"Somebody break these chains wrapped around my heart."
-Shaman's Harvest: "In Chains"
Kili slept dreamlessly for the first time in a very, very long while. He woke exhausted anyway, but he thought that might have had something more to do with the cloying forest air than anything else.
When he and Gwen had returned the previous night, Thorin's watch was over, and a barely conscious Dori and Oin had taken over, and while Kili and Gwen got curious, sleepy looks, on their return, they weren't questioned. They settled down silently, side by side, and Kili was glad to have the spaces next to him filled. He had Fili, sleeping soundly next to him, and Gwen on his other side. It felt safe.
Gwen tried to leave some space between them, but Kili was having none of that. He was tired and wanted to be warm and comfortable. He set an arm about her waist and pulled her into him, and she just laughed softly as she rolled over, her shoulders fitting easily against him. It was far too dark to see, but Kili was only a bit surprised as he felt a small hand on his cheek, and then warm lips pressing against his in a silent kiss.
A goodnight kiss, he thought giddily, bubbling warmth swelling up inside him as he squeezed her a bit tighter. The warmth of her kept out all thought of ill reality until he was fast asleep.
He woke wrapped unusually tight about Gwen, his arms around her shoulders, her elbow jabbing into his ribs, but he didn't dare move yet. He had to think a bit before she realized he was awake. There were things he needed to remember. This was his Gwen. She was there. In his arms. She was sleeping against him. Alright. That was reasonable. He could take that in stride.
Of course, it was important to note that his Gwen wasn't quite human, but rather an elf. A wood elf. A four-hundred-year-old wood elf. That was…harder to take in. Harder to believe. It seemed like something—or someone—so old should feel more different to hold, more…historic. But she still felt warm, and fairly bony and just like she always did.
Breathing and alive and old.
He always thought he'd have been alright being with an older woman, but he had never considered how far he'd be willing to take that.
And then there were factors there other than just her age. She was a wood elf.
Thorin hated them, they were skilled bowmen, and frightening. That's as much as Kili knew, and the majority of that came straight from his uncle. He'd seen the elves of Rivendell of course, but he had been lead to believe that wood elves were quite different than them. Well, if they were anywhere near as difficult and prickly as Gwen, he hoped they wouldn't be running into any. One Gwen was quite enough to keep him busy.
A wood elf. Pointy ears. Four hundred years old. That was…That was something to wrap his brain around. He couldn't tell if his line of thinking was making him sick with anxiety or excitement.
But then…then, of course, he'd also learned that she loved him. That was somehow the most completely unbelievable part of his memories for the night, but they were the parts he remembered with best clarity. She loved him. At least she'd said so. And he'd said it back. And he loved her.
Mahal, he needed to start having less exciting evenings.
Gwen took in a sharp breath, her sudden awakening startling him. She steadied herself with short, quiet pants while Kili drew himself away from her to give her space, though distinctly he missed her warmth. She blinked up into the gray air, and Kili deduced that her rest hadn't been quite as dreamless as his. He frowned, resting a hand on her arm. "You alright?"
She nodded curtly, glancing at him, then back up to the sky, as if to assure herself that he was there. Another few moments passed before she had gotten her wits about her enough to roll back over to him. Ignoring properness entirely, Kili let his hand rest on her hip, gently pulling her closer.
"What happened?" he asked softly, propping his head up on his arm.
Gwen rubbed at her eyes, still shaking off the dregs of sleep. "It was a dream from home."
Kili nodded slowly, recalling that she had told him something like this before. Repeating dreams. "Darkness?" He guessed.
She hummed in assent, lost a bit in contemplation. "It's…strange. They're getting stronger."
"Stronger?" Kili repeated warily.
"I don't know why."
"Perhaps it's the forest," Kili suggested.
"Perhaps…" Her eyes cast out over his shoulder at the trees, and a frown borne from thought or worry creased her brow. "I…I don't know."
Kili glanced about quickly. Balin and Gloin were awake, and beginning to stir the others into consciousness, but none were looking towards them. This in mind, he leaned forward, brushing a kiss onto the corner of her mouth before she could protest.
He was admittedly quite proud that this got her to smile, even through all her worrying.
Gwen sat up, and Kili let his hand fall away from her as he rolled onto his back, stretching his exhausted muscles with a yawn. Thorin was awake if his ears didn't deceive him, and they'd be walking again soon enough.
Kili wasn't sure what he had been expecting from the day, but it was much more than what he was getting.
He had imagined that it would be at least a bit different. A bit more interesting, now that he knew who—or what, really—Gwen was. And even more interesting now that they were…in love, or however that was supposed to be said. Were they courting now? Did she want them to be? They had kissed a few times, but what did that mean to her? Kili wished he could have asked, but never found the time. Gwen kept busy, chattering with Ori, Fili or Bilbo. Kili watched her carefully when he wasn't busy with his own conversations.
He was likely just imagining things, but suddenly, she looked more elven than anything he'd ever seen. How had he not noticed it? How had the others not noticed it? She walked like she was gliding, her feet knowing every best step to take in her ancestral home. Every noise caught her attention as if each movement in the forest was a part of her. She mixed with the shadows flawlessly, seeming to disappear into the brush and trees as if she were just another ancient plant growing from the ground. It was curious and unnerving, and Kili didn't dare say a word about it to her. He suspected that she wouldn't like to know that.
The forest was just as miserable as always, and by the time they had stopped for a brief lunch, Kili was very happy to rest his sore feet. His head felt almost cloudy, but he wrote that off too hunger. The bit of bread he got from his pack was growing stale, but it was something to fill his stomach. He had just chased the terribly dry mouthful down with water when Fili tapped him on the shoulder.
Kili looked up curiously. "Hm?"
"Come on," Fili said, jerking his head towards the path.
"What?" Kili said. "Why?" He didn't want to walk more. His feet were entirely too tired for that.
"I have something to show you," Fili said. He was lying, that was as clear as day.
Kili narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "That sounds …odd. What are you on about? Have you been eating mushrooms?"
"Oh, just come on," Fili huffed, grabbing Kili's arm to pull him up to his feet.
Kili wrestled his arm back, but stood, sighing. "You're mad."
Fili ignored his comment, leading them away from the ears of the company, down the path.
"What's wrong?" Kili asked when they were out of earshot.
"Nothing," Fili said. "I just wanted to talk to you in private."
There was a glint in his eyes that Kili didn't like. "Why?"
"Because something happened between you and Gwen!"
Kili groaned. He didn't need to have his brother prying like this. He wanted to tell Fili about Gwen—of course, he wanted to. But he didn't know if Gwen would be alright with that. He would tell Fili. Just not yet.
"It did?" Kili asked, feigning ignorance.
Fili wasn't having a bit of that. "Sod off. You know it did."
"How do you know that then?" Kili asked.
"I can see it on your faces."
Kili raised a brow. "What?"
"I just know you two well enough," Fili said smugly. Kili was still giving him a hard look, so he shrugged, admitting, "Well, that and I woke up last night to find both of you gone. I asked Thorin and he told me you'd gone gallivanting off into the woods. So, the connection wasn't hard to make."
"Oh alright," Kili huffed. "Something did happen?"
Fili smirked, nudging him with an elbow. "Something?"
His tone was suggestive, and while Kili was a full-grown dwarf who lived a very mature life, dammit, he still found himself blushing. It was Gelda all over again. Kili shoved him right back, harder. "Sod off, you pervert. Not like that."
"A passionate rendezvous in the forest at night," Fili suggested, disregarding his brother's words completely. "Dwalin would be proud."
Kili almost gagged at the concept of Dwalin knowing anything about any kind of his 'rendezvous.' And then again, he was gagging at the thought of Dwalin having his own…No. Just no.
Fili was full out cackling by the time Kili had erased those thoughts from his mind. "You're disgusting," Kili observed as Fili laughed at his own teasing. "Honestly, disgusting."
"Mahal, you know I'm joking," Fili chuckled, regaining his composure. "If you two get married, I'll be her brother. And if she's my sister, and you're deflowering her in the forest," Kili couldn't help but cringe at the phrasing. "I'd probably have to kill you," Fili explained. "And since you're my brother, if someone killed you, I'd have to take them out, and well, that just sounds like a terrible mess, doesn't it?"
Kili chuckled, despite himself. He knew Fili was just being funny to put Kili back at ease after all that teasing, and as much as he would have liked to resist, he couldn't. Fili had known him all his life. They knew each others' senses of humor inside and out. It was infuriating and wonderful all at the same time. "Just stop talking, Fee."
"You don't really want that," Fili assured him. "Although I will have to let you talk, so you can tell me what happened last night."
"Nothing happened," Kili lied easily.
"I'm not taking that answer."
"Well, it's the truth," Kili shot back.
"Is not," Fili retorted, shoving him a bit to prompt him into speaking. "Come on, Kee. I'm so bored with this twice-damned forest I'll rip my own eyes out presently if you don't give me something interesting."
"She likes me," Kili admitted. Perhaps Gwen wouldn't be happy with him for sharing that, but he couldn't really care. Fili was terribly convincing, and Kili would have been lying if he said a small part of him didn't want someone to talk to about all of that with.
"Well obviously," Fili replied drily, though Kili could tell by the twinkle behind his eyes that he was fighting back a pleased grin. "Was there some great confession of your undying love? Rending of garments? Tearful outbursts?"
"Not quite," Kili said, rolling his eyes. "She just…Aye. I think we might have something."
"I should hope you do," Fili snorted, clapping him on the shoulder. "I don't know how you're going to make it work." Kili sighed, feeling his head start to ache just at the thought. It was more complicated than Fili could possibly realize. Before he could speak, his brother continued. "But I suppose you'll have to."
Kili let out a breath of relief. Yes. That was right. That was what he needed to hear. Suddenly, he was being wrapped in a firm hug. His brother was solid and so familiar and Kili smiled and hugged his brother just as tight. They parted after a moment, and Kili said, "Thank you."
"Of course. And…" Kili saw a flash of something different over his brother's gaze. "Is that it?"
"What do you mean?" Kili asked.
"Just…is that all that happened?" Fili seemed almost as if he didn't want to ask that question. Admittedly, Kili certainly wished he hadn't.
"Aye, Fili," he chuckled, refusing to let any of the panic that bubbled up inside him show. He didn't like lying very much. Especially not to his brother. "That's all the gory details you're going to get."
He was a bit surprised that Fili just laughed back at that and clapped him on the shoulder. "Oh, aye, whatever you say."
"I'm hungry," Kili told him, feeling his stomach let out a low growl. He tried not to let on how relieved he was.
Fili laughed. "Aye, so am I. Let's get back before your lass has a fit."
His lass. Kili would have complained at his teasing tone, but he couldn't deny that he liked the sound of that. His lass.
They started back towards the company, but of course, Fili couldn't resist the urge to tease more. "So, did you two you know…?"
"Sod off," Kili chuckled, punching Fili's shoulder.
The leaves crunched under his feet. It was the only sound in the air other than his low humming. The forest was familiarly quiet. Soft and gentle, pulsing like silky warm water over his skin. Darkness wrapped him from head to toe, and he was a shadow, one with the peace around him.
The path that was familiar lead him winding through trees that stood older and taller than time. Wiser than him and wiser than he would ever be. Massive and dark, they were.
He was content.
Content for the first time in far too long.
Content to follow this path, to listen to the humming sound of his own voice, singing a song he didn't know.
The cave yawned wide and dark before him. Like a wraith, he slid from one darkness into another. Now his footsteps echoed over the stone, ringing around his head. His humming boomed louder than before, but it was a rallying sound. He enjoyed its tune. It was like a hundred whispering voices with his.
"Kili?" The sound of metal scraping on the floor.
It was dark, but he saw her like she was lit up by some cold moonlight. Paler than ever, mottled with shades of blue and brown and green. Bleeding from the lips. Curled on the ground, clutching her shackles to her chest with the hopelessness of a prisoner who has resigned themselves to their cell.
She shook her head.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"How did you get here?"
The chains were shifting, and Kili saw they lead far down the cave to something he couldn't see. A trail of unbreakable metal, slinking and scraping as it tightened.
Gwen's eyes were wide with panic. "Help."
"How did you get here?"
The slack was creeping and slinking closer to her. Like a snake winding along the sand, hissing and creeping and clanking, its jaw peeling open wide.
"Help. Help. Help."
She wasn't looking but she knew it. She could feel its breath. Hear it nearing her. She knew the flicker of its forked tongue as its whispers grew louder in Kili's humming.
Her wrists jerked from her chest as the beast came near enough to snap.
"Help. Help, help, help, help help helphelphelphelp
He blinked up into the sticky night air.
Fili was on watch. Not with him. Awake, sitting up with Nori, talking. Gwen was sitting up against the tree at their heads, her knees pulled to her chest, hands clutching into her loose hair. He blinked again and sat up. "What's wrong?" he croaked, voice sticky with sleep.
She glanced up at him and shook her head. She wasn't crying, but there was a pool of voracious darkness behind her eyes, threatening to swallow him whole. Shifting.
He was holding her before he knew it, nudging her hands out of her hair to grab her face firmly between his palms. He was holding her.
"You should have told me," he marveled, as he looked down at her. Warm and whole and real. Too familiar in the darkness and the moonlight.
"What?" she breathed as she peered at him.
"You should have told me," he sighed, holding her tighter as he let his forehead fall against hers. "Gwen, I want to help you."
She was worried. He could see it in her face. It was like she knew what he meant. Of course she knew though, she was there.
"What did you see?"
He blinked in confusion.
"Your dream," she murmured, her eyes searching his face almost frantically.
"A dream." It had been…It had been that, hadn't it? So why was there such dread on her face? "I…" As he spoke, the dream was slipping away like sand through his fingers. He tangled his fingers deeper into her hair, trying to hold on. "I don't know."
She let out a breath, and her hands came up to hold his wrists gently, but firmly. "Are you alright?"
He nodded against her, exhaustion mixing up his thoughts. However much he wanted to stay awake, wanted to think, he couldn't. Sleep was drawing at his eyelids. "Are you?"
She nodded too.
"I'll help you," he said as she drew his hands away, and pulled back away from him. "I promise I'll help you."
She hummed, but carried on laying him down into his bedroll. "Sleep now."
He shook his head. "You too."
She frowned. "Kili…"
"You too," he said again, holding out his arms. His eyes were already falling closed, heaviness making his head impossible to move. "Please."
She sighed and joined him. She was stiff in his arms and he wanted to ask about it but he couldn't.
The company was weary, but they managed to wake. Most of them wished that they hadn't. The journey through the forest seemed eternal, but as always, they stood, packed their things, ate what they could, and marched. Kili kept Gwen in the corner of his eye. She looked tired. More tired than usual.
While any hints of jovial conservation had died days ago, they filled the air with complaints. 'Air," Bofur moaned into the humid, sweet fog. "I need air."
"You have air," Gwen mumbled back. Kili couldn't tell if it was supposed to be a joke, but no one laughed.
"Is it lunchtime yet?" Ori asked softly.
"I don't know," Dwalin mumbled. "I cannot see the sun."
It was just that achingly dull, gray light.
"Can't we just rest and eat now?" Bilbo suggested, almost pleading.
Kili expected that Thorin would reply to that, but Gwen got in before he could. "We haven't the time or the food for that," she said. Her tone was tired but firm.
"We have food," Bombur mumbled back.
Gwen turned to look at him sharply, and Kili got a good look at her face over Bombur's shoulder. She was pale, and her eyes were bloodshot. She looked almost ill. Then again, none of them were looking quite well. "How long do you think that food's going to last?"
"Another week," Bombur suggested, shying away from her gaze. "Maybe two?"
Gwen shook her head, and turned, to keep on down the path. "And if we are in the forest for three weeks?"
"Three weeks?" Thorin repeated, suddenly jumping into the conversation. "You said it would take two."
"If we get lost, or attacked—"
"We have a guide," Thorin said to her pointedly. Kili groaned. He didn't need them arguing again. "A guide who has assured me that it would take us two weeks to pass through the forest unhindered."
"Perhaps your guide cannot be certain whether we will remain so unhindered, Master Dwarf.
"Our lives and this quest are depending on your certainty," Thorin snapped. At this point, they had stopped completely, the rest of the company watching the disagreement in unamused dread. They had seen far too many arguments between the two of them borne from little more than mutual dislike.
"Those lives include mine," Gwen shot back. "I am in the most fragile position of all. Do you not think that I know that you would tie me to a tree and let me starve to death if it meant your company would go on with full stomachs?"
Thorin let out a breath. "I would not tie you to a tree," he said gruffly, turning away from her and starting back up the path. "You might tell the creatures of this forest in which direction we'd gone."
Kili cringed but took back a shuffling pace with the others. Thorin was so near to having said something nice. But he just couldn't let Gwen have that satisfaction, could he? He didn't think Thorin would really let Gwen starve.
He wouldn't entertain thoughts such as that. He was hungry enough as he was.
He caught up with Gwen in a moment, as she was still standing at the side of the path, the company marching around her. Kili expected that he might find her fuming, but instead found something a good deal more worrisome. Fili was saying something to her, but she was only responding with a nod. Perhaps he was just seeing things, but it looked like she was almost swaying a bit. Kili's own head was spinning, of course, as it usually did, but he didn't like seeing that she was so affected.
Fili left her with a pat on the shoulder that sent her stumbling a step, and Kili tried not to sound too worried as he approached her. "You alright, love?"
She looked down at him and smiled wryly, reaching up to fuss with the edges of her scarf. Her hands seemed to be shaking. "Fili asked me that too. Of course, I am." Kili didn't really believe that for a moment. He peered up into her eyes, looking for something that she was hiding from him. "I'm tired," she explained, avoiding his gaze.
That sounded honest. Kili nodded slowly, his mind still churning. She wasn't going to say it, but he could tell, something was off. The rest of the company had gone on up ahead, so Kili let himself reach out to take up her hand. He pressed a kiss to her knuckles. They were clammier than usual. "Tell me if I can help."
"Of course," she muttered. It sounded as unconvincing as ever.
It wasn't an easy day of travel. Not by a very long shot. Exhaustion pooled heavily in Kili's limbs, and it was too hot and too cold all at the same time. The air was soupy and wrought with a strange tension. It felt almost like he had a fever. He kept his head down, as they all did, watching the heels of Fili's boots in front of him, and the toes of Gwen's out of the corner of his eye. She seemed to be doing just as poorly as him. Just as poorly as all of them, really.
The company didn't bother trying to talk. Any conversations ended in an argument or in discomfort. It was the longest day Kili had gone through in quite some time.
He wasn't sure how many hours had passed when he noticed Gwen drifting further away from him. By the time he looked up, she had wandered off the path entirely, about to pass between two trees. "Gwen," Kili called out sharply.
She froze and looked up at him, blinking. The rest of the company came to a stumbling and mumbling halt. "You wandered," Kili told her when she didn't move. "We have to stay on the path, remember?"
Gwen shook herself slightly out of her stupor and started back towards the company. "Right. Of course. We have to stay on…" Just feet away, she stopped, her gaze falling to the ground. "The path."
"Love?" Kili prompted gently.
"The path," she said again, more urgently as her eyes widened in panic. "You're not on the path."
"What?" Fili said.
This sentiment was echoed by the others as they all moved to look down under their feet. As Kili did, his heart dropped. She was right. Under his feet, there was nothing but leaf mold and moss. No stone. No path.
A stream of strange words spilled out of Gwen's mouth as she whirled around, prodding about for a path with the rest of them.
Kili was stunned. "What…What happened?"
"We wandered," Thorin said simply.
"This is not my fault," Gwen said, turning to Thorin, dazed but upset.
"I never said it was," Thorin bit back. "I believe that was you that mentioned that it's your fault."
Gwen was starting to snarl, and Kili rubbed at his eyes. "Childish."
Both of them turned on him suddenly, and if Kili's wits were more about he would have recognized what a bad thing that was.
"Excuse me?" Thorin said, lifting a brow.
"You're childish," Kili repeated, more confidently than ever before. "Both of you. You bicker and you fight like bloody children, getting in digs wherever you can, secret snarks, little victories. You both act like I'm so terribly immature when you're having…having tantrums because you're too stubborn and independent to ever actually work well with another person and it's so daft." Kili took in a breath, surprised a bit by his own outburst. "Daft," he repeated, shaking his head. That wasn't the best word for it, but it was all he had.
"Kili…" Her tone was unreadable, but her eyes were dark. With anger? Upset? He couldn't tell, and couldn't really care. He meant every word he said.
"Path's gone!" Bofur cried out, breaking the web of tension that had formed between the three of them.
"I think it's this way," Gloin called.
"No!" Gwen cried suddenly. "Stop! All of you! Don't leave!"
It seemed reluctant, but the dwarves responded to the panic in her tone.
"She's right," Bilbo added. "She's right. It's growing dark. It's not worth it to wander out there tonight."
"No," Gwen said softly, then louder, "No. We have to find the path."
She was scared. He could see it on her. Feel it. Scared. He would have to ask her about that later.
"Find the—" Bilbo scoffed. "It's too dark to see the path."
"It's barely yet sundown," Gwen shot back.
"How can you tell?" Dori shot back, accusatory.
"I just know, alright?" Gwen huffed.
"We find the path tonight," Thorin said. Kili turned to him in surprise. The shadows rendered him unreadable, but Kili could see in his posture that he was not happy. But then…was he agreeing with Gwen? "Bombur, Oin, Ori, you stay here, as a stationary meet-up area. Start up a fire. We'll be able to see the light for a good hundred yards." Bombur and Ori nodded, going off to fetch firewood, while Oin seemed not to hear the orders. Thorin had straightened and was using his authoritative voice. This was the Thorin Kili knew. The leader. "Fili, Kili, you're together. Head out back down the way we've walked. Not more than half an hour, though, and if it gets too dark to track, come right back." Kili felt his brother take place at his side and nodded. Thorin went through to pair off the remains of the company, himself with Balin, Ori with Dori, Bifur with Bofur, Dwalin with Nori and Bilbo with Gwen. They each picked their directions and agreed to go only as far as they could still see the firelight.
It was a wasteful wish, but Kili did wish that Thorin would have let him be paired with Gwen. She was nervous. He could read it clearly from her which meant that she was really nervous. He wanted to ask her what was wrong but didn't get to say more of a goodbye to her than a swift nod.
"I don't know if this was wise," Fili observed as they set off through the trodden-down path that brought them there.
"I don't understand it myself," Kili admitted, shaking his head. "But if Thorin and Gwen both agreed on it, there has to be something to it."
"I'm just glad they have something they can agree on."
Kili snorted a dry laugh. "Aye. Me too."
They broke their vow to Thorin a wee bit perhaps, but Kili had a strong feeling that they were getting closer every moment. The tracks became weaker and weaker as they followed them back as if the forest itself was trying to erase their presence, but Kili was able to hang onto the trail long enough to find the road again. It cut steeply up a hill, and it seemed that they had somehow missed this entirely, wandering off instead through a deer-path. A daft mistake, but an honest one.
Kili and Fili's spirits were certainly a bit lifted as they made their way back, leaving as many markers as they could to help guide them back later on, when they had the rest of the company. Broken branches, arrows of rocks, scored tree trunks. They knew that they would need all the help they could get not to lose their precarious trail.
"Do you hear that?"
Kili stopped in his tracks at his brother's question, listening hard. Fili stopped as well, and in the silence, over the chirping of strange birds and bugs, he heard voices. "Aye. Does that sound like Gwen and Bilbo to you?"
Fili nodded. "We'd best go tell them we've found the path."
"No," Kili said, stopping him before he could start towards their voices. "We have to follow our own tracks back, remember? We'll be lost if we wander."
Fili's eyes widened in shock. "Oh. Aye, of course, Kee." He shook his head. "Can't believe I forgot."
Kili gave him an assuring smile. "These trees have gotten all of us thinking poorly."
Fili returned his smile weakly, and they pressed on down the trail further. The voices grew stronger. "It seems we might run into them anyway," Kili said once a few minutes had passed. "Should we call out? It might be safer if we went back together."
"Something sounds off," Fili observed, coming, once again, to a wary halt.
"What do you mean?" Kili asked, lowering his voice in suit.
Kili did as best he could. They weren't speaking loudly so Kili couldn't make out their words, but it seemed as if they were just having a regular sort of conversation. "I don't—"
"No, it's there. Something's off with Gwen."
"Oh." He didn't like that one bit. "Off? What do…" He heard it. An odd lift to her tone. One that he hadn't heard before.
"Should we listen in?" Fili asked.
Kili was already moving to do just that. He motioned for his brother to follow him as he crept forward through the woods, closer to the voices. Fili rarely approved of Kili's eavesdropping ways, but it seemed he was making an exception this time.
"Come on," Gwen prompted. "You must have…"
They were still too far to catch the end of her phrase, or Bilbo's low response, so they kept moving until the pair was in sight. They were barely visible, in the growing shadows of the sunset, but Kili could see they walked side by side, slowly, back in the direction of camp.
"Really," Bilbo insisted as they came clearly into earshot. "There really wasn't much trouble."
"There's no need to be humble, Master Hobbit," Gwen chuckled.
"I assure you," Bilbo chuckled back, almost sounding nervous. "There is no…ah, false humility here."
"Now, Bilbo, don't make me accuse you of lying."
He exchanged a look with Fili. That was…Not Gwen-like. Too forward. Too forceful.
Bilbo was clearly growing uncomfortable. "A good Baggins like me? No, no, my dear, you wouldn't…"
"A good Baggins like you," she mused. "No, no of course. You wouldn't lie. Certainly not."
"Right you are," Bilbo chuckled
Fili and Kili hurried along another few feet to keep up with them.
"So, I can expect that you'll answer a question for me honestly, Master Bilbo."
"That—Yes," Bilbo stuttered. "I can't imagine why I wouldn't."
Gwen stopped dead and Fili and Kili tried not to trip over themselves in their haste to stop without being noticed. It seemed they were successful, but now they were close enough to see Gwen fix Bilbo with a searching gaze. Almost…predatory. She dropped into a crouch, bringing her eye-to-eye with the hobbit. "Tell me, Bilbo, what is it you're hiding?"
Bilbo was taken aback. "Wha—You—What do you mean?"
Kili recalled suddenly, the conversation they'd had back at the carrock, seemingly weeks ago. She'd said Bilbo had seemed off somehow. Uncomfortable. Was this her following through on that? It seemed…Strange. What was this fixation she had?
Her tone was light. Too light. "I believe you know what I mean."
"No, no," Bilbo said. "I really don't. Now, don't you think—"
"What have you got in your pocket?"
Gwen's tone was chillingly calm. Something bad twisted in Kili's gut. Bilbo's pocket. He'd noticed something about that too, but it had just been an acorn, then. But if it was just an acorn, then why was Gwen asking about it like this? And why was Bilbo taking a step back in fright?
"I…" He laughed again, but it was shaking. "Nothing."
"Good Baggins like you," Gwen said, standing back to her full height and closing the distance between them again. "You should know that it really isn't respectable to lie. Especially when being asked such a simple question. Now, why don't you just tell me what it is?"
"Why do you need to know?" It came out almost as a squeak.
He felt Fili grip his arm, but Kili couldn't look away. That was…This wasn't Gwen. She was looming and shadowed and frightening.
"Give it to me—"
A branch snapped, and Kili jumped about half a foot in the air. Gwen's gaze snapped up, and Kili knew that she saw them. An almost imperceptible shiver passed through her as she locked eyes with him. She didn't acknowledge him further, but something had quite suddenly changed in her.
It was as if the shadows that held her slipped away as she fell back into a crouch before Bilbo, who was still flinching away. "Bilbo."
Even just in her voice, she was an entirely different person.
Bilbo lowered his defensive arms. "What…"
"I'm sorry," Gwen said, shaking her head. The grip on Kili's elbow loosened, and he could glance over to Fili. He was frowning. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I don't know what…what that was."
"It's…It's quite alright," Bilbo managed.
"I…" Gwen let out a breathy laugh, releasing more tension away from them with her breath. "It's this forest. I'm…"
"Don't worry about it," Bilbo chuckled in turn. He sounded shaken, but not so afraid as before. "We're…None of us are feeling quite up to snuff, are we?"
"No. We are not." She stood, looking over at Fili and Kili through the branches. "Well, look who we have here!"
Fili had to thump him on the back for Kili to acknowledge that this was their cue. Just as Bilbo turned, they pushed through the low hanging branches, plastering smiles to their faces. "Fancy meeting you here," Kili called as they neared.
"Hello," Bilbo greeted, smiling grimly.
"I thought you were supposed to be following the trail back," Gwen said.
"We did," Fili explained. "We found the road. We're just on our way back to let you lot know."
"Well, I guess that makes our job a mite bit easier," Bilbo chuckled.
"Come on," Fili said, coming forward to clap Bilbo on the shoulder. "Let's head back to the others." Bilbo seemed happy to be lead away, but Fili gave Kili a look over his shoulder as they started.
Kili nodded, understanding without needing explanation. He and Gwen stayed back, listening to Fili's jovial conversation with Bilbo retreat.
"For someone as thickheaded and dwarven as you, you are so bloody sneaky," Gwen said, breaking the silence.
Kili rubbed at his eyes. "What in Mahal's name was that, Gwen?"
"I don't know." All of the humor had left her voice, and she was left sounding hollow.
She looked almost sick, and Kili couldn't help but pity her a bit. She did appear genuinely distraught. He pulled close to her, placing a gentle hand on her arm. "Just…What was that?" he asked again. "I've never seen you like that."
She shook her head. "Kili, I…I don't…That's never happened before." She took in a shaking breath.
He searched her face to try and see what was going on but came back blank. "I think you have some idea of what that was."
"It's…" She struggled to find the words. "It's never been this strong."
"What has?" he prompted.
"The call," she said, softly, as if too afraid to say it louder. "The voices. The dreams. The…pull."
"The dreams?" The ones she had told him of? The repeating ones of shadow and darkness?
"I don't think I…Bilbo. He's been odd ever since the goblins. Or…I've heard things. Felt this pull. Curiosity."
Kili nodded slowly. "You mentioned at the carrock that something seemed odd."
"I don't know if I was seeing things. Of if it was the dreams or something else. But…Something came over me." She was beginning to grow more confident in what she said, and Kili didn't dare interrupt it. "It's been growing, but all of the sudden, I needed it. I needed to know what it was…What he's been hiding. I never meant…"
"I know you didn't mean to," Kili assured her. "That…that wasn't you."
"I don't think it was."
She was scared. Scared of herself, or something else. "Don't be frightened," he told her, giving her arm a squeeze.
"You saw me," she said back sharply. "You saw…you saw what I did. And I did too. It was like I was out of my body, watching. Just…Watching it happen, and not stopping. I couldn't…" she trailed off, swallowing back her words. He felt her arms twitching in his hands as if she wanted to fidget, but she just shook her head instead. "It's over now." Kili gave an agreeing nod. "I'll have to apologize to Bilbo again later," she sighed, shrugging of Kili's grasp to fuss the edge of her scarf.
"Perhaps," Kili said. "He seemed a bit shaken."
"Of course he was."
She looked like she was about to go back towards the others, but he halted her with a phrase. "Are you alright?"
Gwen stopped, and turned back to him, searching for an answer in the trees around them. "A storm is coming," she observed softly.
Kili frowned. "Do you mean literally, or…?"
"Both," she shrugged. "You can always feel storms coming from miles away. That's the really dreadful thing about them." Kili took pause, letting the feeling of the air wash over him as she spoke. "You can see it in the leaves, smell it in the breeze, feel the tension in the air and down your spine."
She was right. The wind was insistent but warm. Heavy.
"You can feel it coming, growing worse for hours or days, but you never…you never know…"
She trailed off, and Kili offered, "When it's going to break?"
Kili took in a deep breath of the air. The storm was distant, but she was right. It was coming. "Don't you like storms?" he asked, drawing her attention away from the canopy, back to him.
"No. Not much."
She didn't give him much to work with, but Kili was determined that he could lift her spirits some at least. "You know, it's curious. I hate being helpless. Always have. When I was young, I was terrified of storms. I hated them. When we heard one coming, Ma would lock the doors, and close the windows, and try to keep me from noticing it, because I would get so bloody angry at how scared I was. Screaming, kicking, crying."
"Kili," she began exasperatedly. He could hear in her voice that she thought he was just telling a fairy-story to try and make her feel better. That was only partially true.
He shushed her, to the rolling of her eyes, before he sat down on the ground with a thump. She followed a moment after, and Kili felt much better settled. "Of course, one night, a storm broke right over us. A terrible thing. Driving rains, the loudest thunder I'd ever heard. I started my usual fit, but Thorin was over that night." Gwen grimaced. "And believe it or not, he wasn't too happy to see me terrorizing my brother and mother over something so silly as a bit of rain. So, he threw me over his shoulder, and took me outside."
"Ah, so he was always gentle and loving," Gwen noted, sarcasm dripping from her voice.
"Naturally. Now, at first, I was paralyzed with fear. I was so small, and it was so loud and violent, and uncontrollable, and just…scary. Thorin sat me down in the mud and sat next to me. He was just looking up at the storm. I tried to talk, but he wouldn't let me. He just kept telling me to look, to listen, and to feel. That was it. He said it over and over again until I'd stopped sniveling enough to look up at it. To really look at it."
Kili paused as the memories wrapped around him, close and warm. His uncle had cut out a massive silhouette around the unnaturally dark skies, and to Kili, he had always looked invincible. Like a mountain. But then, there he was, surrendering to the wet and the wind and the flashing lights. Just letting it wash over him. Relaxing into it because that was the only choice. Taking it in stride. As he always had.
"And?" Gwen prompted softly.
He smiled at her as he snapped back out of his memories, reaching out to pat her hand. "I realized that the storm was going to be there no matter how much I kicked and screamed. So if I just…just let it be, and myself be, and I just let it happen, I'd be happier." She was gazing at him with a soft, expectant look that made his stomach bubble warm, along with the soft feeling of fond memories that had filled him. "Now that's a lesson I'm still working on," he chuckled. "But at least thunder and lightning don't scare the life out of me anymore."
The smile she was giving was enough to melt him for the moment that it touched her face, but it turned down into guilt far too fast. "I'm sorry for earlier."
"With Thorin," she explained reluctantly. "You're…I was being childish."
"You both were," Kili corrected her, shrugging. "You bring out the worst in each other."
"I swear I'm not trying to antagonize him," Gwen said hopelessly.
Kili laughed, starting up to his feet. If they didn't get back soon, the others would worry. He offered her a hand. "Just wait until he finds out that I'm courting an elf."
She cringed at the blatant use of the word as she took his hand, but her attention seemed more drawn to another part of his statement. "Courting? Is that what this is?"
"Well, I don't know what else it would be," Kili admitted, looking up at her. Her eyes were still sunk in dark, her skin dull, but she had regained some of the vitality of her step that he loved.
"Courting implies an intent to marry," she informed him, half laughing.
The others be damned, Kili stopped both of them dead. "An intent that I have."
She never looked too clearly shocked, but this was one of the times when he'd probably surprised her the most. "What…"
He tapped her chin, closing her mouth. "You'll catch flies," he teased gently. He couldn't help but smile at how confused, astonished and worried she looked. "Of course I want to marry you." He hadn't said it or really thought it out loud before, but he somehow knew it was true. He didn't even have to wonder about it. She was his Gwen. How could he want anything her by his side for a lifetime?
They got along very well, after all. Made each other laugh. Argued well, and then made up well. He couldn't really imagine what more he'd want in someone to marry.
"There are…There are so many problems that come to mind, even just hearing you say that, Master Dwarf."
"Don't worry about those," he said dismissively, grabbing her around the waist to pull her closer. He glanced behind him until he found a protruding root, then backed up until he could stand on it, bringing the, eye-to-eye height-wise. Gwen laughed at his hijinks but fell silent as he brushed his nose against hers fondly. "Come on, love. Tell me. Don't you want to marry me too?"
"You're manipulating me."
"That's not what I asked," he said with a grin. He could already see the answer in the crinkle of her eyes, in the smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. He tamped down his questions and his doubts and his fears. Those could be worried about later.
"You are using your masculine charms to influence my decision," she defended ardently.
"Masculine charms," he mused, letting a hand slide lower to give her backside a gentle pat.
Her reaction was worth any amount of scandal, as she yelped, slapping him on the chest, and trying to squirm out of his grip. "Kili!"
"Hush," he laughed, trying to keep his own voice down, and holding her firmly, closely about the waist. Against him where she belonged. "Someone will hear."
"You haven't answered my question," he reminded her.
She was still flushing, but she admitted, smiling against her will, "Aye, of course, I want to marry you, you daft bastard."
This sent a brilliant shiver up his spine, and he hushed her following arguments against the practicality of their union with a firm kiss. She melted into it, her fingers wrapping up his sleeves in a delighted gasp.
"Perfect," he breathed into the sliver of space between them when they parted.
She was giddy enough to let out merely a breathless chuckle in response.
Kili let himself revel in their closeness for as many heartbeats as he dared before he knew he had to return to camp. He lifted his forehead away from hers to tap it gently back against hers. She cringed, but Kili grinned. "You better get used to that, love."
They parted as she grumbled about the stupidity of that particular dwarven custom. Kili didn't mind. He'd do it anyway.
"I'll have to get you some proper courting braids," he observed as they made their way back through the thickening darkness.
"Why?" She asked, sounding amused. "No one will see them."
"I'll know they're there," he explained with a shrug. "Besides, I'm hoping that eventually, you won't have to wear that scarf at all."
This made her breath catch, almost unnoticeable, but she hummed in agreement.
Hey all! I apologize if the editing on this one is a little rough. I'll go back to it later, my time resources are just at an all-time low right now. Noting that, let me know if you see any glaring issues or typos. I hope you enjoyed this chapter! I think it's fun. If you have a sec, let me know what your favorite part of the chapter was! I love to hear from y'all. The next chapter is an incredibly important one, so stay tuned. Thank you for reading and commenting, and I'll talk to you all next week!