and feared what was happening to him. He feared he was going mad. For as good as he was to hide the distraught of his mind and the fucked up things he was sure to witness around him, sometimes… Sometimes he had to admit it to himself that he wasn't completely sure what was real and what was imaginary. Sometimes, he was sure, he was so sure, he could see-, hazy faces, smiling at him when he walked through big crowds, too far for him to reach, too in the middle of people for him to call. And yet, with wicked smiles they would beckon him to come to them, to take their hands, to let them lead him. But if he followed and tried to catch up, to close the distant and demand an explanation, they would only run away from him, easily slipping through the crowds with a ring laughter and then disappear into thin air. Also, there were times when, he swore, he could hear familiar voices whispering into his ears. Softly and kindly at first, caressing his hearing and playing around with a child-like innocent that melted his heart with its' strange familiarity. But just as he would let out a sigh of ease and relief, the tune took a rapid change, as if something was dying with an awful, ears-hurting shriek and then the words turned cold and hard, hisses of snakes and growls of beasts, accusing and demanding and blaming, cursing and abusing, telling him to confess all his sins and failures to them, ordering him to let go of his darkest thoughts, wanting to humiliate him, wishing pain and hurt to him, desiring for him to suffer and suffer and suffer. And suffer he did. In silence and alone, for who could he dare to speak of the things that went inside his head? Who would listen without thinking he was crazy? There was an ongoing battle inside Thorin's mind, one that raged all along and tore him into pieces little by little without anyone knowing or seeing it in him, without anyone helping him, and Thorin wasn't sure who the opposite sides were and who he was meant to support, which one was his friend and which one his foe.

But if the inner war and the state of Thorin's mental health was a sad tragedy in itself, the overall condition and health of his body wasn't doing much better nowadays. Aside from the disaster he had for eyeballs, his body was, well truthfully, it was like a ripped canvas. There were countless scars on him, with all kinds of colors and shapes, just like a bad painting of some sort, on his back, front, arms and legs, all those marks of hard training and battles and hardships. Some were smaller and lighter, other were bigger and deeper, while others… had a class of their own and just downright refused to heal completely. Now, Thorin wasn't much interested in the way he looked, never put much thought and effort in his appearance except for the overall tidiness and, of course, his hair and beard. He wasn't so vain to feel troubled over a few scars on his body, and truth to say, the main cause of most of his unevenly healed scars was he himself, and the stubborn unwillingness he had for letting a healer have a look of him. No, the scars didn't bother him with the way they looked, but what did bother him, was that the burns he received from the dragon on the day Erebor was lost, at times, almost daily, those scars on his right side still pained him greatly. They ached. And burned. And demanded attention. As if the skin was still on fire and burning deeper and deeper into his flesh. It was more than an unpleasant issue to deal with, but Thorin dealt with it, because that was what he did. He dealt with these scars on his outside and inside, as well as with shit just happening to him.

If there was something Thorin could rely on, it was the certainty that shit happened on regular basis, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about that. The main reason he was so bitter, was that his life surely wasn't what he had thought it would have been, hadn't been what it should have been. It should have had so much more into it. He should have had more. He knew it deep inside him. He should have been more than an exiled dwarf prince. Everything inside him screamed that he should've been more. He wanted to be more. He wanted it so bad, that in those occasional times when he did decide to close his eyes and seek for the longed-for sleep and rest, if his dreams weren't plagued by nightmares and horrible memories, he saw himself in the life he should have had. Living the royal life as the golden prince of Erebor. As the heir of his grandfather's throne and as the mighty King of the Lonely Mountain. And as a grandson of a dwarf King without the gold-sickness. As the eldest son of a father who never went missing, abandoning him and their people at the same. As an older brother of two loving siblings instead of one. And as an uncle surrounded by many dwarflings, strong nephews and beautiful nieces of various ages, with the familiarities of either one of his younger siblings.

And… if Thorin really lost his head in his thoughts, in the deepest and most secret part of his dreams, he dared to dream himself holding a baby dwarfling in his arms, a small precious treasure with hair black as the night and eyes pale blue and shining like the clearest sapphire under a torchlight. A blessing that lived and breathed and moved in his arms, something of his own flesh and blood, something that he had helped to create, something of him. In this specific dream scenario, he held the sleeping babe close to his heart, smelling the scent of something of purely his, and felt a warm presence of someone right next to him, leaning into him, breathing into his ear, sharing the same love towards the small bundle of miracle that rested in his strong arms. He felt contented. He felt full. He was... at peace. And so full of tenderness.

But, if his nightmares left him breathless, twitching in pain and covered in cold-sweat on his bed, it was after these dreams that he truly felt like being suffocated, his heart getting pierced through and slowly bleeding him to death. He could feel it in his chest, his heart twisting and turning in its' place, in agony and torment, tormenting him with the rough, primal need of wanting…

And wanting.

And wanting!

So desperately yearning for something he knew very well he could never have. It made him jealous and bitter. So, so very bitter that even at times he disgusted himself with the amount of pettiness he felt for his poor little self. Because only pathetic people would sink so low to do that. Only self-centered people pitied themselves.

Some said Thorin had no capability of feeling kind emotions anymore, that he could only understand grim and dark feelings, only being able to hate, and loath and, and be bitter. They whispered with hushed words behind his back, judged him even though they knew nothing of him, and called him by names, that he was dreary and a stone-heart. They said he was already turned into stone with the way he acted. They said that he was not alive, already cold and dead inside, that his body just hadn't yet caught the hint, not yet realized it should stop moving already. They said there was no other dwarf as grim as him, that even though he was greatly respected and looked up to, they still feared for the day he would have his Kingdom and the power to rule. They spoke of him in such way because they were scared of him and of the things he would do.

Thorin understood and could somewhat accept this. People were afraid of him even in the days when the Mountain was still held by the Durin. It was the way he was born-, he had long ago told himself, -this royal trait he had inherited from his ancestors that made people fear and respect him. It wasn't necessarily anything personal against him, just the way things were, just the way his whole being screamed of importance and demanded people to stay put and get the fuck out of his way. People were afraid of him and Thorin had no intentions of changing that. It was good that they grew silent around him, that while his own folk supported him in his efforts, they also didn't dare to come close to him, unintentionally giving him room to breathe. Thorin liked it that way. He wasn't interested in changing his image or to get the public to adore him. He didn't need to have lots of people in his inner circle, he already had the ones he wanted and trusted and that was all he required.

Stone-heart they said he was, but as dark as Thorin might've been, he wasn't any crueler living being than the dwarf next to him. It was ridiculous even for him to hear that people actually thought of such things, that he actually wasn't able to feel nothing but hate and anger all the time. Ridiculous-, he had conversed with his old friend Balin many times, -for if his impassive face alone was the cause of such rumors, he'd like to hear what had been said of his dear Grandfather, the last King of the Lonely Mountain, whose impressively wide sneer was so legendarily characteristic to him that even Thorin himself had thought for many years that it was permanently stuck on his face and he could not in fact lift it off or even lighten it into a soft scowl, even if he physically tried to. Although well over 200 years old, the dwarf stirred fear inside his enemies and friends likewise with only one simple glance, not even making a real effort, and that itself was a feat to accomplish. He was at least twice as scary than what Thorin's father had been, making it impossible for Thorin himself to even try to catch up with him. In a way, he would have easily liked to hear the stories people had of Thrór and Thráin. He really would have enjoyed to hear the false gossips and mockery of them, like he heard of himself, just to get some peer support, to have something, even something little, to connect himself to his perished family members. As silly as it was, he kind of was proud to bear the same frightening traits as his ancestors.

Yet still, unlike the public opinion, Thorin could actually feel feelings just as well as any other, he was no stranger to them even though many would not have guessed so with his stern face and unkind words. He could appreciate life and the little sparks of beauty in it, of course he could appreciate it, and feel the joy and affection it brought, even feel love. In his younger days, in the time before the dragon, he was actually very much open with the love he felt – showed it to the person near him with easy-going smiles and deep laughter, and sometimes even with clear gestures of affection. Though, those were the days he was still naught but a child and knew a little of the real world, didn't know things he knew today. Nowadays the softer side of him was tightly smothered and closed off from the public. Rarely would he feel so at ease to let it surface again and when he would, it was only for his closest family and kin, for those he held important and who he trusted. For those he wanted to keep safe. For those he loved.

Thorin eyed the dwarves sitting in his table, not really listening what they were conversing about with each other. He let his gaze travel from one member to another, carefully searching and memorizing the unique features of each and one of them. Soft blue eyes moved from the youngest and inexperienced, and no doubt most treasured among them, still not quite yet blossomed Ori, to the oldest and wisest, his most trusted and loyal friend Balin. Including them, he counted twelve in total. Twelve-, he promised to himself, -who, once he had his throne, he would ensure to live like royals for the rest of their lives. Thorin would keep each and one of them close by his side when ruling, keep them well-fed, rich and respected among others, but most of all, safe inside the Mountain. As soon as he was able, he would take care of them and show them the kind of loyalty they had given for him. For only they had come. Only they had chosen to be by his side.

The journey Thorin was about to lead the company to was dangerous. Mad even. He knew the risks well, he hadn't spent countless restless nights pondering over the matter for nothing. He knew danger was ahead. Possibly even death. He knew. Would he loose these dwarves around him? Thorin swallowed with difficulty at the thought, letting his heavy eyes rest on the heads of his nephews. 'So young still…' Too young to die. 'As had Frerin been.' The image of his teen-age brother lying on the dark ground surrounded by his own blood with an orc blade pierced through his torso flashed through Thorin's eyes. Would he now lose the dwarlings he had raised together with his sister as well?

'I will not.' Thorin clenched his jaw, eyes still on Fili and Kili as he made another silent promise to himself. 'The line of Durin will not fall. There will be a son of my family ruling the Mountain once more. Dís will have someone to come back to.' Even if it meant the death of Thorin himself, he would see that at least one of the princes survived to take the crown, at least one of them would live on. The importance of their survival knew know limits to him, easily even overlooking few moral and sane border lines. That was the way he loved – selfish, overly rough, and with a firm will of mind, perhaps a tad unhealthy, but just as absolute and true. His love was fierce and unyielding, his care almost too pressing and obsessive. Thorin was a born head of the family, the caretaker, and once he had something he cherished, he'd sooner go to war than lose it. He'd kill or get killed to protect what was his. And Fili and Kili had always been his, had been ever since he had first laid his eyes on them as newborn babes.

It was not only his nephews, but Thorin cared for his company too - this he had already acknowledged and accepted as a plain fact. Though he admitted, at first it had been hard to realize he felt such way for so many when before there had been only few he had allowed himself to feel so protective of, and frankly, it scared him to think he was responsible of all their fates. He would lead and as loyal as these dwarves were, they would simply follow him, blindly, and with trust so strong it was touching. For they knew too that they would either be victorious in the end, or continue their journey to the halls of Mahal. It had been difficult for Thorin to accept this, to accept that these dwarves respected him so that they were willing to die just to have the opportunity to follow him and help him with his goal. To have back the home they once had.

Thorin's eyes softened as he let his gaze travel around the table once more. Yes, no matter what the whispers were behind his back, he was not a stone-heart or dead inside, and he cared for his company and would try his hardest to get them all alive and in on piece to the end of this adventure. He would give them the home they so desperately sought for. He would give them so much more than that. So, so much more, as soon as he was just able to.

Unexpectedly, the pale blue eyes of the dwarf leader found the backs of the two children of men that had given him much trouble and one fierce headache pounding inside his skull during the short period of time he had known them. Just like that, the softness in his eyes hardened into a distasteful scowl and his mind turned sour as he watched them hunch their heads together a few tables away from the rest of the company, deep in a private conversation that only added his suspiciousness and dislike of them. After Thorin had ordered Balin to create a contract for the Dreamers, the human duo had agreed and then quickly excused themselves, moving further away from the company to talk to each other in what seemed to be a hushed argument, one that managed to light the wizard's eyes in a scary kind of amusement. Thorin didn't like all the secrecy in the air, and he certainly didn't like the two humans that were the cause of it all. He didn't like them, nor would he ever learn to. To him, the Dreamers would forever remain to be outsiders and strangers, and those unworthy of his attention or efforts. He would never like them. He would never trust them. He would never accept them into his company.

Thorin would never allow himself to care for outsiders. These humans would always be nothing to him.

"This-," Meri gestured towards the dwarves and then to themselves, "-did not go as planned. Not at all," the girl sighed out miserably and looked away from Aleksi with an angry, somewhat defeated expression on her face. With the corner of her eye, she could see some of the dwarves stealing curious looks of her and Aleksi and discussing with each other in a rather obvious gossip-kind of way, but at that moment she felt too distracted with her own frustration to take any care of what they might have been talking of. Probably nothing nice anyway, so why bother.

"He was way more hateful towards me than you! Unbelievable! He-, he accepted you more easily! How come that's any fair when first of all, you were god knows where taking your own sweet time playing your stupid Casanova card on some poor, defenseless girl, and only then, when it happened to suit your own self-centered ass, showed up here much too late and with an attitude of a total prick…! Huh? Don't tell me, is this one of those bro-things between men that I just don't understand! 'Burden!' he says! Burden, Aleksi! Stars! This is-, it's just ridiculous! I bet my ass it's all because my gender and size, am I right? It's all because my gender and size, isn't it!? There's nothing I can do to my gender and size, doesn't he know?!"

Aleksi, already having his own emotions in control just like it was common for him to heat up in one second and calm down the next, let the girl rage on in front of him with her hushed whispers, her eyes wide and lit like two blue torches in the dim tavern as her hands flew wildly around to demonstrate how offended she felt. The blond man wanted nothing more than leave her complaining little ass behind him, walk back to the table full of dwarves he had dreamed for two long years and finally have a good, long look of each of their faces now that he had his chance to do so, maybe grab a few ales with them, share some stories, have a good laugh, but-, he sighed and prepared himself to deal with the little girl-bear in front of him, -he had this cursed soft spot for Meri, always had had, and it bothered him to see her in such a state of mind when the cause of it wasn't he himself. If he left her there like this, it would spoil the rest of his night to know that he hadn't comforted her when he should have.

"Without a doubt it's your gender and size," the man then answered without a beat and made a face to her before pulling the unamused girl into one armed, cheerful embrace, their backs turned at the company so that the sight of them couldn't distract his mind. "C'mon now Baby Bear, you know better than to mind him. The dwarf's just old and grumpy and you just happened to stand out from the rest of us, that's all. You'll show just how much of a burden you'll be. You'll show him and the rest of the company, right, cupcakes?" The man nudged the girl playfully with his hip, seeking for a quirk of lips from her.

Aleksi, not that surprisingly, was one of those people who was naturally just really bad at dealing with heavy emotions, his or anybody else's around him, and used his humor to escape those sorts of situations. Life was much more easier and simpler for him when he didn't have to bother his head with sullen thoughts and deep unwanted feelings that tended to immediately flare up his anxiety and make a human ruin out of him. Smiles, on the other hand, were easy for him. Making a fool out of himself was easy for him. Playing and joking around was easy for him. Talking about sad and heavy stuff… not so.

"Hey…" the man whined a little and nudged the girl a little more with his hip, "C'mon now. Don't be like that. Your depressed face is awful to look at. I hate to see how that frown twists your face in such a horrid way. You look like a damn grim reaper. Very much not appealing thing to see right now. The only thing worse would be if you were actually crying right now, your tears and snot leaking all over the place-," the man actually shuddered at the thought, "-that's a pretty bad sight for a simple man as me to behold, as you know."

Meri frowned even harder, sometimes wondering just what was the reason why she put up with the stupid man in the first place. She hadn't cried in ages, and he should know it too. And she wasn't about to do so now either. As if she was about to cry just because the dwarf King didn't like her or the way she looked when she already knew very well beforehand that he would be against having her and Aleksi with the company. She had had time to prepare for this. She had had time to get used to the idea of someone sneering at her in such a way. She wouldn't cry. 'But why does it still sting so much?'

"Look, Baby Bear," Aleksi groaned out once noticing how the silent moment seemed to grow longer and longer, placing both of his hands on her shoulders and trapping her to look at him alone, "If you didn't happen to notice, I wasn't exactly thrilled of him either, nor he of me. Our personalities are sure to collide with a bang, I can already see a huge-ass shit-storm approaching us in the distance. It's only the matter of a time and place when someone's going to explode in a rather nasty way. But that's still somewhere in the future, and meanwhile, we'll just have to remember where we stand right now. We finally met these dwarves. They're here and that's what matters the most now, right? We're starting this shit and getting it done with, and then hopefully we'll finally be freed from this whole fucking nightmare. We knew Thorin wouldn't approve us, it's no surprise really. Don't bother to get angry because of his silly little attempts to protest against Gandalf's will – he's just mad because things aren't going like he wanted and is unleashing his stupid little attitude on you because you're seemingly the easiest to pick on."

Meri pouted like a child, knowing Aleksi was telling the truth, but still couldn't help but to feel like it was more unfair for her than him. "Yeah, and that's only because I'm a woman. What if I cut my hair and bind my tits, would that make a difference? If only I had a dick in between my legs, everything would suddenly be all alright, wouldn't it? Suddenly, there'd be less problems, right?"

Aleksi gasped out loud, a little too dramatically than what was necessary, and shook the girl from her shoulders. "You want a dick in between-? God no! Let's keep you pretty and gorgeous, the way you are," he said in a disbelieve, giving he few pats on her head and then squinted his eyes at her slightly when a new though entered his mind, "And fuck me girl, don't you dare to do anything to your appearances, you hear me? Don't even go thinking of anything alike. I'll not have you shave your hair or do anything crazy and reckless like that, just to please Thorin! Hell, if the dwarf doesn't appreciate to have a pretty, womanly creature in his sights, then it's all his problem, not yours, and for god's sake girl, you're going to leave your hair as it is, pretty and long, or else I'm really forced to do some drastic actions over the matter."

Meri sighed, knowing the man was getting back his normal, playful and silly acting and so turning impossible to talk with seriously. She leaned forward to place her forehead against Aleksi's chest to get some solid support with her inner struggles. "I just don't want him to think me as a burden. I'm not a burden. I'm not. And I want him to see that. As stupid as it sounds, I sincerely want him to like us. Is that too much to ask?"

Aleksi patted her back gently, not knowing what to say and the girl sank even deeper into his tunic and muttered something more against the green fabric, making her words muffled and impossible to understand.

"Say again now?"

"I said," Meri spoke louder, turning her head so that she no longer spoke against him, "What took you so long? I saw the Ri-brothers in the stables before meeting up with Gandalf, and I think I already got a small heart attack then. And I almost pissed in my pants here, having to deal with all those dwarves alone," she cast her eyes on their feet and nudged his booth with her own, "Where the hell were you? Why weren't you here where you were needed? I thought you were supposed to keep watch. You promised me you would keep watch."

Aleksi felt a cold feeling of shame creeping up his neck, knowing he had let the girl down. But his mistake had been a small one and not caused much of a problem in the end, and because the girl normally forgave him rather easy, he hoped he could get her to forget about this whole thing quickly too, if he put a bit of his playful banter into it. So, instead of sincerely apologizing to her, the man let out an offended 'hmph!' and held his chin high and proud, trying to act as if her words hadn't stung him, "Huh! Always blaming me for everything. I'll let you know, I was actually trying to search for you." 'If not a little late, that is…' "And you know what else, it wouldn't hurt you to at least try and actually smile every once in a while! It's no wonder the dwarves haven't warmed to us yet, you looking like a bloody butcher with that face." 'Just play the guilt card and she'll forget she's mad at me. Smooth as fuck.'

"I have been smiling!" Meri exclaimed, her face still pressed against his tunic, "You've just not been around to see it!"

Aleksi grimaced slightly, knowing she was really upset because of his absence. He decided to try another way to approach the grumpy girl, knowing that she, as well as the majority of women-kind, just couldn't resist his natural charms and the way he talked sweet nothings.

"Ah, well, then I've seriously missed out much of this evening, haven't I?" he teased good-heartily and placed a short strand of her blond hair into the back of her ear, "Forgive this fool, would you now? You know how bad I feel about this all, especially now that I know you've been here with your best behavior and giving out your smiles to those stuck up dwarves, even though it must've been hard," he sighed and puckered out his bottom lip in a way he knew made him look like a wounded puppy, "Your smiles truly are the most beautiful thing on Middle Earth, I cannot even start to describe how much they brighten up my life every single day, cupcakes. How they haven't melted those dwarves' rock hearts already, I really don't know-," and, as usual, this was the part where he would start going silly, "They must all be blind, not realizing the gorgeousness that lies just in front of them!" he dramatically sighed out and captured the short girl in a crushing embrace, her face tightly against him - a little bit too tightly.

"There, there, Baby Bear. I'm here now, I'm always here for you," he muttered with a calming tone, "You got nothing to stress about anymore, you know I'll take care of everything. Just give me a little time and I'll make those little men open their eyes and see what a beautiful companion they've got for themselves for the journey. Soon they'll worship the very ground you walk on, I'll see to it. I make it happen for you."

Meri muttered grumpily against him and tried to free herself from his unwelcome bear hug, only to make him tighten his hold, squeezing the air out of her. She choked and muttered some more and struggled even harder, but Aleksi merely just petted her head, which ridiculously reached only to his chest, and shushed her grumbles with his admiring, pompous praises.


A sound of dishes shaking together behind them stole Aleksi's attention, and he glanced at the empty table behind them. His eyes widened as he saw a familiar barmaid quickly collecting the remaining dirty dishes from a deserted table, and not even giving him a glance before rushing off, carrying the full tray with her trembling hands. The girl had obviously witnessed the warm embrace and Aleksi's flattery, coming to an obvious conclusion.

"Shiiiit…!" Aleksi breathed out, letting go of Meri as fast as a lightning, making the girl stumble back and then immediately attack him with half-vicious punches and slaps. "Shit! Meri, just-. Ouch! Shit!" he cursed and tried to avoid Meri's bashing angry arms all while looking desperately after the long-lost barmaid to whom he had earlier given his time and efforts to.

Meri gave him few more angry hits before calming herself down and straightening her green tunic back to its' place with a business-like face. She had successfully collected herself from her little temporary slip of depression and was ready again to face more ill-like behavior from the dwarves.

"Aaiiii, man!" Aleksi choked a cry, his previous playful mood now long gone, "Meri, look what you did! Look what you just did there! Now she thinks that we're-aaaahh man…! You're such a cock-blocker!" Aleksi groaned sadly and buried his face into his hands.

Meri just gave him a raised eyebrow, her brain quickly putting the pieces together. Now she knew who had kept Aleksi busy earlier. "What I did? Bitch please, you were the one suffocating me." She gave a quick glance at the disappearing barmaid and turned back to Aleksi with a frowning face. "Really, Aleksi? A barmaid, tonight? Must you, really?"

"This is entirely your fault," Aleksi emphasized, his face still buried into his hands, "And don't 'really' me Meri, I didn't intend this to happen. As if I ever intend to. As it happened, I was keeping sharp watch at the bar for any signs of the company. Alright, maybe ordered a drink, some dried meat, another drink, stuff like that, you know how it goes. And then, out of nowhere, she just appeared in front of me, with a full pint of ale and a smile of an angel. Her hand kind of accidentally brushed against mine, and-well..." the man smirked behind his hands, "Gracious! I've never felt anything so soft in my whole miserable life. Who knew a gentle pearl like her was hidden here in the middle of nowhere? I just knew what I had to do after that."

Meri rolled her blue eyes at the hopeless man in front of her. Why did she even bother to act surprised anymore? She really should stop leaving him alone and unsupervised in public places when it always ended up with him either running after some one-night flings or getting into fights. Trust Aleksi to find himself a hookup on an evening as big as this.

"Uhhuh," she shook her head with an unhappy look, though she was more than used to things ending up like this, "Sure. It's always either 'Never seen a girl with such long eyelashes!' or 'Never had one with an actual beauty mole!' or 'Never kissed lips so full!'." She couldn't help but to allow a mocking smirk on her lips when thinking all the times they'd had this very same conversation. How many times had Aleksi's brown eyes lit up and breath hitched after spotting his new lady-enchantment for the night? How many times had she seen him turn into Don Juan and swoon a girl after a girl with his irresistible charms? How many times had she had to play the part of a wingman to get the boy happy and satisfied? Meri had lost the count already. She had lost her hope on him as well.

"And then there's my absolute favorite: 'Never been with one who could suck and talk at the same time!'," the girl sighed and massaged her temples, ignoring Aleksi's dreamy-eyed reply of "Hey, really now, that was a real talent!", and continued, "Seriously Aleksi, you need to pull your shit together man. I've let you have your fun for these last years, I've been cool about it and not gotten into your way, even if I've had my objections. But for this night, stars, for this one night, can't you keep it in your pants? Is it really that hard for you? This is important, Aleksi, it really is, and I'm starting to think that perhaps you don't get this the same way I do. If you allow yourself get distracted so easily, then maybe this whole thing means nothing to you. Maybe you don't just care as much as-,"

"Now wait a minute here! Don't you start talking about caring, Meri," Aleksi cut her talk with a serious face, getting a little worked up for hadn't he been just trying to make her feel better, "After everything we've been through together, I can't believe you're really doubting if I care. And don't you even begin with how much this means to me. I'm all for this, with every bit of me. There's not much anything else inside my head except this and you know it too," he muttered, tapping the side of his head, "You're not the only one who dreams, girl, nor the only one who keeps having nightmare after nightmare… and don't you forget that small, little detail even if it's you who happens to see them more than me. I've also had my share of it all, I'm no fuck-wit and I know exactly how important this all is for them and for us. So you can just cut that horseshit and stop trying to guilt me into your will. I already apologized for being late and that's really the only thing I can do at this point. Are you seriously going to be a complete bitch to me for god knows how long just because I try to take and hold onto whatever little sparks of enjoyment I can find in this miserable Middle Aged hellhole?"

Meri took a step back from the man and gazed at him with heavy eyes. She pursed her lips together and crossed her arms in front of her, taking a protective stance from Aleksi and his tempered words. To anyone else, they might have looked like they were having a steadily growing argument, one with harsh words and hidden insults, all the time ready to strengthen the attacks. But to them, this was a rather usual way to talk to each other when they needed to let out little steam every now and then. Things were said as they were, bluntly and with a strong mind, going straight to the point without any unnecessary extra flourishes. They had long ago passed the point of playing nice to each other out of polite reasons, these days they could say whatever they wanted, just as they thought of it, without having to care of the other's feelings. In a way, there was a perfect harmony in between them – they could show the best of themselves, as well as the worst, and neither one would judge the other. Sometimes they didn't even need the words, they just knew what the other was thinking as if they had known each other for their whole lives and not just few years.

"I'm not using any sort of guilt cards here, that's your way of doing things, not mine. I'm simply saying what worries me because truthfully you just seem to be waltzing around the place without the slightest care of the world. But whatever then, do what you want, that's what you always do anyways. I don't have the energy to start arguing with you and being a complete bitch, when you're clearly not going to give a damn of what I'd have to say. Just-, just try to watch your mouth and remember your manners from now on, at least until these dwarves tolerate us enough not to stab us whenever you're being a rude asshole to them," she said while tilting up her chin and promptly turning away from the man, "And if you'd now stop wasting my time already, I have some drinks to buy and dwarves to meet. Just-, just-, mmmrrr," she let out a girly growl of frustration, "-would you forget about the barmaids for one night!"

And with that she was off, marching toward the bar counter to get herself a drink and leaving slightly gaping Aleksi behind her.

"Watch your mouth…! Forget about the barmaids…!" he repeated to himself in a high pitched girly tone, "I only came here to make you feel better! How is it, that every time I try to help you, something unpleasant happens to me?" called after Meri, stomping a little on his feet when he was ignored, "And just how can I go and forget about the barmaid, when she has stolen my whole goddamn mind here?! Oi! Don't you run away from me girl when I speak to you! Meri! Get your ass back here!"

"Thorin, are you sure of this?" Balin asked with a low voice from the dwarf next to him, trying to keep the rest of the company out of the conversation, "Can they be trusted? I know they already know too much, but I can't help but to feel that something is wrong here… Wrong with them. Could it truly be that Mahal…," he trailed off, not knowing how to finish the sentence.

Thorin scoffed and answered with an equally quiet tone, "Of course they cannot be trusted, don't be blind my friend. We will not be played by some freakish man-children running around and telling these grand tales of dream-seeing and Valar and... We will not trust, not before we have our proof. We will keep our heads and be ready at any time, expecting with sharp eyes and our axes all set when things start taking a nasty turn. Let these Dreamers think what they want, let them believe they can fool us. Only time will tell what it is that they are truly after."

Balin hummed with a thought. "Oh, I know how bad things can go and my eyes are sharp enough for the both of us, you don't need to worry of that. But what concerns me is that the wizard seems consistent. There is no lie in his eyes Thorin, I don't even think his kind are allowed to deceive people like this. There was nothing but honesty and sincere wonder in his words. It makes me think… Of all sorts of possibilities."

"And eventually one of those possibilities will be the truth," Thorin said darkly, "Only I think once that truth is finally out, this all will end in blood and death."

Balin frowned at such words but couldn't shake off the bad feeling he had as well. "What a situation we've stumbled into..."

"WELL I'D SAY!" Dori suddenly exclaimed, having heard the whole thing and not being able to stay out of it anymore, "How we suddenly find ourselves in this sort of situation is well beyond me, but I find this all very unsettling and uncomfortable to begin with and would very much like to know just what in the name of Durin have we gotten ourselves into here? What is happening? Would someone kindly elaborate me just why are we trusting a single word of what these men-folk are trying to sell to us and most importantly why are we allowing them to join us in this sacred quest? I fail to see the logic here."

"Logic? Logic?" Gloin joined the conversation, "You think logic has any place in this? Logic is far from here, let me tell you. Can't you see it, we've became as simple-minded as all these men folk we have surrounding us here, that is the only explanation to all this! I warned you lot, this was a bad decision to come here. A bad, bad decision. Once we rode inside this horrid man-village, all the common sense in us just drizzeled off-, puff, gone! -into thin air, making us these same wood-headed idiots. At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised if the night ended up in an even bigger disaster than this! Maybe an orc raid to spice things up, what say you lads? No-, actually… I'd really fancy to kick some orc arse at the moment, come to think of it."

"Oh boohoo, stop with yer whinings 'n grow some balls already lads," Bofur spoke up with a good-humored snicker, "Ye're an unbelievable bunch, I'mma have to say! Here we got ourselves couple of seers to help us in our way, 'n all ye care to do is cry like wee dwarflings over the matter! Pains me ears off, if anything. Where's yer curiosity? Where's yer thirst of adventure? Le'mme tell ye, if anything these tale-tellers should rise quite a few good laughs from us on the long road!"

If he expected positive response from the company around him, he was very wrong. Instead, the hat-headed dwarf earned a firm slap at the back of his head from his cousin next to him, followed by a lecture in Khuzdul, the secret dwarven language, that ended with another slap on Bofur's arm and then another one at the back of his head again.

"I'd listen to Bifur lad, knows what he's sayin'," Dwalin muttered under his breath, his dark eyes glaring at the humans under his heavy brows, "Don't go takin' any interest in those two. Nothin' good ever came from gettin' friendly with the tall folk. Elves, men… Every bugger's the same. All them backstabbers and traitors. Keep yer distance from these Dreamers and sleep one eye open for now on, ye never know what'll happen in the darkest hours of the night with those two lurkin' around our camp."

Gandal cleared his throat and looked them all with irritated eyes, clearly very disappointed in them. "That'll be enough of suspicious talk for the night, thank you Master Dwalin. No need to feed the fire of distrust among this company no more when the flame is already burning so hot. I don't see any reason to place fault onto blameless shoulders. They did not make this happen, other forces did. They did not insist to be part of the company, I did. If you do not agree with the choices I have made, well, that is unfortunate and I'm sorry but you will just have to learn to accept and move on."

Dwalin bit back his tongue and slowly moved his dark eyes to Thorin, exchanging looks. 'The wizard's barkin' out orders as if he owned this whole company. It's ye I follow. Yer word I listen to, not his!' When Thorin gave him a slow nod as a sign to listen what Gandalf was saying, Dwalin sighed out hot air through his nose and clenched his jaw in a temper.

"Aye," he finally grunted out as an answer to the wizards, though he remained looking at his friend, "But don't mean I have to like it…" he grumbled out and crossed his arms in front of him, huffing out like his pride was wounded.

Gandalf eyed the way Dwalin's jaw ticked in aggravation and the wizard couldn't help but to add in though, "I also hope that any sort of unpleasant accidents that just might befall on Aleksi or Meri during our long way together can be avoided and stopped in time. As you said, you never know what will happen in the darkest hours of the night. No-one wants to wake up one morning with an axe buried in their backs, do they?"

Dwalin shot an offended look to Gandalf. 'Dwarves don't have the need to run around stabbin' people while they're helpless and sleepin', we've got all the means to do that when they're good and standin' and fightin' back! And as if I'd sink so low to raise my axes against little girls, no matter the race!' But then suddenly his frown turned up at tad, creating a mischievous look and his eyes sparkled in a scary sort of delight that made Gandalf not so pleased to notice. 'But. The man, however…'

"Ayee," Dwalin let out a low chuckle and leaned back in his chair with an oddly satisfied look on his face, "No-one wants accidents to happen," he granted and ended the conversation with a finishing nod and a smirk that fought back all that he was saying. 'Though, if it's trainin' and intentional, all is fair.'

"-and listen, I'm not kidding right now, I think it's the way that she can't even look me into my eyes longer than two fucking seconds that makes my man ego burst with pride and fill me with the need of taking and dominating. I swear it's like she's awakening some sort of a primitive animal in me that lashes around inside me and demands to make her surrender to me and then fill her with desire and pleasure. I'm a goner Meri. I'm a fucking helpless case. I need to have her. I'm not even kidding. I seriously have to have a taste of her. It's like I'm drunk, and I've only had two mugs of ale tonight-,"

"Shut. Up. Aleksi!" Meri hissed to the blabbering man beside her at the bar counter who wouldn't stop talking about his stupid little passing crush on the barmaid who had mysteriously disappeared from the saloon side of the tavern, "I couldn't care less of your silly conquest games so just bugger off and leave me to buy my drink in all peace! And stars, where's that barmaid when she's needed!"

"Well. I bet she's locked herself into some empty dark room to cry her eyes out because she thinks that she can't have me now that she saw you clinging onto me like some pathetic love-sick school girl. Thanks a lot Meri. You ruined my chances. I hope you're happy now," Aleksi grumbled out very much displeased and then sighed out longingly, "I should be there comforting her. Holding her tightly in my arms and whispering soft words to her ear. Gently stroking her back and hair and press her tear-stained face against my shoulder, let her tremble in my hold and clutch onto me like I was her last hope in this cruel world, her only source of light in the dark emotional state she is in. I should be there right next to her, giving her strength and faith to get over her sadness. Oh shit-," the man hissed and then sucked in a desperate breath, "-all the things I really should do to her after that…."

Meri glanced at him with unimpressed eyes. How the hell had her life turned out to be like this? Surely she didn't deserve whatever karma's revenge this was that had made her life like this. She was a good girl, wasn't she? Okay, she had had her difficulties in life just like most, but in general she liked to think that she turned out to be a nice girl who listened to her mum and loved and cherished the little family she had. She cared for her closest ones, always did as was told and rarely caused any major scenes, she went to school like a dutiful student, never stole anything or bullied anyone, never had fights which she regretted later or did any strong drugs, was only a half-alcoholic after turning 18, graduated on time and with good papers, got a job which she didn't completely hate and paid her goddamn taxes. She sorted her trash, sometimes took her old neighbor's even older cat Mrs. Fatty Catty to walks, hoped for world peace and prayed from time to time. Once she even donated blood. No completely rotten person would ever do that, right? So why was she punished like this? She was always a good, class B citizen, no better or worse than any other basic Joe on the street! She had built a nice basis for her life and had a good little thing going on, and plans for future. And now… Now. Now she was playing a hero, trying to save a couple damsel-dwarf in distress with man-whore as her sidekick. Meri slowly turned her head back towards the bar and silently stared into nothing, her eyes so empty it was sad. Her life was sad. Her mama would not approve.

'Sometimes in life, you might feel weak, dearie.' Meri closed her eyes and heard her mama's words, still clearly remembering what her voice sounded like, how the sound flowed in the air gently at first, with a soft female baritone, her words clear and well articulated but still smooth like an invisible caress to her hearing, tucking her mind into a warm, safe blanket with its' life-long familiarity, 'Sometimes, you might feel like you just cannot go on anymore. That you've taken one too many bitch slaps on the face and you're scared of getting even more hurt should you continue to do your own thing. You might feel like a failure. You might want to give up.' Meri knew the feeling so well. She had always been so insecure when her mama was always so strong and stable, standing on her ground with her own two feet. Her Mama Bear. 'But you don't, dearie. You don't give up. You'll never give up. Because that is when you remember that you don't have time for that shit when you have things to do and places to be and a lot of motherfuckers to prove wrong. Giving up isn't an option. Neither is education under my rooftop. So you have exactly five minutes to get your lazy-ass up that bed and go grab your breakfast and get to school or I swear I'll come up there and drag you to your class by your hair if I must!'

"Quite lost in your thoughts, are you dear girl?"

Meri jumped a little and let out an alarmed yelp and whipped her head to look at the owner of the voice that had managed to creep behind and spook her.

"Gandalf!" the girl protested and held her chest, "Don't scare me like that! Gosh, you almost gave me a heart attack! Don't do this kind of things to me, I'm very sensitive!"

The wizard just smiled and said; "My apologies, Meri. The scare was not intended." So he said, though he did not look sorry at all.

"Gandalf, my man!" Aleksi welcomed with a cheer and offered his hand with one grand gesture, "We didn't have any chance for proper greetings yet! It's been long since the last time, over a year or so?"

Gandalf looked at the outstretched hand with a humored expression, leaving it hanging there. "A year is a short time for an old man like me, I feel like it was only yesterday that you last bit your farewells."

Aleksi frowned and extended his hand even further. "You're supposed to shake it, man. Don't tell me your old age has started to mess around with your memory as well as it does with your grasp of time? Got any weight loss? Fragile bones? You do look a little pale and dusty. Sort of grey. Should we start being concerned here?"

Gandalf pursed his lips, looking offended and ignoring the pointed hand. "The state of my health is hardly the foremost thing you should mind yourself with. I dare to say I'm quite capable taking care of myself for many years to come still."

Aleksi frowned harder and stepped closer to the wizard, shoving his hand almost to his lap. "I wouldn't push it, man. Old people die all the time. To sickness. Overexertion. To cold. Usually they've already passed on before we even realize something's wrong."

Gandalf's eyes narrowed and chin raised. "As do young people. Often because of little mistakes. Bad decisions. By steel and violence. Most just die because they are unintelligent fools."

Aleksi's eyebrows rose high on his forehead, he hadn't missed the insult. He took another step closer, his nose almost touching the older man's bearded chin. Brown eyes stared into pale blue in a moment of silence, before Aleksi stubbornly pushed his hand against Gandalf's robes. "Shake it. Or I'll never let you have your personal space again."

Gandalf merely had the time to cock up one eyebrow when Meri yanked the blond man back by his hair. Aleksi let out a pained cry and stumbled backwards, the girl still gripping his hair. "Back off you moron, you're being painfully rude. Why'd you go and bully him like that?"

"Ai, stop it you devil of a woman!" Aleksi whined and wiggled himself out of Meri's hold, "Jesus Christ, my hair! What were you trying to do? Pull it off in chunks? Fuck me, just stay away you little monster."

Meri pulled a face at him and turned back to Gandalf. "I'm so sorry Gandalf. I'm so lost on what to do with him. He's like an unruly dog I just can't get to behave. Don't mind him and his stupid cheek, you're definitely not an old grandpa. I think you're looking very much healthy and in good spirits! No better way to start a long journey."

Gandalf nodded to the compliment and smiled to the girl. "No harm done, I know very well Aleksi didn't mean anything ill."

"See there!" Aleksi laughed and grinned toothily, latching himself onto Meri's shoulders, "Gandalf knows me! He knows I'm just playing around with him! What a bro!"

Meri shook the man off her shoulders and gave him a little glare. "If only you'd stop playing around and be serious every once in a while, maybe find some common sense in you, come on time to scheduled meetings… That's all I'm asking for."

Aleksi huffed out. "Uhhuh, but that's awfully lot to ask from me… Besides, it's not like I'm the only one to be a little late from gatherings, Gandalf does that half of the time and I see no-one giving him hard time because of it."

Gandalf stared at the man with calm facade. "Why. A wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to."

Aleksi and Meri froze to look at the wizard with dumbfounded expressions on their faces, Aleksi's mouth hanging open while Meri's eyes staring wide.

"What?" Gandalf asked, a little bothered of their unresponsiveness.

"Oh, oh nothing," Meri coughed an answer and scratched her neck, "It's nothing." 'Except just one fucking huge déjà vu moment, that's all.'

"Anyways, I guess I should go ahead and apologize to you too Gandalf," Aleksi sighed and looked a little uncomfortable with the task, "For being late and all… You know it wasn't intentional, I just own a very one-tracked mind that is easily distracted with pretty little things walking by. What can I say? The simplicity in me plays a big part in my charm. I couldn't survive for long without it. Though I'm not completely sure if it left a good first impression on the company."

Gandalf gave him a sly look. "I believe you were trying to say that 'your game was kind of weak my friend'?"

Aleksi chuckled while Meri looked at the wizard with a weird expression.

"You've been learning! I'm impressed!" the man winked.

"Please stop teaching people these things, Aleksi," Meri muttered, slightly choked up, "It's unnatural and weird, and it's upsetting me greatly."

"Then suck it up, girl," was Aleksi's answer, "I'll take my amusement where I can find it. Who knows, maybe one day we'll come across with someone who'll just casually greet me with 'Yo bro!' and a swift fistbump, then takes one look at you and says 'What's wrong with the lil doll? Girl seriously looks like she needs to take her chill pill.' and then taking his leave with one carefree wave of a hand and a 'Later dude.'. Wouldn't that be fucking great, or what? Like a dream come true."

Meri's stared at the man, feeling her eye twitching. Wordlessly she turned back to the bar, waiting for the long-lost barmaid so she could finally have her seriously needed drink. "I don't have the patience right now to deal with you. Gandalf, please, do tell why you've come to talk to us while I ignore that tiresome being behind me."

Gandalf stroked his beard and watched with mirth at the odd couple speak to each other. They still stuck out like a sore thumb from the common people around them and the wizard didn't know if it was a good or a bad thing. It was so strange for him, even after so long he could still sense the lingering touch of Aulë's magic in them, flowing inside them, pulsing in their blood and living in their cells. These two odd-birds, freaks even, who only had little place in the world they had been pushed into, no matter how hard they tried to blend in, had been chosen by a higher being to carry out this puzzling mission. Aulë had without a doubt seen something great and special in them, something big and promising, to have picked them out of all the others. There must have been a reason. Just like he had had his reason to choose Bilbo.

"Yes," the wizard mused out slowly, recalling why he came there in the first place, "Ah, yes, yes now I remember. Now that you are both here, it's perhaps for the best to have a little talk before you go and engage new conversations with the company. Mainly to you Aleksi, for Meri I have already talked to."

Aleksi's eyes narrowed slightly. "Come to think of it, I think a little talk is in order. Just exactly when were you going to pass us the news of the whole Smithing thing? You think it was clever of you to leave out these few itchy pitchy details when first giving us your opinion on what's happened to us? You think it was irrelevant for us to know that someone's been messing around with the inner parts of us? Fuck me, Gandalf if there's some disgusting alien parasite living inside my body that I've had no idea of, tell me now so that I killing myself right away with my own sword and all, fuck the dwarves and the Mountain. Can you look me in the eyes and tell me I haven't had my soul sucked out by some godly being during the process of coming here? Seriously man, should I be concerned?"


Out of nowhere, Meri banged her fists to the bar counter, startling Aleksi and Gandalf who then watched with a little confusion as the girl suddenly started jumping and hooping in joy; "Praise the Lord, the barmaid is finally here! Hey Lady, yes you there! Drinks! Drinks for all of us!"

Immediately Aleksi's eyebrows rose and his eyes went to search for the said maid, Gandalf being long forgotten from his mind. With a crushing disappointment, he saw another barmaid coming to serve Meri, this one with darker hair and hazel eyes that found his own with a quickly rousing interest in them. 'Pretty thing. But not my soft-handed maid.' Aleksi gave her a polite nod and a charming smile, but then turned his eyes from her, letting Meri do the ordering.

"So," the man cleared his throat with a little sheepish grin, knowing Gandalf had busted him eyeing the barmaid, "Guess we can sort out the deal with the living parasite a little later, yes? What was it you wanted to talk about? I'm all ears, good man."

"Sometimes I feel like giving up. Then I remember I have a lot of motherfuckers to prove wrong." -All those Queens and Kings out there

Thorin is one big mess, I overdid it so much I think I should be ashamed. I read an interesting theory about the thing with dwarves having a horrible eyesight and was immediately turned on by it. I just knew Thorin had to have it. What's one more thing to pile onto the huge mountain of things that's gone wrong with his life anyway? He can deal with it.

Took me a while to do this, it's annoying because I was adding things constantly and it still feels like it's unfinished. But oh well, it's time to give you this and move on to the next chapter. I have high hopes I can get the hell out of Prancing Pony real soon, not in the next chapter but maybe the one after it?

By the way, keep an eye on Frerin and everything that's mentioned of him. His death is a sad and confusing one and I plan to drop little hints of it every once in a while.

Thanks to MissCallaLilly and dragonegyptianblue for their reviews, it's great to see you're liking my story! As to when Meri's going to tear Thorin a new one, well, it's going to be a while until we get to that point of frustration. She's a complicated little thing (as most women are) and it might take her a while to get so comfortable around Thorin to act completely like herself.

Tell me what's on your mind, give me feedback, ask me questions. I'm more than happy to reply.

Stay positive and motivated, the spring is coming. Drink with responsibility and remember to use protection, I know what the thought of summer does to you all. You animals.

With cheers and all,

Miss Always Wrong.