AN – Sorry this one took forever. It's mostly Fíli POV, and as most of you are painfully aware, I am terrible at writing from his perspective. It's not a great chapter but it has a lot of events that needed to happen before the next one.

And soon…we will depart on our quest!

Warnings: Nothing major. Stressed babies, minor discussion of injuries.

Greater than Gold
Chapter 22: Seventy-Five and Sixty-Nine
By Displaced Hobbit

In a word, he's tired.

Wholly exhausted, really, but he's never been one to complain.

It had been five years. Five years to the day since Thorin had up and left the settlement with no explanation; no warning. He hadn't even said goodbye, not properly. He and Kíli were still holed up in the House of Healing, still recovering from their wounds. Thorin had come in and said that he'd an important task he needed to tend to, and that he may not be able to visit for a while. They'd thought he meant a few hours, at the most. But he'd vanished, and Balin had vanished with them, and no one knew where they'd gone or why they had left.

Then the hours stretched into days, and days into weeks. His leg healed well for the most part, but he limped on it sometimes while the muscle continued to strengthen. Kíli's chest wound caught an infection from the dirtied orc blade that sliced him, one that Oin was able to treat easily enough, but it still left him feeling sick and horrid for days longer. Worse still had been how they were both worried half to death, fearful for their missing uncle, yet utterly gutted by his apparent abandonment. Had they done something wrong?

It had crushed Kíli. He'd tried valiantly to hide it, of course, but Fíli could see it plain as day. Bofur came to visit them almost daily, bringing delicious concoctions of Bombur's every time he did, and it had done wonders to lift their spirits and he helped calm the worst of their fears for their uncle with gentle reassurances.

The weeks stretched into months, and when Balin returned just before the winter, he brought the explanation with him. He told them of how the patrols had intercepted the message of the orcs, calling for the heir of Durin, living or dead. He told them of how Thorin, worried for their safety as well as his own, had fled with Balin to Bree, how neither of them had breathed a word of their whereabouts to anyone. Thorin intended to continue to run and travel aimlessly throughout the land, in an effort to throw the orcs off of his trail and confuse them about his whereabouts. Their tutor had also brought them a note, written by their uncle, in which he apologized for his hastiness but affirmed his love for them, while promising that he would return home as soon as he was able.

Everything changed after that. Fíli had been placed in command of the settlement, though he was under Balin's constant and strict supervision. The additional responsibility had become a heavy weight on his shoulders, and had robbed him of most of his free time (and truthfully, his free will). He understood better why Thorin had often seemed too busy for them when they were children; he probably had been. He and Kíli started to grow more distant by the day as they grew more and more consumed with their responsibilities. He knew he needed to fix that, knew that Kíli was hurting from their uncle's departure to begin with, but he didn't know how. It was a balancing act that he hadn't had time to learn. He'd been trust into this position unwillingly, and every day was a struggle just to keep his head above water.

The months stretched on into years. Dwalin returned from the Iron Hills in the spring following Thorin's departure. His meetings with Dain had proved to be entirely fruitless. The Lord of the Iron Hills had closed the mountain prior to their arrival, refusing to let them in and forcing them to make camp through the winter outside his kingdom's walls. A sickness had come to the dwarrow of the Iron Hills, and Dain was not keen to see it spread.

The old dwarrow did agree to hold court with them, and had emerged from his halls to meet within their shabby encampment. However, he refused to promise any resources or aid should Thorin seek to reclaim the mountain. His reasoning had been logical enough; his people had been devastated by the illness that plagued them, and their resources were few.

Yet when the dwarf had been asked of Smaug, and of the rumors that had been spread throughout the land, his entire demeanor changed. He refused to speak at all, claiming offense that Dwalin would insinuate he had propagated the false stories. He'd left in a huff, telling them that if they truly desired to know what was really happening in Erebor, they should see it with their own eyes. After that, he'd refused to meet with them, and had denied their request for additional supplies for the return home.

With their supplies dwindling and the winter snows closing in on them, they'd had no choice but to return home through the Grey Mountains, not getting a single glimpse of Erebor. It had vexed Dwalin greatly, of that much Fíli was positively certain, and he'd been even more distraught to come home and find that Thorin was gone.

It was strange, to say the least. In all of his dealings with Dain, Fíli had never been able to get a good read on him, to determine if he were trustworthy or not. His words spoke of one thing, but his actions often showed another. Fíli generally considered himself to be a good judge of character, but with Dain, he just couldn't tell.

In the years since, they'd all settled into new routines. Fíli spent most of his days tending to the needs of the settlement with Balin's assistance. When he could, which was not often at all, he trained or went out with his patrol. But all had not gone well within their home.

Thorin's sudden departure had caused a great deal of unrest with the dwarrow, as none of them knew why the rightful King Under the Mountain had abruptly fled. Rumors had flown in all directions, ranging from fears that he had willingly abandoned them to their doom, to gossip that he'd found a dwarrowdam worthy of his affections and had run away to be with her. Worse than those were the ones that spoke of his possible death. Fíli and Kíli, bound to secrecy, were unable to say anything to dispel the gossip, and it only served to magnify their own fears that Thorin could meet his end in the wilds and never return home.

The doubt and despair caused by their uncle's sudden departure had triggered an exodus from the settlement. As it were, nearly half of dwarrow that had previously resided within its protected walls had left. Their workforce, and by extension their resources, had started to dwindle. The settlement was dying, of that much he was certain, but there was nothing he could do.

He couldn't shake the feeling that it was his fault. If he were supposed to be King of Erebor someday, the people would have to trust him to lead them through their hardships. But now he was too green, too inexperienced, and too weary. They had trusted Thorin, had been grateful to him for carving out a new place for them to thrive. They owed Thorin their lives, but they owed him nothing. If he wanted to lead them, he needed to earn their respect, but he didn't know how.

"You alright, laddie?" Balin interrupts his musings softly, a small but weary smile tugging at his lips. He is supposed to be studying the report on their food stores and making sure that their supplies will last them through the winter, but he cannot manage to keep his thoughts straight.

"I'm fine," he says quickly, too quickly; the easy, practiced lie slipping out before he even realizes it.

His old tutor gives him a knowing look. "I'll finish looking over these. The mines should be closing up for the day soon; you may as well head on home."

He manages to give the older dwarf a grateful smile, but he's sure it looks more like a grimace than he wants it to. "Thank you, Mister Balin," he says quietly as he gathers his things. "I'll see you in the morning."

He heads to the entrance of the mines instead of going home. He's eager to see his brother. He had violently opposed Kíli's suggestion to go to work in the mines at first. It unsettled him deeply; his brother hated to be trapped inside the mountain, and their father…he couldn't bear it, wouldn't bear it if he lost Kíli in the same way.

But it made sense. Kíli had reminded him that the patrols were more than capable of hunting enough game to feed the settlement, had reminded him that the true wealth of their people lied in what they could craft from stone and metal, and while Kíli wasn't skilled at making those treasures, he could learn to mine. He could help. Bofur had even offered to take Kíli on as his apprentice, as they toymaker had returned to the mines himself not long after Thorin left. There were few people he trusted with the care of his little brother, but Bofur was one of them that he trusted the most. He'd made the kindly dwarf promise to protect his brother, and, while Fíli had no doubt that they toymaker would do the best he could, the mines were still an unpredictable and dangerous place where anything could happen.

The evening bell rings not long after he arrives, and slowly dwarves begin to trickle out of the mine entrance. It always makes him sad to see the miners when they leave; they always walk with shoulders hunched, weary from a long day of hard labor and covered in a layer of dust. Even Kíli and Bofur, both of whom usually exuded so much joy, looked beaten down at the end of their shifts.

A few of the dwarrow nod to him as they pass by, but he keeps his attention mostly focused on the stream of miners as they emerge, watching for his brother. Finally, just as doubt and worry start to gnaw at the corners of his mind, he spies them. He feels the weight on his shoulders lift away at the sight of his precious little brother. With everything else he has going on around him, with all the stresses of taking care of the settlement, with all the pressure he feels day in and day out, he still has Kíli.

He prays to the maker that he always will.

Kíli's face brightens considerably when he spies him as well, and Fíli watches with a fond smile as he bids his farewell to Bofur and hastens his steps to greet him. Fíli gives a wave to the toymaker before gathering his brother into a tight embrace, pressing their foreheads together tenderly.

"Nadadith," he murmurs softly, letting his tension slip away, drawing comfort from the one person he holds most precious in the entire world.

"Are you alright?" Kíli asks once he pulls away, the now ever-present concern evident in his gaze.

He manages to nod. "Yea," he says. Another well-practiced lie that is transparent as glass.

Kíli frowns at him, but doesn't push it. "Are you hungry? I was planning to go to the tavern."

He nods in agreement. "I haven't been there in ages," he admits. "And Gloin will probably be there; I need to speak with him about that goblin camp near our border…"

"Nope," Kíli interrupts, clasping him on the shoulders and steering him in the direction of the tavern. "No work tonight. Promise me," he demands.

"You're incorrigible," he complains with a huff of laughter, smile widening when Kíli laughs with him. "Fine; no work," he agrees. "Just ale and food and the company of my dusty little brother."

He's tired, yes, but it's been ages since he was last able to spend time with his brother, so consumed he'd been with helping the settlement prepare for the winter ahead. He knows that Kíli is tired and weary as well, but he's well aware of how precious their time together is, and he refuses to waste it.

In the end, losing a bit of sleep is a small place to pay for that comfort.

"And what of the goblins, then?" Gloin asks the next morning as he sits in the town hall, Gimli plopped to his right.

Fíli frowns as he thinks. He and Balin had tried to come up with a reasonable plan for weeks, but there wasn't an option they had found that didn't pose a substantial risk to their own troops. "What have the scouts found?"

Gloin sighs. "They're growing in number," he explains. "Probably trying to hole up in that cave for the winter. If we're going to do something, it would have to be before the snows come."

"How many are there?" Balin asks, flipping through some parchment, glassing slipping low on his nose.

"At least 200," the Gimli says, and Fíli spits a curse. That's more than the number of soldiers they have available.

"We'd be walking in outnumbered," he laments quietly.

Gloin scoffs. "50 of our men could take out a pack that size with no trouble, if the timing was right," he says assuredly.

"Don't be hasty," Balin interrupts, a slight bite to his voice to indicate his displeasure. "Sending 50 men into a goblin cave is suicide, and you know it."

"But if we could lure them out –"

"Then we risk them coming here," Fíli finishes, frowning at the thought. "And with nearly half our soldiers elsewhere, it would be too difficult to defend the wall."

"What are you saying then?" Gloin snaps. "We leave them where they are? Let them continue to multiply so they can kill us in our homes?"

"I'm saying that I don't know," Fíli snaps, agitation finally getting the best of him.

"Thorin would know," Gloin mutters under his breath, but they both hear him anyway. Gimli casts him a sheepish, apologetic look.

"Have care how you speak," Balin bites. "What did Dwalin suggest?"

Gloin frowns. "That we leave them until they show a threat."

"Then it's settled," Fíli grumbles as he rubs a tired hand across his eyes. "If they show a threat and make themselves vulnerable, we'll attack and stand our ground. We don't have the means to go looking for trouble."

The warrior sighs again, casting a wary look at the pair of them, eyes finally settling on Fíli. "I hope you're right, laddie," he says as he stands to leave.

"I hate this," Fíli admits as soon as the door slams closed behind Gloin and Gimli. "It's like…playing chess, only there are people's lives at stake."

Balin lays a comforting hand on his shoulder. "It…it's not easy, I'll admit, laddie," he says quietly. "But it is necessary. In your heart, you'll want to protect everyone but…but you can't. And that's not your fault."

Fíli chuckles a bitter little laugh. "That's not very reassuring."

"You do what helps the most people. Sometimes that requires sacrifice," he admits. "As long as you do what is right, your people will stand by you."

Fíli nods. "Has there been any word of Thorin?" he asks, already knowing the answer.

"Nothing yet, laddie," the older dwarf says with a sigh, just as he has every other time he's inquired.

"I was supposed to shadow him," Fíli laments a moment later. "When I came of age, I was supposed to follow him, watch him, learn what he did and how he did it, but that…what if that never happens?" He turns wide, worried eyes to Balin. "People are leaving because Thorin is gone and they don't think I can lead them. What happens when no one is left?"

"That will never be," Balin assures him. "Very few of our own people have left. The refugees of Erebor that settled here long ago have stayed loyal to you. And they will continue to."

Fíli frowns, but knows he has to accept the dwarf's wise words. It was true, most of the dwarrow who had left were ones who joined the settlement after Thorin began the construction of the great halls, ones that had come to share in the supposed wealth of the King Under the Mountain. With the novelty of the king gone, they'd left and returned home as well.

"Go now, laddie," Balin murmurs. "There's nothing left for today that I can't handle. Your brother is off for the day, I believe. You should spend time with him; it will help ease your mind."

"He's probably sleeping," Fíli says, but he doesn't hesitate to begin gathering his things to head home.

"As I suspect you should be," Balin points out with a knowing smile. "Off with you. Even kings and princes need a respite now and again."

"Thank you," he say sincerely as he turns to leave, casting a grateful smile at the dwarf who'd become like a father to him during Thorin's absence. "Truly."

Balin just waves a hand to shoo him out. "Off with you, laddie!"

Fíli walks quickly through the mountain, keen on getting home. It's been so long since he had a break, and here Balin had given him nearly an entire afternoon. He wondered if he could persuade his brother to venture out into the woods (though Dwalin would have to come with them, as Balin had become rather insistent that the heirs of Durin have a trustworthy guard with them whenever they leave the settlement walls), or perhaps they could spar in the practice arena. His head overflows with ideas, and eagerness and excitement bubble up within him.

Until, that is, he opens the door to their home to find Kíli hunched over the dining table, fast asleep.

He knew working in the mines was exhausting. He saw it most every day when Kíli came home, covered in dust and aching everywhere. It was hard, backbreaking work that he wasn't yet used to, and Fíli had been foolish to think his brother would want to romp and play about like when they were children.

They're not children. They haven't been for a long while.

He wraps his arms around his brother from behind, leaning forward to rest his chin on Kíli's shoulder. "Come on, sleepy head," he murmurs softly. "You'll be even more sore tomorrow if you sleep like this."

Kíli takes in a deep breath and instinctively moves closer to his brother. "Don' wan'a get up," he grumbles softly.

"I'm sleepy too," Fíli admits. "We just need a more comfortable place to nap."

The brunet whines and grumbles a bit more as he gets to his feet, but he still leans heavily against Fíli's side as they stumble back into their bedroom (Thorin had insisted their home be built with three rooms but they'd shared their entire life and they weren't going to stop now) and collapse gracelessly onto Kíli's bed. Somehow, Fíli manages to toe off his boots and fling a blanket over the top of the two of them, and Kíli falls straight back asleep.

The comfort of his bed coupled with his brother's steady breathing leads Fíli to sleep straight after.

He wakes to the feeling of Kíli pressing closer to his side, and he can tell from the hitch in his brother's breathing that he'd had the nightmare again.

"Same one?" he asks anyway, bringing one hand up to comb through Kíli's hair and using the other to gather him close.

Kíli just nods and tucks his head in against Fíli's neck as he tries to calm his breathing down.

It had started not long after Thorin had vanished, before Balin had returned and made them aware of the situation. Kíli would have horribly vivid dreams of their uncle meeting an untimely and cruel end, and not knowing where he was or if he was all right had made them worse.

"It's just a dream, Kee," he soothes quietly.

Kíli barely whispers in reply. "But what if it's not?"

"We can't…" he chokes out, finding himself forced to swallow around the lump that leaps into his throat. "We can't think like that. There would be news. We would know."

"I hate this," his brother sighs.

Fíli presses a kiss against his forehead. "So do I," he admits.

They fall into a heavy, though not uncomfortable silence, tangled up in their embrace like they're children again. Eventually, Fíli's thoughts start to gnaw at him in such a way that he has to speak them aloud.

"What if I can't do this?" he murmurs softly, self doubt tainting his voice. "Everything…everything is wrong. People are looking to me and depending on me but I don't…I don't know what to do. How am I supposed to know what to do?" he whines quietly into the dark.


"I'm not…I don't have what it takes to be the King of Erebor," he continues, ignoring Kíli's quiet protest. "I…it seems like a terrible burden to bear."

"That's probably why Thorin protected you from it," his brother says quietly. "He showed you little bits and pieces but he didn't overwhelm you with it all. He didn't…he didn't want it to be like this," he quakes. "He told me once that he didn't…he didn't want you to be like him. To be so young when the time came for you to lead us."

"I'm not a leader," he scoffs. How could Kíli think such a thing? All he'd done was run this settlement to ruin. The people weren't following him, they were fleeing as fast as they could.

"I've followed you my whole life," Kíli murmurs softly, barely above a whisper. "And I'll follow you to the end of it."

The quiet confession stuns him into silence, and for a long moment all he can do is stare at the top of his brother's head. He hates when Kíli mentions anything about his inevitable end; it tears at his heart in a way that he's never been able to put into words. Even if they live to be three hundred years old, older than all their kin, he doesn't think he could stomach the thought of being without his brother.

"Thank you," he whispers eventually, grateful for the quiet assurance of his brother.

Kíli hums softly from his side, and they fall into a companionable silence once more. Idly, he begins to wonder how late they've slept, or if they will still have time to spend with one another before they are sucked back into their duties tomorrow. Kíli's breathing evens out, and for a while he assumes his little brother has fallen back asleep. He contemplates whether or not he should wake him, eventually deciding not to. His brother needs his rest.

"What do you think it's like?" Kíli asks, not a second after Fíli had assumed he was slumbering away once more, startling him out of his thoughts. "Erebor, I mean."

"You've heard all the stories I have…grand halls of marble, veins of gold running through the walls, deep mines of mithril and gemstones," he murmurs, closing his eyes to try an envision it. "The only sketch Thorin has left is of the throne, but I can picture most of it."

He feels the smile that stretches across Kíli's lips. "I can see you up there one day, nadad."

Fíli chuckles lightly. "I can't," he admits. "Me on the throne would mean that Thorin…"

"You're older, and greyed. Wiser, but still…still you," Kíli continues softly. "Another great king of Durin's line."

Fíli falls quiet once more, and lets the image take further shape in his mind. He sees Kíli at his side, beard and braids and all, a proper prince and general of Erebor, and though he's aged as well, he still has the same mirthful smile.

"Do you think it will happen one day?" Kíli asks a while later, sounding wholly unsure.

Fíli shrugs, making a noncommittal noise as he does. It depends on Thorin, honestly, but he doesn't want to breathe that out loud, knowing full well how worried Kíli was about their uncle. If something happen to Thorin, then the burden of reclaiming the throne would fall to him.

He didn't know if he could do it, if he could risk life and limb for a home he'd never known. He resolutely turns his thoughts in a different direction, unwilling to think of such a tragedy befalling their family. Thorin was fine; he would return as soon as he was able. He would reclaim the mountain and they would have their homeland once more. Fíli didn't need to fret on such things.

Thorin had to come home. He didn't know what they would do if he didn't.

He takes another deep breath, relishing in the smell of the fresh air as it rushes into his lungs. It's been ages since he's been out on patrol, longer still since he's been able to be out in the forest. He was more than happy to help in the mines, truly he was, but he hated how he was stuck underground for days on end.

Proper for a dwarf or not, Kíli needed the open fields and the trees. The second he stepped out of the mountain he felt lighter. Free.

They were mostly out looking for game, hoping to build up their stores before the first snows came. The weather was cool enough that elk had moved into the area, and bringing down one of those would feed several families through the winter.

"Why don't you go on up ahead a bit and scout for any game?" Dwalin calls from behind him, pulling him from his thoughts. "You've got keener eyes than the rest of us."

He flashes his weapons master a fond smile as the rest of the patrol slows to a stop, preparing to make camp for lunch.

"Just don't go too far. Not outta earshot," he adds, fixing the lad with a meaningful look and squeezing his shoulder lightly. They had gone in the opposite direction of the known goblin camp, but that still didn't mean there were no dangers around. He knew Dwalin took his responsibility to look after him very seriously.

"I won't," he promises, clapping his own had on Dwalin's shoulder in return.

He relishes in the freedom to move ahead, but he stays mindful of Dwalin's warning. He doesn't want to older dwarf to worry more than necessary. He eventually finds a low branch suitable for climbing, and he swings his lithe body up onto it before he rapidly scales the tree. With the higher vantage point, he can see for miles.

He sits silently, eyes patiently scanning the woods below for any sign of wildlife.

He spots something in the distance – a rustle in some underbrush.

Stealthily he adjusts his position in the tree, dropping to a lower branch to get a better view of the creature. He silently draws his bow and focuses his attention on the fidgeting underbrush. He frowns. It's not…moving like an animal should. The motions are rough, jerky, almost as though it were injured.

With a sigh, he slips his bow back over his shoulder. Injured or sick game wouldn't provide good meat. He'd be better off waiting for something more substantial. He still continues to watch the rustling, just in case, and when the creature finally stumbles out of the underbrush, he can't believe his eyes.

"Thorin…" he stammers.

He nearly falls from the tree in his haste to climb down and all but sprints through the woods as he rushes toward his uncle. He is moving like he's injured, and it makes a cold lump of fear settle in his throat.

"Uncle!" he calls, desperation clinging to his tone.

Thorin's head snaps up, a brief flash of fear quickly replaced with relief as he sinks to his knees. "Kíli…my boy…" he mumbles.

He skids to a stop at his uncle's side, dismayed at the sight of blood leaking from his temple and a darker stain of blood on his abdomen. "Are you alright? What happened?" he asks in a rush, arms wrapping around the older dwarf when he sags against his side.

"Goblins," he groans out. "I…there was a band of them."

Kíli curses under his breath when Thorin sways dangerously, his head falling heavily against Kíli's shoulder. "No, no, no; you stay with me," he demands, but his uncle falls slack against him. "Thorin!"

Panic wells up within him and he shakes the older dwarf, trying to get him to wake. He's lost too much blood, and he needs to get him back to the settlement as soon as possible. With a huff, he tries to pull Thorin onto his back, but he's not strong enough to carry him, even with all of the work he's been doing in the mines.

"Dwalin!" he shouts at the top of his lungs.

It's barely a minute later when Dwalin come bursting through the woods, battle axe drawn and ready to defend his prince, but the axe falls from his numbed fingers as soon as he realizes what is happening. The other patrolmen fall into line behind him, battle cries falling silent when they take in the sight in front of them.

"He's injured," Kíli explains, unable to keep the panic out of his voice. "I can't carry him."

Dwalin nods once and drops to his knees. The two of them work together to get him secured onto the warrior's back, and the patrol falls into step in front of them to guide them back to the settlement. They move quickly, though Dwalin is careful to avoid jostling his cargo and Kíli frets constantly beside him.

"Get my brother," Kíli snaps at one of the patrolmen once they are safe inside the settlement walls, nerves worn thin at the sight of his uncle in such a dire state. "Tell him to come to the House of Healing."

"He's in meetings with the governor…"the patrolman protests.

"Now!" he demands, and the patrolman nods quickly before rushing off to the town hall.

"There's my prince," Dwalin says with a tight-lipped smile, and Kíli manages a small one in return.

They make it to the infirmary in no time at all, Kíli barking orders at the patrolmen to ease their passage. He sends two ahead to warn Oin and get a space ready to tend to Thorin's injuries. He sends another to fetch Ori to explain the situation so he can relay the news to Balin.

Oin is ready for them when they arrive, and they hurriedly lay Thorin down on one of the beds and let the healer get to work. Dwalin wraps a comforting arm around his shoulders as Oin peels away Thorin's tunic, revealing a large amount of bruising and a rather nasty looking gash across his torso. He stifles a sob by biting at his hand, and Dwalin tugs him closer.

"It's not so bad, laddie," Oin assures him. "Looks worse than it is, but it's not deep. He just lost a lot of blood is all. I'll have him right as rain in no time; I promise you."

Kíli sighs, and his entire body sags with relief. "Bless you, laddie," Dwalin murmurs, voice thick with emotion as he presses a kiss against the top of his head. "Bless you for finding him."

Thorin sleeps for two days. Fíli and Kíli keep a constant vigil over him, as Balin had managed to get them both excused for their duties until their uncle was back on his feet. They'd both been incredibly grateful for the respite and had enjoyed the time spent together, even with the heavy doubt that clung to them while Thorin continued to rest.

And while Fíli waits, he can't sleep, despite the fact that he's bone tired.

There are too many different emotions swirling though his mind. Relief, that Kíli had found their uncle in time. Gratitude, that Dwalin had been there to carry him home, and that Oin had treated him so that he expected to make a full, speedy recovery. Fear, for what was to come next. Anxiety, for how the townspeople would react. Nervousness, at what Thorin would think of what he had done while he was gone.

But above all of that, he felt love. Love for his little brother who slumbered away, pressed tightly against his side, and love for his uncle, who had yet to wake, but was looking healthier with each passing second.

He adjusts his position on the settee, causing Kíli to grumble slightly and curl closer to his warmth, but he doesn't wake. Fíli studies Thorin's face, and even now, weakened and asleep, he looks as majestic and regal as he ever has. Their Uncle carries himself like a king; he always had. His gait alone was enough to inspire their people to follow him, through anything, and Fíli wondered if he would ever achieve that. He wanted to be a king they could depend on, but he was just as awed by Thorin's quiet strength as the rest of their people. It was inconceivable for him to think that he could ever come close to comparing to Thorin.

His uncle's brow furrows, and his fingers twitch against the sheets.

"Thorin?" he calls tentatively, reaching forward to grasp his hand gently.

Thorin squeezes it back. "Fíli," he rasps out, eyes still closed. Kíli jerks awake at the sound, eyes widening when he realizes what is happening.

"Uncle!" he whisper-shouts happily.

A small smile crosses Thorin's lips. "Both of my boys," he murmurs, before a rough cough cuts off anything else he wishes to say. Kíli is on his feet in an instant, hurriedly moving across the room to fill a cup of water and press it to the older dwarf's mouth.

Thorin gratefully drinks his fill, then opens his eyes to regard the pair. "It does my heart good to see you both well," he admits.

"It does mine greater," Kíli whispers, reaching forward to squeeze his hand as well. "Missed you so much."

Fíli nods in agreement. "We we're so worried," he confesses softly. "I mean, we…we understood why you left, but still…"

"We didn't know," Kíli finishes, his voice barely above a whisper.

'"I am sorry," Thorin replies quietly. "I needed to keep you safe."

"Fíli," Thorin calls, just as they are about to depart the House of Healing. "Stay for a while. We have much we need to discuss. You'll have to catch me up on what I missed in my absence."

Kíli grumbles something under his breath about wanting to stay too, but he doesn't protest. "I'll let Mister Balin know," he promises, voice sullen like a petulant child. Fíli can't help the small smile that tugs at his lips at his little brother's antics.

"Come, Fíli. Sit," Thorin commands, and he is quick to do as he's told. It's been three days since Thorin woke up, and he was well on the mend, so much so that he had started to become annoyed with Oin's regular fussing about his health. It was clear that he was ready to get back into the swing of things, but Oin wanted to keep an eye on him to watch for a potential infection. "We have much to discuss," he repeats, his tone unreadable.

"I fear I may not have done a good job in your absence, Uncle," he admits softly, shame coloring his cheeks as he comes to sit beside him.

Thorin gives him a small smile. "Balin has already informed me of what transpired while I was away," he says. "You've done better than I could have imagined."

Fíli gasps in surprise. "But…" Why did he want to speak with him if he already knew what all had happened?

"I am quite proud of you. You did well," his uncle elaborates.

His cheeks flush once more and he finds himself staring at his boots. "Thank you."

"But I am afraid I have not been completely honest with you."

At that, Fíli's head snaps up, and he regards his uncle with a confused expression.

"Say nothing of this to your brother," Thorin demands, fixing him with a stern look.

Fíli frowns, not liking the idea of keeping secrets from his brother, but nods anyway. "I won't," he adds, when Thorin doesn't continue. "I swear."

Thorin nods and swallows thickly. "It is true that I fled to Bree to try and throw the orcs off of my trail. Balin came with me so we could get my affairs in order before I left on my own. But there was someone waiting for me there."

Fíli frowns hard. What had happened? "Who?" he whispers.

"Gandalf," Thorin replies. "The wizard. He'd gone to scout around Erebor some years prior, and he had some information to share." He sighs, eyes fixed to some point on the wall as he speaks. "He thinks that the time has come for us to reclaim Erebor. Signs from the prophecy have begun to appear. He urged me once before to form a company of our kin to travel to the mountain, and now…now it is time to see it done."

He can scarcely believe it. Erebor had always been a dream, but now…could it really happen?

"I've given a lot of thought to who I would have in my company. Dwalin and Balin, obviously. Oin as our healer, and Gloin as another warrior. Nori for his cunning, and Dori for his strength. And…and you, as my heir," he finishes quietly.

Fíli stares at him is utter disbelief. "Me?"

"Eight companions," Thorin continues, reaching to the table beside him and picking up a piece of parchment, before handing it to him with shaking hands.

"A contract," he observes, reading over it carefully. It invites him to join Thorin and his company on a quest to reclaim Erebor, promising him an equal share in the treasure if they are successful. "I…do you really think I'm ready?"

Thorin reaches over and grabs his hand, squeezing it gently. "I have no doubts that you are."

His eyes rove over the parchment once more, a small sense of dread filling him. "What about…what about Kíli?"

"I will ask Bofur to let him stay with them at the inn," Thorin says assuredly. "He must not know of this, Fíli."

"When will you tell him?" he asks quietly. It's what he wants, really, to keep Kíli at home and safe, but he doesn't want to keep secrets; he doesn't want this to hurt him.

"We will leave at different times and reconvene in Bree," he explains. "Only once we all depart from there will I send word to him."

Fíli shakes his head. "Thorin, no. That will crush him."

Thorin sighs heavily, looking weary and aged beyond his years. "You know your brother. If he is aware of the quest before we leave, he'll prepare. He'll track us and follow us. It…it is not ideal, I agree, but it will keep him safe."

"I can't lie to him, Uncle. I've never lied to him," he protests quietly, even though he sees the value in Thorin's words. "How do we know he won't follow us anyway?"

"That's why I want to keep him with Bofur," he explains. "There are few people that I trust to keep a watchful eye on your brother."

It's Fíli's exact same reasoning for agreeing to let Kíli go to work in the mines, and he finds himself unable to come up with a rebuttal. Aside from Dwalin, Bofur is the only person he would trust with this task. "I…alright. I don't like this, but…I won't…I won't tell him."

Thorin gives him a pride-filled smile. "And will you join me?" he asks, sounding suddenly unsure.

He's giving him the choice, Fíli realizes. He's giving him the option to say no, to stay with his brother instead. But this…this was his destiny. It was his birthright to become King Under the Mountain one day, no matter how conflicted he felt about that responsibility. And Thorin had sacrificed so, so much for him in his life, had put so many of his own plans and dreams on hold in order to raise him and his brother on his own.

He can't say no, not to this.

"Of course I will."

The board is set. The pieces are moving.