His brother's death tastes of smoke. Thick, heavy, carrying the coppery hint of blood, the early-autumn air entirely too warm for the fumes rising over the battlefield to be anything but poisonous. That's all Thorin remembers – allows himself to remember. His knees already scraped, hurting when he lands beside Frerin's body, limp as he scoops him up in his arms, his young, young face almost unrecognizable what with all the bruising and blood. It takes him a second too long to realize that he will not get to say his goodbyes, that his brother is already gone – he chokes on his sobs, chokes on the smoke, smells the smoke when he buries his face in Frerin's hair, remembers how he would spend hours upon hours at the forge, his cheeks red when he'd emerge at last, eyes glinting, a new ring or a bead or a necklace for their mother in his hands, increasingly more elaborate as his craftsmanship bettered...
In a daze, his vision blurred and cheeks burning from the tears, Thorin searches for it frantically, his hands shaking, and barks out a pained laugh when he finds it tucked away in Frerin's undershirt, close to his heart – the small pouch is soaked in blood so much he almost throws it away in disgust, the rune their mother embroidered in it once now almost destroyed, the silver thread without its gleam, torn and fraying. He loosens the string, but dares not take the contents out, simply sits there, his brother's head a dead, horrible, painful weight on his thigh, his hand closing around the gift pouch gingerly, his thumb brushing wet strands of Frerin's hair away from his forehead as he bows to join with him brow to brow one last time. He cannot resist kissing his forehead, cannot resist crying out loud, a dry, hoarse sound that turns the heads of the other soldiers scouring the battlefield nearby – he cares not.
He has never been too good at resisting, he realizes, were it pain or pleasure, but he knows all that will change now.
“Not long now,” Frerin would say more eagerly with each passing day “we shall meet very soon, I can feel it.”
Thorin would laugh and pat his shoulder and let him spin theories about how his One would look, but he felt a tinge of envy. Frerin had felt the longing from the moment he was born, or so it seemed, and he was happier for it. “Perhaps he or she is not in this world yet, then,” he would assure Thorin when he let his guard down enough to complain about his own lack of longing, and such conversations would always end on a happy note, but Thorin knew – knew his longing was not to come any time soon, if ever. It was a strange sensation – not an emptiness exactly, but a sort of... haze, as if trying to see the sun rising through a thick veil of clouds, unable to feel its heat or benefit from its light.
They were young yet when Frerin was taken from the world, entirely too young, and Thorin felt anger, nothing more, for years. He did not care for himself, he did not care for his One – because his brother was about to meet his so soon, perhaps it would be days, and the chance was taken from him. It was unfair. It was so, so horribly unfair. Frerin had such hope. So much hope in fact, that he carried his gift with him even to the battlefield.
Thorin did his best to wash the pouch, wash the blood away. The wooden figurine inside was left untainted by some miracle, and indeed he spent long hours turning it over in his fingers, recalling the day he spent advising Frerin when he was creating it – usually, a dwarf would spend a secluded afternoon making the gift for his future One, but Frerin wasn't like any other dwarf. He despised being alone for too long. He despised being quiet, and waiting, and keeping secrets. The day he was old enough that their father allowed him to start practicing with anything sharper than a spoon, he started carving his little bear. They sat by the mouth of the river, Erebor's stone guardians looming over them, and Thorin watched his still chubby fingers slip and almost cause an injury countless times that afternoon, but he never dared interfere. Frerin didn't know why he had chosen a bear, the same way Dis didn't know why she chose an unusual flower pattern to engrave on the necklace she created only a year or so later – one would only fully understand the nature of their gift when they found the One to give it to.
Frerin was so happy when he finally finished the figurine and put it into his pouch (rich blue with the Durin royal rune embroidered in silver, mirroring Thorin's silver fabric with a blue rune) and he told Thorin then, young and eager and beautiful, “Don't worry brother. Someone's waiting for you.” He was not older than fifteen and he had no business sounding so serious, and Thorin scoffed at him then, because already he was beginning to lose his hope. ...The dragon and then Azanulbizar came not long after that, and his hope was gone for good.
He accepted it quickly enough. There was work to do, their foothold in the Blue Mountains not yet strong enough, and with both his father and grandfather gone, all responsibility lay on Thorin's shoulders now. He barely had time to mourn his real losses, much less the continuing lack of his longing. It was like a... a lingering sickness that one learned to live with. There wasn't anything pulling him in any direction, which is how the longing was most often described. “A shining beacon somewhere on the far horizon,” they would say, “the one and only certainty when all else should fade. ...It's reassuring, really.”
Reassured was a feeling Thorin would not be familiar with any time soon, it seemed.
He watched his sister find her One, and it was gentle and beautiful – she had been waiting long enough, almost giving up just like Thorin, but unlike Thorin, she'd had a steady, strong longing, and when Vili came, she laughed, because she finally understood. He was a gardener – different perhaps from what either Dis or Thorin imagined as a suitable match, but the simple necklace shone against his tanned skin when he first put it on, and the delicately carved jasper in the ring he presented to Dis was the exact same color as her eyes.
When he was younger, he wondered if maybe he'd wake up one morning and the longing from Frerin's gift would somehow pass to him, because he carried it everywhere he went. It was utterly foolish to indulge in such ridiculous fantasies, and as time passed, he accepted that. He forgot. He would spend his life alone, and that was all there was to it – there were some like him, though few in number, and they fared well enough. Besides, if he was to be a proper King to his people, his duties should be the only thing to devote his time to. All in all, it was better this way. Practical.
Still, Frerin's stained blue pouch and the wooden figurine in it remained tucked in his pocket, close to his heart, and it was the only piece of nostalgia he would ever let himself feel.
Working the forge comes naturally – the area of Bree is in dire need of someone with his particular skill set, and finding work isn't hard at all. The men don't ask any questions, and in turn, he provides them with quick, solid results for an agreeable wage. He enjoys it even – returns home bone-deep weary, but sleep comes more easily, and he feels himself gaining strength. He likes the traveling, passing through the lands of the hobbits and further into the villages of men. Everything is warmer here, the air fresher, the sky dotted with more stars, or so it seems.
It comes one autumn morning as he's working on the particularly mundane task of beating an old sword back into shape – he moves the white-hot weapon over to the water barrel to cool it off, and the second the steam rises, a sharp pang of pain shoots from his heart to his wrist, so powerful that he cries out, drops the sword into the water, and his hands scramble on the edge of the work bench nearby in desperate search for support as he doubles over. He tries to breathe, but his lungs are constricting as if he's being strangled, the pain quickly becoming unbearable, and he tries to cough it away, tries beating his fist flat against his chest, but nothing is helping.
He dismisses the other blacksmith demanding to know what's wrong, and stumbles out of the smithy, the cold morning air yet another shock as it hits him in the face. He supports himself on the wall in the back yard and groans through every laborious intake of breath, eyes welling with tears. He lets his knees give way and slumps on the ground, his breathing still erratic, and almost deliriously, he checks his hands and arms for burns, because he has absolutely no idea what happened just then. A coughing fit seizes him and he bends over, quite undignified, fingers digging into the short tufts of dry grass and the dirt, tears now streaming down his face, and that's when he sees it – Frerin's old gift pouch has fallen out from behind his tunic where he kept it, the string tying the opening loose now, the wooden bear figurine peeking out, and he understands. Cradling it in his hands almost carefully, he sits back, his coughing ceasing eventually, but the tears keep coming. His throat is utterly hoarse, but his groans of pain turn into laughter – he can't stop it, it bubbles up and overwhelms him, and he flings his head back, resting against the wall, and he laughs and cries, making a feeble attempt to muffle it by burying his face in the crook of his elbow, but the thrill, the rush, is too much – it's like the adrenaline of dealing the lethal blow a fraction of a second before your enemy does; it's the delicious breathlessness of sparring for too long on the training grounds and emerging exhausted but victorious, and each new inhale, deep and thirsty now, sets his blood ablaze, his heart hammering against his ribcage, his knuckles white as he squeezes Frerin's gift in his fist.
He didn't think it would ever come, but it did, and it's glorious, and at once, he knows all the descriptions of the longing to be true – it's the last missing piece of him snapping into place, it's an open wound he didn't know he had finally healing, it's his lungs and heart growing larger, capable of pumping blood and air more powerfully than ever. It's the relief of a long, dreamless sleep, and the warmth of an earnest embrace. It's a new hope and a promise of something else waiting for him somewhere in the world, and he all but jumps to his feet, almost ready to leave Bree behind and run and run until he finds his One. He remembers his brother's words, “Perhaps he or she is not in this world yet,” and he knows Frerin was right, and he wishes he could tell him it's today. Today his One was born, and it's ridiculous really, how long it took! He is almost one hundred and forty years old, and is now marveling at how he was able to survive for so long without this... this. Without smiling properly. Without laughing. Without hope.
He marches back into the smithy, not even realizing he's smiling from ear to ear when he demands to know the date. The blacksmith tells him and eyes him very suspiciously when Thorin thanks him earnestly and pats his shoulder, returning to work with ten times the vigor. September 22nd, he murmurs to himself over and over again, etching it in his memory, in his very bones.
He has a little less than a week of work left in the city, and by the time he returns to the Blue Mountains, his yearning has calmed down from an almost boyish eagerness to a steady, soothing peace, but still it is unlike anything he's ever felt before – and an idea has wormed its way into his brain, an idea for a gift, but also something else. He remembers fondly now how the young ones would be in such a hurry to create their gifts – he understands, because he will not rest until it is finished, no matter how peculiar the idea seems; but at the same time, he feels utter surety, unshakeable and satisfying. There is nowhere to rush, only towards his One.
He scoops his little nephews up in his arms when he sees them upon returning home, both of them at once, and they squeal and giggle in surprise as he spins them around – they're barely children anymore though, and will require training soon, and he looks forward to the task with nothing but excitement.
He sees his sister then, and her eyes are narrow and scrutinizing after he embraces her, even though she's smiling at the unexpected display of affection.
“...What's gotten into you?” she demands to know, and he all but grins, squeezing her shoulder.
“It's come to me,” he states, “the longing.”
Her eyes widen in genuine shock.
“...After all these years?”
“After all these years.”
“Are you... I mean, are you certain?”
He laughs earnestly.
“Dis, my heart was almost torn asunder the day of his birth. …In a good way,” he hastens to add at her mildly horrified grimace.
“...You say 'his' like you're so sure. It could be a lass.”
“It could be anyone! Yes, I know,” he grins, “but somehow, I think it's a him. This... this happens, correct? Discovering the longing this late?”
“...I suppose,” she nods, then, laughing at last, taking his face in her hands (perhaps for the first time, he really feels them, calloused, but soft and warm), “it's extraordinary. But then again, I do not think it is your fate to be in any way ordinary, dear brother.”
He embraces her again, and she giggles and for that fleeting moment, she is the little girl with a cheeky grin on her dirty cheeks, whipped red from running in the forest on the mountainside all day, and he makes a silent vow to entice that laughter more often, for both their sakes.
“...Do you have a gift in mind yet?” she asks when they part.
“I do,” he nods.
“You must show me when it is done... Do you still have the pouch? I could make you a new one if you've lost it.”
“I still have it, but thank you. Now, is Oin anywhere to be found?”
“He's in the infirmary, as usual... why? Are you hurt? Tell me!”
“No, nothing like that,” he chuckles when Dis puts her hands on her hips almost strictly, “but I do need a tattoo.”
He surprises Oin with the request (but he complies nevertheless, a couple of simple lines and dots on the inside of his wrist signifying the date in the clearest way their language and alphabet is capable of). He surprises the elders (requesting a promotion in the council, untoward and brash even, considering his age, but if he is to be a proper King, they must allow him to learn, to try – they frown and mumble and tsk-tsk, but agree eventually). He surprises himself. His resolve rekindled, a plan, a quest begins to take shape in his mind – it will take years, decades perhaps, but he knows that it is far from impossible. It is novel, this feeling of resolve, this ability to set his mind to something and actually have faith in it – only now does he realize just how aimlessly he had been wandering, how empty all his anger and thirst for revenge were, lacking in a proper driving force.
He spends hours upon hours in the forge, his fingers working the metal in a much more delicate manner than he's used to, or will ever revisit again, and he's... content. He feels renewed.
“...An acorn?” Dis says, not without awe, when he shows her his creation.
“It's beautiful,” she smiles, “I would very much like to meet the one it will belong to.”
“So would I,” he chuckles.
He turns it over in his fingers endlessly before he puts it into the gift pouch – it is unusual, to say the least. The acorn's cap is gold, delicately embossed with tens of tiny dents that strained his knuckles and wrist considerably. Within it is placed a beautiful, round piece of amber, without any dirt or vein tainting it, polished until it seems as if a tiny flame is dancing and flickering in the core. “Why not a proper gem?” they asked him, and suggested many, but he picked this, soft as it was, easily reshaped under his careful touch, and yet retaining a simple splendor. Of course he knows not why – he may simply look at it and venture a guess after guess, trying to understand what it's telling him about his One. Choosing a chain so thin and delicate it's almost impractical, he decides it's finished at last, and spends a good long while in his quarters searching for the gift pouch his mother had made for him almost century and a half ago – he carried Frerin's, but put his own away a long time ago.
It is still pristine, barely touched throughout the decades, the silver thread in the fabric still gleaming when light brushes at it, and he feels a pang of unfathomable guilt when he finds himself comparing it to Frerin's pouch, all but destroyed despite his care. He places the acorn inside almost reverently, and tucks the whole thing into the inside pocket of his tunic, where his brother's last and only memory used to be stored. Choosing a small wooden box, he puts Frerin's pouch away for the first time since he died, and smiles as he touches it gently for the last time before closing the lid. It's a silent, tender goodbye, and he goes days without thinking about the little wooden figurine buried inside the blood-stained pouch; then weeks, and months.
Years pass. He devotes himself to training his nephews, the pride of watching (and helping) them become proficient with the weapons of their choosing overshadowed by nothing (Kili picks a bow and it takes him so long to confide in Thorin, fearing his dismissal, but beams brighter than the sun when Thorin tells him, borrowing his sister's words, “it is not your fate to be ordinary. Should you pick gardening, or cooking, I would make sure to help you become the best gardener or cook these mountains have ever seen. Archery is a difficult skill, but if you prevail, you shall perfect it, have no doubt.”).
Decades pass. He attends many a council and marvels with varying degrees of anger, disgust and regret at his kin's passion for arguing, but rarely acting (common laws take three to five years to pass, council promotions ten, and the law that would allow a King to go and reclaim his people's homeland after having successfully built a home for them somewhere else, might actually take a lifetime).
All the while his longing is his constant companion, the one steady thing he can retreat to when all else seems too unbearable. There is nowhere to rush, it reminds him. He would certainly prefer meeting his One rather sooner than later, but the longer he's lived with the longing, the more he understands just how extraordinary it is. He gives in and discusses it with Balin, who is surprisingly intrigued – he is one of those who had to wait very long before they met their One, slightly over a hundred years, which makes him a self-proclaimed expert. Thorin indulges his oldest friend, telling him about the happiness that comes out of nowhere after weeks of utter calm, as if someone on the other side of the world is happy at that exact same moment, and Thorin is merely tapping into that feeling. He tells him about the dreams, seeing a small figure bathed in sunlight, head turned away from him, about how he tries to angle himself so that he can see the face, but always fails, and always wakes up with the name of his One just there on the tip of his tongue, but incapable of remembering it.
He doesn't need Balin to tell him that his feelings are not entirely common – the fact that it took his longing so long to manifest alone is enough to hint at his One not being in any way ordinary, or easy to find, for that matter. Thorin finds that strangely comforting – his urge to go out there and find his One is almost unbearable some days, barely there the others, and all in all, he tells himself they will cross paths when it is time. It's the one thing he chooses to put his faith in.
He finds himself in Bree once again after a particularly cruel winter – work is few and so he goes where he knows they will have him. Spring has just begun coloring the countryside in the first timid dashes of color, the breeze warmer at last, and he enjoys it almost unabashedly – it will not last long, he doesn't have much time before heading north for a meeting with the dwarves from the Iron Hills, which will be nothing but stressful, he knows already. Dain is his one remaining support against the elders who are still opposed to his quest, and if he backs him, he might have a chance yet, but the task of persuading him will be tricky at best. But he's gotten too far to give up now, at any rate. And even if he doesn't succeed in the Iron Hills, he knows he's going in the right direction. No rush, he keeps telling himself, except towards the One.
He meets the wizard in an inn after a particularly hard day's labor, and later thinks there might have been some spell involved, because somehow, Gandalf learns the whole story. But he offers help, quite eagerly, too, and Thorin would be a fool to refuse one of the Istari, of course. Before he makes for the Iron Hills, he makes sure that each and every member of his new company is informed, and suddenly, he has very little doubt. He feels a strange excitement, and it manages to stay with him even throughout the horrible meeting in the north, where he has to defend his cause against the vast majority of his kin, and fails to gain any support whatsoever. The anger is momentary, for when he sets out again, back to the land of men and hobbits, he feels what Frerin must have felt once – he knows he's going to meet his One soon.
It's an eagerness he hasn't felt since he was a child, perhaps – like knowing one's about to receive a present or a surprise; it's the joy of being sure of one's success in a task that only a short time ago seemed larger than life. He knows not if they will succeed, and reclaim Erebor. He does not know the way, and he is aware of the perils along it, and yet, somehow... He's determined. Unwavering.
Reassured, every single waking minute, by the longing within him pulling him towards his One.
It is night when he arrives in the Shire, the air warm, smelling faintly of smoke from some distant bonfire – the hobbits are fond of celebrating, especially this time of the year, he knows. He hears nothing but the murmur of leaves and tall grass as he passes by the numerous round doors, searching for the rune Gandalf had described. He laughs the first time he realizes he's going in circles, and manages to intimidate the life out of an elderly hobbit by asking him for directions, but he receives them nonetheless.
Standing below the shadow of the hill with the large tree, he feels confused, suspicious for a fleeting moment. Could it be... here? He chuckles. Surely not. That would certainly be too unusual even for him. Yes.
He walks up the hill slowly, the blue rune flickering in the dark, resembling just another firefly, and already he can hear the indistinct chatter of his companions. He smiles a small, private smile, and inhales the fresh air, turning to look behind his shoulder one last time before he opens the frail wooden gate leading up to the large round door. The stars are nothing short of incredible tonight, much more vivid than he could ever hope to see them in the Blue Mountains, and instinctively, he pats the spot on his chest where the small silver pouch rests under layers of armor. Probably not here, he tells himself, but soon. Soon.
He will see his nephews again after some time, and Dwalin, who hasn't been home in years, and tomorrow they will be off, no matter how ridiculous Gandalf's suggestion at letting a hobbit join their company might sound, and oh, it's enough for this night. It's enough...
Something cracks under his boots as he enters the small front yard before the stone steps leading up to the door, and out of some strange curiosity, he turns to look. He's unable to recognize what it was that he just crushed, but then the lanterns at the door sway in the breeze, dashes of golden light dancing on the large, flat stones, and he sees at last. There's more of them than just the couple he reduced to all but dust under his heavy sole, covering the ground, and by Mahal, it should be too early! His previous train of thought utterly lost, he bends to pick one up, turning it over in his fingers, its surface smooth and green.
“...Acorns?” he mumbles.
And then understands.