AN: Last chapter.
Kili was alone. What was worse, he was lonely. And he ached in more places than he had ever thought possible. There was a nip to the night air that was doing its best to add to his misery and he cupped his hands, huffing into them. Warm fog bloomed between his frigid palms, but once the heat had dissipated the moisture from his breath left them colder than before. All in all, he was feeling rather melancholy.
He watched wistfully over the slumbering forms in the camp below. Thorin had left Fili, telling him to rest, and was on his way over to the Hobbit, who was the last of the company remaining upright and conscious. Kili would have thought the little fellow would be among the first to dash for the meager comfort of his bedroll, but there he sat, stalwart and full of perseverance, and obviously expecting Thorin to join him. Kili had to chuckle at Bilbo's fortitude in dealing with his uncle and wondered what sort of advice he might be doling out. That Thorin tolerated his counsel at all raised Bilbo immeasurably in Kili's esteem.
Kili's eyes naturally drifted back to his brother. He frowned as Fili tossed fitfully by the fire. He must be completely worn out, Kili thought. Why wasn't he asleep yet? Looking up at the stars, Kili judged his remaining time as sentry to be at least another two hours. Exhaustion, along with the thought that somewhere out there were fifteen unaccounted for goblins, made him edgy, and he began to pace the ridge as the minutes scraped by. Bilbo's odd little pocket watch on its dainty chain came to mind, and he was glad he had no such instrument. He would have been checking it incessantly, hoping for a miraculous jump in time to release him from his duty so that he could check on Fili. Frustration mingled with worry halted his feet. Bilbo and his uncle were together talking, and all that Kili could do was watch.
Bilbo was awake and waiting as Thorin left Fili and the younger Dwarf dropped down on his sleeping roll like a weary stone. Oin and the others were fast asleep. Thorin passed them by. He would not wake Oin for the watch, he decided. Let him rest. He paused by the Hobbit on his way to the little hill where Kili skulked in solitude and Bilbo looked at him expectantly.
Thorin took the opening. "Bilbo, I did not mean half of what I said earlier. What I have come to realize, is that I've never stopped seeing them as my boys. Not until this very moment, not even Fili. I think the whole company is as guilty as I am. But they're not our lads anymore, either of them. They're their own men, and they have been for longer than I've allowed myself to admit. Make no mistake, they're still young, and they do... silly, asinine things, but they've shown themselves to be more capable than I had dared hope. Kili in particular has caught me by surprise this night. That I have acted poorly in my misjudgment of him has been justly thrust under my nose."
Bilbo placed his small hand on Thorin's sleeve. "Then I hope that you'll tell him so. Whatever you said to Fili has already helped to put this dreadful day behind him. I hope you'll do the same for Kili. I can see how raising such a spirited young man could be..." Bilbo wracked his vocabulary for an inoffensive substitute for 'maddening beyond all measure.' "Trying," he settled on finally. "But is it so wrong that he occasionally livens us dull fellows with his troublesome antics?"
Thorin threw his head back and barked out an actual, honest to goodness, laugh. "No!" he boomed. He tone was speculative, as if he were only just discovering the fact. "No, there's not a thing in the world wrong with his liveiness, and not a thing in the world that I would change about him. I only pray that he never loses that spark, but life has a way of dimming such things, and that I fear for him."
"He'll be more likely to keep it if he knows it's appreciated. I've seen him try to quash many a wild impulse."
"With a sidelong glance at his implacable uncle, I'm sure." Thorin sighed heavily.
Bilbo fiddled with a corner of his pocket kerchief. "May I ask you something?" he said, looking up.
Thorin snorted. "You have had the run of every conversation so far this evening, why would you stop now?"
Bilbo took this to be as close to acquiescence as he was likely to get and continued, "Why did you divide them? For the watch? Kili might not have been gravely injured, but he could have used the rest as much as his brother. It seems... harsh."
Cruel, Bilbo had wanted to say. He expected cold fury or an instant dismissal for his temerity, but Thorin surprised him. "I don't regret the decision, although I understand how it looks to you. I'm sure you've noticed that the pair of them are almost worryingly close. What happened today has left them understandably shaken, but I can't let that leave them afraid to be separated. I could see the panic rise in Kili's eyes when I pulled him for the watch."
"Like they've been thrown from a pony," Bilbo mused. "You're forcing them to get back on the horse, so to speak. Is that what battle does to you? Leaves you afraid?" he asked timidly. It was not a question that he had ever expected to need an answer to. He certainly hoped that he would never come to find out for himself.
"Only a fool would be left without a healthy fear for their own mortality. The thing that Fili and Kili fear for the most, however, is for each other."
"I find that touching and noble," Bilbo frowned. "But you say it as though it's a bad thing."
Thorin sighed patiently. "No, Bilbo. I do not think that it is necessarily a bad thing. But you must understand, they need to learn to fear for themselves. Separated, they become distracted and reckless because of their worry for he other, and distraction can be a very dangerous thing. I would not have their love and loyalty be the cause of their deaths."
Bilbo pictured Fili and Kili as they had been, dancing and laughing around the fire. The comforting image changed to one of a churning battlefield, the brothers separated, arms outstretched and reaching for the other, each too preoccupied to defend themselves against the death blows coming from all sides. Bilbo shuddered. If this was the image that haunted Thorin, it was no wonder he so often acted as he did. "No," said the Hobbit quietly, "I don't suppose that you would. I cannot find fault in you for that."
Thorin nodded. He felt oddly pleased to be understood. "I do not do such things lightly or without good reason, Bilbo."
Bilbo patted Thorin's hand, but could not resist poking the bear. "If there are always such good reasons, why do you never bother to explain them? Do you have any idea what a willful old curmudgeon it makes you appear?"
Thorin bristled with stately dignity. "I do not explain my every action because it is unnecessary for a King to do so, and, it is a waste of my time. Take tonight, for instance. Had I not just frittered away a pointless hour with you, I might have been asleep by now. Goodnight, Master Hobbit. I suggest that you use your own time wisely and bed down. I am impatient to leave these cursed woods behind us, and we will rise early." If the willful old curmudgeon was a bit tetchy, he could be excused. It wasn't every day that a King had his curmudgeony-ness pointed out to him. It will do him good, thought Bilbo with a sleepy smile.
Unfazed, Bilbo hopped down from his perch on the stump and stretched. "Goodnight, Master Dwarf. There has been more than enough fence-mending for this small Hobbit tonight. Tell Kili I am glad he and his brother have returned safe. They were too surrounded by well-wishers earlier for me to get a word in edgewise."
Thorin responded with his typical grunt, be it one of acknowledgment, dismissal or phlegm. Bilbo was amused to see him looking uncharacteristically apprehensive as he glanced Kili's way. "Good luck," he murmured under his breath as Thorin turned and started up the hill to where Kili prowled. The poor Dwarf would need it.
Still alone, still worried, and still pacing, Kili thought this night would never end.
A throat cleared in the darkness. "Well done," said an unfamiliar voice close behind him.
Kili whirled, hand shooting to his hip for the hilt of his sword. He halted and flushed crimson at the sight of Thorin standing less than a yard away. Some watchman he had turned out to be. The 'well done' had obviously been meant as an ironical criticism of his sentry abilities. Kili felt the tips of his ears burn with shame. "I'm sorry," he sighed. It sometimes seemed that there was no end of things to apologize for.
"You're... sorry?" They were off to a cracking good start. Four words into their conversation and Thorin was already at a loss. There was no fire or torch to see by, but Kili's beet-red face was apparent even in the scant light of the moon. Thorin hadn't a clue what he had done to cause his nephew's reaction, but he was sure that it was somehow his fault. He offered Kili what he hoped was a reassuring smile. Smiles were always safe, weren't they?
Kili eyed his uncle apprehensively. Thorin was... Grimacing? Snarling? He was baring his teeth, at any rate. His voice had been odd, almost halting and unsure, Kili realized, and that was why he had gone for his sword, thinking that it was a stranger who approached.
"Whatever are you sorry for?" Thorin asked, bared teeth glinting through his beard in the moonlight.
Kili's brows knit together. He should have thought it obvious, although perhaps he had blundered so many times today that his uncle was unsure which time he was apologizing for. The thought did not raise his self-esteem. "I'm sorry for not keeping a better watch," he specified.
This brought a surprised chuckle from his uncle. "It is understandable. You're exhausted. I shouldn't have put you out here to begin with, but I was-"
"Making a point?" Kili offered, without even a shade of bitterness. He was used to points being made at his expense.
"Offering a lesson." Thorin revised.
Kili didn't respond. It was late, and he was more tired than he could ever remember being, so if his thoughts weren't running all that clear, he could be forgiven. Truthfully, he wasn't sure what he felt at this point. Not anger or resentment, just an overwhelming heaviness of being. He was tired of being sorry, tired of being ashamed, tired of trying to explain himself, and so silence seemed to be the least exhausting response that he could make.
Thorin felt a rise of pity as a numb mask settled over Kili's features. "I am the one who should be sorry," he said honestly. "Perhaps you did not need the lesson. I confess, I am no longer sure."
Kili raised his brows in surprise. "Did you say that you weren't... sure?" A Thorin riddled with self-doubt was a concept that didn't jibe with his faultless vision of the man. "I'm not sure I understand you." He shook his head helplessly.
Something inside Thorin broke. Releasing a long, pent-up breath, he laughed, heartfelt, deep, and booming, straight from the diaphragm. It was the hysterical sound of relief from a man sentenced to death and granted a reprieve with the noose already around his neck. "Kili, that makes two of us. I came here to say, 'well done,' and to apologize. It seemed simple enough. People do such things all the time, or so I am told. I am not sure where it all went so wrong."
If Thorin thought this muddled explanation would ease Kili's confusion, he was wrong still. "Well done for what?" Kili asked. "And apologize for what? This is becoming a fruitlessly elliptical conversation." Bewildered, he joined in his uncle's laughter, causing Thorin to roar until his sides ached and tears stood in his eyes. Kili was absolutely confounded by his uncle's strange behavior, but grinned widely all the same, enjoying the change. He jumped as Thorin slung an arm around his shoulders for support in an effort to catch his breath.
"I should still apologize for my sloppy watch," Kili began ruefully once Thorin was successful in his quest for air. "There are still fifteen goblins somewhere out there." He scanned the camp, surprised that no one seemed to have been woken by the raucous howls from upon the hill.
Thorin swiped at his eyes and stared at the bit of moisture on the back of his hand with something like astonishment. "As to that, it is the one thing we were able to get right. The four of us met up with them just before the creek bed. At least," he continued, self-abasing acerbity creeping into his voice, "we managed to save Brassy. Your missing goblins delivered him right into our midst. It was the last thing they ever did."
"I'm glad you saved him," said Kili sincerely. His voice had become almost a croak by this time. "I felt awful sending him off like that, but it was all that I could think to do." He shivered, reliving his sense of helplessness, and how very alone he had felt at the time.
"It was quite the vision. I'll be able to recall it vividly until the day I die. What in the world made you think of it?" Thorin had understood the ruse perfectly once he heard the tale, but was unable to imagine what might have sparked such an idea to start with.
Kili explained in a gravelly murmur about the putrid stew that had been thrown out almost on top of him and the desperate hunger he had observed in the gaunt faces of the goblins.
Thorin chuckled. "And that, in some labyrinthine way, translated itself in your mind into a deer hide strapped to poor Brassy's back, did it?" Only Kili could have concocted such a plot from such a small detail. Thorin himself didn't have the ingenuity to make such a mental leap, and he knew it.
Kili was unsure for a moment whether to be defensive or proud, but his uncle made the decision easier with his next words. "I came to apologize for not getting there in time. You have no idea how much I regret that failure. But it's obvious to me now that you had no need of me after all. I'm honored to have been your mark and practice dummy for all of your scheming and devilry over the years. The practice has served you well. I wish I'd made it known sooner how much I respect and fear your... Shall we call it a gift?" His face grew serious. "Kili, I have never been more proud."
Kili blinked in surprise. "D'you mean that?" he whispered. He wondered if he could even be heard over the erratic percussion of his heart.
"Truly. That, and more. I always felt my love for the pair of you was something that could remain comfortably unspoken. I hoped you understood well enough through my actions and deeds that it was there. But today, when I thought... When I saw those tracks at the creek..." He stumbled, then drew a dogged breath and plowed on. "I was mistaken. It seemed a great crime that you should go to your deaths not knowing of the pride and solace that you have brought to my fractured life."
His voice broke, a foreign sound to Kili's ears, and the young Dwarf was amazed to see tears standing in Thorin's eyes.
Truth was, Kili understood why his uncle was sometimes harsh or distant. Love showed itself in many ways, and love was all that Kili had known from the day he was born. Having an archer's keen sight, he had seen the way that Thorin's hand had shaken when he first learned that his nephews were back safe and relatively sound. He would have been dim indeed not to read the love in the kind of fear that could set the bravest man he had ever known trembling where he stood.
Yes, Kili understood the many faces love wore very well, but love and pride were separate things, and hearing that he had them both from his uncle removed a hidden weight from Kili's heart. It was something to hear the words spoken out loud, and his swollen throat constricted all the more as he fought against a whirling riot of emotions.
Thorin was unprepared for Kili as he all but tackled him to the ground in an enthusiastic embrace. Startled, his arm rose behind Kili's back in a halting gesture rusty from disuse. It hovered awkwardly as his nephew's forgiving arms wrapped around him, until slowly, with growing surety, he brought it down and clasped the young Dwarf firmly to him. The solid weight of his uncle's arm signaled all the acceptance that Kili had ever craved and washed away years of perceived disappointments and shortcomings. Doubts evaporated like an oppressive fog in a burst of sun, leaving him buoyant and free.
Thorin was stung by the sudden realization that, in many ways, Kili was braver and stronger than himself. His nephew's bold spirit of forgiveness and love was a great strength. Kili would never learn to keep up a guard, but perhaps, with practice, Thorin could learn to drop his. And so it was that Thorin began to tear down his walls and come down from his mountain. By the end of their long-withheld embrace, Thorin was only too willing to drop his lips to the top of Kili's dark head, and it was the younger dwarf who finally had to pull away. He did so with a laugh.
"Careful, Uncle, I don't wish to be strangled twice in one day!" he grinned into Thorin's shoulder.
"Of the many times I have wished to strangle you, tonight is not one of them," chuckled Thorin as Kili drew back. He kept his grip on his nephew's shoulders, holding him at arms length and gazing into his face with undisguised pride.
"Why Uncle, I do believe that was a joke!" Kili's eyes twinkled.
"Is jest and nonsense not the language you speak? I thought that we would perhaps stand a better chance of communicating in your native tongue."
"And another! I'm going to wake up tomorrow and find that none of this actually happened, aren't I? There's quite a knot at the back of my noggin, am I hallucinating?"
Thorin released him with a light shove and a wry twitch of his lips that was almost a smile.
The moment was lost to a sudden keening cry on the wind. Behind them, from deep within the woods, rose a hair-prickling, solitary howl. Kili stiffened, thoughts turning instantly to visions of wargs, but Thorin reassured him. "Only wolves," he said. "They will have good pickings tonight, if their stomachs are strong."
"It came from the goblin camp, then. Could they come here? I can watch longer with Oin if I'm needed," Kili said, hastening to stifle a yawn as the eerie cry was taken up by several new yipping voices. The yips were better. It was as if they were pleased and thanking him for their meal.
"No," said Thorin. "Nori is slated to join him. They will have an easy watch. The wolves will not bother us with such an easy score before them. You and your brother left them quite a feast." He fumbled for something in his pocket as the last of the howls died away. He found Kili's hand in the dark and placed something within his fist. "Every man should have a trophy of his first battle. This is yours, and Fili's."
Kili opened his hand and found lying on his palm the folded leather patch the giant goblin had worn. "This should be Fili's more than mine," he said, but he was touched by the gesture. The small scrap was no oaken shield, but the symbolism was the same.
"Surely, close as the two of you are, you could manage to share it." Kili smiled and Thorin continued. "If not, there is always that ridiculous twelve point rack that we dragged back to camp for you."
"You brought it back with you?" Kili was amazed. "After all this it will be mounted in Erebor after all!"
"Perhaps," Thorin said, eyeing him slyly. "Tell me, what do you plan to do with it on our journey? Cart it around on the back of your pony, becoming caught and snagged on every bush you pass? Even if you wrap it, a spread that wide will be nothing but a hindrance."
There was a surprised silence. Then, "Well... I- I never thought that part out, I guess."
Chuckling, Thorin patted Kili's shoulder as he passed and started down for the camp. "Plan for every eventuality, remember that-" Thorin stopped himself as the words 'my boy' sprung naturally to his lips. Not a boy, he remonstrated, not any longer. "I will send Oin and Nori up. It will be their watch within the hour. Get some rest. You deserve it."
Kili nodded gratefully and wished his uncle a good night in a distracted voice. Thorin surmised correctly that he was in the midst of plotting some scheme to get his prize to its rightful seat of glory. Privately, he wished him luck. He had already decided on its placement, above the great hearth of the dining hall. He hoped to one day raise a toast to it and his nephews from the head of the table.
Kili watched him go, still pondering the dilemma of the stag's antlers. He was mentally rearranging his travel packs in an effort to squeeze in the trophy in a manner that would not result in his being yanked from his saddle the instant he entered a stand of trees. Once he thought he had struck upon a suitable solution to the puzzle he wandered off to begin a final tour of the ridge.
Thorin had seated himself by the fire and was watching the final flames ebb and fade in the blanketing darkness of full night. When the last orange tongue had flickered its last, he laid himself down and slept. Like everything else that usually weighed on the dwarf lord's mind, his sleep was heavy, yet he still smiled tightly with his eyes closed as the opening trill of some disoriented songbird broke the stillness of the night.
Oin and Nori were awake and dragging their feet sluggishly up the path. Kili saw that Thorin had settled himself for the night opposite Fili, and he studied his family with a new-found sense of peace and ease. His previous loneliness had abated somewhat after his talk with Thorin. He still longed for the comfort Fili's presence invariably brought him, but it was no longer with such an irrational feeling of desperation.
The cheerful trill of a warbler drifted up from the slumbering camp in the rocky valley, and Kili's face nearly split in two with the breadth of his laughing smile. Forming his mouth into a careful 'O,' he returned the sally with his perfect imitation of a lone brown owl.
Below, hearing his brother's reply and listening to the vague stirrings of his sleeping uncle, Fili grinned in the night. We won't be kept apart, he thought resolutely. He watched the last three bright sparks of the fire blink out of existence and drifted off at last, reassured that Kili still watched from above.
It was not long before Kili joined him. He stumbled through camp in an exhausted fog, not particularly mindful of where his feet were taking him until he naturally fetched up at his brother's side. He stopped and studied Fili's battered face until he was satisfied that it was relaxed in sleep with no lingering grimace of pain. He dragged his sleeping roll over to lay at Fili's back, away from the residual heat of the stones surrounding the dead fire. They would draw what warmth they needed from each other, as they had done for almost seventy-seven years, and nothing that this journey could ever throw at them would change that.
Kili sat down and pulled off his boots. He ran his hand over the goblin arrowhead still embedded in the heel. Using the edge of his coat to save his fingers, he wrapped the leather around the base of the point and worked it free. Frowning, he laid it down at the head of his makeshift bed. After a moments consideration he added the patch that Thorin had given him, placing it on Fili's side. They would each have their own mementos. Kili couldn't make himself see them as trophies. Truthfully, he didn't feel triumphant at all. Grateful, yes, but there was no real sense of accomplishment, aside from regaining Fili. He smiled with a sudden realization, his elastic mind making a new leap. Fili was his trophy; these objects were only static reminders of what it had taken to earn him.
Kili nestled down in his blankets, leaving nothing but dark eyes and an unkempt slip of hair poking out from the top. He lay on his back, accidentally jostling Fili as he settled against him. Ignoring his brother as Fili grunted, strangely Thorin-like, and swatted at his tormentor in his sleep, Kili peeped drowsily over his covers at the stars. His favorite constellation, the Archer, gazed down, forever alert and standing sentinel with his proud bow. How wonderful, he thought, from behind the falling curtain of his consciousness, to be locked in that celestial draw, always watching over your loved ones. Burying himself completely in his blankets, Kili waved a white flag to sleep, his only surrender of the night. In everything else, he had fought bravely.
AN: I can't believe that this is over! I hope this was a satisfactory ending to a story that began with nothing more than two bright pairs of eyes peeping out from behind a dead rabbit. That image was as far as I had originally gone in my mind before posting that first, short chapter. It snowballed from there, and I'm glad that it did. I hope it was a fun ride for you. Give me the gift of a last review before you go? I'll miss you all, and thank you, thank you, thank you!