AN – Waaaahhhhhhh I am really sorry that this one took so long. I've written six versions of it and this one has bits and pieces of all of them! As per usual, my Durin Family Feels got completely out of hand.

I still own nothing. Enjoy!

Warnings: Super mild potty words, depiction of animal death (aka Kíli and Fíli go hunting), mild sparring injury, Durin babies being the best bros ever, drunk Fíli, angsty angsty angst.

Greater than Gold
Chapter 17: Sixty and Fifty-Four
By Displaced Hobbit

Spring was alive all around them, and the forest was positively vibrating with energy. As it were, Kíli was plopped down on the soft mossy ground, diligently skinning and cleaning his kills. It should be a macabre sight, his little brother's hands and arms soaked in blood and various animal entrails scattered about, but to him, it shows what a skillful hunter Kíli has already become.

Sometimes, he really wishes that everyone could see his little brother the way he did. He still marveled at the fluidity and grace he used while moving through the forest, the ease with which he took down his prey. They were only out for a daylong hunting trip, but he'd already gotten three rabbits and a young buck, more than enough to feed them through the spring and still give them something to sell.

"Want help?" he asks. He's not at all sure how to handle the buck, but Dwalin had shown him how to clean rabbits once or twice.

"Sure," Kíli answers easily, and he quickly sits down beside him and begins to work in relative silence, one of them occasionally rising to fetch more water from a nearby stream. Kíli always hums while he works (and, truthfully, Fíli thinks he doesn't even realize it), and he is always content to sit and listen.

"Are you still nervous?" his brother asks a while later, just as he is finishing p the buck and reaching for the last rabbit. "You'll be fine, nadad."

He sighs. "I know, Kee," he murmurs. "It's just…it's a big deal. Uncle keeps trying to downplay it, but I know that it is."

In a few days, he will be sixty. His traditional education will be over (though Balin will still give him lessons about his duties as Thorin's heir), he'll be old enough for ale at the tavern, and he'll take his place as a patrolman of the Dusk Watch. Everyone else seemed assured that he was ready, and he supposed that he was, but he was still completely and utterly terrified that he was going to make a fool of himself straight away.

He was to be their king one day, and that meant he would be judged harsher than the rest.

"You're fretting again," Kíli observes, small smile tugging the corner of his mouth. "You'll start to go grey, like Uncle."

He reaches down to grab a fistful of moss and chucks it at his brother, who easily dodges it but squawks in indignation anyhow. "We're only going grey because of you!"

Kíli flashes him an impish grin. "Still," he continues, returning his focus to his work. "You put too much pressure on yourself. You always have."

He sighs again, abandoning his rabbit altogether and reclining back against the soft ground. "There's just…so much that's expected of me, I guess. I don't want to let anyone down. Especially Uncle." He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. "I feel like I'm being stretched too thin. Working in the forge, patrols, training with Dwalin…it's…I can't even remember the last time I had a spare moment to myself."

Kíli doesn't say anything, but he must have stopped working, for he can no longer hear him moving at all.

"I feel like everything is changing so fast, and I'm not ready for it," he confesses a moment later.

The continued, uncharacteristic silence from his brother worries him, so he cracks an eye open to regard him. He looks horribly sad and lost.

"Maybe I shouldn't have asked you to come today," he practically whispers.

"What? No! That wasn't…" Fíli jolts upright, concern pinching his brow. "That wasn't at all what I was trying to say. This…no, this is exactly how I would want to spend my free time."

Kíli frowns at him, slightly confused. "But it's more work…"

He cuts off when Fíli laughs. "Work? Nadadith, this has been a walking holiday for me!" He gestures down to his one and a half shoddily skinned rabbits. "You're the one doing all the work!" he points out, making Kíli smile just slightly.

"Now that you mention it, you have been pretty useless," he teases.

Fíli flops back down to the ground with a huff. "Well, I am on holiday," he jests back, smile broadening when Kíli chuckles and returns his focus to the last rabbit. "Besides, I can't remember the last time I had a moment to myself, but I know it's been even longer since I've seen you and we've not been eating or sleeping."

"Yea," Kíli murmurs softly, and he can tell from his tone that Kíli's missed him, missed this. But, his little brother is not often one to complain or voice his own hurts unless prodded, so he is wholly unsurprised. He starts to apologize, but Kíli is humming again, Thorin's song of the Lonely Mountain, and it lulls him and soothes him to sleep on the soft forest floor.

Kíli is screaming, the ravenous maw of a particularly vicious looking warg latched tight around his torso. His blood flows freely, staining the fur of the beast and the ground below him. His little brother is fighting valiantly, repeatedly smashing the foul scum over its head with his sword, but it won't relent.

It's no use.

He has to save him. With his sword drawn and a fearsome battle cry ready in his throat, he lunges forward, prepared to strike…

but he doesn't move.

He struggles again and again in vain, for nothing gets him to move. Desperation claws at him, he knows he only has seconds to act before his brother is lifeless and gone, but he can't. He can't, he can't!

Then the warg tosses Kíli aside as though he is nothing more than a rag doll, and his brother lay still.

He blinks awake with a start, surprised to see the long shadows of the trees, signaling that it must be late afternoon. Their kills are neatly packed and stacked, and the carcasses lay many feet away as a treat to the other predators in the woods, but Kíli is nowhere he can see.

"Kee?" he calls out as he gets to his feet, the dream fresh in his mind. Most of their weapons are still uselessly sitting about, and he quickly reaches down to retrieve one of his swords. "Kíli!"

There's movement to his left and he whiles around to find a bare-chested Kíli, arms shining with water, arrow nocked in his bow and yes anxiously scanning for danger. "What happened?" he asks, alarmed.

Fíli visibly deflates, feeling like an idiot. His little brother had been not twenty feet away, crouched by the stream and presumably cleaning the blood and dirt from his arms, from the looks of him. "It…it's nothing," he murmurs finally. "Just disoriented when I woke up, was all."

With a sigh, he moves to join his little brother at the stream, knowing full well that he could do with some washing up also. He's acutely aware of Kíli's concerned gaze as he pushes the sleeves of his tunic up and dips his hands into the still-frigid water, diligently scrubbing them clean.

"Was it the same one?" his brother asks quietly as he settles himself next to him and resumes his own washing. Were it summer, and were they a bit younger, they'd surely be splashing around in the stream and causing a great ruckus, but the water had yet to warm enough and they were far too old for such childish things.

"I told you; it's different every time," he snaps, then sighs, knowing that it's fruitless for him to get frustrated with Kíli over this, before continuing with a softened tone. "Yea, it was the same thing. A warg this time. And then I couldn't see you, and I just…"

Kíli scoots closer to him so that their shoulders are pressed tightly together. "M'right here," he murmurs. "Sorry; I should have woken you up. Just wanted you to relax, you know?"

"No, it's…it's all right," he replies, taking the bloodstained tunic Kíli had worn while hunting and using the clean edge to dry his hands. "I just wish I could help what my mind dreams about."

Kíli has just finished tugging on a warm, dry tunic when he finally deems his hands clean and dry enough and rises from the stream. Suddenly, long arms are thrown around him from behind as he's pulled into a tight embrace. His brother ducks his head down so that his forehead presses against his nape. With a smile, he reaches up to fold his arms atop Kíli's where they've wrapped around his chest, embracing him in return.

"I'm fine, nadadith," he murmurs fondly. "Really."

Kíli nods and squeezes him for just a second before releasing him. "C'mon, Fee," he says as he starts back toward their belongings. "Uncle will skin us alive if we're not back before dark."

"Now, Thorin," Balin calls out, and he'd think he sounds nonchalant if he didn't know his cousin and longtime friend any better. "There's something I've been meaning to speak with you about."

They've had a rather productive evening, as they had only just finished going over their correspondences from Gandalf, scouring for any of the signs of yore that it was time to return to the mountain. They were both skeptical of putting too much faith in the old prophecies; Erebor was far too important to risk on the musing of old dwarves who had long sense passed. But, Gandalf was sending them valuable information, in addition to tracking several orc packs that were milling about the mountain for reasons unknown.

"Is there?" he replies, attempting to keep the tone light but there is…something…stirring in the air and he isn't quite sure what to make of it.

"About the lads," he murmurs, sounding hesitant. "I think it's time you…how shall I put this? You need to stop being their father, and start being their king."

Thorin bristles at that. "My responsibility to them is as their parent; to raise them."

"And my responsibility to you, my king, is to advise you on how to best rule your kingdom," Balin replies calmly. "They are not ready, they are not strong enough, not well-trained enough to rule. If we were in Erebor –"

"But we're not, are we?" Thorin snaps. "We've had this conversation before, cousin. They are good lads; they will make fine princes once we've reclaimed the mountain. I will finish training them myself once we are back within those grand halls."

"And if you fall on the way to the mountain? What if our enemies see your love for them and seek to exploit them as your weakness? What then?" Balin continues, much more subdued than before. "You're too close, Thorin; you know this. You've been…you've been a fantastic father to them. Kind, loving, yet stern…but…now it is time for you to be their king."

Thorin mulls over that thought for longer than he'd like, knowing that there is a hefty amount of wisdom in his older cousin's words. He doesn't like the implications, doesn't like what it is that Balin wants him to do, but he can see the merit in his words. The very thought of someone seeking to harm them as a way of getting to him lodges a bitter chill into his bones, one that he does not allow himself to dwell on. "I…and who will be their father, then? I will not abandon them, Balin."

"I'm not asking you to. I just think…perhaps you should start to pull back a bit in your affections. Let them figure themselves out and shift your focus to training them as their heirs." He explains.

"There was no lack of affection in my grandfather's house," he reminds. "I do not see how shunting my affections for them will make them any stronger."

Balin waves his hand dismissively. "I know, I know. I just…I worry about them," he placates, not wanting to turn this into a big argument. "You're everything to them, especially to Kíli. I only fear that their affections for you will lead to their downfall." He sighs heavily. "I don't know how to articulate this to you. I don't know how to make this transition an easy one, but I know that it needs to happen, for their sake as well as yours."

Thorin is quiet for a long moment, taking in his advisor's thoughts with a sullen expression. "They have been deprived of too much in their lives," he murmurs finally. "I'll not deprive them of this, not wholly."

Balin chuckles softly. "I wouldn't ask you to. Just a little less, Thorin. To soften the blow when thing start to change." He shakes his head, eyes focusing on the dwindling fire in the hearth. "Aulë knows it won't be long, now."

Fíli winces in sympathy as Gímli lands another hard hit on his little brother. The younger dwarf had shot up in height in the last few years and had grown quite strong, as he'd poured his grief from his mother and sister's passing into training to be as strong a warrior as his Da. Kíli scrambles to reset his footing and is able to block the next hit, but he's been on defense their entire match and has yet to come close to gaining the upper hand.

"C'mon, lad!" Dwalin snaps from his side. "You've yet to land a hit on 'im!"

From his other side, Glóin chuckles. "That's it, laddie! You've almost got him now!"

The cheers from his father seem to spur him on, as Gímli lands three hard hits in quick succession, disarming Kíli and leaving him defenseless. Kíli is clearly about to yield, but Gímli comes at him with a fearsome battle cry, and he lands a particularly vicious hit to Kíli's chest that sends him toppling down to the dirt.

"Hey, no fair!" Fíli shouts. Hits like that weren't allowed in sparring, particularly when someone's already won, and it twists his gut to see Kíli struggling to breathe on the ground. Without hesitation, he ducks into the sparring ring, skidding to a halt next to his brother, alarmed to see that he's not able to draw in a breath. He grasps Kíli's cheeks in his hands and presses their foreheads together.

"Come on, now, Kee," he urges, trying to keep the tiny inkling of panic out of his voice. "Breathe. Come on!" He's finally able to take in a deep, gasping breath, but there are tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. Fíli knows him well enough to know that those tears are more from embarrassment and bruised pride than actually being hurt.

"You alright, laddie?" Dwalin asks as he kneels next to him, concern marring his normally stern features. Fíli chances a glance up to see Glóin all but hauling Gímli away, his anger evident in his gait and the rough Khuzdul he's shouting at him.

"Just breathe, Kee, come on," he encourages. "That's it; that's good." It takes a few moments for Kíli to catch his breath again, and once he does the pair helps him sit up. Fíli rubs his back comfortingly as he coughs violently, struggling to get his breathing back to normal.

Dwalin sighs heavily. "It was a low blow, laddie. Got a little carried away, he did." He gingerly pods at the lad's chest, frowning when Kíli lets out a sharp cry of pain. He catches Fíli's eye and gives him a pointed look. "Best get him over to Óin and check him out."

Fíli nods and hauls Kíli up to his feet; concern washing over him as his little brother winces and exhales a sharp breath. "C'mon, nadadith," he murmurs. "Let's make sure you're alright, okay?"

Kíli nods as he tucks himself close into his brother's side. "S'embarrassing," he huffs out. "He's stronger than me and I've got fifteen years on 'im."

"He's just had a growth spurt. Yours'll come soon enough," he soothes as they make heir way to the House of Healing.

"Everyone keeps saying that!" he snaps in reply. "You'll be stronger when you're older, Kíli. You'll get bigger when you're older, Kíli. You'll understand when you're older, Kíli," he scoffs. "Well I keep getting older and it's still the same! Still too small and too weak and I just…I hate it!" He wheezes out in exasperation.

Fíli stops them and turns him around, forcing him to look at him, tutting quietly when he sees the tears pooling in his eyes. "Kee," he murmurs, reaching one hand up to wrap around his neck and bringing their foreheads together.

"M'never gonna be good enough, am I?" he murmurs. "M'never gonna get bigger or stronger and I…I just…"

"Hush, Kíli," he murmurs, pulling his little brother in for a tight hug, mindful of his probably bruised ribs. "You're more than good enough, okay? You're still so young, nadadith; you've a lot of growing left to do. Don't lose faith in yourself."

Kíli's head falls down to his shoulder, and he draws in several short, gasping breaths. "Ow," he mumbles quietly.

"Come on," Fíli urges, pulling free and starting to walk again. "We'll talk about this later, okay? We need to let Mister Óin have a look at you."

Kíli leans heavily against him the entire walk, and even once they're seated in one of the many rooms in the House of Healing he remains pressed tightly to his side. They don't speak as they sit, but Fíli can feel his brother's self doubt rolling off of him.

His wishes his brother could see himself the way he does. Then he'd understand.

"I hear a certain nephew of mine decided to take some of his anger out on you today?" Óin calls as he comes into the room. "He's…well, I know I shouldn't be making excuses for him, but he's been having a rough go of it as of late, laddie. I'm sure he feels awful about it," he murmurs. "He really does look up to you. The both of you."

Neither of the lads says anything to that, but they make quick work of getting off his tunic. Fíli winces at how bruised his chest has already become as Óin prods at him, a deep crease forming along his brow as he works. Kíli lets out a sharp cry as he feels along his ribs.

"I think you have a few bruised ribs, laddie, possibly cracked, so we'll take it easy for a while, alright?" he confirms a moment later. "Fíli, fetch me the arnica paste and some binding."

Fíli is quick to do as he's been told, wincing in sympathy at the diagnosis. Cracked ribs mean no archery, and no archery means no hunting for a while. No hunting will certainly make for a grumpy Kíli, and if he's already feeling inadequate, this is sure to only make it worse.

Óin rubs the arnica paste on the worse of the bruising before wrapping the binding tight around his midsection. Kíli sulks the entire time, keeps his gaze riveted to the floor. "Are you in much pain, laddie?" the healer asks once he's finished.

"M'fine," he murmurs, though he still sounds a bit wheezy.

"I'll mix you up some butterbur tea; that'll help you breathe better," he murmurs before digging through his supply of herbs to find the correct plant. "It should go without saying that you shouldn't strain yourself for a few weeks, laddie. No archery, no hunting, no sparing. Am I clear?"

Kíli nods glumly. "Guess I'll just be more useless than normal," he grumbles under his breath, but they both hear it anyhow.

"Don't say that!" Fíli exclaims, distraught.

Kíli's eyes fall to the floor once more. "M'sorry, nadad," he whispers.

Óin turns back around and hand Fíli a bag full of sachets for tea and a container of arnica paste before pressing a mug of tea into Kili's hands. "Drink this, laddie. It'll help you breathe easier, as I said," he explains. "Finish that and then off with you! Get some rest. I trust he'll be well enough in your care?" he asks, fixing Fíli with a stern look.

Fíli nods. "Thank you, Mister Óin," he murmurs as Kíli sips at his tea. The healer gives them both another long look before taking his leave. He takes his seat back at his brother's side and wraps and arm warmly around his bare shoulders, small smile tugging at his lips when Kíli's head automatically falls to his shoulder. He finishes his tea, and it sounds like he is breathing easier, which settles his nerves quite a bit.

"Feeling better?" he asks a while later, and Kíli nods against his shoulder. "Are you in a lot of pain? I know you told Mister Óin you weren't, but those bruises…"

"'M a little sore," he admits. "It's nothing I can't handle, Fee." He sounds tired and upset, and Fíli doesn't blame him one bit, but he wishes he could help make it better.

With a sigh, he presses a kiss against his forehead. "It'll be alright, Kíli," he soothes. "Just a few weeks is all, and you'll be right as rain."

"Uncle is going to be so cross with me," he murmurs.

"It was a cheap shot," he reminds him. "Everyone knows it. I'm sure Gímli is getting a lashing for it right now."

"But this morning…this morning he told me to make him proud and then I go and get my arse kicked and I just…" He's cut off by a harsh gasp of pain as he draws a breath that's just a bit too deep.

"Come on, Kee," he murmurs. "Let's get you home and in bed. Uncle will understand."

As they slowly make their way back home, he hopes that he's right. Thorin had been growing more and more frustrated over the past few weeks, and there had been a number of times that he'd misdirected his anger toward the pair of them. It had already frayed Kíli's nerves enough, and he hoped that their uncle would understand, that he would realize that it hadn't been Kíli's fault.

He's ever aware of Kíli's anxious mood, so once they get home he settles Kíli into his bed and fetches him some more tea and some books before curling up at the head of the bed with him and tucking him close to his side. "Sleep, nadadith," he urges quietly. "It'll hurt less when you wake."

His little brother nods as he lets his head drop to his shoulder. He honestly isn't sure if he will actually fall asleep or not, but he thinks it would do him a world of good to sit quietly and sort through his thoughts. He lifts his hand to card through the dark strands of hair in an effort to soothe him, and within minutes he notices Kíli's breathing is deep and even.

He should be getting on to his own weapons training with Dwalin, especially since his first patrol is just two nights away, but he thinks the older warrior will understand that Kíli needed some looking after. Yet there's a thought tickling at the back of his mind that Thorin might be cross with him as well for skipping out on his responsibilities.

But then again, his first and most important responsibility had always been to Kíli.

When he returns home, there's a fire burning in the hearth and a pot of stew boiling in the kitchen. He makes his way back to the bedroom that the lads share, and, upon finding the door cracked open and the flickering of candlelight coming from inside, silently pushes his way into the room.

They're both sitting on Fíli's bed, his eldest reading from a rather large looking text, and his youngest curled up at his side, fast asleep. Fíli's hand is idly stroking through his brother's hair, though the rest of his attention is focused on the book in his lap. Thorin clears his throat to draw his attention, and clear blue eyes flicker up to his face, small smile coming to his lips when he sees him.

"How is he?" Thorin asks quietly as he steps into the room. Once he gets closer he can hear the slight rasp in Kíli's breathing, and it causes his concern to grow, though he does his best to stay impassive.

"He's fine," his nephew murmurs. "I think he's quite sore, though he doesn't want to admit it. And his pride has been bruised almost as badly as his chest," he adds. Then, almost as an afterthought, "He thinks you'll be cross with him."

Thorin is quick to shake his head. "Of course not; Glóin explained to me what happened. I do not blame him."

Fíli gives him a warm smile. "He would do well to hear you say that," he admits as he closes the book and slides it onto his nightstand. Gently, he disentangles himself from his brother's slumbering form, small smirk of amusement coming to his lips at Kíli's grumbled protest.

"Fee," he rasps softly, hands blindly reaching for him as he blinks awake.

"More tea, nadadith," he explains. "It sounds like your chest is tight again."

Kíli nods sleepily before rubbing at his eyes. He coughs once, before it's cut off with a rough gasp of pain and he forces himself to even his breathing out again. It's not until he's glancing up to his brother's retreating back that his eyes focus on his uncle, and a sheepish, embarrassed expression crosses his features. "M'sorry, Uncle," he murmurs sullenly. "You told me to make you proud and then…"

"Hush, Kíli. It wasn't your fault," he murmurs as he gently, tentatively clasps a hand on his shoulder. He only lets it linger there for a second before pulling it away again, Balin's words still burning in his mind (A little less, Thorin). A look that he can't identify crosses Kíli's features for just a second before he fixes his gaze on his lap. "Come on; Fíli's nearly got supper ready. Some food would do you well."

Kíli nods and follows silently behind him, and in his gut Thorin knows he hasn't done anything to reassure the lad at all.

He's a little sad to find their room empty when he wakes. With his increase in training to prepare for his patrol, Kíli had been picking up his slack at the forge. With his ribs still badly bruised, he wasn't able to accomplish near as much as Thorin had needed him to as far as smithing was concerned, but he'd been getting back into leatherwork again, a trade he almost all but abandoned when he began hunting more regularly.

He'd collapsed in to bed bone-tired for the last three nights. Dwalin had been relentless in his training, as they'd worked for nearly ten hours a day, with minimal breaks. He hadn't even seen Kíli at all yesterday, or his uncle. They must have gotten in much later last night.

But then his door is abruptly pushed open, revealing a smiling little brother and uncle. "Happy birthday, Fee!" Kíli calls happily, carrying a plate with what looks to be a delicious apple scone atop it.

He smiles up gratefully at the pair of them. "Thank you," he murmurs contentedly as Kíli clambers up onto his bed to sit with him, handing him the plate with his breakfast. Thorin pats his shoulder warmly, but then he takes a step away from the bed, content to simply regard his lads. "Have I slept too long?" he asks.

"Probably," Thorin admits, a small smirk playing at his mouth. "Though you've nowhere to be until dusk, so there is no harm in it," he adds when Fíli positively blanches. "I've a small gift for you; for both of you." He murmurs, reaching into his pocket to retrieve two small cloth bags and handing them each one.

They open the gifts with haste, revealing silver clips with their sigils engraved in them.

"Your father always wore part of his hair back, with a clip similar to these," he explains in a soft tone.

"I remember," Fíli whispers. "And braids in his moustache."

"Aye, he did," Thorin murmurs fondly. "It was tradition in his family, much like these," he touches the neat braids that sit by his ears, "are in mine."

"Thank you, Uncle," Fíli replies, as Kíli stays quiet, fingers tracing over the engraving of the clip.

Thorin abruptly clears his throat. "Eat; enjoy your day, Fíli. I am needed at the forge, but I will see you before you head out on patrol."

He leaves without further comment, and when he does, Fíli turns to look at his brother. "Is something the matter with him?"

Kíli just shrugs and frowns, eyes still on the clip. "I don't know. He doesn't talk to me much," he admits. "I was thinking he might just be sad and thinking about…about Mum and Da and Uncle Frerin a lot."

Fíli hums in agreement. "He has seemed rather distance as of late."

"I asked Mister Balin at my lessons the other day and he told me to leave it be," he elaborates. "More things that I'm not privy to, I suppose."

Fíli scoffs lightly and pops him lightly on the forehead. "More things you don't need to be burdened with," he clarifies.

"Mmm," Kíli hums thoughtfully. "I just want to help. He used to always let me help…like, not talk to me about his problems but just…"

"Let you cuddle up with him and braid his hair? Let you comfort him?"

Kíli nods. "Yes, that. He doesn't…it's almost like he doesn't want to touch us anymore. At first I thought it was because he was upset with me, but…"

"We're not babies anymore," Fíli reminds. "I mean I've got a full beard now and everything! He's probably just…it's time to stop such things, I suppose. We're growing too old for such childish things."

Kíli frowns. "I suppose," he murmurs, but he sounds unconvinced. "I…it makes me feel better to be so close."

Fíli gives him a small smile and throws an arm around his shoulder. He didn't really understand why, but proximity and physical affection had always been a big deal for Kíli. It wasn't as though he didn't enjoy hugs and the like, but he didn't seem to crave it the way his brother did. "Well you still have me for all of those things, even if Uncle thinks we're too far grown."

"Promise, nadad?" he murmurs hopefully.

"Of course," Fíli replies easily as he squeezes him a bit closer. "Do you have anywhere to be today?" he asks as he sets his clip aside and digs in to his breakfast.

Kíli wrinkles his nose. "I have a lesson with Mister Dwalin about military strategy this afternoon," he grumbles.

"That sounds much more interesting than the one I had about ancient runes with Mister Balin yesterday," he comments, succeeding in making his little brother chuckle lightly. "Would you be terribly bothered to fix my braids before you go?"

"'Course not," Kíli says with the barest hint of a smile. "Can't have you looking so ragged for your first patrol!"

He rises from the bed, disappearing from their room and returning just a moment later with a small basin of water and a comb, which he places on his nightstand. Once he's finished his breakfast, Fíli scoots to sit on the edge of the bed and Kíli easily settles in behind him, immediately starting to release the unraveling braids in his hair before finger-combing it all straight. He only has to dip the comb into the basin a few times to pull out some of the finer tangles.

"I don't…" he murmurs quietly a moment later. "I don't know how Da wore his hair to do yours."

With a small, sad smile, he glances over his shoulder. "I'll show you. Do my regular ones first."

Kíli complies with a request, and in a few moments his regular braids and neatly and evenly framing his face.

"He didn't pull it all back," he explains, reaching back to take a portion of his hair in his hands. "Maybe about this much? And then he had the clip in it, and a braid underneath that."

His brother doesn't speak as he neatly combs out and separates the section of his hair before adding in his clip. "I need another clasp for the last one," he explains as he stands quickly, not meeting Fíli's gaze at all as he crosses their room to retrieve one before retuning to his seat on their bed. It takes him less than a minute to complete the last braid. "There," he murmurs gently.

"Now you," Fíli commands as he grabs the comb, turning around to face his brother.

"The braid won't stay, Fee," he grumbles, but obediently turns and allows him to tend to his hair.

"So we won't plait yours," he says simply. He has Kíli's hair combed and clipped back quick enough before he pats him on the shoulder. "All done," he murmurs.

Kíli turns back around to greet him with a sad smile and watery eyes. "I wish I had known him," he whispers softly.

"You look so much like him," Fíli admits. "And you act like him, from what I can remember. I don't…I don't remember a lot, though."

"Everyone says I look like Uncle," he disputes, but there's the barest hint of a smile pulling at his lips.

"You've got some of Uncle's features, yes, but your eyes and your smile…that's all Da," he explains.

"Really?" he asks, smile pulling wider.

"Really," he confirms before pressing a kiss against his brow.

The second they've stepped back into the settlement, there's a warm hand clapped firmly on his shoulder. He looks up to see Dwalin, gazing at him with a look that is a mixture of pride and happiness and relief. They've just returned from his first patrol, and, while Fíli had been incredibly anxious at the start of it all, it had been a great experience.

There were two patrols a day, one at dawn, and one at dusk. He had been assigned to the dusk patrol, which was usually led by Dwalin or Gloin, and sometimes Thorin, when he had the time for it. During the patrols they meandered through the woods around the settlement, keeping eyes peeled for orcs and goblins, as well as setting snares to catch rabbits and foxes and other small game to return to the settlement. He hadn't really known what to expect when he'd joined the small band of warriors that made up the evening watch, with so many seasoned warriors, so many who had come from Erebor and remembered the wrath of the dragon, so many who had fought against the orcs that attacked the settlement years ago.

In a word, he'd felt horribly, completely inadequate. Even Kíli had fought in more battles than him. He was totally and utterly green.

But, as luck would have it, he had been welcomed into the dusk patrol with warm smiles and had even managed to take out a wandering fox with one of his throwing knives, something that had earned him a fair amount of praise, as fox pelts were a prized thing commonly used in coats and clothing.

"You've done well tonight, laddie," Dwalin murmurs as they enter the barracks, returning their weaponry and turning over their kills to be distributed and sold to the merchants and the like. "Much better than I had hoped, though I knew you'd be fine."

"Thanks, Mister Dwalin," he murmurs, feeling an elated smile tugging at his lips, one that he tries to tamper down, not wanting to seem over eager in the face of so many veteran soldiers.

"I think," he continues, wry smile on his own face, "that deserves a trip to the tavern for your first ale."

Truthfully, he'd been allowed to drink for several months, ever since his sixtieth birthday, and Bofur probably would have gladly slipped him a mug or two had he asked for it before that. He hadn't felt a strong desire to do so; he was too concerned with keeping up with all of his responsibilities to take some time off for himself, but now that Dwalin mentioned it, it did seem like a grand idea.

He nods in agreement, earning an uproarious cheer from the few remaining members of the patrol, eager to completely welcome their newest member to the group.

"This is why you want the dusk patrol, laddie," one of the younger soldiers, Telchar, said lightly. "Successful patrol means we're off to the tavern for drinks! Doesn't happen for the dawn crew," he explains with an easy grin.

As they all make to leave the barracks, he hesitates for just a second. "Should I…" he starts, unsure himself. "Should I fetch Kíli? I mean, am I allowed to?"

"'Course you are," Dwalin replies with another warm smile. "Sure he's eager to see you're back and unharmed in the least. Just don't keep us all waiting, laddie!" he adds.

He gives Dwalin a warm smile as he leaves. "I won't!" he promises. Kíli had been right sulky when he'd left, and he thought it might do him some good to get out of their rooms for a while.

When he arrives home, he predictably finds Kíli starring broodily at the fire, idly twirling his carving knife in his palm, and untouched hunk of wood in the other. With a start, he looks up at his brother, before a wide smile splits his face. "You're back!" he calls happily, jumping up from his seat, but Fíli catches the slight wince that crosses his features when he moves too swiftly for his bruised ribs.

"Aye, I am," he confirms, gratefully accepting the warm hug he's given. "Now come on; stop sulking! Have you eaten yet?"

"Not sulking!" Kíli retorts, but he flushes guilty. "I was going to wait to eat until you or Uncle were home," he says, but Fíli knows that he means he was going to skip dinner entirely as part of his moping about.

"I'd figured as much," he scolds lightly. "Come along; we're going to the tavern! I'm going to regale you with tales of my patrolman prowess and sample my first ale."

The tavern is alive with energy. Bombur and his new bride, Eila, are active behind the counter, fetching drinks and meals for all of their patrons. He eventually spots Bofur, who appears to be in some sort of spirited debate with Nori, and Bifur, who is seated in one of the corner booths and carving away at something.

They're greeted with raucous cheer from Dwalin and the rest of the dusk watchmen, and he quickly walks up to join them. Kíli hesitates ever so slightly behind him, but eventually follows behind, though he stays at his back the entire time.

"Here you are, laddie," Dwalin greets as he presses a mug of ale into his hands before they've even reached the long table the watchmen have posted up at. He nods to Kíli in greeting as well, reaching out to clap a warm hand on his shoulder. He takes an experimental sip of the drink, nose wrinkling in disgust at the flavor of it, drawing out a hearty laugh from his weapons master.

"Don't you worry, laddie," Telchar croons from across the table. "Get's better by the third or fourth one!"

"Oi!" Bofur snaps from nearby, though he's smiling mirthfully. "Careful what you say about my ale!" His eyes light up a bit when he spies Kíli, who still looks wholly uncomfortable from where he's hovering behind him. "C'mere, lad!" he calls, beckoning him over. "Got something to show you!"

Fíli watches him leave, sees how Bofur settles him into the corner booth with Bifur, who is immediately gesturing enthusiastically with his hands. It brings a warm smile to his lips; Bifur had become rather withdrawn since the accident that left him unable to speak, as the axe still buried in his head tending to scare dwarrow off. But he liked Kíli, remembered how Kíli had always carved with him before, and his brother was so unfalteringly kind that it didn't surprise him in the least that he was still willing to spend time with the old toymaker.

A little more at ease now that his brother seems more comfortable, he focuses his attention the dusk watchmen are telling of their patrols and adventures. Most of them are entirely absurd and obviously embellished, but he finds himself laughing merrily along regardless. As the night passes he finds his comfort around them growing, eagerly chiming in with some of his own stories about his hunts will Kíli in the woods. He finds that Telchar was right – the ale does taste better after the third one, and his laughter comes faster and easier. Kíli eventually rejoins him, as does Bofur, and he finds himself leaning close against his brother's side, grateful that he chose to come along with him.

There's another loud, boisterous cheer some time on, and he looks to the door to see his uncle strolling in, a smile in his eyes though his face remains impassive as usual.

"Thought I might find you here," he says as he fondly claps a hand on each of their shoulders. "I take it the patrol went well?"

"Took down a fox, he did!" Dwalin exclaims proudly, and Fíli notices the pale rose flush that's started to settle on his cheeks, wonders if he's started to look the same. "An' he's on his fifth ale!" he cheers proudly, handing Thorin his own mug before throwing his arms around Fíli in a shaking, enthusiastic embrace.

Thorin frowns at them before taking a long drag from his own much. "Don't go off letting him drink himself into a stupor," he scolds his longtime friend. "That's his last one."

"Aw, Uncle!" Fíli protests, but he notices for the first time how the room swims just slightly when he turns his head too quickly.

Thorin offers him a gentle smile. "You'll thank me in the morning. You've plenty more patrols and evenings at the tavern ahead of you, my boy." Then he clasps his hand at the back of his neck and squeezes gently. Fíli knows that gesture.

It means, 'I'm proud of you.'

Knowing that it's his last ale of the evening makes Fíli savor it more slowly. He even offers Kíli a sip when he's sure no one is looking, but his younger brother just shakes his head with a bemused smile. It seems all too soon when he's finished it, and Thorin is telling them to go home and get some rest.

"I don't feel tired," Fíli grumbles as his little brother helps him stand. He waves to the rest of the patrol, goofy, contented smile splitting his face wide when they cheer once more, sending him off with a "Happy Birthday!" and a smile.

They only make it about five steps from the tavern doors before Fíli sways wildly to the side, and Kíli swoops in to pull his arm over his shoulder and give him some extra support. "Bofur says to get you some water when we get home," he comments idly, and he can hear the smile in his voice.

"M'not drunk," he slurs, and then laughs at how ridiculous it sounds. "Why's my voice like tha'?"

"Because you're drunk, nadad," Kíli explains with a laugh.

"You shouldda had some," he mumbles. "You looked bored."

"Did I?" his brother comments. "I was just listening. And you know Uncle would have given me a lashing if I'd even had a drop of ale before my sixtieth."

They make it home without much incident, though Fíli finds nearly everything hilarious, but it does Kíli well to see him in such high spirits. It's been so long since he's seen him laugh so freely, and, even if the ale addles him, it is a welcomed sight.

"I'm going to fetch you some water," he murmurs once he's settled into bed. "And some bread."

"M'fine," Fíli protests, but accepts both offerings gratefully once he returns. He sits himself up to enjoy them, and once he's finished, he fixes his brother with a rather serious look.

"What?" Kíli asks finally, though not unkindly.

"Come here," he calls, arms extended to draw him closer. "You're my favorite person in the whole world. Did you know?"

Kíli shakes his head as he settles into the embrace.

"You are," he affirms quietly. "That's why I'm so scared. I have to keep you safe," he slurs. "'Cause if I can't keep you safe then there's nothing…there's nothing else."

"Fíli…"he murmurs quietly, shifting so he can see his brother's face, worry clawing at him when he sees the tears streaming down his cheeks. "Hey, Fee, it's all right. Nothing's going to happen to me," he soothes, adjusting their embrace so that his brother's head rests on his chest.

"You don't know that!" he sobs. "How can you know that? Kee, I've watched you get sick and break bones and be poisoned and…and…"

"Hush, nadad," he murmurs softly, but he can feel his own tears welling up. It isn't like his brother to get so upset, to cry so openly. Sure, he's voiced his concerns to Kíli before, but not like this; never like this. He's in uncharted waters, he doesn't know what to do, and it scares him right down to his core.

"You said…before, you said you'd die for me if you had to," Fíli chokes out, trembling as he burrows in closer to his brother's side. "Nadadith you can't; you can't! I can't lose you." Kíli wraps his arms tighter around him, trying to shush him gently, desperate to soothe him as best as he can't. "I've lost too many people Kee…can't…can't lose you."

"You won't," he murmurs, brushing the mussed strands of hair from his face. "Shh, Fee; it's all right."

It isn't much longer that Fíli's cried himself out, the alcohol and his long day finally taking their toll on him. And even though Kíli knows he needs to disentangle himself and get ready for bed, he can't bring himself to. He doesn't dare relinquish his hold on his brother, and he fights it every time his eyes start to drift closed to sleep.

Thorin had told him once, many years ago, that one day he would need to take care of Fíli as his brother had always taken care of him. That when Fíli became prince, it would be Kíli's job to look after him. He just hadn't thought it would come so soon.

He spends the entire night holding his brother close, chasing away his nightmares and willing Aulë to bring him peace. When Thorin pokes his head in a few hours later to make sure that they made it home safely, he gives him a sad, knowing smile, but crosses the room to press a gentle kiss against his forehead in a comforting gesture that he knows will only continue to become more rare.

It is in the early morning that he decided Fíli was right.

They aren't children anymore.

Thanks for reading, my loves! Also, angsty drunk Fíli was entirely, 100% phoebe-artemis's fault.