In which Thorin Oakenshield is a bit of a conniving bastard. I do truly believe that he loves his nephews as he would his own sons - but I also firmly believe that Thorin knew exactly what he was raising them to be.

The fire flickered low, flames daring now and then to dart higher, to cast a sudden flare of light out into the dim room. Thorin sat on the stone hearth, legs crossed before him, hands spread open across his knees.

"Then Mahal raised his great hammer, weeping freely, and he prepared to strike down his children." Thorin's voice was low and intent, his words carefully chosen. There were ways to tell the most important stories that it did not do to innovate against. Properly told, the story of creation should have been passed along in Khuzdul, but his current pupils were not yet fluent in that ancient tongue.

Fíli was watching him intently, light eyes unblinking. Thorin had seen the lad mouthing the words with him, deeply familiar with the story, but his awe of his uncle kept his eagerness in check.

"Mahal confessed unto Ilúvatar that he had acted rashly, creating the Dwarves from impatience with the slower plans of Ilúvatar, and then he willed to unmake them, despite his love for his children."

Fíli's younger brother was not listening with the same intensity. He had withdrawn to the other side of the hearth, where his chubby little hands were engaged in arranging some of his stone carvings into a game of some sort that none but Kíli understood. He frowned, dark eyes troubled, and pushed his stone Oliphant forward to face a ragged line of carved animals of some variety.

"But as he lifted his great hammer," Thorin continued ponderously, "the Fathers of the Dwarves shrank back and wept in fear, and the heart of Mahal was troubled." Kíli knocked his small animals down with a distracting clatter, and Thorin shot him a quelling look. The child crept back, watching him intently now.

"And then spoke Ilúvatar?" Fíli asked eagerly, golden braids bobbing in the firelight as he nodded wildly in encouragement.

"And then spoke Ilúvatar," Thorin agreed, "and he stayed the hammer of Mahal. The Fathers of the Dwarves were spared that day, because they had been acceptable to Ilúvatar. They were as adopted sons unto him from that day forward."

Kíli frowned, pushing disconsolately at his Oliphant with a booted foot.

"What is the matter?" Fíli asked in a hissed whisper that carried through the room.

"I forgot how it ended," Kíli complained. "Mahal was going to crush them with his great trunk." He kicked again at the Oliphant, and sudden realization struck Thorin. Kili had been dramatizing his story with his small carvings. Fíli looked at his uncle with dread as the same thought occurred to him, and his eyes widened dramatically.

Thorin stood, towering over the children, allowing his features to become stern and hard. "This is disrespect, my nephew. The old stories are sacred." He offered a silent prayer that his nephew would be forgiven his blasphemy, on the grounds of his youth.

Kíli stared down at his boots furiously, tiny face wrinkled with displeasure. "The story is wrong, Uncle. How could a father leave his own children so?"

"But he did not!" Fíli protested, rising to his knees to argue with his brother. "From then, the Fathers of the Dwarves had two fathers! Mahal was their first father, but Ilúvatar adopted them and cared for them as sons!"

Thorin gave his older nephew a nod of pleasure at his understanding, and Fíli's golden features fairly glowed in the light. Kíli darted a few quick, uncertain looks up at his uncle from beneath drawn brows, and Thorin sighed and sank back to the warm stone, beckoning to the child. Without hesitation, Kíli flew to him, clambering onto his lap and curling up in a tiny bundle of warmth. His dark hair fell in his face in wild strands, hiding his dismay.

"Some fathers may not do all that they would to protect their sons," Thorin said gently. Kíli pressed his face into Thorin's chest, and Fíli crept to his side, drawing close enough to let Thorin wrap an arm around him. "Mahal would have loved and cared for his children, but that was not given to him. Ilúvatar became our adopted father, and cares for us as for the rest of his children."

There was no question now as to the reason that his nephews drew so close, or clung so tight. It had scarce been two years since their own father had perished in battle, and in that time, Thorin had struggled to be both father and uncle to both of his sister's sons. They were old enough to realize the loss.

Kíli snuffled a little, and Fíli leaned disconsolately against Thorin's shoulder a moment longer, until he shrugged his great arms and gave a heavy sigh.

"The ancient stories are sacred, but they weary me. Perhaps you would hear a more venturesome tale?" He allowed his eyes to twinkle, and both of his nephews drew back in sudden excitement.

"Oh yes, uncle!" Kíli bellowed, tears now a distant memory. Fíli nodded as well, looking nearly as young as his brother now.

"Tell us of the dragon?" Fíli asked pleadingly, and both boys cast their eyes upon Thorin pleadingly, until a heart of stone would have melted.

"It seems to me, in memory, that I was scarce older than you the day the great worm came," Thorin began.

The story was not new to the lads, of course. They had been hearing it since they were babes in arms, from every dwarf they knew – but Thorin did not often favor them with his telling. It stirred up great dark pools of hurt in him to speak of that black day – but he spoke the words with purpose, just as he had taught the sacred stories.

Fíli listened as intently as ever, while Kíli flew back to his toys, rearranging them again to tell a new story. It seemed that the beloved Oliphant was now Smaug the Terrible, and the small horde of rabbits and hounds and woodland creatures were now the dwarves, arrayed against him.

Thorin knew what he was doing, and if he had been given the luxury, he would have hated himself for it. He put the words in their heads, shaping his adopted sons, molding them into the creatures he would need them to be.

Loyal, steadfast Fíli, next in line to the throne. Fíli would be his shield when the day of battle came, the strong right arm upon which he would depend. Fíli the bright, who would one day rule in his place.

And sharper and quicker, more temperamental, wild and dark – Kíli would be his sword in the day of the reckoning. He was forging the boy now, crafting strength and sharp edges from the still-round figure of the infant of his line. Kíli growled quietly, throwing himself into his mock battle, sacrificing tiny stone rabbits left and right in the furor of combat.

Thorin would teach them all he could. He would give them all the skills and weapons of warriors, and guide them to be steady and honorable and true. He would need them both if they were to reclaim their home, and they would need one another.

He cast up another prayer to Mahal, even as he fired their imaginations with strong words of honor and glory and the kingdom that would be theirs – a prayer for strength, for good fortune, and for the lives of his adopted sons.