A/N: /sidles off nervously to the corner before throwing chocolates and candy to appease her readers/ Hi! /ducks and covers/ It's me! Umm…I'm so so so sorry it's taken me this long to update. Let's just say uni is a lot more work than I could have anticipated, but I only started this a week ago so it wasn't too long in the writing…my muse took ages to return to me. But if any of you are still reading this, thank you so much for sticking with this, and I will do my best to update as often as I can! Reviews attract the muse ;) I know this chapter is a bit of a filler but I thought we needed it, and I know it's boring but I hope you enjoy at least parts of it! It's not nearly as decent as what I usually come out with, but finals are starting in about three days and I was desperate to get this out to you guys, you've been so sweet and patient for so long. So I apologize for this being a terrible chapter. Anyway, happy reading! It feels so GOOD to be able to say that again!

Ooh and the title comes from "If I Could" by Barbra Streisand, it's a beautiful song that I cried when I heard the first time around, I highly recommend it if you haven't heard it before, and it fits the theme of the story so so so well, better than almost any other song I've found.

If I Could

I would try to shield your innocence from time, but the part of life I gave you isn't mine…

Dwalin gaped at the miniature dwarf standing defiantly on Thorin's knee, and Fili left out a soft sound between a snort and a whimper. Thorin found a smile tugging at his lips again – how Kili could instantly make his heart feel so light was a mystery, and it probably would always remain that way. He raised his eyes to his friend's astounded face and bit back his grin, choosing to ruffle Kili's mussed hair and wait for Dwalin to break the silence.

Except the only sound Dwalin managed to make was a weak croak.

Thorin raised an eyebrow.

Dwalin's jaw dropped slightly, his expression much the same as it had been when Thorin had once clapped him on the head with a shield a little too hard when they'd been younger.

Thorin's eyebrows nearly vanished beneath his hairline.

Kili broke the moment by yawning loudly, and Thorin had barely regained his feet when Dwalin's gravelly mutter rolled over the stillness towards them.

"It's 'ozirum menu seleku,' laddie," Dwalin corrected over his shoulder as he stomped out.

Kili and Thorin shared a bemused glance. "I don't understand any more than you do," Thorin whispered conspiratorially, giving his little nephew a squeeze as the sleepy infant cuddled up to his shoulder and nestled his head against Thorin's furs, making himself comfortable. It took a few minutes of coaxing to uncurl terrifyingly delicate fingers from his cloak, but eventually Thorin managed to maneuver Kili back into bed, leaving Oin with the dwarfling to examine the wound that he couldn't bear to see again. While the healer had assured him that the child was well on his way to making a full recovery, Thorin knew his doubts would not be assuaged until a fully healthy Kili was constantly underfoot once again. And he swore to himself he would never be irritated by the pitter-patter of those tiny feet again.

Unable to clear his head, Thorin decided to head for the forge in the hopes of at least occupying his hands, when he froze. He'd forgotten Fili.

But voices from one of the rooms stayed him, and when he peered in he found Fili with Balin, sitting with another dwarf whom he recognized but could not name. The blond dwarfling looked tired but reasonably animated, listening to the wounded soldier's dynamic retelling of an old dwarven legend. Hesitating, Thorin silently slid the door closed, leaving his nephew in Balin's capable hands. Fili no doubt couldn't stand to look at his face anyway.

There was a frigid breeze nipping at his face and hands when he stepped out, but Thorin ignored it, trying to focus on the scuffing sounds of his boots against the ground, of the ringing in his ears, of the sparkle in Kili's eyes and smile. He remembered Frerin beaming at him in much the same way. He remembered the chubby dwarfling Kili so closely resembled, his little brother chasing after him demanding attention and games. And now he hated himself for all those times he'd pushed Frerin away, irritated by what he'd seen as a childishness and a foolish irresponsibility. He would give his right hand for another moment with Frerin now. For another chance to drop his sword or quill and instead spend time with his family. Time he knew now that he'd wasted – thrown away, carelessly.

Fili was ten times the dwarf he was, at barely ten years of age. For years he'd watched Dis's elder son, he'd seen the quiet curiosity and the patience in him, the placid love he had for everyone in his life. But mostly he loved Fili for the way he never saw Kili pushed away the way he'd left Frerin alone so many times. Fili never crushed his little brother's hopes and desires and dreams, and Kili was content simply to be with his older brother – the way Frerin had been. It had been Thorin's ambition that had torn him and Frerin apart. And he had never before been so grateful that in Fili the ambition was latent, barely existent.

Thorin found his hands seizing an icy doorknob and turning – it was only once the slab of wood had swung shut behind him with an eerie thud that he realized where his feet had brought him. He had not come to the forge. He was in Dis's house.

Not one of her things had been moved. Or touched. No doubt they had wanted to leave it to him, to sort through his sister's belongings and determine to whom her things would go, to be swamped by the memories. But the resentment faded as quickly as it had seized him, replaced by gratitude. This would be his final farewell to her. This was goodbye to the baby sister who should have one day buried him. After this day, he would well and truly have to let her go.

But first he stopped in at the boys' room, glancing through door left ajar and letting his hand find the smooth, solid oak, pushing it further back to allow him entry. The bed had been made, flowers placed in a spotlessly clean windowsill, clothes and toys and knickknacks and Fili's rock collection all neatly arrayed throughout the room. Someone had been through here. He found the same in each room – they had all been rearranged, but it had been done artfully, so nothing looked disturbed. In fact, had he not laid her to rest so recently, he would have believed Dis to have done this.

There wasn't a tear in his eye. Just dirt.

Only after he'd been through the entire house – even the attic – that Thorin finally steeled himself to step foot into the one room he'd been studiously avoiding. His sister's.

Ever since Firnen's passing, Dis had become methodical to a fault. It had pained him, so his previously rambunctious, adorably untidy sister fixate over cleanliness and order, but it had been her way of coping, to control everything that she could after something so monumentally disastrous had torn her husband – her life, her other half – from her. Mahal, he could understand that, he really could.

It had served them well that she had borne two sons. The boys had gradually eased from her desperation to have everything in order – how could she, how could anyone control those two energetic whirlwinds? – but her room still retained vestiges of that initial craving for structure and boundaries. Everything was perfectly in place, and he reached out, lifting a familiar object gently from her dresser.

It was a comb, one that he and Frerin had made for her. They had come across a Man, a trader, and in his wares they had discovered a slab of rosewood. They bartered far more than they should have, for the wood was rare and came from far-off lands, but the richness of the color and the smooth texture made it irresistible to their hands, and Frerin had longed to make a gift of it for their sister, who had then been pregnant with her first child.

It had taken them days to complete. Thorin had carved out the initial shape, after staring for hours at combs that Frerin borrowed from giggling girls to become accustomed to the shape and build of women's combs, before handing it over to Frerin. His younger brother had a sharp eye and fingers that were much more slender and nimble; he had whittled out of the wood intricate designs, roses and gnarled vines, nooks and indentations in which they had nestled small gemstones. They gleamed still – Dis polished them nearly every day, small clusters of crushed diamonds, garnets decorating the petals of small flowers, emeralds and tiny, beautifully cut sapphires adorning the edges. It was ornate, a gorgeous piece of work by two brothers for their darling, if sometimes irritating, little sister, and Thorin closed his hand over it.

His fingers looked so cruel over that delicate piece. So large, calloused and scarred, large knuckles and blunt fingertips, roughened and darkened from hours spent in fire and heat, from being worked to the bone and back up, sinewy with muscle the way the rest of his body was, rippling with strength even when he felt weak enough to collapse where he stood. But he could remember still the wonder and warmth in her eyes when he'd first slipped this into her hands, the way she'd flung her arms around her brothers so tightly their heads had collided painfully, the way her hands fit it so well. It felt like a piece of her, and even though Thorin knew it should be buried with her, e couldn't help sliding it into his pocket, feeling it settle comfortably against him, the weight so little and yet so solid. An anchor.

Disconcertingly, his vision blurred, objects and light swimming together, and he reached out to steady himself against her wall, blinking away the distortion in his eyes, ignoring moisture pooling beneath his lids.

At first it was easy, bottles of scents and pieces of jewelry, things he knew she would either give to her friends or want to save for Fili and Kili's future brides, but his heart stopped when his fingers touched something else. A locket. Delicate chains of soft gold, braided around platinum for strength and shape, the locket a simple, flattened out sphere. He knew what was within it, not only for his sister had held few secrets from him, but because he had been there that day.

Dis sat by the gently rocking crib, the sound of her breathing nearly lost in the silent comfort of a crackling fire and the baby's soft snuffles. Thorin leaned by the mantelpiece, watching her watch his nephew, desperate for a few words to ease her worry but terrified of awakening her fears instead of comforting her. Far better to hold his peace, to wait for Firnen to return. Her husband was infinitely kinder than Thorin, he was sure to know how to help her.

The bright-haired infant coughed again, a sharp hacking sound that should never have been coming from one so small, and Dis smothered a whimper as she leaned forward and took him in her arms once again, moving towards Thorin as she rocked him.

"He can't rest," she whispered, her eyes glinting with cold panic as she looked up at him, the child stirring restlessly in her arms, searching for that familiar comfort the boy found in his mother's presence. "Thorin, how can he recover if –"

"Shh," Thorin breathed, wincing as tears gathered against her lashes and dropped down her cheeks. Reaching out, he took little Fili from her, cuddling his nephew against the furs he wore, holding the child close to his heart, hoping that his body's warmth might infuse the child's form as well. "He needs time, Dis, but do not worry. Firnen should be back soon, if they find –"

"Thorin, those trees grow far from here! How will he return in time?" Dis scooped up her son once again, a tearful smile adorning her beautiful face as the dwarfling curled into her.

An imperious knock at the door paused Thorin's next few stuttering words, and he took advantage of the excuse to leave his sister and her son, opening the door to a flurry of snow and a distressed-looking Oin. "How is he?" Oin muttered, stomping noisily against the steps up to the door to cover the tones of his voice as he shook snow and ice from his boots.

"The cough has worsened," Thorin rumbled back, keeping a careful eye on his little sister, a sad smile on his face as he watched her sing airily to her babe, dancing slowly and graceful through the room as she tried to rock the child back to sleep. "Is there anything you –"

"Let me see him first," Oin cautioned him, giving Thorin the quick, careful glance he'd seen the healer give so many other worried families. This winter had been hard, with a scarcity of game and an especially heavy snowfall, and Fili, the wee child not even a year old, had taken ill with the cold. Sturdier, older dwarves were falling prey to the same sickness, and for such a tiny lad…Thorin could only hope that this malady was not fatal, that the child would recover. He did not know if Dis would be able to cope with losing her firstborn.

He had barely closed the door behind Oin when a fist pounded heavily against it, and Thorin growled between his teeth as he opened the door once again. No matter how many times he repeated it, Frerin's idea of knocking was as uncouth as it had been since his brother was barely four summers old.

Frerin clapped Thorin on the shoulder as he dropped a snow-heaped coat to the ground, striding purposefully into the inner rooms. "Dis!" Thorin heard his brother roar, and for a blessed moment the sound of his sister's bell-like laughter rang out, before a child's wail crashed against their ears. When Thorin joined the others, he found Oin holding his squalling nephew, while Dis had buried her face in Frerin's chest, her shoulders shaking. Frerin looked up when Thorin approached, and they shared a glance full of worry and fear – and both emotions melted away the instant Dis raised her head.

Fili quieted as Oin lay him down, and the healer turned to face them again, his face creased with worry. He looked to Dis, his eyes answering her unspoken question before his voice did, and she reached for Thorin's arm with a whimper, letting him pull her close.

"I have done all I can," Oin said defeatedly, "Save for the bark Firnen brings. It may be able to help."

"What if he cannot find any?" Frerin asked the question they had all wanted to, and Thorin felt Dis shiver against him. "To find moist bark in this winter…"

"We must hope," Oin sighed, moving towards the kitchen where he'd left several concoctions brewing. He returned with a small, shallow basin of a foul-smelling, faintly brown liquid, handing it to Dis along with a soft cloth before shuffling back and returning with a cup of tea. "Sponge him down with this, make sure to get it on his brow and throat. The tea, if he'll drink any, I've left a full pot of it inside, if you need more."

Dis nodded, forcing a smile, and Frerin intercepted the tea as it passed between the mother and healer. Raising it to his lips, he paused, took a sniff, and instantly gagged. "What in the name of Durin is this? Are you attempting to poison my nephew?"

Oin adjusted his ear trumpet, glowering in Frerin's general direction, but he elected not to respond, so Thorin reached forward and cuffed his idiotic brother behind the ear.

"My apologies," Frerin said with sincerity, his eyes practically glowing – Thorin rolled his own – "But may I ask what you've added to this…tea?"

Dis snickered quietly at the way her brother voiced the last word, as if it were something particularly offensive to him, and Thorin shot them both a warning glance. Sometimes he thought that these two fools would never grow up. But he'd never want them any other way.

Oin frowned, and Thorin suddenly realized the dwarf was going to answer a question that Frerin hadn't actually desired to be answered. But before he could intervene, the litany began.

"Yarrow, sage, hyssop, dried elderberries and rose hips, peppermint leaves for taste, a few drops of lemon juice, white horehound, a slice of ginger, and –"

When Dis wasn't looking his way, Frerin dipped a finger into the tea and slipped it into his mouth, sidling over to Thorin moments later. "It tastes absolutely revolting," he reported seriously.

"If it helps," Thorin said heavily, ignoring Frerin's attempts to lighten the mood, "I will force Fili to drink it myself."

Oin and Dis were watching Fili, Frerin and Thorin stood back by the hearth, and for a moment all was silence once again, so quiet that over the sound of the fire popping Thorin thought he could hear the snow falling outside. And then there it was. Three loud, desperate pounds on the sturdy oaken door.

Frerin bolted across the hall and wrenched the door open, and Firnen practically tumbled over the threshold, his golden hair so flaked with snow it appeared nearly white. Thorin felt himself shoved aside as Dis ran past him, but Thorin moved away, towards the cradle and the dwarfling writhing miserably in his blankets within it. Reaching out, he stroked the small, furrowed brow, smoothing away wisps of golden hair.

He could hear his family in the background, but their voices were muffled and came in spurts, as if he were underwater. No doubt they already knew whether Firnen had returned with the wild cherry bark Oin had asked for, but he couldn't turn around and ask for confirmation or denial. He wanted this moment, alone with his nephew, for better or for worse. He wanted this moment untainted by elation or by grief. Fili's fingers tightened ever-so-slightly around the index finger Thorin placed against the previously open hand, and Thorin smiled tightly down at his nephew, his thumb stroking the little forehead gently. He opened his mouth, wanting so say something to this little being, wanting to communicate the love and fierce protectiveness swelling in his chest, wanting to let Fili know that he desired more than anything to watch him grow, to see him smile, but every sound lodged in his throat.

Why was he forever unable to express to those he loved just how much he cared for them?

"Thorin!" Dis slammed against him, her arms wrapping tightly around his waist, and Thorin blinked away a sudden moisture between his eyelashes, looking down in bewilderment at the top of her head.

"Yes, Dis?"

She raised her head, shining eyes dripping tears. "He found it."

No words. There were no words for that beautiful, cool, liberating relief that he felt, as he looked down little Fili wrestling with a blue fuzzy blanket, searching for a sleep that would soon come to him. Firnen pushed past them both moments later, dressed in dry clothes, and Thorin stepped back, feeling a smile tug on his lips as Fili gurgled a little laugh at seeing his father again, a laugh that all too quickly morphed into a cough.

"Two minutes!" Oin called in a wheezing voice from the kitchen, and Thorin headed in that direction, jerking his neck to tell Frerin to follow him. They found Oin mumbling to himself as he peeled apart a thick piece of bark, struggling to cut through it with one of Dis's largest and scariest kitchen knives.

"This may help," Frerin suggested, popping one of the many daggers he kept on his person out of its sheath and handing it hilt first to the now growling healer.

"Eh?" Oin peered at the knife and then back and Frerin, who rolled his eyes.

"USE THIS!" he roared, making both Thorin and Oin jump.

"Don't shout, laddie, I can hear you perfectly well," Oin groused, taking the knife and giggling – giggling – when it slid through the moist, thick wood as easily it would have diced one of Dis's famed honey cakes. Even the almond ones.

"Please tell me you've cleaned that recently," Thorin muttered, leaning inconspicuously towards Frerin to whisper in his ear.

"Of course I have," Frerin said confidently, before wilting under Thorin's unrelenting stare. "Er, maybe…it was a little while ago," he finished sheepishly, and Thorin relaxed when he saw that Oin had had the good sense to hold the knife in the flames for a few moments before using it.

"Thorin, lad, come here a moment, aye?"

"What do you need?" Thorin came forward, eyeing the piece of chopped wood thrust towards him.

"Smell it."

Both eyebrows nearly flew off his face, and Frerin guffawed behind him. "Aye?"

"Smell it, laddie, what does it smell like to you? My old nose isn't in the best shape, and the piece I use needs to be exactly right."

Taking it carefully between two fingers, Thorin did as he was asked, and wrinkled his nose at the rather acrid odor. "It's…" he searched for a term, but couldn't find one, and felt the wood snatched from his hands almost instantly.

Frerin raised the stripped bark to his face, inhaled and then sniffed vigorously, and dropped the wood back into Oin's hands with a disgusted expression. "Bitter almonds," he announced, his nose still wrinkled with distaste.

Thorin gaped, realizing that his brother was right. "Frerin, how in Aulë's name did you –"

Shifting uncomfortably, Frerin coughed, giving Thorin a murderous glare. Chuckling, Thorin made a mental note to ask his brother this later.

Suddenly registering that Oin was making an inordinate amount of noise, Thorin returned his attention to the elder dwarf, who was now in the process of boiling a shallow amount of water. Once again muttering a few Khuzdul curses under his breath, Oin rummaged around in his overlarge burlap sack containing his "supplies," before withdraw a small, stoppered bottle containing a severely depleted amount of a tan, finely shredded…substance.

"Sweet root," Oin explained, drawing out a few pinches of the dried material. "It'll help reduce the congestion, and improve the taste. Children like sweetness, after all, do they not?" He grinned at Frerin, who blushed at the implication that he was still a child. Thorin shot him a warning glare – the last thing he needed was Frerin picking a childish argument to prove he was not a child. Which was exactly the sort of thing the nitwit would do.

The root was added to the water, and for a few minutes they stood in silence, watching the thin shreds of root thicken with moisture and begin to color the water, a cloyingly sugary smell filling the warm kitchen. Oin waited until the water had thickened slightly before laying in finely chopped slices of the cherry bark, dusting off his hands and rinsing Frerin's knife before returning it to him.

"More tea?" Frerin inquired, leaning over to squint at the congealing, lazily bubbling mixture suspended over the fire.

Oin gave him a pitying look as Thorin winced. Clearly anything so viscous was not about to become tea in any way.

"This, Master Frerin," Oin said loudly, picking the pieces of wood and root from the thickening and congealing liquid and tossing them out, "Is a syrup. Not tea."

Sure enough, within five minutes Oin was pouring out a brownish syrup into a small, thick wooden cup, adding a few drops of honey before carefully stirring his concoction. "Give this to Dis, tell her to give him a few spoonfuls every hour until he's had it all," he instructed, already beginning to pack up his supplies once again. "He should improve within three hours; if he worsens, call me."

Thorin nodded, fingers curling around the cup. "Thank –"

Oin waved him off, nodding to both the princes before striding past. They heard the door thud shut minutes later, and Thorin felt a warmth that had nothing to do with the syrup in his hand pervading him.

For the next few days Fili improved slowly, and Frerin had taken to turning corners with his hands over his eyes. He'd once barged in on Dis and Firnen in an…intimate…moment, and after screaming for ten minutes about the loss of his innocence had proceeded to cover his eyes every time he entered a room. This continued until Thorin swatted him over the head and threatened to bar him from the forge for a month if he didn't stop his madness.

It was later that Thorin learned the full story – how Firnen had trekked for days through blizzards and icy winds, braving the blast of nature's fury in search of trees with the specific color bark, then cutting them down to check whether their inner bark was moist enough to be used, and had then rushed back, praying he wasn't too late for his son.

And even years later, Dis kept a few fragments of that bark clasped within her locket, as a reminder of the love Firnen bore not only her but their little Fili. A small piece of that remarkable dwarf she had fallen in love with and wedded. A small piece of the husband who had been taken before his time.

He fisted his hand around the locket. He should have remembered this. She rarely went anywhere without it – it had probably been by accident that she forgot to wear it before leaving on that fateful trip. It was purely by chance that he noticed, but something flashed against the light, and he held the chain up for a closer inspection. It was gleaming brightly…too brightly. Drawing the cool locket closer, his practiced eyes roved over it, looking for – there! But his heart sank as he narrowed his eyes, and he could feel his stomach tying itself into knots.

Dis had been careful with her jewelry, but never this obsessive. He'd had a nagging feeling something was wrong, but it was only now that he was beginning to realize what – and he was wishing with every fiber of his being that he hadn't looked. There, one the very edges of one of the loops in the chain, was a small reddish-brown smear. Blood. And he knew whose it was.

And that one little dab of blood brought him back full circle. Back to where he'd been moments before the end of the funeral, just staring down at her cold, still beautiful face, trying to pretend she was only asleep and knowing that every hope was a futile one that would only torture him through the moments he would now have to spend knowing he had failed her as well.

Knowing full well he didn't need to, Thorin snapped the locket open, careful not to break it by applying unnecessary pressure. The acrid smell of old, dry wood shavings rose to his nostrils, and he touched one of the thin, curled pieces gently, as it making sure it was still intact. She'd been far more nostalgic than he back then, and maybe to her the wood had also been a charm, a little reminder of the fight in her eldest child, a reminder of how much hope and blind faith could mean. Thorin still shivered when he remembered Firnen charging out into that howling storm, searching for a nearly existent, extremely specific type of wood in that blizzard. For love.

The things they did for love. Thorin had killed for it. He'd discovered early on that he was extremely selfish – more so perhaps than most people thought. He had been so young when he'd realized that he could kill – and he had felled that orc because he had been afraid of losing his own life. Although in doing so he had also protected a little Frerin, who had blundered into the woods without realizing where he was headed, that had not been the first thought in his mind. It had been his own love of life and his own fear of pain and weakness that had prompted him to kill. Later, he'd learned to fight for others. But he knew what his nature was. And it was selfish.

He was not Fili. Every instinct Fili had was geared towards protecting Kili – and it appeared that his little brother was much the same. But Thorin knew now that he was nothing like his nephews. Ever since Fili had grown old enough to babble a few words, Thorin had realized something. His little nephew admired him. Immensely so. He'd even caught Fili attempting to copy his walk – Thror had nearly fallen over laughing – but it sickened Thorin to see. Because he was the last thing Fili should be aiming to be. Frerin, Firnen, even Dis would have all been far better role models. They were caring, compassionate, unceasingly kind, and in addition were extremely capable in a battle. But Thorin was only one of those things. And it was the least important of them all.

The fine gold chain slipped from his fingers, but Thorin didn't even register the clatter of the locket hitting wood. Stepping to the hearth, he bent down and sifted cold, flaky ashes through his fingers, letting them color his skin.

Kindness was not a particularly asset to a king. It was unfortunate, but true. Pity in the wrong moment could prove fatal in another – the fear and suspicion of betrayal was ever present. He sat back on his haunches, fisting more ash, letting it trickle between calloused knuckles. Dis would have raised her children to be merciful and compassionate, he knew that. But they were left to him…and the choice staring him in the face was one he would have rather died than make.

How was he to raise them?

If he did what she would have, Fili and Kili would be as Frerin and Firnen were, amusing, carefree, bringing a smile to every face. So unfailingly open. But neither Frerin or Firnen bore the responsibility of one day assuming the throne. Even if it had come to Frerin, he would have been aged, and time erases irresponsibility. Mostly.

Yet as much as it pained him to admit it, and as much as he despised himself for it, Thorin knew that Fili could not afford to grow up into his father. If he did, he would lack the ability to steel his heart and mind and to choose the welfare of his own people and his own rule over the desires of others. Kili had a far less troubling future. Even if he were to be a general, Thorin had no doubt that his nephew – both of them – would grow to be deadly with any weapon placed in their hands. And Kili would have to handle far less political and social turmoil than his brother.

Dis would have killed him. Had she still been alive.

She had brought this up with him before, she had been trying to protect her elder son – from him. But as much as Thorin wanted Fili to retain that childhood joy and innocence, he had far more dwarves than just his nephew to consider. Was he willing to risk the future of every dwarf who had followed him from Moria, the price being the happiness of his own sister-son?

No, he wasn't. He never had been.

Fili could handle this, he knew that. The child was strong, far stronger than Kili was. He was more like Thorin than the uncle in him wanted, but the king he was felt immensely grateful. He could work with this. He would have to mold Fili into the prince and king he would one day become. He would have to ensure that Fili could cope with any disaster, could defend his people with tenacity and fight with ferocity and retreat with grace. That he would be able to lead in any crisis, no matter how dire, that he would never back down from a challenge and a threat unless he was fully aware that it would lead to annihilation. That he would put his people before himself.

The last lesson would be the hardest to learn. Thorin had struggled for so long – not only because it meant learning to sacrifice his own thirst for life and health in favor of protecting others, but because it involved being able to care less for his own family. As a king, he could not show favors, and although it was understood that he would place his kin first, he had to place nearly equal import upon every dwarf who followed him. It had meant leaving Frerin to fend for himself in battles so he could aid a struggling squadron. It had meant missing so much – the first and only time Frerin had bested Dwalin in a sparring bout, the first time Dis had introduced Firnen to their family, the first words Fili had spoken and the first steps he'd taken. He had been there for nearly all of Kili's firsts. He'd become so much more involved in their lives after that horrifying trial at Moria. But he'd missed so much…

And on top of that, the inexplicable closeness between the brothers wasn't going to help. If Fili was to be able to keep a clear head, he would have to trust Kili to care for and defend himself, even if it was against insurmountable odds. Thorin hadn't liked it, and Fili didn't have to…but the capability needed to exist. They would need to learn to function at full capacity apart from each other. But even the thought of pulling them apart left a bitter taste in his mouth. He didn't know if he could do it, if they could do it…but they would have to.

It was a cruel thought, that brothers who loved each other so should be forced apart by an uncle who should have died to save them. Maybe he would have to do it now, maybe later. But he couldn't afford to allow them to grow up so close, so tightly-knit, so dependent upon each other. If one were felled in battle or taken by illness, the other couldn't allow the grief to cripple him. Thorin had lost nearly his entire family and yet soldiered on, leading the people when he had lost even himself, and he knew from experience how paralyzing grief and loss could be. As an uncle and as a king, he had a responsibility towards them to protect them from anything he could. Even their futures. Even each other.

He would do whatever it took to help them survive any situation. That was what the folk of Durin did. They were survivors. And despite the number of painful lessons that involved, despite the agony of learning to move on and put up a strong front even though he was crumbling from open, bleeding wounds within, Thorin knew that it was his resilience and his ability to close himself off from his own pain that had given his people the new start in the Ered Luin that they had needed so desperately. As princes, Fili and Kili – especially Fili – would need to possess that same strength. Perhaps not so soon. They were still young, after all, but their interdependence was something he would need to quash soon. The thought made him nauseous, knowing that they would consider this an open betrayal, but it would have to be done. Even if they could no longer bring themselves to pronounce the word "Uncle" again, it would have to be done. Before his and their happiness and well-being came that of their people. And it was to them that his duty was.

As much as he wanted to preserve this joyful, precious innocence of youth, he knew that he couldn't. Life was not the gentle, beautiful world of butterflies and sunshine that Kili believed it to be. Fili had already learned that, and it had nearly broken him. If it hadn't been for Kili, Thorin had no doubt that Fili would have fallen apart. He couldn't let them be shattered. Not by losing him. Not by losing each other. Life was loss, after all. And love only led to pain; yet love was not a conscious choice. Dependence and attachment, however, were.

He had learned independence by being forced into it. He would teach it to them before life tore everything and everyone from them. If there was one thing he wanted desperately, it was for them to be spared his pain. But Fili had already felt so much of it, and Kili would not be innocent forever. Better to teach them not to expect a kind world than to let them fall apart from the shock later. He would teach them to fight. They would be deadly, ferocious fighters, much in the way he and Dwalin handled themselves in battle. But they would also learn to expect pain and death, and to continue despite separation, no matter how permanent. Being of his blood, being in line for his throne, they could not fall apart the way Thrain had. It was their duty to be strong, just as it was his duty to torture them in teaching them that the world would not love them or desire to protect them the way he did. He could only hope that they could still stand to see his face by the end of it.

His keen mind told him he was doing the right thing. His heart couldn't stand to be a part of him.

As if to clear it, he shook his head. It didn't matter. He'd done what he had to over the years, he'd kept his people safe and united. Now he would have to keep doing the same.

It didn't matter that Dis didn't approve. Wouldn't have approved, he corrected himself mentally, biting back the pain acknowledging her loss brought with it. Because it was quite likely that Fili would have been raised this way whether or not she approved. Thror and Thrain would not have accepted her refusal to have him trained in Thorin's likeness, and he knew that he could not afford to either. Not if he valued his kingdom. Not if he valued his people.

If he closed his eyes, he could still see Erebor's beautiful peak spiraling up towards the skies, swathed in clouds and the warm pastels of a sunrise. He could still hear the Khuzdul oath he'd taken when Smaug had forced them from within its depths, his promise to reclaim his homeland. If he were to succeed – or if he died in the attempt – he would need a worthy successor. Fili had been wearing this mantle even while curled within his mother's womb. There could be no escaping it now.

With a sigh, he raised himself to his feet again. He'd find Balin and sort through the rest of Dis's things later. Right now, there was someplace he would much rather be.


Thorin's head snapped up, his eyes roaming the darkened room frantically. The fire had burned out, leaving a few glowing embers beaming their flickering warm light across the walls, but it wasn't the sound of the fire's dying pops that had woken up. Rotating his neck, Thorin winced as he heard several cracks. Sleeping in a chair was definitely not his best idea, but he hadn't wanted to leave his sister-sons, and…wait. Only Fili was still in the bed, out like a candle. Kili was…the door was ajar. Cursing, Thorin swept out the door. A child that small and still recovering couldn't possibly have gotten too far…hopefully.

He almost missed it. He'd nearly gone past the foyer when he noticed the light, and a tiny body standing with hands clinging to the edge of the door that had been left ajar. Sighing, Thorin moved to scoop his escaped sister-son up when Kili came to a decision and skipped into the room, unevenly, the way the very young shift their weight from one leg to another in a movement between a walk and a run. Groaning, Thorin followed, freezing the moment he'd been about to set foot over the threshold.

Dwalin was sprawled on the hearth, his legs stretched out before him with one of his axes laid out over his knees, a whetstone in the other. A keening screech grated on Thorin's ears as Dwalin sharpened the blade, occasionally raising it up to let the firelight catch it, examining his work.

This was exactly where Thorin did not want Kili to be.

But before he could even make a movement, Kili had stumbled up to Dwalin's knee, and the older dwarf froze almost comically, staring down at the absurdly miniature dwarfling beside him. And then, very slowly, Dwalin closed his left hand over the handle of his axe and held it out to his left, away from the baby dwarf.

Solemnly, Kili gazed up at Dwalin for another moment, before yawning widely. Placing both his hands on Dwalin's knee, he struggled for a moment and then clambered up, curling up against Dwalin's chest. Thorin heard that little yawn once more, and then a soft smacking of Kili's lips, a surefire signal that he was seconds away from sleep. Then silence.

Dwalin stayed frozen with the axe suspended in midair, and unable to help himself, Thorin tiptoed forward, hoping to catch a sight of his friend's expression before Dwalin realized he was there and schooled his features back into unconcern.

And, by Durin's beard, Dwalin did not disappoint. His eyes were wide with shock as he gaped at the tiny form cuddled up against him, and he looked…panicked. The fearsome Dwalin, defeated by an adorable, snoring infant. The chuckled that itched at his throat demanded release, and Thorin gave in to it, breaking into full-blown laughter when Dwalin fixed an irate gaze upon him.

"Are ye going to take him from me?" Dwalin demanded, staring down at Kili as if afraid to touch him. Come to think of it, he probably was.

"Perhaps," Thorin smirked, "Or perhaps not."

A fierce glare was leveled in his direction, but Thorin couldn't care less. He'd been given far, far worse – by his baby sister. He could handle his friend any day.

It quickly became clear that Dwalin was entirely unwilling to touch the lad, and Thorin could empathize. He'd spent the first six months of each of his sister-sons' lives afraid he would break them the moment he lifted them in his hands, which in comparison to their miniscule ones had seemed so unwieldy and dangerous.

Taking pity on his right-hand dwarf, Thorin bent down, easing Kili's warm, comfortable weight into his hands and tucking him into the crook of his arm, letting the little sleeper adjust to the new position before he returned his gaze to Dwalin.

"I'm sorry," he said sincerely, tipping his head towards Kili. "He escaped the room while I was asleep, and I knew not where he had gone for a few minutes."

Dwalin smiled gently as he stood. The expression would have surprised most, but Thorin had seen the other dwarf's soft side one time too often to not have expected it. "He's a good lad," Dwalin conceded, "But Thorin, shouldn't he not be near, well…"

"Anything sharp?" At the nod he received, Thorin sighed. "If only I could…the moment I blink he's out of my sight." He grinned suddenly. "A good lad, hmm? Even though he told you, what was it…"

Dwalin scowled, but his eyes were soft as they rested on the child. "Aye, even so. He's fearless, Thorin. It is not a bad quality to have."

Fearless. For some reason, the word sent chills down Thorin's spine. Dis had been fearless. So had Frerin. And Firnen. And Thror. So many. Their stories had all ended in blood. Fearless. For the love of Mahal…

Vaguely, he felt a strong hand grip his shoulder, and Thorin glanced over to his friend, knowing that at least some of his fear must have shown in his face. Dwalin knew him too well to say a word. He knew how empty Thorin thought they were. Instead he squeezed the shoulder he was gripping, his eyes promising Thorin that he would help to protect this young life in any way he could.

Taking a deep breath, Thorin dipped his chin in gratitude. He was glad Dwalin understood him well – and he appreciated that wordless promise more than he would ever be able to express. If there was anyone he would trust with his life – and with the lives of his nephews – it was Dwalin.

Cradling Kili in his arms, he carried the snoring child back, placing him down gently next to Fili. A small smile crept on his face as he watched Kili snuggle up against Fili. Inseparable, even in sleep. He had once hoped he would never have to see them separated. Now he knew that one day, perhaps a few years from now, perhaps the next month, it would happen.

And he would be the one tearing them apart.

A/N: Review for me? Please? Also, I did do my research for what Oin was blathering on about – and "sweet root" refers to licorice root. It's just another name for it. The flashback was for Blue-Klowd, who had asked for it – I'm not entirely sure that was what you were looking for, but I tried for Dis/Firnen fluff and it turned into this, so if you were looking for something else just let me know. And that goes for all of you – questions, comments, concerns, I'd love to hear them! Also, I realize Kili sleeps a lot, but he's young and recuperating. /Moriarty voice/ It's what they do! Hehe. Anyway, please review? Pretty please? It would make me so happy! *hugs* Thank you for reading, and may the stars always watch over you!

Oh, one more thing. I know I've always responded to each and every review and PM I've received, but I'm not sure I will be able to continue doing this. I'm really sorry, I love each and every one of you and I wish I could keep writing to you, but I simply don't have the time. If you ask me a question in a review or PM I will try to get back to you, but if you don't receive a response from me please know that I love you and am SO GRATEFUL for your taking the time and effort to review, it's just that I have a lot of work here and I don't really have the time. But if you are still interested in reading, I will continue the story, if not then I might consider ending it soon. Let me know, and thank you so much to each and every one of you for sticking with me through thick and thin!

Cockapoo xxx