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Fading Flower, Broken Stone

Chapter Text

Three years later...

Briallen Baggins was dying.

Nori had begun to suspect something on their journey home, but he'd dismissed it as melancholy. She was quiet, to be sure, and her songs had a warble to them they had not had previously, but wasn't that normal? After what they had been through, what she had been through, he couldn't very well expect her to be the same hobbit he had bet all his money on back in the Shire, fire and pluck and compassion, all rolled into one tiny package that seemed fairly bursting with life. It was normal to be sad, Mahal knew he was sad. He had gone on this thrice-cursed quest hoping for a new life, a better life. For himself, if possible, but mostly for his brothers, who deserved better than anything he could have provided them on his own. And he had gotten it for them, certainly, but at a much higher price than he'd bargained for.

When they'd stopped for a time in Rivendell, he'd gotten the first nigglings of real concern. She was so… small. But that was ridiculous, of course she was small, she was a hobbit! She was no bigger than a dwarfling, Ori had probably outweighed her in his toddling years (Nori ignored the ache in his chest to think of Ori's toddling years, of all the years he had missed, the years he would miss…). But somehow she had always seemed bigger than her size, larger than life. Even at her fussiest and most hobbit-like, she had never seemed small to Nori. Until now.

But when they'd finally reached the Shire, just in time to see all the Baggins' worldly possessions being hauled off in boxes and wheelbarrows and carts (he still did not regret breaking that Otho bloke's nose, no matter what Bofur said), Brie seemed to rally, filled with the fiery indignation that was such an integral part of who she was, who she would always be to Nori, and he had put his worries to rest. She would be alright. She just needed some time.

Time, it turned out, was something they had in great supply, and Nori was not frugal in his spending of it. Summer mornings were spent in the garden, more often than not begging the Gamgees to come rescue the poor, victimized plants the next day. Winter afternoons were spent baking breads and cookies and cakes, until the entirety of Bag End smelled of vanilla and cinnamon and nutmeg. Bilbo and Bofur were married in the hobbit fashion the following spring, beneath the Party Tree at the base of the hill, covered in red ribbon and forget-me-nots. Nori hadn't quite understood it (to dwarven sensibilities, the two had been wed when they'd spoken their words and exchanged their braids before witnesses in Rivendell), but it made Bilbo happy, which in turn made Brie happy and that was enough. All four of them took what the twins called a "walking holiday" the autumn after, when the first of the dwarves from the Blue Mountains passed through the Shire on their way North.

That had been the peak of Nori's happiness, because Ori had come (with Bifur and Gloin) to lead the procession from Ered Luin to their new home. It was like looking at a different dwarf, his full beard studded with gold and amethysts, but still carrying more quills and parchment than supplies in his pack. He had brought books for the hobbits, including a primer of proper Khuzdul, for which Nori was grateful. He had done his best to keep his promise to Brie and teach her the language, but he knew Ori would have done a much finer job, given the opportunity. He was sure her vocabulary would have been much less colorful, at least, but she didn't seem to mind that too terribly much.

In return, Brie gave Ori the promised flower dictionary, a book that before now, Nori had never even seen. One quiet night on the road, Nori snuck it out of Ori's pack and thumbed through it. There were pictures and meanings, little notes in Brie's tidy script, and the marks of tear-stains on the page with hydrangea. Nori thought he understood that a little better now. He had seen how the other hobbits looked at her when her back was turned, how they looked at him when they thought he wouldn't notice. He knew what they thought of him, and he didn't care. But he burned with rage for what they had done to his namad in her youth, how they had ridiculed her for her choices and tried to make her feel less than she was. Hobbits as a whole seemed a decent lot, but he would never understand their need for what they called 'propriety'. And to think, he had considered Dori to be fussy, once.

The group had only traveled to the outskirts of the Shire, a trip of a few weeks, but Nori could already see the toll it had taken on Brie. She rode in the wagons far more than she walked and her expression was wan and tired. And it was then that Ori asked the inevitable question.

"Why don't you come with us?" he exclaimed, his eyes shining in the light of their last campfire, his expression bright and innocent, "The others would be so pleased to see you!"

Brie lost all her color in the space of a breath. It frightened Nori so much that he put out his hand, in case she should fall. She gripped his fingers so tightly it nearly hurt and managed to regain enough of herself to smile at Ori, who looked almost as frightened as Nori felt.

"I'm sorry, Ori," she said, with what Nori could tell was all the strength she could muster, "But I can't."

The dwarves continued on, and they went back to Bag End, but Nori knew then. He knew the truth he had been denying for far too long, the truth he should have recognized the moment she tried to leave them behind in Dale. He should have seen it in the way she spent more time abed and less time at table, the way she had gradually lost the strength or the inclination to do things that should have brought her joy. But now he knew, he saw it in all these things and he knew the way he knew the sun was going to rise, that spring would follow winter, or that there was a pint waiting for him down at the Green Dragon.

Briallen was dying. And there wasn't a damned thing Nori could do about it.


Thorin Oakenshield was dying.

Oh sure, his physical injuries had all healed up, Dwalin knew that. But there were innumerable ways for a dwarf to die, and as appointed head of the King's Guard (and the same King's cousin, friend, and kurdu-nadad) Dwalin had become intimately familiar with most of them.

He'd thought in the first year that they might lose him to work. There was much to be done to make Erebor habitable again, much to be ordered and governed and overseen, and Thorin had thrown himself into each task with every fiber of his being, as if daring anyone to challenge his authority, his right to work himself until he dropped. Balin thought fear was what drove him so desperately those first months, fear that his sickness might return, might impede his ability to perform his duties, to rule this mountain justly and fairly and well. And perhaps that was a small part. But Dwalin knew better. He knew that what truly ailed the King Under The Mountain was not an ailment at all. It was absence. It was emptiness. It was the echoing ghosts of those that had once walked these halls, memories of what had been, and what could have been. They were the same ghosts Dwalin saw, in every nook, around every corner. And he could not save Thorin from them, much as he could not save himself.

So Thorin worked. He rose earlier and retired later than even the most devoted of his craftsmen. He poured over maps of the tunnels, scheduled cleaning crews, studied the by-laws of every Guild and drew up contracts for their return to business in Erebor. He signed and counter-signed peace treaties with the Men of Dale and the elves of Mirkwood (helped in great part by Kili, who had taken the elf Tauriel to wife and worked tirelessly with her to improve relations between all three kingdoms). He forwent meals and sleep until he looked on the verge of collapse. Erebor flourished, but there were precious few who seemed to notice that as the mountain grew in strength, its King waned beneath the strain.

By the next Durin's Day, the work was done. Or at least, the restoration project was complete (the work would, of course, never be done) and Dwalin had never been more pleased to hear Thorin complain of boredom. But instead of filling the void with food and sleep, the king took on another project.

He started trying to drink himself to death.

It was not all that unusual an affliction for a dwarf, to lose himself in the bottom of an ale cask or a wine bottle. Dwalin had seen it times beyond counting, especially in the wake of a battle like Azanulbizar or the Five Army War (as the bards were calling it now). But Dwalin knew it was not battle that called Thorin to refill his dinner goblet time after time, that drove him to his rooms at night, where casks and bottles disappeared in droves. He missed councils and appointments, leaving Fili to take his place and Dwalin to make excuses. Balin called meetings of what remained of their Company to discuss the issue, but in his heart Dwalin despaired of his ever shaking the vice, or its source. Fili was willing enough (and surprisingly competent when it came right down to it) and Dwalin resigned himself to the fate that Thorin seemed so determined to run headlong to meet.

And then one day, early in the spring of their second year in Erebor, the drinking simply... stopped. Dwalin didn't know, at first, what brought Thorin back from that particular precipice. It might have been the arrival of the dwarves from Ered Luin (including the princess Dis, who was an intimidating figure on the best of days and not tolerant of any nonsense, least of all from those closest to her). It could have been the announcement that the elf, Tauriel, was with child, a glorious occasion in any dwarf's life, to see his child with a child of his own (and Kili was Thorin's son now, he had finally gotten around to making the boys his kurdu-dashshat in truth as well as practice). It could have been Fili's unexpected interest in King Bard's eldest daughter, a pretty thing with a serene air and a fighter's spirit.

But eventually, Dwalin came to suspect that it had more to do with the long hours spent in a certain cavern within the royal wing, the strange requests made to Dale and even Mirkwood, and the dirt (actual soil, not the dust and soot more common to mountain-life) clinging to his clothes, smudged on his face, caked under his fingernails.

Whatever it was, Dwalin chose not to question it, taking it simply for what it was: a reprieve. Thorin was eating again, attending his meetings, sleeping (or at least taking his ease, Dwalin wasn't entirely sure how much he slept). He was, to all appearances, improving. But he never truly got better. He was listless, devoid of emotion, committed to his obligations as King, but deriving no true joy from any of it. His hair gained streaks of gray that belied his age, and he never looked fully rested. And Dwalin knew the truth that all the others refused to see, sure as the stone beneath his feet and the sky over their heads.

Thorin was dying. And there wasn't a damned thing Dwalin could do about it.


The letter must have come while Brie was sleeping. She slept more and more these days, she knew. She could not help it. It was exhausting, pressing back the ever-present darkness. When she woke she was not particularly hungry, but the clock on her bedside table told her that it was time for tea. She could take tea. She swung out of bed and put on her patchwork robe, briefly touching her braid and deciding not to bother, merely smoothing the loose hairs away. It was only her family, after all, no need to get done up for tea with her brothers. It was simply too much work.

She slipped out of her room and padded down the hallway toward the sitting room. It was pure luck that she heard the murmurs before she barged straight in, pausing just outside the door when she heard her name.

"—not strong enough!" Nori hissed, sounding angry, "And you both know it, don't play the fools with me! It's ridiculous that we're even considering it!"

"So you want us to lie to her?" Bilbo snapped and Brie winced.

"It's not a lie if we never speak of it," Nori growled, "We'll just burn it and have done, it'll be like it was never here! Simple as that."

"I don't think it is that simple," Bofur said softly, trying as always to be the sensible one, "I don't like the idea of taking the lass's choice."

"But—just look at it!" Nori sputtered, with a rustle of paper, "She's too gentle-hearted to refuse something like this! And you know what it'll do, it'll kill her!"

There was a long pause. Brie put a trembling hand against the wall.

"You know I'm right," Nori said, sounding defeated, "I just… I can't…"

His voice broke. Brie shut her eyes and took a shaking breath.

"I know," Bilbo said softly, "We all love her, Nori. But we can't save her from this. She's going to find out, sooner or later, and we can't just…"

He trailed off and met Brie's eyes. She had managed to step into the archway and they were all looking at her now, Nori with red-rimmed eyes and a roll of parchment in his hand. She gathered her strength and crossed the room, reaching out to slip the parchment from his fingers. He didn't resist, but he dropped his gaze and shut his eyes as she took it from him. She touched his shoulder and he shuddered. Oh, how she had hurt him. Poor dear. She took back her hand and turned her attention to the letter. The seal that had held it closed was a deep, vibrant blue and trailed a gold ribbon. She unrolled it carefully and surveyed the contents.

It was a wedding invitation.

You are cordially invited to the bonding of

His Royal Highness, Fili of Durin's Line, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Erebor

And

Her Royal Highness, Princess Sigrid, Daughter of Bard, of the Kingdom of Dale.

To be held...

The invitation was written in a flowing hand, embossed with gold leaf decoration. And at the bottom, penned in a blotchy, looped script, were these few hastily scrawled words:

Please come. It would mean the world.

~Fili

Brie ran her thumb over these words and felt a lurch in her chest. The few strings that held her tied to the world trembled and stretched. The darkness loomed up, and she knew Nori was right. She would not survive this. But as she looked around the room, at her three brothers all watching her with mingled expressions of pain and hope and fear, she knew.

It was time. She had lingered too long.

She rolled up the parchment and placed it gently on the table between them.

"I believe," she said, smiling genuinely for the first time in…she couldn't remember how long, "I would like to visit the mountain."

Then she turned and left the room. She needed to prepare. They had a long journey ahead.


"Fili! Fili, you'll never guess!"

Thorin looked up as Ori came barrelling into the crown prince's parlor, waving a sheet of parchment wildly in the air and grinning like his face might rip in half.

"The raven just arrived!" he exclaimed with barely a breath, "They're going to come! All of them, Nori, Bilbo, Bofur, Brie, they're all coming, Fili, they're on their way right now!"

Thorin's chest turned to stone. His heart stopped beating. He couldn't breathe. He felt as if the large armchair he had settled himself into was suddenly too small, collapsing in on him. He lurched to his feet, drawing the attention of the boy who had been too excited to notice his presence before and now looked as if he had made a terrible mistake.

"Oh."

Fili was staring at him, he could feel his nephew's eyes like flames against his skin, heard the word "Uncle?" as if it were coming from underwater. He needed… He needed…

Without a word, he turned and left the room. He disappeared into his memories, into the penance he'd created. And he tried to wall up the trembling of his heart with the broken stone of his mind.

Chapter Text

The city of Dale was much bigger than Brie remembered. Everywhere she looked Men bustled to and fro, along with elves and more reasonably-sized dwarves, but all of them busy and hurried and quite out of sorts. She clung to Nori's arm, feeling more than a little rushed and lost and small. It was better than Mirkwood though. Everything was better than Mirkwood, even though the elves had met them at the entrance to the forest this time and accompanied them along the trickier paths with no incident. Brie had tried not to feel bitterness toward them (there weren't any she recognized), but she'd been plagued by queer dreams—of snow and wind and blood—and it had put her in a foul temper. She had never been so relieved to wipe the dirt of a place off her feet and put it behind her. From there they had made it to the rebuilt Laketown (under new and better management) and found passage across to Dale easily enough. Now they had only to make their way up, to the stony, gray spire that loomed over the city of Men like a harbinger of—

"Brie!"

Brie turned toward the enthusiastic shout and was nearly bowled over with the force of the dwarf-sized tackle that followed.

"Oi, watch it!" Nori exclaimed, but Kili ignored him completely, wrapping Brie up in his arms and spinning her happily through the air.

"Oh, I'm so glad you came!" he exclaimed, dropping her back to her feet and pushing back to get a good look at her, "Fili's going to be absolutely livid I got to see you first, fit to be tied!"

Brie's breath caught in her throat. The wide, familiar grin spreading across Kili's face stretched at the series of scars that cut jagged lines from his hairline to the edge of his jaw. She tried not to look shocked, but it was difficult. The last time she had seen him, the wounds had been covered in bloodied bandage. This was altogether new, and Kili seemed to realize something was off almost immediately.

"What?" he asked, rubbing his chin and effecting an air of jovial puzzlement, "Is there something on my face?"

That did manage to make Brie smile and she reached up to stroke his cheek, where his beard had finally decided to grow in earnest.

"No, kurdurakl," she whispered, "I'm just so pleased to see you."

His grin widened in delighted surprise.

"Mahal imhid, that was Khuzdul!" he exclaimed, turning to call over his shoulder, "Did you hear, velethril nîn?"

"I heard, amrâlê,," Tauriel said, coming up beside and putting a hand on his shoulder to steady herself, "It seems the list of people you can speak about without their knowledge is dwindling."

She turned her sparkling green eyes to Brie and smiled. She was practically glowing and the slender hand resting on her abdomen seemed almost disproportionate to the size of her swollen belly.

"Hello, perianith," she said, her voice soft, but sounding no less happy to see her. Brie could not help but return her smile.

Everyone else got similarly enthusiastic greetings and Bilbo was especially pleased to see evidence of Tauriel's impending addition. With the elf's permission, put his hand to the green, swathed roundness, and grinned when he felt a little kick.

"You're on your way to King Bard, I expect?" Kili asked, all eagerness and energy that made his question seem more like a statement.

"Well, actually—" Nori tried, but barely had the words left his mouth then Kili was speaking over him.

"Oh, but you must! Bard will be thrilled to see you, you must come!"

And after that, there was really very little to do but follow Kili and Tauriel through the crowded streets. Brie was surprised to see several noble-looking persons stop and bow to Kili as he passed, eliciting a friendly nod almost without any thought on his part. It was strange to see Kili, the mischievous scamp of their adventures, carrying himself as…well, as the prince he really was. Brie had known, of course, that Kili was a prince, but it was almost an afterthought, a tidbit in the back of her mind that she never put very much stock in. But here it was, front and center, and he seemed to have a more natural affinity for the role than she might have guessed. It was…like watching a child grow into his own and it made her throat tighten.

The palace of King Bard was less of a palace, and more of a large house set in a wide courtyard in the middle of the city, the centerpiece of which was a large stone fountain depicting a fearsome dragon falling from the sky, twisting in its death throes, as if it were about to splash into the water below. Carved around the base of the fountain were the words "Never Forget" in Common, Tengwar, and Dwarven runes. Brie jerked to a halt before the fountain, her eyes drawn to the dragon carved in stone. It was so life-like, so breathtakingly terrifying. Her chest clenched and she clutched her shawl closer about her reflexively. Never forget… She had done this. She had brought this on them. She could feel her Fading, a writhing blackness as the edges of her vision, and she thought (as she had thought so many times before) that this was perhaps the most fitting punishment. To Fade…alone…in the dark…

"Perianith?"

She blinked and turned toward Tauriel's voice. The elf was looking at her with the same uncertain concern Brie had seen on the faces of her brothers when she started to slip. She pulled herself together and managed a smile that pushed away the darkness for now.

"My friends!" King Bard himself was coming down the steps, his arms open and a smile on his familiar face. "You are most welcome to Dale!"

The dwarves and Bilbo bowed, and Brie was able to do a proper curtsy in the sturdy, brown dress she wore, but the king was having none of it. Instead he came and shook all of their hands, even kneeling before Brie so that he could press a kiss to her hand, with a warm smile that she did not feel she especially deserved.

"I'm very glad that you have come!" Bard said, leading them up the stairs and into the receiving hall, "I confess, I feared you might make your way straight to the mountain, and we wouldn't have the opportunity to show you our own hospitality."

Brie and Nori exchanged a guilty glance, as that had indeed been the plan. Brie rearranged her shawl about her shoulders as they followed Bard deeper into the house, which was very fine indeed, full of windows and archways to let in the light, the walls draped with tapestries, and the rooms filled with fine furniture. Even with her untrained eye, Brie could see the signs of dwarven stonework in the little flourishes here and there.

They finally entered one of the smaller parlors, and two ladies stood to their feet, dressed in fine gowns, but with smiles that Brie remembered easily.

"Oh, you came!" Tilda exclaimed, rushing over and then skidding to a stop (at a stern look from her father) to drop an awkward curtsy, "Oh, we're so very glad! Fili will be so pleased, won't he, Sigrid?"

Where Tilda had shot up into a gangly thing (already more than a head taller than Brie, where she had been nearly hobbit-sized before), Sigrid seemed to have blossomed instead. Though she had already been near-grown three scant years ago, her face had now lost all traces of its girlishness and gained a glowing beauty that seemed to light the room. She joined her sister and dropped her own curtsy, much more refined, and took Tilda's hand in hers.

"Yes, he has talked of little else," she agreed, "Though I hope we might keep you to ourselves for the night at least."

"Oh yes, Papa!" Tilda exclaimed, her young eyes shining in a face that was slowly beginning to lose its youthful plumpness, "Can they stay the night? Then we can all go up to the mountain together!"

"I had hoped to broach the subject over dinner," Bard said, looking like his youngest daughter had perhaps spoiled a surprise he had been holding back for her, "But we would be honored if you would consider joining our party to Erebor tomorrow."

"You're going so soon?" Brie asked, a little abashed. The wedding was not for another three months and she had hoped to avoid a fuss at their arrival, but that hope was slowly beginning to dwindle.

"We wish to oversee the preparations," Sigrid said, a slight blush touching her cheeks at the mention of her impending nuptials, "We have been welcomed to Erebor for some time, but we have been putting it off for propriety's sake. Dwarves have…a strange way of viewing such things."

She glanced apologetically at the two dwarves present, neither of which seemed in the least way surprised or offended. Brie imagined they were used to their customs being called strange by now.

"Well, I think I can speak for all of us by saying we'd be delighted to accompany you," Bilbo said, grinning and looking quite pleased with the arrangement. Brie tried not to let her discomfort show, managing a smile as Tilda gave a delighted squeal, but she clung to Nori's arm a little more tightly and he glanced down at her with a bit of the same anxiety in his face. Well. Now they were in it.


The party left Dale with a great deal of pomp and circumstance, the people of the city lining the streets to strew flowers in the path of the procession, leaving the smell of crushed sage (long life) lingering on the air as the horses and cartwheels passed over, mixed with cinquefoil (beautiful daughter) and bridal roses (happy love) and a host of others that Brie could not readily identify.

They rode in the back of one of the carts, and Brie tried not to look every few moments to watch the mountain crawl ever closer. Instead, she settled toward the rear of the cart and stared back at the city they were leaving further and further behind. Bofur and Bilbo kept a steady chatter of conversation with Kili and Tauriel at the front as they made their way along the winding road, but Brie did not see any need to contribute. She watched Tilda let her pony loose on the fields as they left the city behind, running circles and patterns with a surprising skill. The girl had grown so much in the few years they had been away. It was unthinkable that she had once been the little thing that had asked Brie, with perfect sincerity, if she were a fairy. Bard's son, Bain, had grown into a young man and, like his elder sister, had lost all traces of boyhood from his face and his bearing. Much like Kili, he had taken to the title of prince with a shocking amount of grace and elegance. So much had changed… So much more lay in wait for her…

The cart jolted as the road lurched from packed earth to stone beneath the wheels, and Brie's heart jolted with it. She gripped her shaking hands more tightly in her shawl and looked up. They were before the gates of Erebor. The statues that stood to either side had been repaired, surly-looking dwarf warriors of old, carrying axes and glaring down at them from their great height. There were dwarves and a few Men traversing the road in and out of Erebor, but they moved to the side to allow the procession to pass, bowing low as the King of Dale and his family went by. A horn sounded from somewhere within the mountain and a roar echoed after, like the sound of soldiers to arms. Brie shrank back and huddled in her corner. She knew what waited up ahead. She wasn't ready. She wasn't strong enough. The darkness began to close in…

A hand gripped her elbow and she jumped. Nori put a finger to his lips and made a following motion before slipping over the back of the cart and down to the road. He reached up both hands for her. Brie hesitated, glancing back, but the others were all watching the gates approach and paying no attention. She gathered her skirt in one hand and took one of Nori's with the other, letting him help her down the ground. He kept her hand firmly in his and they scurried off the road and into the bit of scrub that lined the thoroughfare. Brie glanced back over her shoulder again and saw that the cart was still moving, with no sign that they had been missed.

"But won't they worry?" she whispered, as Nori ducked beneath a tall bush and held the branches back for her to pass under.

"Not likely," he murmured, steadying her as they crossed a trickle of water coming down from the mountainside. "Left a note in Bofur's bag, said we'd meet up with them later."

A note? But they'd had no paper or ink with them. Which meant Nori must have written this note before they left Dale. He had known…?

"Nori?" She tugged on his hand and got him to stop. They were deep in the underbrush that skirted the mountain's edge and well ahead of the procession now. "Are you alright, nadad?"

He looked her in the eye with a forcibly neutral expression.

"Are you, namad?"

She could not answer him. Not honestly. So instead, she gripped his hand a little tighter, and together they slipped around the guards (whose whole attention was fixed on the coming bridal procession) and into Erebor, with no one the wiser.


Thorin waited to greet the party from Dale with little enthusiasm, but Fili was practically vibrating with anticipation. He tried to at least feel joy for his kurdu-dashat. It was good. Good for both kingdoms involved, but more importantly, good for Fili. He deserved every good thing that Mahal might feel fit to bestow, and more. And Thorin was glad for him. In his way. He just found it difficult to express such things.

The horns sounded and Fili jumped a little. Thorin turned to look at him. He was fidgeting with the walking stick in his hand, fingers tapping absently along the golden inlay, pressing on the sapphires that jutted out to mark the handhold. Thorin expected they were lucky the boy wasn't tapping the mithril-tipped end on the stone.

...the boy. Mahal, but no, he was not a boy any longer. He had not been a boy for some time. How had Thorin missed it? He felt like he had missed so much, so much he could not get back again. He reached out and put his hand on Fili's shoulder. Fili turned and smiled at him, a nervous expression that now looked young on his face. Thorin's lips went up, but he could hardly have called it a smile. It had been ages since he'd smiled.

On his other side, Dwalin barked an order and the entirety of the dwarven guard let out a roar of greeting that echoed against the stones. The procession had reached the gates. They would be here within moments. Thorin let his hand fall from Fili's shoulder and the young bridegroom straightened his blue tunic and smoothed the braids in his beard. Thorin straightened himself and prepared to make the greeting speech that had been written for him. Balin was good at such things. What he might have done without the old dwarf the past few years, Thorin had no idea. He exchanged a look with his sister, who stood on the other side of Fili. She raised an imperious eyebrow at him, then looked away. He didn't know what he might have done without Dis either. She had brought a level of normalcy, of order, to Erebor that he could not have done on his own. She also put to rest some of the worries a few of the more conservative factions of dwarves had been grumbling about: namely the lack of a queen in Erebor. Of course, no one would speak openly against his choice in such matters. But there were certain things that it was understood were better handled by a queen than a king, and such things had been neglected until Dis had arrived. She had filled the role admirably, and Thorin wondered if she knew how very grateful he was for her help.

He could see the roses braided into the the horses' hair (bridal roses, he recognized them, though he had never had cause to acquire them himself) as they approached the dais that had been erected to put the dwarves on a level a bit above their arriving guests. The carts that followed were also dressed in garlands of the roses. Thorin did not allow his throat to close or his focus to waver. This day was not his. He would be strong for Fili.

One of the carts pulled forward, ahead of the horses, and he could see his other kurdu-dashat seated at the reins, his yasthûna at his side, heavy with their first child. That was yet another thing that had lately taken him completely off-guard. Kili, with a child. It seemed not so long ago he had been a child himself, that Thorin had carried him on his shoulders and taught him the bow and tried desperately to keep he and his brother from bringing all of Ered Luin down on them. And now he would have a child of his own. Some deep, buried part of Thorin prayed to Mahal (and Sulludad for good measure, since the child would be half-elf) that the child would be just half as troublesome as his father had been.

Kili pulled the cart up to the dais and leapt from the seat, turning to help Tauriel down from her place. There were others in the cart, but they didn't immediately alight, so Thorin took little notice of them. He gave all his attention to Kili. As the ambassador of Erebor to Dale, it was his duty to perform the formal introduction of the party. He bowed low to those on the platform and Thorin nodded in return. Mahal he was practically glowing with enthusiasm. Had he always had that cast to him?

He performed the introductions flawlessly and Thorin made his greetings to all, including a special welcome to the one that would soon be a part of his family. Fili went down to help Sigrid from her horse, his walking stick tapping the stone but his limp barely noticeable he moved so lithely, as if walking upon the air itself. She slid down to meet him and they looked so happy it was nearly blinding. Thorin averted his eyes. He was not worthy to witness such perfect happiness. He looked back at Kili instead, who was looking into his cart with an expression of confusion and disappointment. It took a moment for Thorin to see what it was he was looking at.

He nearly lost his ability to stand. His heart stopped. He couldn't breathe.

Bofur helped Bilbo Baggins to alight from the back of the wagon, both of them looking about with the same expression of confusion as Kili.

"I don't understand it," he heard the hobbit say (Mahal, even his voice was enough to bring Thorin back, to clench his chest with guilt and remorse), "They were here just a moment ago, I was sure of it."

"Aye, I expect they'll turn up," Bofur said, though he seemed just as puzzled, "You know she wasn't looking forward to a fuss."

Thorin's vision blanked. He couldn't see. He was drifting. He was falling.

"Thorin?" He heard Dwalin's voice, a murmur at his elbow meant only for his ears, "Thorin?"

He blinked a few times and his vision returned. Kili was looking up at him with a nervous expression. In fact, there were a great many people giving him the same nervous look. How long had he been standing there, lost in himself? But Bofur had said… He shook his head, clearing it away. It didn't matter. What mattered was what was in front of him. And what was in front of him was a hobbit he had grievously wronged. He stepped down from the platform and stood before Bilbo Baggins. The hobbit looked up at him coldly, his hand resting upon the hilt of his little sword. Thorin was not offended. He deserved no less. He bowed low to the hobbit, and he felt even the stone hold its breath.

"You are very welcome to Erebor, Master Baggins," he said, "You, and all who have come with you."

He rose and met the hobbit's eyes (Mahal those eyes…). Bilbo regarded him with no less chill, but he nodded and his hand dropped from his sword hilt.

"Well, thank you very much."

The tension in the room broke like glass under a hammer blow. Dis came down and greeted Tauriel (though a little stiffly, she still had not quite acclimated herself to the idea of her son's self-imposed exile for the elf) and Fili bowed deeply to Bard, offering to show them to their lodgings. The dwarves that had held back now came forward, offering assistance to the Dalemen, and in the controlled confusion Thorin slipped away. Now that the formal work was done, the others would see that everyone was roomed comfortably. He needed…to be alone. To collect his thoughts.

To grieve anew.


Nori was surprised how easy it was to find his way within the mountain, just from what Ori had described to him. Erebor was sprawling and busy, but it made sense, in a strange way, almost as if it were built on a foundation Nori had seen before. He had been too young when the dragon came to really remember anything, but the layout had a familiarity to it that made it easy to follow.

The corridors of what Ori had called the merchant's district were bursting with shops and trinkets and dwarves all crying their wares. Nori felt that familiar, devious urge tingling in his fingertips, but he clasped his hand tightly in Brie's to resist. The masses of dwarves bustling by were enough of a distraction, many of them looking askance at the little hobbit lass trailing after him, her eyes drawn to all parts of the mountain but the path they were actually on. He couldn't really blame her (the place was impressive, even he had to admit it) but he had to suppress more than the occasional growl as some of the onlookers got a little too gawky. He forced her to move on as quickly as he could, eager to get them out from under the oppression of prying eyes.

Dori's shop was easy to spot from a mile away. It was brightly lit, brightly colored, and easily claimed the largest bit of real estate along the wall, nearly twice the size of its closest neighbors. Dori had never done anything by halves. It's what made him such a good craftsman and kept dwarves coming back to him over and over.

Brie stopped and blinked.

"Oh," she murmured, putting a hand to her lips, "My. It's quite something isn't it?"

Nori smirked.

"Only the best for us Ris sweet," he said, winking and pulling her forward before she could protest, pushing open the shop door and taking them inside.

"I'm so sorry," the painfully familiar voice fussed at them, "But unless you have an appointment, I'm afraid I'm quite—"

Dori came out from behind a curtain in the back and stopped in mid-sentence. Nori smiled, but he could feel the nerves of it twitching his lips. After all, he had just come barging in, maybe he should have—

"Mahal sabara…" Dori whispered faintly.

And then he had his arms around him, hugging Nori so tightly that he feared he might crack a rib.

"Oh," Dori gasped and he sounded dangerously close to weeping, "Oh, nadadê…"

He released Nori, only to grab Brie up into the same embrace (though a little more gently, perhaps).

"Well then," Dori said finally, wiping his eyes and waving them to the back of the shop, "You'd better come in. I'll put the kettle on."

Chapter Text

Brie slept for most of the next day, rising only when Nori insisted she come down for tea. Bilbo and Bofur were waiting downstairs and were quick to assure her that she had not missed anything of importance the day before. Ori was also there, bouncing with enthusiasm and filling the vase on the parlor mantel with lily of the valley (return of happiness) and pilewort (joys to come) with an expectant grin on his face.

"I see you've made a quick study of my little flower book," Brie said, standing on tiptoes to sniff at the delicate buds.

"Oh, yes, it's quite fascinating!" Ori said, the pleased grin still plastered on his face, "In fact, I've had to make copies! I have one, and one's loaned out, and there's one stored in the library now. Oh, I can't wait to show you, it's marvelous!"

As Dori poured tea for everyone, Ori waxed eloquent about the stacks of Erebor's Great Library, the texts salvaged from before the dragon came and all the texts that had come pouring in since.

"Balin and I have been beside ourselves trying to keep up with it all," Ori admitted, "We'll have to take another assistant soon."

"Don't you have three already?" Dori asked, incredulously.

"Well yes, but it seems the more we bring on, the more work we find for them to do," Ori said with a sly smile that Brie thought looked strangely reminiscent of Nori. She glanced at the middle brother, who met her eyes and shrugged, as perplexed as she was.

"Bombur told us his second girl had taken a position in the stacks recently," Bilbo said.

"Oh, Bris!" Ori said, "She's done very well, taken to the tablets like a fish to water. Precise work, she's very good at it."

Bilbo and Bofur had taken residence with Bombur and his family, who (despite their numbers) had plenty of room to spare, and Bofur couldn't resist the opportunity to spend as much time as possible with his many nieces and nephews.

"You're all invited to dinner, by the way," Bofur added, "Bombur's planning a right feast of it, says he has to make up for all those terrible camping meals he subjected you to."

Brie did not remember Bombur's cooking being anything at all to sneeze at, even under the most dire circumstances. She could not fathom what he might do with a limitless supply of the proper ingredients.

"I imagine you'll all have plenty of invitations soon enough," Dori said, pouring everyone another cup of tea, "The whole mountain is buzzing with rumor of your arrival for Prince Fili's wedding."

"Oh," Brie said, setting her cup down on her saucer, suddenly feeling very tired, "Will we really?"

Dori gave her a sidelong glance. "Of course, you needn't give your company to anyone you don't care to," he said, dropping a lump of sugar in his tea and stirring intently, "And none will be given access to your person that you do not care to see, so long as you remain under this roof."

He said this very pointedly and Brie felt a swell of gratitude for the old dwarf. She reached out and patted his knee.

"Thank you, nadad."

He smiled, but waved away her thanks, patting her hand.

"We'll worry about it when it comes, dear, don't fret. You're safe with us."

Of course, they did accept Bombur's invitation to dinner that evening, and Brie was quite thankful to see that Bilbo had brought her pack with him, containing her few changes of clothes. Once Bilbo and Bofur had taken leave, Brie laid out her few well-worn dresses for examination. Dori tutted fretfully behind her.

"Yes, I see what you mean, Nori dear," Dori said, eying the frocks with…well, not exactly distaste, but certainly opposition, "Like an uncut diamond in a jeweler's display. Oh no, those won't do at all! Wait here a moment, I believe I have just the thing."

Before Brie could protest, Dori swept out of the parlor leaving her to stare after him in bewilderment. Nori and Ori only exchanged a familiar glance and rolled their eyes fondly before their elder brother returned, bearing an armful of fine fabrics that was nearly as tall as he was.

"There," he said, hoisting the lot over a high-backed chair and beginning to separate it out, "Let's see what we have here."

It was a pile of dresses. And not just any dresses, like Brie had briefly glimpsed in his shop. These were…well, she might have said they were hobbit dresses, except that they were far more fine than she had ever seen any hobbit wear. There were silks and laces and gold embroidery in elaborate patterns along hems and cuffs, lines that she had seen echoed on the signs above Dori's shop. She traced the lines and a voice echoed back to her out of a much happier past.

The lines of Li…all dwarven families have them…

"Ri…" she murmured, tracing the lines again with her fingers before looking up, "Isn't it? Our family lines?"

Dori beamed at her, taking the dress that her fingers had brushed and draping it across his arm, a lavish display of lavender and gold.

"It's traditional to dress in the colors of your House for a wedding," he said, "I thought this might be a detail Nori would fail to convey, so I took the liberty."

"And I failed to convey the detail, because I knew you'd take the liberty," Nori said, jabbing Ori in the side with his elbow jokingly, "It's like I know him better than he knows himself!"

Dori rolled his eyes, but he didn't seem altogether displeased with this. Brie was trying to remember how to breathe.

"Oh Dori, I can't wear these," she insisted, turning from the beautiful gown to the others that now lined every stick of furniture in the parlor.

"Nonsense!" Dori said primly, laying the lavender silk aside and picking up a fine green velvet, lined with cream lace, "You shall be dressed as befits your station! No sister of mine will be seen traipsing about Erebor in—" He shuddered. "—calico. I took the measurements from memory, but it's a simple enough thing to adjust. I can have them all done up in a trice."

He had put down the green and was now holding a red satin up to her frame, eying critically, as if already making alterations. Brie sent a pleading look to her other two brothers, who were both sitting back with arms crossed and identically smug expressions on their faces. Brie frowned at both of them and Nori only grinned as he stuck his pipe between his teeth.

"Nori, not with the dresses, dear," Dori said absently, setting aside the red with a shake of his head. Nori rolled his eyes, but put away the pipe again.

"What about this one?" Brie asked, reaching for one of the plainer garments, a fine brown and white muslin, trimmed with gold at the hem and around the ends of the sleeves, "I like it very much."

Dori frowned a bit, his head turning to the side.

"Well," he grumbled, "It's not my best work, but I suppose something could be done. Let's get it on and see."

Brie didn't realize until she had changed clothes what a difference three years had made in her stature. Oh, she was the same height of course, but she'd lost quite a bit of girth around her middle and her legs seemed quite spindly beneath the full skirts. Perhaps Dori's memories of her were not quite so accurate as he imagined.

She came back to the room and Dori immediately went to work, pinning here, there, and everywhere, fluttering about her like a particularly fussy bird.

"How's the length?" he asked, as he pinned up her shoulders, "I tried to keep it above the ankles, but I only had the one glimpse of that hobbit gown in Rivendell."

Brie looked down and could see her fuzzy toes peeking out from beyond the golden pleats.

"Just right," she said, feeling the edges of the skirt swirl at her calves.

Dori hmphed and finished his pinning.

"Alright, off with you now, I've work to do," he said, taking the whole pile of dresses into his arms and flouncing off to his shop, leaving Brie in her old dress and feeling exhausted.

She crawled up onto the couch beside Nori and he put his arm around her, giving her access to lay her head on his chest as he lit his pipe. Ori had curled into the chair in the corner, his sketchbook in his lap, and he immediately turned to a fresh page and began anew. Brie smiled and shut her eyes.

"Sing to me, Nori," she murmured sleepily.

"What would you like, sweet?"

"Something of the mountain," she murmured, already feeling her thoughts start to drift off, "I can still feel it."

It was true. She could still feel the stone, humming in her bones, not unpleasant, but constant, steady.

Kêlur'abani...pure life, held in stone...

She shuddered and Nori pulled her closer. She could almost hear him thinking, then he hummed deep in his chest to find his key and began.

 

"Over the stone, the old gray stone,

Let me ponder here alone,

Through all weather we go together

Ancient stone, thou good old stone."

 

"Of the many friends I've seen,

Thou the truest friend has been,

Some forget me, some have fled,

Some are false, and some are dead,

Changing never, constant ever,

Still I find thee, dear old stone."

 

There was more, another verse or two, but it was lost to Brie's dreams as she slowly drifted off to sleep.


Dori hadn't been far off about the invitations. The next day, there was a note from Oin and Gloin, inviting them all to dinner at Gloin's house to meet his family. After the rambunctious ruckus that had greeted them at the Ur house (Bombur's many children, while good-natured and on the whole well-behaved, were still children and prone to bouts of furious excited activity that made Brie's head spin), Brie could not fathom spending another night in company so soon. With Dori's help, she was able to pen a suitable decline, with a counter invitation that they should join the Ris for dinner on the evening following, an invitation that was enthusiastically accepted.

This was followed by not one, but two more on the following day: one an open invitation from Balin to come round for dinner on an evening of her choosing, the other far more official-looking, on thick parchment with sprawling calligraphy.

"Her Royal Highness, Princess Dis of the Kingdom of Erebor

Formally requests the pleasure of your company for high tea in her Parlor

Accompanied by her sons and their partners

In three days time following the arrival of this missive

Please reply with all speed."

It was addressed to the entire House of Ri and, not wanting to dim the glow in Dori's eye, Brie agreed to the invitation at once. She had met Princess Dis, briefly, on their walking holiday through the Shire with the caravan of dwarves from Ered Luin. She had found her to be altogether agreeable, if a bit stiff, and not prone at all to the nonsense or frivolity that plagued her sons.

"They get that from their father," she had said primly, but with the barest hint of a smile quirking her lips, framed by her magnificent dark beard and a twinkle in her clear blue eyes.

Brie had nearly not survived those eyes.

Dinner with Gloin was a rather tame affair when compared with Bombur's brood. Gloin's wife was a boisterous, clever woman, with wild blonde hair that hung in haphazard braids from her head and beard, but a pleasant smile and a raucous laugh. Their son, Gimli, was a precocious young dwarfling who insisted on being told all about the spiders of Mirkwood, of which he seemed to have a particular fascination. Brie obliged as best she could, and the boy seemed satisfied that his adad's story had been proven more or less true.

"And the elves?" he asked, eyes gleaming, "Were they very terrible? I heard they kept you all in a dark, damp dungeon and there was even tortu—"

"Gimli, go help your amad with the wash up," Gloin snapped suddenly.

The boy complained but went after a stern look from his father. Gloin looked apologetically at Brie.

"He gets carried away," he grumbled, "Gets romantic notions in his head, like it was all just some grand story in a book."

"It's alright," Brie said with what she hoped was a reassuring smile, "He's a fine lad, Gloin. Everything you ever said he was."

Gloin puffed up at that and the conversation continued as if all were well. But that night, Brie dreamed of swirling snow and blood and cries in the night.

...nanginguh...

She woke up crying, with Nori stroking her hair and humming her back to sleep.


Despite her restless night, Brie woke the next day determined to take up Balin's invitation to dinner. But despite all her many efforts to persuade him, Nori refused to go with her.

"I'm busy," he said stubbornly, lighting another pipe and settling back into his chair in the parlor.

"Doing what may I ask?" Brie quipped, feeling the first edges of irritation fluttering in her tone.

"Well, if you must know," Nori said, pointedly not meeting her eyes, "I told Dori I would do a bit of the cleaning up, seeing as he's been so busy with the shop and all."

"Oh Nori!" Brie exclaimed, stomping her foot in all out indignation, "You don't even know that he will be there! It is Balin who has invited us, after all, not—"

"It makes not one jot of difference who will be there," Nori interrupted, still not looking at her, "I'm not going, and that's final."

"Fine," Brie huffed, crossing her arms and doing her best not to look the least bit bothered, "Then I shall go without you!"

"Fine."

"Fine!"

With one last stomp of her foot, Brie stormed from the room to change. Just for spite, she deliberately left her curls hanging loose about her shoulders, leaving only a small, unadorned braid by her ear, and made sure to flounce by Nori in her newest dress (a gauzy affair of cream and pale peach with silver accents) and announce her departure. He snorted, but said nothing else. Brie slammed the door behind her with enough force to rattle the frame.

By the time she had reached Balin's house her fury had abated and she was trembling slightly. She hadn't made a visit on her own before, and while she was sure that Balin would not have extended the invitation if she were not welcome, she still worried…

The door opened, but it was not Balin who answered. All of Brie's misgivings flew from her head, and all she could think was how very much she wished she'd been able to convince Nori to come.

Dwalin stood stock still in the doorway, completely blocking all view of the house within, staring down at her with absolutely no discernible expression on his face. The other members of the Company that she had seen had all changed slightly: Ori a little more grown-up, Bombur a little more round, Gloin with new gold adorning his red beard. Dwalin had not changed even the tiniest bit since she'd last seen him, down to the leather harness crossed over his chest holding his favorite axes strapped to his back. And all of a sudden, Brie thought she had never seen a more comforting sight in all her life. She smiled and tried to hold back the tears she could feel gathering in the corners of her eyes.

"Hello, beharê," she whispered.

Dwalin's facade cracked. He reached through the door and drew her into his strong arms, holding her tight to his chest.

"Iltin-e, mim khî," he said hoarsely.

Brie huffed a laugh and pushed back to give him a watery smile.

"There is nothing to forgive," she said.

Dwalin looked doubtful.

"Do you say so?"

"I do," she said firmly, straightening her skirt, "I know your heart, Dwalin, and I can only imagine how it must have been for you."

Since they had left the mountain, there had been only a few unspoken topics in Bag End. One of them, was Dwalin. Brie still did not know the exact nature of what had passed between Nori and the guardsman, and this rift (and her desire to see it mended) was one of the few threads that still kept her tied to her life. She wanted to see Nori happy before she left him, if she could.

"Dwalin?" Balin's voice interrupted them. "Are you going to keep our guest waiting on the stoop all night, or are you going to let her in?"

Brie grinned and Dwalin rolled his eyes, standing aside to allow her entrance.

"After you, Miss Baggins," he grumbled rather petulantly and Brie stepped inside, feeling another thread forming between her and her friend as she passed. There was hope for Dwalin. If only she could make Nori see. She would make him see, if it was the last thing she did.

She came home with Dwalin's braids in her hair, but Nori was nowhere to be seen. She went to sleep, still turning the problem over in her mind.


Dis was as lovely and agreeable as Brie remembered her, though perhaps a little more relaxed in the familiar environment of the mountain. She even rose to take Brie's hands in hers with a smile that nearly stopped the breath in Brie's chest. It was little things like this (the spark in her blue eyes, the shape of her lips when she smiled) that made things difficult sometimes. But Brie pushed away the flutters of black on the edges of her vision and it was over in an instant, the princess entirely her own person in all but these few things.

Though Fili was not able to knock her flat as his brother had nearly done (Brie could still hear the echoing crack of his bones breaking and his scream on the cold wind) his embrace was no less enthusiastic, nearly lifting her off her feet with one arm as he steadied himself on his jeweled walking stick.

"I'm so glad you've come," he said in her ear, his smile like a sunny spring morning, and Brie could not help but return it.

"I wouldn't dare miss it," Brie assured him, patting his cheek fondly.

Bofur and Bilbo had been invited to tea as well, and all in all, they spent a very pleasant afternoon. The princess' parlor was surprisingly cozy for all its high ceilings and fine furniture, helped in great part by the enthusiastic company they kept. Brie even laughed once or twice as Fili described a particularly funny misunderstanding among the Guild heads concerning the placement of table settings at the wedding feast. It was so hobbitish that it took Brie quite off her guard. She nearly forgot about the dark tendrils that plagued her, just for a moment.

When tea was done, Ori was eager to give the newcomers a tour of the Great Library where he spent most of his days. It wasn't far from the royal wing, so the Urs and the Ris made a happy troop down the wide stone corridors. Brie hung back a bit, letting the image fix in her mind. A happy memory. A reminder.

They'll be alright, when—

A smell stopped her in her tracks, a smell so well-known that it was almost foreign in these unfamiliar surroundings. Flowers. She could smell flowers, thick and distinct, riding on a puff of air through a narrow corridor that she wasn't even certain was supposed to be a corridor. It certainly looked too small for any dwarf to pass through, except perhaps for some of the younger of Bombur's dwarflings.

She glanced back down the hall. The others were further along now. No one had noticed her absence. That was good. It was better this way.

Brie took a breath of the sweet-scented air and ducked into the passageway. She would only be a moment. And the others would be alright. She knew they would.


Bilbo didn't know how long Brie had been gone. That's what frightened him most, that no one could remember the last time they had seen her. And that fear, that guilt, made him uncontrollably angry.

"You were supposed to be looking out for her!" he snapped, causing Nori to bristle and bunch his fists.

"Well I didn't see you paying any mind, did I?" the dwarf snarled, "'Oh, leave her to Nori, I've got more important matters now!' Well, I can't be everywhere at once, can I? Can't have eyes in the back of my head!"

Bilbo nearly swung a fist at him, but Bofur stepped between them at just the right moment, hands held out placatingly.

"She can't have got far," he said soothingly, turning to Ori while Bilbo and Nori continued to glare at each other. "Any thoughts where she might go, Ori? Anything that might have caught her eye on the way here, might have caused her to wander?"

Ori started to shake his head, worrying his hands together. Then he stilled. His dark eyes widened and his breath caught sharply.

"Oh," he gasped, "Oh dear. There… there is one place, but I just… I mean, I never even thought…"

Ori barely managed to speak the rest of his explanation before Bilbo was running, the others shouting uselessly after him. Turning the nearest corner, out of sight, he slipped his hand into his pocket and vanished.


Primroses.

A carpet of what looked like hundreds of primroses blanketed the floor of the immense cavern. Brie shut her eyes and turned her face up to the sunlight pouring from one of the many outlets in the distant ceiling, gripping her shawl close as the breeze ruffled the hem of her skirt. It was like stepping into a dream. This place…it couldn't exist, not here, not in the midst of all this stone. She wondered if perhaps she had gone mad. It was not the first time she had suspected such a thing, that she might be losing her tenuous grip on reality as the threads of her life began to unravel. But the smell…and the breeze against her skin…the feel of the soil beneath her toes. Surely it could not all be a fabrication.

She took another breath and realized it was not just primroses she could smell now. There were other scents, mixed and hard to distinguish, but they drew her forward, stepping carefully, endeavoring not to crush any of the precious blooms at her feet. She nearly tangled herself up in the thick bramble that skirted what looked to be a rough path through the cavern. She pushed aside the speckled flowers (remorse) and stepped out of the field. She could see clusters now, dotted down the winding pathway. She touched her fingers delicately to a cluster of tiny purple bells, her mother's namesake, belladonna (silence) mixed with bright pops of orange adonis (sorrowful remembrance). Further along were lines of tiny blue lint blossoms (I feel my obligations), and the tall, thick stalks of meadow saffron (my best days are past). And around the next corner…

Brie froze. She could hear it now, so faint that it had been lost on the breeze, in the rustling of the leaves around her. The low, rumbling hum that whispered back to her from along the path, reverberating in her chest. His back was to her, his dark hair, streaked with gray, draping over his shoulders and partly obscuring his face. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows, his fingers sinking into the loose earth that surrounded a cluster of purple pansies (you occupy my thoughts) and words began to cut through the gentle murmur of his humming.

 

"There I'll make thee beds of roses

And a thousand fragrant posies,

A cap of flowers, and a kirtle

Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;"

 

"A belt of straw and ivy buds,

With coral clasps and amber studs:

And if these pleasures may thee move,

Come live with me and be my love."

 

Brie shut her eyes tight, fighting the Fading that roared up out of the depths of her soul and ravaged her resolve. It hurt. Oh, Green Mother, it hurt so much. But she wasn't finished yet. There was still one thing left to do, two hearts left to mend, and she would see it done before she went. It was this slender thread that held her tethered, that brought her back and tamed the Fading again. She sucked in a breath and opened her eyes.

He was looking at her. There were darkened circles beneath his eyes, but they still burned, though the rest of his face was a carefully constructed mask. Those eyes nearly unraveled her again, and she directed her attention elsewhere. His beard was longer, but not as long as she might have expected, and streaked with the same gray that plagued his hair. His skin was pale and he was tensed, as if preparing to flee. But from what? From her?

What could the great Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain, possibly fear from her?

A realization shot through her like a bolt from the sky. The king… She was in the royal wing. She was intruding, sneaking about where she hadn't been invited. Where she wasn't wanted.

You want her, wizard? Take her back!

She should not be here. She dipped into a belated curtsy, holding her shawl tightly about her.

"I'm sorry, I… I should go."

She turned to make her hasty retreat, back the way she had come.

"Wait."

His voice was a raspy whisper that made her lurch to a stop, her heart thumping painfully in her chest. She clenched her jaw and fought through it. She did not dare turn around, but she could feel him approach, familiar warmth at her back. He paused, hesitated. Then he came around, looking down at her with those blazing blue eyes. And she could not help it. She reached out with a shaking hand, tracing a streak of gray beard down the side of his face. Her fingertips tingled where they touched him. He shut his eyes and swallowed, but otherwise held perfectly still, as if afraid that sudden movement might spook her to flight. But she could not have moved if the whole mountain had come down on top of them. She was rooted, like the flowers in this cave, trembling in the breeze.

Green Mother…she still loved him.

If only that were enough.

She dropped her hand, but Thorin caught it and held it with both of his, pulling it to his chest. She could feel the rapid fluttering of a heartbeat pounding underneath.

"Thorin," she said, trying to take her hand back, trying not to let him hear the tears, "Please."

I'm sorry… I love you… Come back…

The ring of drawn steel sang in the air and a small gleaming sword pressed against the dwarf-king's throat.

"Get. Your hands. Off. My sister."

Chapter Text

Thorin did not even look afraid. Or angry. He looked…pained and for a moment Brie feared that Bilbo might be hurting him, though no blood appeared to have been drawn.

Slowly, Thorin released his hold on her hand and she took it back, clutching it instinctively to her chest. Bilbo stepped in front of her, the point of his sword coming to rest at the base of Thorin's throat, his whole body rigid with fury.

"Green Mother help you if you've hurt her…" he growled through gritted teeth.

"Bilbo," Brie said, surprised by how tired she sounded. She put a hand on her brother's shoulder, and Bilbo reached behind him to grip the hem of her skirt.

"Are you alright?" he asked, his voice losing none of its fury, his eyes never leaving Thorin for an instant. The dwarf did not move at all, just continued to stand there with that pained look on his face.

"Yes," she said, "Bilbo, I'm alright. It's not his fault."

"Kakhuf inbarathrag," Bilbo spat, using one of Nori's more colorful phrases.

"Khul, nadad," she soothed in the same tongue, squeezing his hand, "Truly. I am the one who has trespassed upon the king."

She could not help but glance at Thorin. He was staring at her as if he were seeing her for the first time. She dropped her eyes again and moved her hand to Bilbo's outstretched sword arm, resting it on his elbow gently.

"Please, Bilbo, let's just go..."

"No."

Both hobbits stiffened, and Thorin's eyes widened as he stumbled over his words in an effort to amend them. Brie did not think she had ever heard him stutter so. It was jarring.

"I mean—Of course, you may do as you wish, I will not stop you, either of you, I only mean to say—I meant there is no need. The garden is yours."

Brie blinked. Bilbo tightened his grip on his sword hilt.

"What do you mean?" he demanded.

Thorin fixed his eyes on Brie.

"It is a gift," he whispered, "Nothing more."

He took a step back, out of the reach of Bilbo's sword, and bowed low to them both.

"You may come and go as you please," he said, his voice a bit more steady now, as if reciting a proclamation, "And stay as long as you like. My guard shall see to it that none disturb you here."

"Except you, of course," Bilbo muttered, lowering his sword to his side, but still glaring.

Thorin gave him a flicker of a smile, but there was no mirth in it.

"Not even I, Master Baggins," he said, "You have my word."

And with another deep bow, the dwarf-king turned and strode away, ducking into a tunnel (presumably the main entrance) at the far end of the cavern and disappearing from view. Brie watched him go, feeling as if a dark veil had fallen over her eyes as he slipped from sight. She wavered and tightened her grip on Bilbo's arm to steady herself. Bilbo sheathed his sword and put his arm around her waist to hold her up.

"His word," he scoffed, leading her back the way they had come, toward the crack in the opposite wall, "As if that means two shakes to any of us. Honestly, what is he playing at? As if we'd want to be anywhere near…"

Brie let him go on, but his words began to run together. The smell of the flowers filled her nose again, and she breathed deep.

Primroses...

(I can't live without you.)


Brie didn't leave the house for three days. She was too tired. She barely left her bed at all the next day, and Dori brought her some of his terrible home remedy teas and felt of her brow for fever and generally put up a great fuss that Brie could barely even manage to roll her eyes at. She was just so tired. But when she slept, she dreamed: of fire and snow and fields of flowers, whispered words that she could not quite make out and feather-light touches that she wasn't quite sure were real.

She felt a little better the day after that, well enough to go down to the parlor for a bit. But she was so cold, even with the fire built up and a blanket bundled around her. Nori carried her back to bed before afternoon tea was even served and stayed with her until she fell into fitful sleep. More flowers rose up out of the darkness, but she slept a little more peacefully, the dreams muted with distance.

The third day she managed to get her feet under her long enough to follow the two elder Ri brothers into the shop and watch them at their work. Nori kept to seaming and hems, things that didn't require much more than a straight line, while Dori focused on the delicate embroideries and fine details of the frocks spread in various states of construction about the workshop. A few patrons with appointments came in for fittings, and they all stared curiously at Brie sitting on her stool and wrapped in her fine silk shawl (the newest of the gifts Dori had thrust upon her) until Dori shooed them out or in or around, in the same fussy manner that he used for her own fittings. But Brie was surprised at the number of dwarves Dori was forced to refuse, insisting that he wasn't taking new clients.

"I hate to turn them away, but I'm simply too busy," Dori explained, with a sigh that sounded like genuine regret, "Even with Nori's help, I'm not sure how I'm going to finish all the frocks in time for the wedding."

"These are all for the wedding?" Brie asked incredulously, glancing around with new eyes.

"Oh yes," Dori said, "And these are just the guests. Of course, I'm working on the wedding party as well, which must take priority."

"You should take an apprentice," Nori said through a mouthful of pins, in a tone that spoke of a long-lost argument.

"Because that worked so well the last time," Dori said, with a pointed glare that told Brie exactly who his last apprentice had been.

"But there must be some young dwarf out there that shares your passion," Brie insisted, "Why don't you take an apprentice?"

"Because that would require relinquishing his white-knuckled grip on the reins," Nori grumbled under his breath, placing his last pin and picking up his thread.

"I heard that!" Dori snapped.

"Sorry, was it meant to be a secret?" Nori quipped, not taking his eyes from his stitching.

"Anyway, I haven't the time now to be teaching some dwarfling how to make a mattress stitch," Dori sniffed primly, "There's a wedding to be planned!"

Nori rolled his eyes, but said nothing else on the subject.

The next morning, Tilda and Sigrid arrived for the finishing touches on Sigrid's dress.

"I begged off from my lessons so I could come," Tilda confessed, sliding onto a stool beside Brie as Dori ushered Sigrid away, "And by 'begged', I mean I told the tutor I had taken ill and couldn't leave my bed."

Nori snorted from somewhere behind them. "You're my kind of girl, your ladyship."

"Nori!" Brie admonished, glaring over her shoulder at him.

He looked up from his stitching, and smirked.

"What? You didn't expect me to scold her, did you? I leave that rot to you and Dori."

He winked at Tilda, who giggled, and Brie rolled her eyes, giving it up as a lost cause. She could not honestly say she was sorry to see her. The girl was full of energetic vigor and spent the time waiting to tell Brie about all the marvelous things she had seen in Erebor in just the two weeks they had been here.

"Fili took Bain down to the forges and Da didn't want me to come, but I begged and begged until they gave in, and do you know there were lady dwarves down there, working on knives and armor and such, and let me tell you I pointed each of them right out to Da so that he could see, because he doesn't believe it's work for a proper young lady, and do you know what he said? 'When you've grown a magnificent beard like those fine dwarf-women, Tilda, I will apply for you an apprenticeship!' Of course, it was rather warm down there, with all the fires they need to shape the metals, so I don't know if I should even want to be a smith, but it is very silly, don't you think…?"

She trailed off and Brie turned to see what had arrested the girl's attention. She had to catch her breath.

"Mamahdul rathukh Mahal…" Nori murmured appreciatively.

Sigrid blushed and turned in a circle to get a good look at all sides of the dress in the full-length mirrors. Layers of lace flowed about her in a swirl of white and silver that gleamed in the light of the shop, dripping from her collarbone in a cascade that came down her arms and stopped just short of her fingertips. Silver ribbons laced up the back and fluttered down in a stream to mingle with the lace. A cluster of silver and diamonds hung from her neck, mirrored by clusters in her ears as well.

"Oh, Sigrid!" Tilda exclaimed, her eyes shining happily, "He'll never know what hit him!"

Sigrid rolled her eyes at her sister, but she was grinning.

"I'm only sorry it's so plain," Dori muttered, pinning little things here and there, adjusting and picking and moving Sigrid about in the light, "Are you sure you've no family colors you'd like to add? We can change the ribbon still."

"No," Sigrid said quietly, "I assure you, the white is quite acceptable. Ladies of Men are traditionally married in white."

Dori looked sceptical at this, but didn't argue. Brie found that odd. Hobbits also were usually married in white, signifying a fresh start in a new life, and Bilbo and Bofur had both been dressed in white on their wedding day, wearing only their forget-me-not crowns and their red-ribboned braids for color. She had never thought to ask Bofur if it were not that way for dwarves, and he had never said otherwise. For a hobbit that lived with two dwarf brothers, Brie was now painfully aware of how very little she knew about their customs as a whole.

"Can we see what Fili's wearing?" Tilda asked eagerly, bouncing a little in her seat.

"Are you mad? Of course, you may not!" Dori said primly, finishing the last of his pinning and getting to his feet, "It's bad luck for the bride to see the groom's colors before the wedding."

"But we already know his colors!" Tilda whined, "It's not like it's a secret!"

"That is not the point," Dori insisted, gathering the train in his arms and helping Sigrid back behind the curtain to change, "It's the principle!"

The curtain shut behind him, effectively ending the argument. Tilda sat back and pouted.

"That doesn't even make sense," she grumbled.

"Welcome to my life, bazrûnamim," Nori said.

Brie was in the process of thinking up something cheering to say to the girl, but only a moment later, Nori made a quiet hissing noise that had both girls turning to look. He was holding open the curtain to one of the storerooms, his finger pressed to his smirking lips. He made a follow gesture with his head and then ducked inside. Tilda wasted absolutely no time whatsoever, jumping off her stool and scampering after him before Brie could stop her. With a last glance back at where Dori and Sigrid had disappeared (and a roll of her eyes for good measure), Brie slipped off her own stool and followed, if only to make certain the two miscreants did not get into any trouble they could not get out of again.

She slipped behind the curtain and was plunged into semi-darkness, only able to make out the vaguest outlines of Nori's hair and Tilda's gangly frame.

"Now, you must keep quiet," Nori said, in a barely audible whisper, "And no spoiling the surprise for your sister, got it?"

There was a rustle of movement from Tilda and then a startled whisper, "Oh, I mean yes, yes, of course!"

Brie heard the rattle of a matchbox, and Nori struck a light, touching it immediately to a lamp that was hung on the wall and shaking the match vigorously out again. The glow revealed the storage room, filled with bolts of fabrics, spools of thread, and on the farthest end, a sewing dummy, dressed in a glorious coat of blue and gold that sparkled in the dim light. Tilda clapped her hands over her mouth to stifle a noise of delight. Brie felt the breath she had been holding release in a soft sound of appreciation. She clutched her shawl tightly about her to keep her hands from shaking. The coat was knee-length, buttoned along the side with precisely crafted bits of gold. Brie took a few steps forward and ran her thumb against the knot of lines stamped in the buttons. Familiar lines, from a pair of long-lost knives, the loss of which still gave her a stab of guilt.

"The lines of Li," she whispered and Nori glanced at her, startled. Brie moved her fingers to the hems of the sleeves, which contained a different pattern of lines embroidered in gold thread.

"He's the child of two houses," Nori explained, "By blood and by right. Wanted them both on his wedding day."

Two houses… Li… and In. The lines beneath her shaking fingers were the lines of Durin's House.

Can you show me?

Perhaps… Someday…

She didn't realize she was crying until Nori touched her elbow. She sniffed and stepped back, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

"It's beautiful," she said, "Dori has outdone himself."

Nori nodded and blew out the lamp light, plunging them back into darkness. He held open the curtain to let them all duck out again.

"I'm…very tired, all of a sudden," Brie said, to which Tilda turned and gave her a concerned frown, "Miss Tilda, will you give my apologies to your sister? I think I'm just going to have a lie down."

"You want me to go with you?" Nori asked, his brow furrowed, but Brie waved him off.

"No, I'm alright," she said, patting his arm affectionately, "Truly. Wake me before tea, won't you?"

And with that, Brie escaped to her room. But she didn't sleep. She sat on her bed, emotion roiling in the pit of her stomach. The lines of Li… Fili's father…

Before she lost her nerve, Brie got up and sat down at her desk, pulling out a sheet of fine parchment and a quill. She dipped the quill into the inkwell, thought for a moment of what she needed to say, and then began to write.


That evening, Brie accepted another dinner invitation from Balin, and when she arrived, the old dwarf was busily scratching out a letter of his own. When she inquired, Balin graciously agreed to see that her own letter was delivered as well. He gave her a curious look when he read the address, but she only smiled at him blandly and he did not press her for any further explanation.

Dwalin came in from his shift on guard, and gave no indication that he was even surprised Brie was there. Now they all sat together in the parlor after a lovely dinner, Dwalin humming gently to himself as his fingers wound through her curls, performing a complicated weave similar to what he had done the first night he had braided her hair.

"You know," Balin said conversationally, "It's probably not wise for you to be seen leaving our house with your hair all done. People will talk."

"People do little else," Dwalin muttered, his fingers never slowing, "Can't see that it's any of their business."

"People are already talking," Balin continued, as if his brother hadn't spoken, "The famous Baggins twins, the heros of Erebor, and yet there's barely been any official mention. Only one royal invitation from the princess, and then only for tea. No banquets, no gifts, no speeches. One of them hasn't even been formally acknowledged—" He gave Brie a pointed look. "—though I hear contact has been made."

Brie dropped her eyes, careful not to move her head and disrupt Dwalin's work.

"I don't see what we've done to deserve any of that," she said quietly, "We certainly don't want it. We are here for Fili. That's all."

Balin made a small sound, on the verge of disapproving, but he did not outright disagree. Instead he puffed silently on his pipe for a long moment as Dwalin finished her braids.

"Still," Balin said finally, seeing her to the door, "You should be careful, my dear. Erebor is as safe as any other city, which is to say, not very safe at all. I don't like to think that you might run into trouble on our account."

"I'll walk her," Dwalin said, his arms crossed, with an expression that brooked no argument.

Brie wrapped her shawl about her with a smile and a roll of her eyes.

"If it will make you both feel better," she said, coming up on her toes to press a kiss to Balin's bearded cheek.

Dwalin was a large silent presence at her side on the walk back to the merchants' district. He stopped short of the Ri shop sign and Brie looked back.

"Won't you come in for a moment?" she asked, reaching for his hand.

He took her fingers, but he did not move any closer to the door.

"It's late," he said as if in answer, "I should be getting back."

He bowed over her hand in a gentlemanly way.

"Good night, Miss Baggins."

Brie smiled.

"Good night, Mr. Dwalin."

He released her hand, but he didn't move, and Brie realized he was waiting for her. She took the last few steps to the door, opening it to let light spill out onto the street. Then, she turned back, thinking she might try once more, but Dwalin was already walking away, heading back into the deserted dark street.

Brie shook her head and slipped inside, shutting the door behind her. Nori was, once again, nowhere in sight. She sighed and headed up to her room, feeling the fluttering of her Fading, a constant presence at the edges of her vision now. She could no longer afford to wait. Something needed to be done.

Chapter Text

"I want to invite Balin and Dwalin to dinner."

All three of the Ri brothers looked up from their dinners in stunned surprise. Brie took advantage of the hesitation.

"It's only polite," she said, reasonably, "I've taken them up on their hospitality twice now. If we were in the Shire, I would be labeled a leech!"

Nori, as Brie had expected, was the first to recover, scowling down at his plate, his eyes ringed by dark circles. She hadn't heard him come in at all last night.

"That's fine," he muttered, "I'll find somewhere else to be."

"No," Brie said firmly, "I want all of you here."

Dori and Ori exchanged an uneasy glance. Nori glared at her, but Brie didn't budge. She met his eyes for several long moments, then held out her hand to him, a pleading gesture.

"Please, Nori," she said gently, "Astû barafê. Maralmi—"

Suddenly, he was on his feet, his chair scraping against the stone so violently that Brie winced.

"I will not share a roof with that... binakrâg kurdushnakh!" He slammed his fist on the table and Brie jumped. "If you loved me, you would not ask it of me!"

Then he turned and stormed out of the room. Brie scrambled to her feet, rushing after him.

"Nori, wait—!"

But the front door slammed, and she knew he was gone. She sagged against the doorframe of the dining room, exhaustion washing over her and bringing darkness with it.

...you dare to say you loved me?

She shut her eyes and forced a deep breath through her lungs, pushing the voice and the Fading away. She felt a large hand on her shoulder.

"It's a lot you ask of him, namad," Dori murmured, "More than you know."

"He loves him, Dori," she said, her insistence cracked with tears, "I just want him to be happy."

Dori drew her into his chest and held her tight.

"I know, mim khi," he said, "I know."


Brie was asleep in a chair by the fire when Nori came crawling back from the pub. Even after five tumblers of whiskey and more ale than he cared to measure, he still felt like khafka for shouting at her. He knew she meant well. But it had hurt, what she said. It hurt every time she left the house without him, skipping out into the world as if there were not danger around every corner, as if she were not walking straight into a nest of rats. It hurt when he saw her braids and knew that the guardsman had touched her, had put his loveless fingers in her hair, had shamelessly taken what was no longer his. He had no right…

His fists had clenched again and he forced them to relax. It was no good. She was too innocent, too trusting, to see what Nori saw. Her heart was too big. That was the problem, wasn't it? Her heart. The thing that was killing her, slowly, before his very eyes…

Though he made no noise, Brie stirred and her eyes fluttered open. She smiled at him sleepily, and if that hadn't broken him, he knew she had him beaten when she stretched out her arms to him. He picked her up (Mahal, how light she was, how small) and pulled her into his lap on the floor, letting her nestle into his chest, her arms wrapped around him.

"I'm sorry, dearest," she murmured.

He shut his eyes against the tears, against the sharp pang in his heart.

"Me too, sweet," he whispered, holding her tight and burying his face in her hair, "Me too."


Brie sent her invitation with Ori the next day and by that evening she had a reply, delightfully accepting her gracious invitation to dine the next day. Dori kicked up a fuss the next morning, putting Ori to work tidying up every square inch of the house, while he went to the shops and brought back enough food to feed a party of twenty. Brie watched Nori leave after breakfast, and as the hour passed tea time and got on toward evening, Brie forced herself to accept that he wasn't coming back. She had tried her best. There was nothing else to be done.

So instead she put her energy into setting the table and checking the oven (she had made honey cakes, using Beorn's recipe, hoping for a pleasant memory that they could all share). As she put the finishing touches on the place settings and stood back to survey her work, she felt a touch on her shoulder. Nori was pale, his jaw clenched stubbornly, but he was there and that was all Brie could have wished. She reached up and clasped his shaking fingers in hers, smiling as encouragingly as she could.

The bell rang and they both jumped as Dori let out a muffled curse from the kitchen. Brie snickered and Nori smiled a little at this rare bit of course language from his prim older brother.

"I'll get it!" Ori exclaimed pleasantly from the parlor.

Brie and Nori both tensed as the door opened, but the voices were muted and low, impossible to distinguish. Nori released Brie's hand and shuffled backward, toward the opposite door that led into the kitchen and from there to the back entrance. Brie reached out to him, fearing that he might lose his nerve.

"Nadad..."

"Well, isn't this just lovely!" Balin exclaimed as Ori led him into the dining room, "Briallen, dear, do I smell those honey cakes that Beorn made us?"

She turned to greet the old dwarf and saw Dwalin standing behind him in the doorway, very still and pale as a ghost. Nori had narrowed his eyes and his fists were trembling at his sides. Brie wasn't even sure if either of them was breathing. And only now, seeing the pain in her friend's eyes and the anger in her brother's, did she realized that this truly might have been a bad idea.

At just that moment, Dori came bustling in from the kitchen, carrying a covered platter and completely oblivious to the tension in the dining room.

"Ori, for goodness sake, where are you manners? Pour our guests some wine!" he fussed as he set the platter down and bustled out of the room again.

Ori jumped and made to do as he'd been asked, and the tension broke into awkward movement as they all found seats and waited, as Dori brought out the rest of the food and set it around the table. Brie might have helped him, but Nori had not stopped glaring at Dwalin (though Dwalin had prudently averted his eyes and was now looking everywhere but at Nori) and Brie was not entirely sure it would be wise to leave the two of them unsupervised.

Once the food had all been settled, it was a little easier to fill the awkward silences. Balin and Ori made pleasant enough conversation about their work in the Great Library, and Dori found plenty to talk about in regards to wedding preparations. Brie had seated herself with her guests, so she had a perfect view of Nori filling his goblet three… four… so many times she lost count, but was not able to do a single thing about it. His gaze was either fixed on his plate or on Dwalin, not looking particularly pleased with either, and he was uncharacteristically silent, offering not a single scrap to the conversation. Dwalin too was quiet, but that was not so unusual. He had never been a dwarf of many words. Still it made Brie nervous, and it caused her to speak up.

"I imagine with all the guests coming in for the wedding, it's a bit of a security nightmare, isn't it, Dwalin?" she asked.

Dwalin's eyes remained fixed on his chicken, but he did answer her in a low voice.

"Aye. We've guards aplenty of course, but they're none of them very subtle creatures, easily spotted by unsavory folk and avoided. And dignitaries and the like don't take kindly to the idea of being followed about by an armed guard anyway. So many factions, dwarves and otherwise, all in one place: prime time for plotting and with us already spread thin."

"What we need is a good spymaster," Balin said definitively, sipping at his wine, "We've needed one for some time. Someone who knows the nooks and crannies, and can get about without being spotted or suspected. A foot in both worlds, as it were."

"Aye," Dwalin said, poking at the leg bone on his plate, "But such types are hard to come by. Leastways, ones as can be trusted."

His eyes flickered up to Nori for the briefest moment, then down again. In less time than it took Brie to blink, Nori was on his feet and the goblet that had been in his hand was flying through the air. Dwalin turned instinctively as the cup hurtled toward him, slamming into his shoulder and spattering him in droplets of wine.

"You wanna talk about trust?" Nori shouted, his words slurred and his face flushed red, "You wanna talk about how hard it is, guardsman? Oh, poor you! How difficult your life must be, spending all your days kissing his makadzul kakhaf!"

"Nori!" Brie shouted, leaping to her feet.

He blinked and swayed, putting a hand on the table to steady himself. No one else had moved. Dwalin hadn't moved. He only stared at Nori with that same terrible pain in his eyes, though his expression was carefully guarded. Brie put her hand on Dwalin's shoulder and could feel the muscle tensed there. Nori blinked again and dropped his head, rubbing his face with his free hand.

"Nimthurul me ra rukhs, zânami rukhs," he said, but his voice cracked and he stumbled from the room before anyone could respond.

Brie felt Dwalin start to shake beneath her hand. She sank down beside him, taking his hand in hers.

"I'm sorry, beharê," she whispered.

"No, mim khi," he said, his eyes fixed on the place where Nori had vanished, "I knew. I just… I hoped..."

His expression cracked, just for an instant, letting the pain spill from his eyes to the rest of his face. Then he stood and left the table, the front door opening and closing softly behind him.


The next day Nori wouldn't come out of his room. Brie tried to speak to him through the door, but he didn't respond to her entreaties. Even Ori couldn't convince him to come out. Brie felt like a complete fool. How could she have ever thought that forcing the two dwarves together would be a good idea? What had she expected? A tearful reunion? Happily ever after? Was her own life not proof enough that such things simply did not happen? But still, like Dwalin, she had hoped…

Poor Dwalin...

Brie wrapped her shawl about her and left the house without a word. She did not know where she might go, but she could not stand to spend another helpless, useless moment in that guilt-ridden silence. She made her way through the crowded alleyways of the merchants' district with almost no effort. The dwarves parted before her with curious looks, but she paid them little mind. They were no different from the looks she received at market in Hobbiton. She was painfully aware, and forever reminded, that she had been irrevocably changed by the journey she had made three years ago. Like Fili, she was now the child of two worlds, worlds not so easily reconciled with a bit of thread. Her braids and her brothers were undeniably out of place in the Shire, and no amount of braids and fine dwarven dresses could disguise her fuzzy toes and beardless face here in the mountain. She was a curiosity, an oddity, everywhere she went. Had it not always been so?

No. Not on the quest. She had belonged then, as she never had before. Oh, how she longed for that now, that sense of belonging. But there were no more adventures, no more dragons to conquer. She was just a little hobbit, in a great wide world that no longer had a place for her.

How could she possibly hope to be of any use to the ones she loved, when she could not even help herself?

She looked up and stopped short. She had left the merchants' district behind and wandered into the only other part of the mountain with which she was even passingly familiar. The royal wing. She nearly turned back. Tendrils of darkness flickered at the edges of her vision, but she pushed them aside. There was no one in the corridor. She was quite alone.

It is a gift…

He had said… He had given his word. And suddenly, all Brie wanted was to feel the dirt beneath her toes, the breeze upon her face, to breathe the scent of growing things. Cautiously, she moved forward, peeking around each corner, until she stood before the half-concealed crack in the wall. She knew there was another entrance, a formal entrance, but she could not bring herself to find it. What if he was there? What if there were guards, and she could not get past? Or worse, what if they let her by and then sent for him? She couldn't risk it. She wasn't sure she would survive a second encounter, especially if he took her by surprise. Even the possibility nearly turned her away.

But she could smell the primroses. And oh, to see the sun

Before she could change her mind, Brie gathered her strength and plunged into the dark crevice. She put her hand to the rough stone for balance, feeling it hum through her fingertips, and she was nearly running when she finally burst into the cavern. She turned her face up into a beam of sunlight and shut her eyes, letting it warm her skin the way a hearth never could. The breeze tossed the curls of her hair that had come loose from her braid and she reveled in the feel of them against her face, tickling the back of her neck. She was surprised to feel a smile tug her lips. The soft whisper of foliage was soothing and kind to her ears, like the whisper of an old friend.

She opened her eyes and plunged forward, avoiding the bramble that threatened to pull at her shawl and pressing her feet into the dirt of the path. She waited. She listened. She heard nothing. No snatches of song, no rumbling hum. Hesitantly, she stepped forward, her heart in her throat as the path bent and she came within sight of the patch of purple pansies. The flowers were still there. The king was not. She let out a breath and felt her shoulders relax. Her knees were weak and she sank down next to the flowers, pressing her hands into the soil as if she might gain strength from it. Those who believed in the power of Yavanna claimed that she could grant strength to her children through the earth, much as she granted life to the plants who rooted there. Brie had never been what one might call a 'true believer', but at that moment she would take whatever she could get, imagined or otherwise.

The breeze brushed against her skin again and she sighed, turning into it, letting the smells of the flowers fill her nose. And as she allowed herself believe that she was well and truly alone, she began to feel better. Not stronger, per se, but a little more like herself. Her old self. The self she had left behind all those years ago, when she had signed the contract that had ended whatever claim she might have had to a normal life.

She took in a deep breath and was surprised when a hum came out of her, bubbling out of her chest without her conscious thought. It had been ages since she'd felt the call of a song in her soul. But she could feel it now, in the soil at her fingertips, in the stone beneath that, in the scent of the flowers and the echo of the cavern around her. Her voice rose and the words spilled out of her in gentle rhythm.

"Golden slumber kiss your eyes,

Smiles await you when you rise..."


Thorin was restless. He had not slept well the last few weeks. Mahal, who was he kidding? He could not remember the last time he had slept well. But for the past year, at least, he had managed well enough to perform his duties with tolerable competence. But now his dreams had come back with a vengeance, leaving him exhausted and pained.

The dwarf I fell in love with…

You are changed, Thorin!

Touch me again and it will be your eye next.

Nanginguh…

He might have taken to the drink again, had he not known that Dis was watching the inventories with annoyingly sharp eyes and would notice the uptick in consumption. And he would not have wanted to anyway, not really. He didn't like the dwarf he saw at the bottom of a bottle. Not that he particularly liked the dwarf he saw in his wash basin each morning either, but at least that dwarf wasn't on the business end of one of his sister's disapproving glares or Balin's concerned frowns, which were almost worse.

So he had started wandering the corridors instead, hoping to dispel some excess energy, enough that exhaustion might push back the dreams. It hadn't worked yet, but he was at a loss for what else to do. More often than not his wandering feet betrayed him, leading him to the one place he could not go, the place that had once been his refuge, now only a forbidden chasm, gated over and watched by a pair of his most trusted guards. The dwarves never stopped him. They were there to protect the place from intruders, not from their king. The only thing that prevented his entrance was his own will.

"You have my word."

He had given his word. Not that such a thing meant a damn to them. To her. He had invalidated the power of his word three years ago.

"You hold no claim on me, you faithless, deceitful—"

He clenched his fists on the iron bars and shut his eyes as pain clenched his chest. Mahal, how it hurt. Shouldn't it have dulled by now, eroded by time and distance? But when he had seen her standing there among the flowers…it was as if no time had passed at all. She was still so beautiful it took his breath away. He had thought he might die of it. Would that not have been a fitting end, suffocated by her beauty? And when she had turned away it had been like watching his heart rip from his chest and try to flee. He had been desperate. For what he did not know, but he had not been able to stop himself from calling out to her. And when she had touched him, he'd thought...but no. Any hope that might have kindled died again when he saw the fear in her eyes. Of course she was afraid. How could she not be, after what he had done?

After that it had not mattered much when Bilbo's sword threatened him. He could have died and been content. He had seen her again, at least. It was more than he deserved, to see her face again, to hear her voice…and oh how his heart had jolted in his chest to hear Khuzdul upon her lips, soft and unexpected and more lovely than any poetry could ever hope to be.

...her voice…

He opened his eyes and stared into the dark beyond the iron gates. Was it just his overworked mind? Was it a dream? No…he could hear her voice, echoing down from within the cavern, snatches of her song in the dark.

"...Cares you know not while you sleep,

And I o'er you watch do keep..."

He nearly wept. He shut his eyes and pressed his brow to the bars, like a prisoner desperate for any shred of light filtering into his confinement. He breathed in her voice like a drowning man gasps for air. He stole this little bit of comfort and, though he felt shredded by guilt for it, that night he slept deeply, with her voice whispering in his ear.

"...Sleep my darling don't you cry

I will sing a lullaby…"


Chapter Text

Nori did come out of his room the next day, but he seemed determined to pretend like nothing had happened. He smiled and dropped a kiss on Brie's head at the breakfast table, as he followed Dori back into the shop to pick up exactly where he had left off before the disastrous dinner. Though she felt a little guilty for it, Brie did not broach the subject. She wasn't eager to revisit the issue, and if Nori didn't want to speak of it, she wasn't going to force him. She was done forcing Nori into situations he wasn't ready to face. She had learned that lesson well.

She hesitated to visit Balin and Dwalin's house again. She wasn't entirely sure how welcome she would be, after what had happened. So she stayed away for several days, until finally a note arrived, brought by a young dwarf in the leather jerkin of a guard page. The paper was plain, the writing blocky, a message that conveyed all that needed saying in as few words as possible:

YOU ARE ALWAYS WELCOME.

When Brie arrived on the stoop, she was waved in with the impatience of a dwarf who had been waiting much longer than could reasonably have been expected.

"Stew's getting cold," Dwalin said gruffly in explanation.

Brie smiled and stepped inside.


The wedding approached with uncommon swiftness, and Brie tried her best to savor all the little moments that presented themselves in the meantime. She watched members of the wedding party come in and out of the shop in a never ending stream of fittings, taking great delight in watching Fili fidget nervously in his fine coat, while Kili made obnoxious whistles and crude remarks about how long the clothes might remain on his person on the day (and night) in question. She spent many afternoons at Bombur's house with Bilbo and Bofur, learning everything she could of her many dwarfling nieces and nephews and watching with complete delight as the littlest ones used the gruff and unapologetic Bifur (now without his axe and speaking exclusively in the Common Tongue) as a climbing tree, much to his chagrin and secret delight.

"Are you happy, namad?" Bofur asked one evening, out of the blue.

They had just finished supper and Bilbo was telling the younger children the story of Bullroarer Took, their dwarfling eyes shining as he described the goblin army threatening the peaceful Shire. Brie turned toward him, a ready answer on her tongue, but paused. Bofur was smoking his pipe and watching her intently, his normally sparkling eyes sharp. She swallowed back her easy affirmative and pulled her thick shawl around her shoulders to ward off the chill that seemed buried in her bones of late. She pressed her toes to the stone floor and could feel the life of all the dwarves that called this place home humming up through her legs and into her chest. She smiled genuinely then.

"I am…" She paused and searched for the right word. "...content."

Bofur's brow furrowed and he puffed his pipe again, considering this. Brie reached out and patted his knee.

"Don't fret, nadad," she said, "All will be well."

He looked about to say something else, but then there was a great commotion from the dwarflings, who seemed to have gotten into a row about whether it was truly possible to hit a goblin so hard that his head came off his shoulders and had resorted to fisticuffs to resolve their differences. Bofur waded into the fray to separate them and the thread of the moment was lost in gleeful shouts and squeals.

Brie also continued to visit the garden. Sometimes it was only for a moment, just long enough to breathe the air and feel the sun on her face. Sometimes she would spend hours wandering the cavern, sometimes on the path, sometimes not, enjoying the sheer variety of flowers that had been moved here and how well they were tended, though she didn't dare touch them herself for fear that she would mar the beauty of it. She found the place soothing, and she always felt a little less tired after having been. She realized with a sharp pang that she could grow to love it, given enough time.

Time.

Time was something she had in short supply. She knew it the day the elven dignitaries arrived, just a few weeks before the wedding. She had been surprised to learn, when they had passed through Mirkwood, that Thranduil had been invited. But then, the three kingdoms had been forced to work together very closely in the last few years and, though the dwarves still held no great love for the elves, Brie could see how it might be unwise to leave the King of Mirkwood off the guest list. After all, their youngest prince was married to an elf. So Thranduil and his entourage arrived in all their pomp and splendor, and they were greeted with respect, if not enthusiasm.

Knowing all this, Brie could understand the relief in the young elf's eyes when Brie answered the door to the shop and not one of her dwarven brothers. The girl was grown, but it was clear she was young in the way of elves. Her eyes flitted about nervously and she shifted anxiously from foot to foot, a cloth-wrapped bundle clasped tightly in her slender hands.

"Have I the honor of addressing Briallen Baggins of the Shire and Erebor?"

Brie nearly flinched. The address was needling, to say that she was of Erebor, when Thranduil must know she was not. He was goading her. Brie tried not to let her ire rise and forced a smile for the girl that must not have seemed very pleasant, because she shied away a bit.

"I am Miss Baggins, yes," Brie said, holding out her hand, "I assume that's for me?"

The girl startled and then curtsied deeply before thrusting the package toward her.

"With my lord Thranduil's compliments," she said demurely, "He wished me to convey his apologies for the delay in their return, and begs that you will—"

"Yes, yes," Brie said, a bit brusque, but frankly she wasn't interested in whatever Thranduil had told the girl to say, "Give your king my thanks."

"He begs that you might consider dining with him this evening," the girl blurted out as Brie made to shut the door in her face.

Brie paused. She opened the door wide again and stared at the girl. The elf swallowed and clasped her hands behind her, waiting for an answer. Brie considered a very rude response but bit it back, reminding herself that this girl had done nothing to her. Green Mother, she was so tired. She took a breath through her nose and forced another smile.

"You may convey my deep regret to Lord Thranduil, but I'm afraid I'm quite busy at present. I thank him for his generosity and hospitality."

She bit this last word out more sharply than she had meant to and the girl flinched slightly, but then she bowed and hurried away. Brie shut the door and leaned against it, clutching the package to her chest. It was green silk and wrapped with gold ribbon, but that could be changed. Dori would give her some cloth from his shop with no question. A pretty yellow. The color of Li. She smiled despite her exhaustion and went up to her room to pen a note for her recipient.


Fili responded readily to her message, inviting her for tea the next afternoon. Brie arrived wearing a dress that seemed to have been made from sunshine, matching the package in her hands and the smile on her face.

"What's this?" Fili asked, taking the bundle in his free hand as he gestured her inside.

"A gift," Brie said, stepping in and taking a moment to survey the room. Fili's parlor was surprisingly small and cozy, with thick rugs on the stone floor, a desk in one corner covered in parchments and quills, a hearth with two high backed chairs and a table between them set for tea, "Call it a wedding present. I understand that's a tradition among other folk, to give gifts to the couple, instead of the other way 'round."

Fili quirked an eyebrow and sat in one of the chairs, setting his walking stick aside as Brie helped herself to tea. The china rattled a little in her hands, but she managed not to spill. Fili was still turning the package over in his hands, as if he wasn't quite sure what to do with it.

"You could start with the ribbons," Brie said with a little smirk, as she lifted her cup to her lips.

Fili rolled his eyes and set to work on the knots with surprisingly dexterous fingers. He had the ribbons off in less than a moment, unwrapping the carefully arranged layers of cloth until his gift lay gleaming upon his knees.

"Oh Brie…" he breathed, and she thought her heart might burst with joy.

It was his father's knives. The knives he had let her borrow on the journey out of Rivendell, the knives that had been lost when they'd been taken in Mirkwood, the knives that held his family lines carved upon their hilts.

Such things are precious to us…

Fili's eyes glistened with tears as he lifted one of the blades in shaking fingers, turning it to catch the light.

"I'm sorry it took me so long to get them back to you," Brie said softly, watching the firelight gleam along the blade, "I wasn't even certain he would find them. But I hoped…"

She trailed off. Fili was staring at her with wide eyes, a tear tracking down his cheek.

"Have I said how much we've missed you, Briallen?"

Brie froze in place, her cup halfway to her lips.

We… he had said… we…

She lowered the cup to her lap before she spilled and dropped her eyes.

"Well," she said, trying to sound flippant, "I have missed you too, of course."

"Please don't go again."

Brie flinched and shut her eyes. She wished he had not said that. She wished it so desperately. Because she didn't want to lie to him. Not to Fili, sweet, brave Fili who had been such a source of joy and hope.

"Please, Brie," he said, his words tripping over themselves in their rush, "It would… I mean, couldn't you stay? Just for a little while? A year? Half a year even, Kili will have his baby by then, and Mahalknows he's not ready for it, you could… Even Dale would be better than half a world away!"

"Better for who, Fili?"

He didn't answer her. She looked up. His face was set in those familiar stubborn lines. He looked away, into the fire. Brie took pity on him then and went to him, laying a hand gently on his shoulder.

"I will think about it," she said, "For you, kurdurakl. I promise."

The tension in Fili's body unraveled beneath her touch and he sighed, taking her hand in his and pressing his lips to her fingers.

"Khamanrukmâ astî," he whispered.

Brie felt only a tiny bit of guilt as she bent to press a kiss to the boy's temple. It was not really a lie. After all, if things went as she suspected they might, the poor thing might just get his wish. Poor, sweet boy. The blackness of her Fading swirled at the edges of her vision, and she barely had the heart left to push it back.


"Why do you not sing any more?"

It was two nights before the wedding, and Brie had been drowsing by the fire in Balin's parlor, letting Dwalin braid her hair, content in a way that was difficult to find anywhere else. Green Mother, she was tired… but at this gentle question, her eyes snapped open and she straightened, lifting her head off Dwalin's knee.

"I'm sorry?" She knew her voice was at a suspiciously high pitch, but she had been taken quite off her guard.

"Why do you not sing any more?" Dwalin repeated with deliberate care, not a single emphasis out of place. Brie swallowed.

"I don't know what you mean, beharê," she said, with as much innocence as she could muster.

Dwalin's hands stilled in her hair.

"Yes, you do."

She stiffened. Oh. Was she simply destined to cause pain, wherever she went? She should never have come here, to this house, to the mountain. She should have stayed in the Shire, Faded gently away, with no one the wiser. She shut her eyes, thought of Bilbo and Bofur and Nori. She should have run away. She should have saved them all, right from the very beginning.

Dwalin's hands rested gently on her shoulders.

"I'm sorry, mim khi," he murmured gently, "I would mend it, if I could."

The breath that escaped her came out almost as a sob. She took one of Dwalin's hands and squeezed.

"I know, dearest," she said, holding back her tears, "But some things simply cannot be mended."

There was a long pause.

"Aye," he said, finally, "That's true enough."


Nori was deep enough into his cups that he could have imagined it. The tavern was packed to the gills and there was a celebratory mood even here, as far from the good part of the city as one could get. The impending nuptials of the crown prince were as good an excuse as any to drink and fight and sing the bawdiest songs imaginable at the top of one's lungs. Nori had missed this, dwarven taverns. The Green Dragon was a fine enough establishment (and they were happy enough to take his coin), but there really was no substitute for drunken dwarves. He shoved two brawlers (who had seemed the best of friends not two minutes ago) off his back and chugged the last three swallows of his ale. He slammed the empty mug on the bar and motioned for another—

That's when he saw him. Slender, tall, dark-haired, he stood out like a sore thumb in this sort of place, even with his ragged cloak and dark hood, even with the plenty of Dale-Men that had taken up dwarven hospitality with courageous vigor. But that face… It was a face Nori was not likely to ever forget in his very long lifetime, a face he still saw in his nightmares, a face that brought to mind dungeons and spiders and Briallen's screams in the dark.

Nori lurched to his feet, but as quickly as the face had appeared it vanished into the brawling crowd now spilling out into the streets, fighting and singing in equal measure. He shoved his way forward, ignoring the dwarves that tried to take swings at him, dodging fists and boots with a mix of quick reflexes and pure luck, but there was no sign.

The elf, Asgaron, was gone.

Nori ran a hand over his face, feeling the effects of the ale on his thoughts. Perhaps he had imagined it after all. He shook his head and made his way out of the crowd, shoving his hands in his pockets and heading for home. Dori would be a fussing mess in the morning. He needed to be steady. Not grasping at ghosts. Still, he checked behind him far more frequently than even he was accustomed to, feeling eyes on his back all the way home.

Chapter Text

Brie nearly did not survive the wedding.

It was a lovely ceremony, but far more intimate than she had expected, given all the to-do that had been made over it. The room was small by dwarven standards, carved into the eastern side of the mountain so that the tall windows, fitted with warped glass, reflected bits of light over the room. Banners of royal blue and white draped the walls, and the floor was lined with sapphires and swirls of gold. The members of the original Company had been granted seats at the very front, even before the Guild members and elven dignitaries, much to their obvious displeasure. Brie had taken more than a little satisfaction in walking past Thranduil to take her place on the bench two rows in front of him, even giving the elven-king a small nod in passing. He had not let any emotion stray to his face, but Brie imagined she could feel his sharp eyes following her.

The ceremony was also not very long, despite Brie's expectations. She had witnessed a Dwarven bonding before, of course, when Bilbo and Bofur had exchanged their words and braids in Rivendell, but she had thought perhaps there might be more to a joining of this magnitude, uniting, not just two people, but two kingdoms as well. There wasn't. The only differences were that three members of each family stood witness on the raised platform as Fili and Sigrid exchanged their loving vows and made the small braids in each others' hair, with ribbons of dark blue lined with gold for Fili's family and white for Sigrid, since her family had no colors of their own.

From her seat in the front, Brie had a perfectly clear view of Fili's family: his mother, and his brother, and of course his kurdu-adad, the king. He was dressed so plainly, his cream shirt adorned only with the barest hints of blue thread at the sleeves and collar, and it was this lack of adornment that drew Brie's eye (or at least that was what she told herself). That was what nearly took her life. Because as Fili spoke his words, she happened to glance up…and caught the flicker of Thorin's eyes on her. Her breath caught painfully in her chest and she looked away quickly, but it was enough to bring the darkness roaring up around her, swirling in black sheets that threatened to drag her down.

What could have been… If only…

Bilbo caught her hand in his and squeezed, jolting her back. His unhappy frown clashed terribly with his fine red coat (set off with bronze trim, the colors of Ur) and that wasn't right. This was Fili's special day. No one should be unhappy on a day like this. Especially not because of her. So she smiled and managed to force away the Fading tendrils. She would not ruin this day. Not like this.

Though the ceremony itself was short, the celebration afterward was scheduled to run well into the night. The wedding procession made its slow, winding way through the city, allowing the population of Erebor to come out and congratulate their crown-prince. Once that was over, there was an enormous feast, with a seemingly neverending stream of speeches from various important dwarves and Men. Even Thranduil stood and offered his good wishes, in words that were eloquent and diplomatic, if not exactly warm. And after that, the tables were pushed aside and musicians were brought out, offering a pretty song for the couple to take the floor in their first dance, a tradition Brie was happy to see crossed cultural boundaries. Once that was done, others joined them on the floor, the music taking on the more chaotic nature that Brie had come to associate with most dwarven celebrations.

Bofur grabbed Bilbo and dragged him out into the middle of the dancing, and Nori went to get another glass of wine, leaving Brie wrapped in her shawl, watching as Bilbo got caught up in the music almost despite himself.

"Now lass, you are just too pretty to be sittin' here by yourself," Bifur said gruffly, appearing at her side out of seemingly nowhere, unkempt as always, almost in defiance of the occasion, "Buncha blind, hard-headed idiots, can't be counted on to see the treasure for the hoard."

Brie could not help but smile at the older dwarf's good-natured grumbling, but that only seemed to inflame him further. He snorted, shaking his head.

"Well, no help for it—" He threw back the last of his wine and set aside his goblet. "—you'll just have to dance with me."

And with that, he took her hand and tugged her to her feet, eliciting a startled yelp of unexpected laughter.

"Oh, Bifur, don't be silly—!"

But it was too late, they were already in with the dancers, and he caught her by the hands and twirled her into the movement of the song, an easy dwarven dance that she recognized, something that Nori and Bofur had taught the twins on lazy Shire evenings. They switched partners and Brie was delighted to see Kili waiting for her. He winked as he took her hands in his, swinging her enthusiastically about the room for a turn, before passing her on to Biris, Bombur's oldest boy, his ginger hair flying as wildly as Bifur's.

"Irak'amad!" he exclaimed as he scooped her into his arms and spun her about, almost out of time to the music, "Surunsin alfâtul!"

She didn't even have a chance to ask him what that meant, before she was passed on again, this time to a dwarf she did not know, but she was so taken with the dance by that point that it didn't very much matter. Her lavender skirt swirled around her ankles and her toes felt light, skipping across the stones, braids and ribbons whirling as she took the hand of the next dwarf, spinning in to face…

She nearly lost her footing, but Thorin's hands caught her about the waist before she stumbled, spinning her lightly before he set her on her feet again, as if it were all just a part of the dance, something they had practiced until it felt perfectly natural. The music did not falter and Brie was swept away on it: on the blue of his eyes, fixed on her face like someone dying of thirst drinks in the cool clear spring, on the warmth of his hands in hers as they spun and ducked through the other dancers, no more than whirls of faceless color now. He swept her up in one arm, holding her close to his side, and Brie realized she could lean forward and kiss him, feel his lips on hers, just once more before—

And then he was gone, pulled away by the hands of another dwarf, his eyes fixed on her face until the last possible moment. Someone tried to pull Brie in the opposite direction, but her feet felt so heavy she nearly could not make herself follow, until she turned and saw it was Bilbo, his expression fixed and frowning. She gratefully followed him back to her chair at the edge of the crowd.

"I'm alright," she gasped as she sat down, suddenly dizzy and out of breath, "I'm alright, I just...lost my breath is all. It's so warm in here!"

She managed to smile, but Bilbo's disturbed expression didn't waver. She squeezed his hand in hers.

"I'm alright, Bilbo," she lied, a gentle lie, a kind one, "Go. I'll just catch my breath."

He looked as if he wanted to argue with her. But then the music changed again, something even more whirlingly wild, and Bofur appeared out of the crowd, grabbing Bilbo's arm and dragging him off before he could protest. Brie smiled as they went, her eyes sliding over the swirl of dancers...and saw Nori and Dwalin huddled in a corner of the room, talking. Oh. Oh that was good. Brie felt the last thread that had been tethering her slowly unravel. Everything would be alright now. Everything was as it should be. It was time.

She took a moment to gather her strength—the last of it, if she was any judge. She could feel the Fading fluttering over her, all over, not just at her chest or her eyes, like warm fingers pulling her down, lulling her to sleep. She was so tired. But there was so much happiness here, she couldn't stand to ruin it. Not for those she loved.

So, while no one was looking, Brie got up and slipped away, out into the quiet city streets. She knew where she would go, as surely as she knew that it would be last place she went. She wanted to feel the breeze, the soft soil, the moonlight on her skin. She wanted her last breaths to be filled with the smell of flowers.

Primroses...I can't live without you...

Perhaps it was because she was tired. Perhaps it was because she was distracted. Perhaps it was simply fate. But for whatever reason, Briallen did not see the slender bit of shadow peel off from the wall and slink after her on silent feet.


"Look, I know you've got no reason to trust me," Nori muttered, "But I'm telling you, I saw him, plain as I'm looking at you now."

Of course, he had not gotten up the courage to actually look at the guardsman yet, but he figured the implication of the phrase still applied. He didn't even know why he was talking to him. Maybe the wine was having a stronger influence on him than he'd reckoned. But that face—even just the glimpse, in the dark and under the influence of a far too much ale—had been niggling at him all day.

Asgaron. The elven guard who had tortured his kurdu-namad in the depths of the Mirkwood palace, who had forced her to relive unspeakable horrors under the influence of that thrice-cursed elven draught. Tauriel had claimed he'd been 'dealt with' at the time, but what did that mean, really? It had never been discussed. He hadn't been seen again.

So what would he be doing in Erebor?

"It's probably nothing," he mumbled, still not looking at the guardsman, "Might have imagined it. Could have been—"

"Where's Briallen?"

Nori blinked and finally looked up. Dwalin's face was set in hard lines, his eyes sweeping the huge room, full of swirling bodies dancing to the increasingly frantic music. Nori glanced around too, but...he couldn't see her.

"She was dancing," he said, his eyes sharpening, trying to pick out the smaller form, draped in lavender and gold.

"With Thorin," Dwalin said and Nori glared at the guardsman, but he didn't seem to notice, "Last I saw. But not any more."

Thorin was back at the head table, staring into a half full wine goblet with a contemplative expression: the look of a dwarf calculating how much drink it will take to not feel anything for a good long while. Nori hated that he recognized that look, worse, that he understood it.

Dwalin started moving toward the head table and Nori followed, his eyes still frantically searching the crowded room. He couldn't see her. Why couldn't he see her?

"What are you gonna do?"

"I'm gonna ask him."

"We should be looking for her!"

"And Thorin saw her last."

Nori hated that Dwalin sounded so calm, so reasonable, when he could feel the beginnings of hysteria threatening to claw up his throat and rip through him in a scream. But it was too late to protest. They were at the table, and Dwalin leaned down to murmur in the king's ear as Nori shuffled behind, anxious and not even sure if he should be. After all, it wasn't that unusual, lately she was prone to taking off on her own, despite Dori's admonishments and his own. And she had disappeared on them before, and it had all been alright. Maybe this was nothing. Maybe...

Thorin's brow furrowed as he continued to swirl the little bit of wine at the bottom of his goblet.

"Gone," he muttered, in answer to Dwalin's question, "Slipped away, not long after the first dance. I saw…"

Then his eyes cleared in a blink, and he looked up sharply at Dwalin.

"Why?"

Dwalin's explanation had hardly left his lips, and Thorin was on his feet, his eyes flashing with the spark of something that Nori felt in his own chest. Panic.

"Gather the guard," he ordered, "Fan out, search every corridor, every dark hole."

Dwalin rushed off and Thorin looked at Nori for the first time.

"Where would she go? Where would she feel safe?"

"Safe?" Nori snorted, "Here? Suppose she might go back to the shop or…"

He trailed off. He'd hardly noticed it at the time, but now he caught himself cataloguing her most recent absences, and her condition when she'd returned: Dori's laments of grass stains upon her skirts, dirt beneath her fingernails, petals in her hair.

"The garden," he whispered, "She's been spending her time in that thrice-cursed—"

He didn't get to finish. Thorin was gone, striding across the room in purposeful steps, ignoring the curious looks of the wedding guests and leaving Nori running to catch up. Dwalin was murmuring orders to the guards at the doors, but Thorin didn't stop and neither did Nori. There wasn't time. Together they broke into a run, heading toward the royal wing.


Brie supposed she had gotten used to the dark within the mountain. She hardly noticed it anymore. Most of the city proper was well lit, almost cheery, but there were still pockets of shadow that seemed keenly intent on reminding the citizens of Erebor that they were, in fact, living in a heap of hollowed out stone. And it was within one of these pockets that the shadow struck.

It was a blow to the back of her head, not hard enough to knock her unconscious, but enough to make her cry out and send her stumbling. She caught herself on the wall and felt the hum of the mountain beneath her hand, let it steady her as she looked up. A sharp angular face peered down at her from within a tattered hood, thin lips spreading in a wolfish grin, and in Brie's memory she saw that face explode in dark fur and a bloodied muzzle. She remembered it as vividly as she still saw it in her nightmares. Ice bloomed in her chest and spread to her limbs, snow swirling with the Fading black at the edges of her vision.

Asgaron's smile widened as he threw back his hood.

"Hello again, perianig."

Lightning quick, his hand shot out and struck her across the face. She hit her knees, the stone tearing at her lovely dress. All of Dori's hard work, ruined. She shut her eyes against tears that were not all from pain.

"Yes," he said as he knelt to see her better, "See, if you had stayed on your knees to begin with, then we wouldn't be here, would we?"

Brie swallowed. She tasted blood. Her eyes opened and she looked up at him, not through any sense of defiance or anger. She was too tired for that. She just wanted to see him, see him as he really was, not how her blurred memories portrayed him. He was thinner than she remembered, gaunt and pale, and his eyes were wild where they had once been cunning. He tipped his head to the side, the grin still pasted uncomfortably on his face.

"What? No clever quips? No witty retorts? Shall I loosen your tongue for you?"

He grabbed her by the hair and jerked her to her feet. She cried out involuntarily and a cruel giggle bubbled out of him.

"I do remember how you screamed," he hissed as he shoved her back against the stone, "It keeps me warm on cold nights, all alone in the forest...the endless dark..."

Something gleamed in the dim light, the edge of a dagger slipping between his fingers in gentle rapid movements. Brie let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Oh… Oh this was so much better… Far better than she deserved, but perhaps it would hurt them less, the ones she left behind. Perhaps they would feel less guilt, perhaps they could move on from her and let her Fade away...

"Shall we see if I can make you scream once more, perianig?" Asgaron whispered in her ear, "For old times' sake?"

Brie shut her eyes and let the river ice run through her, washing away her fear. Yes…this would be better. She let the darkness rise up, felt the Fading take her as the steel brushed against her skin. She wouldn't even feel…

Something snarled in the dark and suddenly she fell from Asgaron's grip. She hit the floor, and the jar of the impact opened her eyes. Something moved in the dark, too quick to see, but it flung the tattered form of Asgaron back and swept his legs from under him, snatching the knife from his hand as he went down and, with a quick motion, burying it to the hilt in the elf's chest. Asgaron let out a gasp, a choking cry, and then lay still, his eyes open and his dark hair spread around him.

Brie felt her eyes begin to drift closed again as Thorin turned to her, his eyes shining like blue fire in the dark. But it was too late. The Fading was here, it was upon her, and she was just too tired to fight it again. She had been fighting for so long...

She barely felt it as his arms gathered her in, pressing her into the comforting smell of hot iron and pipe smoke. She sighed and breathed it in, better even than the scent of flowers.

"Should have let him…" she whispered as the black ribbons wrapped around her, dragging at her limbs and head and heart, "Would have...been better..."

She heard her name on his lips, but she could not open her eyes to it, not even for him. His voice echoed as she was pulled down, farther and farther...

"Briallen… please… don't…"

...and then the darkness closed over her, and she was gone.


...

The crackle of dry firewood.

The smell of old books.

A light, warm on her face.

Brie's eyes fluttered open, and the room came into focus around her. It was her parlor. She was sitting in her favorite chair, beside a cheery fire, in the heart of Bag End. And there was another hobbit in the chair opposite her, the firelight shadowing the folds of his soft face, a steaming cup of tea resting on the round bulge of his green velvet waistcoat. He smiled as her eyes fixed on him.

"Hello, Briallen," Bungo Baggins said, lifting the teacup to his lips, "Quite the pickle you've gotten yourself into, isn't it?"

Chapter Text

Thorin kicked open the door to Oin's apothecary, and Nori moved quickly around him, shoving various obstacles out of his way as he shouldered into the shop with his burden.

"What in Durin's name—?" Oin's shouts cut off as he stepped out of the back room and jerked to a halt mid-stride.

"I didn't know where else to take her," Thorin said, desperation tinging his words as he felt the shallowest of breaths from the tiny bundle in his arms. He had been counting those breaths. They were too few, too far between. "I didn't—"

"Bring her back here," Oin snapped, shoving aside a curtain to reveal a room with four cots, "Set her just there, that's a good lad."

Thorin laid Briallen carefully on the nearest cot, trying not to let panic overtake him as her head lolled to the side. He nearly panicked again when his hands came away red, before he remembered the elf lying dead in the distant corridor. Dwalin would take care of that. Not that it mattered. Nothing much mattered now.

"The blood?" Oin asked sharply.

"Not hers," Thorin answered, "At least, not all of it. I don't know what he did before—"

His fists clenched and he couldn't go on. Mahal, had he been too late? He would never forgive himself, never...

"Wash up," Oin ordered, pointing him to a basin in the corner, "Let me work."

Thorin did as he was told. The water was only a pale pink when he had finished. He had thought there would be more. He looked down at his shirt and saw where some of the rest of it had gone. He cleaned the basin and filled it with fresh water before he felt calm enough to come back, ready to face whatever Oin would say.

"She's got a nasty bump on the back of the head and and the right side of her face is a bit swollen," Oin was saying to Nori, who was standing to the side with his arms crossed, scowling down at the bed as if he might will her back with the sheer force of his displeasure, "Looks like she got clocked a good one, but nothing to suggest this state of unconsciousness. She took worse knocks from goblins, back in the day."

Thorin reached out and took one of her hands in his. It was cold, like ice.

The river was frozen… the wolves were coming across… we'd already lost so much…

"Where's the rest of them?" Oin asked, turning to Thorin when Nori didn't seem likely to give him an answer.

"Dwalin is sending for them," Thorin said, his eyes fixed on Briallen's face. She was so pale. And still. "They should be here soon."

"Well good," Oin said, wiping his hands on a cloth, "Because the lass is dying. That's the long and the short of it, and unless Bilbo can shed some new light on this, I'm not sure there's a damned thing I can do about it."

And with that, the old healer shoved aside the curtain and stomped out of the room, as if the sound of his own words hanging in the air was offensive to him. Thorin could not stop counting breaths. He felt as if he were holding his own breath, waiting for her to take her next one.

Please, nanginguh… please…

"Thorin."

He looked up. Nori was staring at him pointedly from across the room, lifting aside the curtain, waiting with an unreadable expression. It took Thorin a long moment to realize that he meant him to follow. Thorin looked down at Briallen's tiny form, waited for her to take one more breath. Then he carefully set down her hand and followed Nori out. The other dwarf didn't say a word as they walked through the apothecary, toward the front door, which was hanging crookedly from its hinge. Nori yanked it open and stormed out into the deserted alleyway. The braziers had not yet been lit, but the light from the mountain vents was fading, getting on toward evening. Thorin was surprised there was any light at all. It felt as if it should have been the deepest night. He stepped toward the shadows where Nori had retreated.

"Nori, what—?"

A fist connected solidly with his jaw. He reeled back, and before he could recover Nori was on him, fists wrapped in his bloodied tunic and slamming him into the wall over and over.

"You bastard!" Nori shouted, "You makalfumunûn dashaturakhsûna, she is dying and there's nothing I can do, nothing! It's all you, you and your damned pride and your damned mountain and YOU, DO YOU HEAR?! SHE IS DYING AND IT'S ALL YOUR! DAMNED! FAULT!"

"Nori!"

Bofur and Dori both grabbed at Nori and hauled him off, holding him back as he screamed and flailed and finally collapsed into chest-ripping sobs. Thorin lay against the wall, feeling dazed, but not from the pain throbbing in his head. That was distant. He could feel a trickle of blood escape his lips and he wiped it away as he got to his feet.

There were others, besides Bofur and Dori: Bilbo and Gloin, Ori and Balin, Dwalin and Bifur. Thorin barely saw them. He went back into the apothecary, stumbling only slightly at the door and catching himself on the frame. He heard Dwalin speaking and Bilbo fretting and Oin fussing, but with the buzzing in his ears it was easy to ignore them. He just kept moving toward the back, pushing aside the curtain, and for a moment she was so still that the buzz turned into a roar. But then she took a breath, a small one, and the roar died down again. He sank to his knees at her side, took her small hand in his, and started counting breaths.

...one.

She is dying!

...two.

It's all you!

...three.

...your damned pride...your damned mountain…!

...four.

"Please," he whispered, "I'll do anything."

...five.

"Please, nanginguh… "

...six.

"Don't go."

...seven.

...eight.

...nine.

...


For a long time, Brie simply stared at her father as he sipped his tea, lowering the porcelain to the saucer without so much as a clink. She blinked. He was still there.

"Where am I?" she asked. Her voice felt floating and far away.

Bungo glanced about the room with interest, as if just now taking in their surroundings.

"Oh," he said, coming to some sort of realization, "Somewhere we can talk. And we do need to talk, my girl, no doubt about that."

He sipped his tea again while Brie tried to put her thoughts together. It was more difficult than she thought it strictly should have been.

"Briallen…" The voice whispered like a breath of breeze through the parlor and Brie sat up with a start. "Please… nanginguh…"

"Thorin?" she called, his name a lump in her throat.

"He means it, you know."

She whirled and shaded her eyes against the blinding sunlight. She was standing in the garden in front of Bag End. Birds were twittering in the cloudless blue sky and her father knelt in the earth, wearing that ridiculous straw hat he favored, a trowel resting on his thighs as he sat back and grinned at her.

"You can hear it," he said, indicating the sky with the trowel, "In his voice. He really means it. That's a rare thing."

"What's going on?" she asked, still feeling as if she had not quite caught up, "I don't understand."

"...the lass is dying." Oin's voice drifted down from the sky and both Brie and Bungo looked up. "That's the long and the short of it…"

Bungo met Brie's eyes, and raised an eyebrow. "That answer your question?"

"Not really, no," Brie said, looking around her again with a detached curiosity, "It's nothing I didn't know already. Of course, I never thought I would last for this long. You didn't."

Her father's expression grew sad and they were in the kitchen now, Brie swinging her feet from the chair at the table, her father turning to set a plate of cookies in front of her.

"I am sorry about that, you know," he said, "It was terribly selfish of me."

Brie glared at him over the plate.

"Cookies aren't going to make it go away," she said in her child's voice.

He smiled and the cookies vanished. She was grown now, sitting at the table with a mug cradled in her hands. She looked around the empty kitchen.

"Where's Mother?"

"Always going on about your mother," Bungo said, not unkindly, standing at the kitchen sink now, his sleeves rolled up and elbow-deep in soapy water, "She's out, I expect, wandering. She never could be still for more than a few days at a time. But that's not what we're here to talk about, is it?"

He turned and settled down beside her in the shade of a scrawny apple tree, the water of the fish pond shimmering in the sun.

"Where are you going, Briallen?"

Brie furrowed her brow, tugging on her fishing line and watching the little floating bobble ripple the surface of the pond.

"I'm not going anywhere."

"That's not true. You wouldn't be here if it was."

She looked at him and he reached up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.

"We have so much in common, you and I," he whispered, "More than either of us ever guessed."

He stood and looked up, his hands on his hips. They were at the base of the hill now, looking up at Bag End, the windows glinting in the afternoon sunlight.

"I built this house, you know," he said, puffing with pride, "For your mother. Because I loved her, and wanted to be everything she deserved. It took me a very long time, even after it was done, to realize it wasn't the house that made her love me. It was me. That was all she wanted. Me, just as I was."

Brie's brow furrowed and she stared at her father. He was younger now, barely over his majority, and it was fascinating to see how very much he looked like…her. Brie had always imagined he would look like Bilbo, and he did, but…

He turned and took off his hat, dropping it playfully onto her head, but his smile still held that hint of melancholy.

"He will never deserve you, dearest," he said fondly, "And you will never feel worthy of him. Love is not a thing you can earn. It is a thing you are given, whether you deserve it or not."

"...nanginguh… don't go…"

Thorin's voice floated down in rumbles like thunder, and Brie turned in the window seat, looking out past the rivulets of water running down the glass, up into the gray sky.

"He's still here?" she asked, her voice small and incredulous.

"He never left, darling," her father murmured, sitting by the fire with a book in his lap, "You did."

Brie shut her eyes against the tears that threatened to spill over her cheeks like the rain down the window.

"I was afraid," she whispered.

She felt a soft comforter tuck in around her and she opened her eyes. Her father sat on the side of her bed, the stars twinkling through her bedroom window.

"We are all afraid, dearest," he said softly, with no hint of reproach, "To love is to live balanced on that point between fear and trust all the days of your life."

A tear leaked from the corner of Brie's eye and tracked down her face.

"How can I ever trust him again?" she asked, "How can he ever trust me?"

He gently brushed away her tears. "You are so much stronger than I ever was. You'll learn."

A door creaked open in the still night and Brie heard snatches of a familiar song that made her chest clench.

"Ah," Bungo sighed, somewhere between pleasure and resignation, his eyes drifting shut, "Out of time already."

"Mother?" Brie tried to sit up in bed, but she felt very heavy and tired all of a sudden. Her head sank back into the pillow. "Can't I see her?"

Her father smiled and smoothed back her hair, kissing her brow.

"Someday, dearest," he assured her, "But not today. There is too much left for you."

Brie felt her eyes falling closed and her mind drifting. Her voice echoed in the dark of her thoughts.

-I'm still not sure I understand-

...ask him...

-Ask him what?-

...ask him what it means...

-What what means?-

...

-Father?-


Brie's first conscious thought was of taking a breath. It felt like it took every bit of her strength, but she managed it, and then let it out in a long, slow stream. She took another breath. This one was a little easier, but not by much. On her third breath she finally felt like she could try for something different and, with what felt like a monumental amount of effort, she peeled open her eyes. She was staring at a completely unfamiliar stone ceiling.

She closed her eyes and rested for a moment before she took her fourth breath. On the next breath she kept her eyes shut and instead tried to move her fingers. They twitched, but were constricted in some way. She closed them around...warm, calloused skin. A hand. A hand was holding hers and at the pressure of her fingers the hand stirred, and she felt the bed beneath her shift as well, as if a weight had been lifted. She opened her eyes again.

She was nearly blinded by how blue Thorin's eyes were. She might have hidden her face, if she'd had the strength. Instead she mustered what remained to form words.

"You're…still here…"

His expression crumbled at the sound of her voice and he lifted her hand to his lips, pressing them to her cold fingers.

"Of course," he whispered, brushing her hair back with his other hand, "Of course, nanginguh. Where else would I go?"

Brie's eyes fell closed with a hum. It was simply too difficult to keep them open.

"Briallen?"

His voice trembled and she squeezed his hand.

"Still here…" she whispered as she drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

The first thing Brie did when she woke next, almost as a panicked reflex, was to squeeze her hand, checking for warm skin and callouses. Still there. She let out a breath. At least that part hadn't been a dream.

"Briallen?"

She opened her eyes. Thorin was sitting up by her side, brow still furrowed in concern. She smiled.

"You're still here."

He let out a breath and lifted her hand, pressing it between both his larger ones.

"I'm not going anywhere, nanginguh."

...he never left, darling…

Brie frowned.

"No," she said, "It was me, wasn't it? I'm the one that left."

"Not without good reason."

Brie turned her head and saw Nori leaning against the wall opposite the foot of her bed, arms crossed and scowling unhappily at the ground.

"Should never have brought you back here," he growled, "Should have burned that iklifumun letter the second it arrived."

Thorin's fingers tensed. Brie struggled to sit up, trying to find her words.

"Nori, it's alri—"

"It's not!" Nori snapped, his eyes flashing at her, "It's not alright, Brie, nothing about this is alright!"

"Nori."

Bofur's calm, sensible voice cut in and Brie turned to see him standing in the curtain-covered doorway, Bilbo wrapped under his arm and looking as if he'd been weeping. Without a single glance at Thorin or anyone else in the room, Bilbo went to Brie, climbed up into the cot with her, and gathered her up into his arms.

"I thought you were gone," he murmured into her hair, "I thought you were gone, Brie."

Brie shut her eyes and wrapped her arms around him as best she could.

"Me too," she whispered, "I'm sorry."

It didn't make sense. She had felt it, the Fading, had felt it wrap around her, drag her down. She could still feel it, the tendrils of black fluttering around the edges of her soul. By all accounts, she should be…

...there is too much left for you...

"Thorin."

Brie looked up. Dwalin was standing in the doorway now, and Thorin's expression was set into stern lines.

"He's here," Dwalin said, "Asking for you and…"

He nodded in Brie's direction, though he did not speak her name. She gently moved Bilbo to the side so she could sit up straighter.

"Who is it?" she asked.

"It doesn't matter," Thorin answered, "Tell him it can wait."

"I've already tried," Dwalin insisted, "He won't leave. I can call the guard, but—"

"Dwalin," Brie interrupted, garnering the dwarf's attention, "Who is out there?"

Dwalin's frown deepened.

"Thranduil."

Nori bit out a rough word in Khuzdul that he had not yet taught to Brie, which meant it must have been particularly nasty.

"What does he want?" Brie asked, trying not to tremble. She was beginning to feel very tired already.

"Briallen, you don't have to—" Thorin said, but Brie reached out and took his hand again, cutting him off.

"What does he want, Dwalin?"

Dwalin looked uncomfortable, but he answered. "To talk about Asgaron. About what happened."

Brie sucked in a cold breath. She could see blood, spattered on snow and on stone, his glazed eyes unseeing…

"No," Nori said, shoving off the wall and stepping between her and Dwalin, "I don't care what she says, just look at her! She's pale as chalk! If you won't tell him to agnug mahsamralmî hefsu, I'll be happy to—"

"Nori!" Brie said sharply.

"I'll talk to him," Thorin said, standing, "I'll tell him what he needs to know."

"Bring him in, Dwalin," Brie said, "We'll both talk to him."

This was met by a chorus of protestations from nearly everyone present. Bofur was the only exception, standing off to the side and watching Brie in contemplative silence. When everyone else had exhausted themselves, he stepped forward, pushing his hat back on his head so his smile could shine down on her.

"You need to, don't you, namad?"

She blinked and realized that he was right. Somehow, Bofur had known her mind better than she knew it herself. And she wasn't even entirely surprised.

"I do," she said, "I...need it to be over."

He nodded, dropped a kiss to the top of her head, and without another word, left the room, Dwalin following close behind. Nori backed himself into a corner, hunched and simmering with fury. Thorin gripped Brie's hand a little more tightly, and Bilbo settled in at her side, clasping her other hand.

After a tense moment, Thranduil stepped into the room, his head nearly brushing the ceiling, and glanced about before his eyes fixed on Brie. His smooth, ageless brow furrowed.

"Oh dear," he said, "I do so wish you had answered my invitation, perianig. I had no idea your condition was so delicate."

Thorin moved a step to the side, just so he stood within the elf-king's line of sight.

"Lord Thranduil," he said formally, but with no hint of warmth, "We understand you have questions, but would appreciate your brevity, as Miss Baggins needs her rest."

Thranduil gave Thorin a long, unnervingly neutral look. Then he quirked his head slightly to the side, fixing Brie with his eyes once more.

"Miss Baggins still, is it?"

Thorin's shoulders tensed, and Nori bared his teeth at the elven-king's back, but the elf didn't seem to notice. He straightened and inclined his head briefly.

"As you wish," he said, "The slaying of our kin is not something taken lightly, even our kin which are disgraced. I wish only to know the circumstances of this grievous act from the view of all parties which can provide it."

Brie didn't think the elf sounded as if he were grieving at all, but she did not choose to comment on it.

"You in the habit of bringing disgraced elves to royal weddings, then?" Nori growled, "Don't seem very disgraced to me."

Thranduil finally deigned to turn and look down his nose at Nori, which only appeared to raise the dwarf's hackles.

"I am not in the habit of keeping any kind of disgraced company," he said levelly, "If he traveled in my party, I assure you, it was without my knowledge."

Nori snorted, but turned his face away, hunching back against the wall and looking sour.

"Regardless of how he arrived," Thorin said, his voice low and clearly strained, "He attacked a guest of Erebor, under my protection. He was dealt with in accordance with our laws. We have every right to defend ourselves against threats from any member of any race that shows us violence. I assume you will not be disputing that right?"

Thranduil bowed his head slightly.

"No," he said, "Of course not. Clearly, the situation was indeed dire, as has been stated by your guards. Miss Baggins, I assume that the terms of our...previous agreement have not been altered by this unfortunate incident?"

He gave Brie a long, knowing look and suddenly she understood why he had been so insistent on speaking with her. His pride, after all, was at stake, if she decided to renege on the deal they had struck all those years ago.

...save him...please, I know you can...

Brie straightened and folded her hands demurely on the blanket, feeling the eyes of everyone in the room.

"You need not fear, Lord Thranduil," she said, "I assure you, our bargain still stands."

"Bargain?" Thorin's eyes were flickering between them with suspicion, "What bargain?"

Thranduil's lips twitched into a smirk, but he simply dropped his head politely in Brie's direction.

"I am glad to hear it," he said, "Now, if you'll excuse me, there are arrangements I must see to."

He turned to go, but at the curtain he paused, hesitating. Then he turned back, his face once more unreadably smooth.

"I...know your ailment, Miss Baggins." Brie dropped her eyes to her hands. "My own people have been known to suffer a similar affliction. I cannot provide you with a cure, of course, that you must give to yourself, but...I would give you what help I can. If you would accept it."

Brie blinked and stared up at him. Help? Was such a thing possible? Thorin moved as if to step between them again, but Brie put out a hand to stop him.

"What help, Lord Thranduil?" she asked, trying to keep her voice steady and poised.

He came forward, approaching her bedside, and Nori sat up, tensed as if for a fight. Brie kept her hand up to ward him off.

"I can bring back the light," Thranduil said, "Though only for a short time. The rest, I'm afraid, is up to you."

The light. Brie shut her eyes, felt the tendrils of her Fading still wrapped around her soul. She had been fighting that darkness for so long, she didn't even remember what it felt like not to fight.

...there is too much left for you...

She opened her eyes and met the unreadable gaze of the elven-king.

"If you can help," she said, sounding much smaller than she might have wished, "I would be grateful."

Thranduil nodded, then lifted one slender hand and pressed it to her brow.

"Briallen Baggins, rîs uin elloth a sarn," he said, and it felt like a command, steady and strong, "Lasto beth nîn, tolo dan nan galad."

Brie caught her breath. He was...shining. As if a lantern had been lit at his back and, rather than throwing a shadow, the light passed through him. For the first time, Brie thought she caught a glimpse of what Thranduil could be.

Then the light faded and as it did, Brie felt a weight lift with it, as if the light had come and carried it away, like a breeze carrying away smoke. She felt…whole. For the first time in so long, she felt like she could breathe again. She put a hand on Bilbo's arm so that she would not slump and fixed her eyes on the elf watching her. Thranduil brushed his fingers gently over her brow, his expression sad, but satisfied.

"Îdh si, pinig," he said, "You will feel better for it."

He turned to go, but again he paused, his fingers curled around the curtain. He turned his head, just a touch, toward Thorin.

"Have a care, Oakenshield," he said, "Even the Eldar do not often receive second chances. I suggest you not waste yours."

Then he was gone in a swirl of robes and blonde hair. There was a breath of pause before Brie was surrounded by a flurry of concerned dwarves. Thorin had her hand in his again, Nori had his hand to her brow muttering Khuzdul curses under his breath, Dwalin was calling for Oin, Bofur was asking what he'd missed, and Brie could barely get a word in edgewise.

"Really, this isn't necessary, I'm alri—"

"Briallen Baggins of Ri, I swear on your Green Mother and my Great Maker, if you say you are 'alright' one more iklifumun time…" Nori growled.

Brie shut her mouth. When Oin came blustering in, she consented to be examined without protest, if only to put all their minds at ease. Oin listened to her breathing and took her pulse, checked her eyes and her tongue (for whatever reason), and hummed noncommittally for far longer than Brie thought was strictly necessary, but she tried not to complain.

"Well, how do you feel, lass?" he asked finally, eyeing her skeptically, "And no lies!"

Brie hunched meekly and tugged on the ragged braid by her ear that still held her lavender ribbon.

"I'm a bit thirsty," she said finally, "And tired. But…it's not the same tired," she said, looking at Bilbo, knowing he would be the most likely to take her meaning, "It's not a heavy tired. Just…the sort of tired when you're getting over a cold."

Oin nodded and put away his instruments.

"Well, you certainly look a good deal better," he said, "Got some of your color back. I think rest is the best thing for now. Everybody out!"

The dwarves began to troupe out of the room in various states of composure, Dwalin going without a fight, Nori fighting Bofur the whole way. Thorin paused, indecision clear on his face, but Oin put a hand on his shoulder.

"Get some sleep, your majesty," he said with surprising fondness, "I'll send for you if anything goes amiss."

Brie felt Thorin's hand tense in hers, and his expression shifted, as if he were physically pained by the prospect. Brie saw now, with eyes that had been cleared of lingering shadows, how tired the king looked. How long had he been here? Had he slept at all?

...he never left, dearest…

Brie squeezed his hand and gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. He returned it, and lifted her hand, as if he might...but then he stopped, as if he were coming out of a daydream. Instead, he made a formal bow over her hand.

"La' ibdêkhmâ niral, malkûna," he murmured.

Brie felt something tug in her chest, but before she could think of a proper reply, he disappeared behind the curtain.

...he means it, you know...you can hear it, in his voice…

She felt Bilbo's arm around her tighten and she looked up. He was stubbornly meeting Oin's gaze, jaw set and eyes flashing.

"I'm not going anywhere."

The old dwarf sighed and shook his head.

"Of course, you're not," he grumbled, "I'll make some tea."

He stomped off to the back, leaving the twins alone for the first time in...well, now that Brie thought about it, it had been weeks since she had been truly alone with her brother. Bilbo let out a frustrated sigh and ran a hand through his disheveled hair. He looked tired too, and but none of that bled into his voice when he spoke.

"We need to talk, Brie."

...we do need to talk, my girl, no doubt about that…

She heard Bungo's voice so clearly in Bilbo's words that it made her chest ache. Had it been a dream? It hadn't felt like a dream at the time, and it certainly didn't feel like a dream now...

"I want you to know how sorry I am."

Brie blinked and stared at her brother.

"Whatever for?" she squeaked.

"For—" He clenched his jaw, took a breath and started again. "For giving up on you."

"Oh, Bilbo," she said, reaching up to run a hand through his curls, "There was nothing you could have done."

"But there was," he insisted, pulling away from her, "I see that now. And instead, I...really, I think we can stop pretending that for the past three years I have not just been sitting about, watching you die."

He said this last bit with such vehemence that Brie could not help but flinch. He felt it, of course, and he sighed again, burying his face in his hands.

"We were children when Father died," he said, his voice calm, reasonable, "We didn't know any better. But we're not children anymore and instead of trying to help you, I just...gave up." He raised his head and gave her a stern look. "That won't happen again, Brie. I promise."

Brie opened her mouth to ask what exactly he planned to do with that look, but before she could, Oin came bustling in with the tea tray.

"Alright," he said, gruffly, setting the tray down next to the bed with undue force, "Tea, and then I really must insist on a little sleep, whether you both sleep here or not makes not one jot of difference to me."

"I'll go," Bilbo said, slipping down from the cot, "There are some things I should see about."

He bent and pressed a kiss to Brie's temple.

"I love you, namad," he said, "You know that, don't you?"

Brie smiled and squeezed his hand.

"Of course," she said, "I love you too, Bilbo."

He returned her smile before he scurried away. Once he was gone, Oin snorted.

"Honestly," he said, pouring a mug of tea, "The lot of you are just determined to turn this old dwarf's beard white. Here, drink your tea."

Brie grinned and did as she was told.


Thorin supposed he should not have been surprised to find Dis waiting for him in his rooms. He had, after all, abandoned her eldest son's wedding party, leaving her to make excuses for him and keep the Guild heads calm in the face of the inevitable gossip. So when he saw her scowling face and crossed arms, he dropped his head and prepared himself to take the tongue-lashing that was due with grace and humility.

"Well," Dis snapped, "How is she?"

Thorin furrowed his brow and risked a glance up. Those had not been the words he had been expecting to come from his sister's mouth.

"Uh…better," he said finally, "A bit."

"Well thank Mahal for that," Dis exclaimed, "Nearly a full day and not a word from anyone, we've been going out of our minds down here!"

Thorin blinked at her dumbly. It had not even occurred to him to send word to Dis, or anyone for that matter. Honestly, he hadn't thought she would be all that concerned. Clearly, he had been mistaken.

"I'm sorry, namad," he said, still sounding a bit dumbstruck, "I didn't think—"

"Oh, of course you didn't," Dis said, shaking her head, "I wouldn't have either if it were my mamarlûna."

Thorin flinched at that, but again, he supposed he shouldn't have been too surprised. Even if he hadn't been painfully obvious about it, Dis had two sons who were notorious for their inability at understand discretion.

Dis sighed and opened her arms.

"Come here, nungbâha."

Thorin hesitated. Dis rolled her eyes and instead came to him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. Thorin hesitated another moment, but then returned the embrace, letting out a deep, shaky breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding.

"Khul duzu, nadad," she murmured as he started to tremble, "We'll take care of her. She'll be alright."


It was late when Bofur finally made his decision, so he was a little surprised when he knocked on the door of the quiet house and was immediately invited in. Now he sat in the cozy parlor, his hat in his hands, and carefully watched the expression on Dwalin's face. Or rather the lack of expression. Dwalin had never been one to wear his heart on his sleeve (as it were), but the complete absence of any reaction at all to what Bofur had said was really quite impressive.

They stared at one another for several more seconds.

"Help?" Dwalin said finally, "You want to help?"

Bofur grinned, more out of nerves than any kind of good humor.

"Yep, that's me, good ol' helpful Bofur."

Dwalin leaned back and crossed his arms, still no hint of expression either way on his face.

"And why would you be wanting to do that, all of a sudden?"

"Because to tell you the truth, no one else is going to," Bofur said, "Nori and Bilbo want to take her back to the Shire."

"Maybe that'd be best," Dwalin said neutrally, "Think it's been made pretty clear the mountain is no place for a little slip of a thing like her."

"But that's just it, isn't it?" Bofur said, sitting up, "She wasn't always this little slip of a thing! Don't you remember? She was fierce and brave and stronger than any of us by a wide margin. She cut down Azog the Defiler, she scolded a Goblin King like a dwarfling before she put his eye out, she played riddles with a dragon!"

Dwalin turned his eyes to the fire. Bofur looked down at his hat.

"I just…I can't watch it again, Dwalin," Bofur whispered, "She's my sister too, and I love her, as much as Bilbo or Nori. You don't know how much it's hurt the last three years, watching her Fade away, knowing there was nothing any of us could do."

Dwalin shut his eyes and in the wavering light Bofur saw his jaw twitch.

"Aye," he murmured, almost too softly for Bofur to hear, "I think maybe I do."

He opened his eyes and fixed them on Bofur.

"What do we do?"

Bofur's nervous grin resurfaced.

"See…this is the part you're not gonna like."

Chapter Text

Thorin suspected he'd been given a draught (Dis had been a little too insistent that he at least taste the broth she had brought him), because he slept far too deeply and woke still groggy, with the sun shining through the vents on the high eastern side of his room. It was still morning, but only just. He stumbled out of bed and splashed cold water on his face and over his head, trying to shake off the last remnants of drug-addled sleep. He should have already been back at the apothecary, he should have been there waiting for her to wake.

He should never have left in the first place. He was a fool.

He threw on the first clean clothes he could find and padded out into the parlor. He stopped. Dwalin was leaning against the mantel, his arms crossed, looking not very pleased to be there. Thorin's heart lodged in his throat and he opened his mouth to ask—

"She's fine," Dwalin said gruffly, and a knot between Thorin's shoulders (that he hadn't even realized was there) relaxed, "Oin says there's nothing he can do for her that can't be done at home, so the Ris are taking her back."

Thorin felt his jaw tense, but tried not to let any other signs of distress show. If Briallen was back at the Ri house, he could forget any chance he might have of seeing her for a good long while. Nori would undoubtedly see to that. As if he could sense his thoughts, Dwalin dropped his eyes, his frown deepening. Not for the first time, Thorin felt a stab of guilt for his kurdu-nadad. As much as it hurt, knowing he had ruined his own chance with his umral, Dwalin had done nothing wrong. He didn't deserve this misery.

The guardsman shook away the frown and set his shoulders, a sign that there was business to be seen to.

"I thought we might take a look at the fortifications around the Lislîn," he said, "It wasn't so bad when it was just you, but if she's gonna be spending a good amount of time there, we should shore up the little bolt holes, make sure nothing can get in we don't know about."

"I swore she wouldn't be disturbed," Thorin said automatically. He could not go there. If he did, what was to say he would not go again…and again…and…

"Aye," Dwalin agreed, "And this is keeping your word. That little 'private entrance' she's got herself, any smaller dwarf could squeeze through there. There are other places too. And I've been meaning to talk to you about the roof for a solid three months now."

"What about the roof?" Thorin asked, pulling on his coat almost despite himself. If there were places that were unsafe…if she got hurt… She had been attacked, in his own mountain. Dwalin was right. He had to be sure that never happened again.

He followed Dwalin out of the room, his mind whirling with the frightening possibilities, determined that, even if he could not be with her, she would at least be safe.


Nori was just settling Brie into the parlor, despite her protests that she felt perfectly fine, when Bofur came sauntering in, whistling merrily with a grin on his face. Bilbo was nowhere in sight. Nori immediately felt the twinge of suspicion.

"Good morning, kurdu-baraf!" Bofur said pleasantly, leaning over to drop a kiss to the top of Brie's head, "It's such a fine day, I thought we might go for a walk."

Nori crossed his arms and leveled his best glare at the behatted idiot.

"No, absolutely not."

Bofur turned his grin on him. Nori could see the faint glimmer of teeth to it and braced himself for a fight.

"But nadad," Bofur said, with an edge that belied the endearment, "You haven't even heard where I propose we go."

"It doesn't matter," Nori said firmly, "She's barely out of bed. She's not going anywhere."

"I am actually sitting right here," Brie said indignantly, "And I think a walk sounds lovely. What did you have in mind, Bofur?"

"You've been conscious for less than two days!"

"And I feel better than I have in ages," Brie pronounced, "I have been abed for far too long, I have no intention of wasting any more time there."

"If you think I'm letting you out of my sight for one minute after—"

"I'll be with Bofur, I'll be perfectly safe!"

Nori snorted and shot the other dwarf a skeptical look. Bofur met his eyes solidly and then shrugged.

"You can come with us, if you like."

Nori didn't trust that gleeful twinkle in his eye. He didn't trust it one bit.

He felt a tiny hand touch his elbow and he flinched, dropping his scowl to the stone floor. He knew if he met her eyes, he would give her whatever she wanted. He always did.

"Nori," she whispered and he couldn't help it. He looked down. She smiled, and squeezed his arm. "It's alright, nadad. It's going to be alright."

He let out a long, frustrated breath through his nose. He hated when she said that. It wasn't true. Nothing had been alright in a very long time. But he knew that he had lost, and he felt his shoulders slump.

"Fine," he grumbled. He could almost feel Bofur's smug grin. "Where are we going?"


Dwalin had been warned this might happen. It was "the part you're not gonna like" as Bofur had put it, and he had known the chances were high that they wouldn't be able to avoid it. After all, Nori had always been protective, fiercely so. And loyal. And as hard-headed as they come.

All the things Dwalin loved so much about him.

So when he and Thorin turned the corner at the gate to the Lislîn and came face-to-face, not just with Bofur and Brie, but with a scowling, furious Nori, it should not have taken the guardsman by surprise.

It should not have taken his breath away.

In the time it took to blink, the thief slipped in front of his sister, clenching his jaw and his fists. Mamahdul Mahal, he was fast. Dwalin had nearly forgotten what it was like to watch him move, like he was dancing instead of fighting. He tensed out of instinct, but arrested any other movement as soon as he was aware of it. Instinct had not served him well, when it came to Nori. Thorin hadn't moved at all. Dwalin was beginning to wonder if this had been a terrible idea. As terrible as the idea to accept Briallen's dinner invitation.

...I would rather kiss an orc...

And then Brie came forward, twisting away from her brother's hands as he tried to pull her back, ignoring him as he hissed her name.

"Briallen!"

Instead she approached Dwalin, with that trusting smile that made Dwalin's chest ache. He did not deserve those smiles.

She stopped, then reached out to take his hand.

"Hello, beharê."

His defenses crumbled, and the ache in his chest grew tight. He did not deserve that name.

"I am glad you are well, mim khi," he murmured.

"And I'd like to keep her that way, thanks," Nori spat, "So if you could remove your rathâkh binalbam—"

Brie continued to ignore him. Instead she squeezed Dwalin's fingers and stepped around, standing before a still-frozen Thorin. Quite frankly, the king looked like a cornered animal, like he could not decide whether or not he should flee. The lass gave him a long look, her shawl clutched about her and a contemplative expression on her face. Then she gathered her skirt (a mastery of dwarven and hobbit-like tailoring that could only have come from Dori) and performed an elegant curtsy that sank her nearly to her knees.

"Ammâ bedekhsun gilkhal, Thorinul Erebor," she murmured, in stunningly precise Khuzdul. Dwalin had known that she'd picked up some phrasing and endearments (no doubt courtesy of her two dwarven brothers), but...he was not even certain he could have spoken the words so eloquently. And he had been speaking Khuzdul his whole life.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Nori turn a flustered red and cross his arms over his chest. Thorin was completely, perfectly still. For a moment, Dwalin feared that he might not react at all, but just as the silence was beginning to stretch, he seemed to regain himself and offered her a deep and formal bow.

"Zai adshânzu, malkûna."

"No," Nori said, taking a step forward and forcing Dwalin to put himself between them, "No, you can't just… You don't get to spout off your pretty words and make your manners and expect everything to be alright! That's not how it works!"

"Nori—" Bofur tried to soothe, in that calm, reasonable voice he had, but Nori ignored him.

"It's like you've all gone mad!" Nori exclaimed, "Has everyone in this iklifumun mountain lost their minds? What do you think has been killing her all this time?"

"Akmâthê…" Dwalin tried, but then trailed off, surprised by how easily the word had come to him, without his mind's permission. He had not spoken that word since—

"Don't," Nori snarled, jabbing a finger in his direction, "Don't you dare. I don't want to hear it, least of all from you! I don't care that he saved her life, I don't care that he's been all mopey, I don't care! He threw her off an iklifumun wall! And you let him!"

Dwalin fell back a step. It felt as if Nori had kicked him. But of course it would come down to this, the festering root of the anger that had wrapped itself in iron bands around Nori's heart. Dwalin shut his eyes, clenched his jaw against the pain of the memory, of knowing everything good that might have been meant for him was lost. It had been the worst day of his life—the day Briallen fell.

Instinct had held him back, habit. In every fight, in every skirmish, in every battle and brawl, Dwalin's natural inclination was to fall on the side of Thorin: his cousin, his king, his kurdu-nadad. Every time. It had never occurred to him, not once in all the years they had fought and fled and survived together, that Thorin's side might ever be the wrong side.

Even when Briallen was hanging from Thorin's fist, kicking and gasping, Dwalin had never really thought he would do it. He hadn't truly understood how far Thorin had fallen, until he had watched the lass disappear over the side of the wall. Even then, he hadn't really believed it. Some part of him had insisted that it couldn't be true, that it was a trick of some kind, a ruse Thorin was playing, that Briallen hadn't really…Thorin would never

So when Nori launched himself with murderous rage, Dwalin had panicked and fallen back on his instincts, on training so deeply ingrained that it was as natural as breathing: protect Thorin. He hadn't seen the dwarf he had fought with and feared for and eventually learned to trust. He hadn't seen his umral. He had seen only the threat, and he had dealt with it in the way he dealt with all threats. It hadn't been until he'd seen the blood on his knuckles and Nori's broken, betrayed expression that he'd realized what a terrible mistake he had made.

He had been reliving that mistake every day since. It still hurt, like a coal smoldering in his chest that wouldn't go out. But how could he say any of that to Nori? Nori, who had been forced to watch his nadith fall, and then Fade like a flower withering without sunlight? Who had been separated from his family, exiled in pain from what should have rightfully been his home? How could Dwalin, who had been living the dream they had planned for themselves, possibly justify his actions that day on the wall? He couldn't. Dwalin couldn't make himself speak the explanations that felt more like excuses, defenses for the unforgivable. He had failed, in the worst way possible.

That was why he had been avoiding the thief these past few weeks, despite his brother's continued insistence that he should just 'talk to the lad'. Because how could he possibly…?

"I've tried," Nori said, through gritted teeth, "I have tried so hard these last few years...to hate you."

Dwalin's heart stopped. He felt as if someone had encased him in stone. He couldn't breathe.

"I wanted to hate you." Nori shut his eyes tight and clenched his fists. "I tried so hard. But…the truth is I would have done worse. If it'd been me…I'd have killed you, before I let you hurt her. No matter what she did."

Nori opened his fists and looked down at his palms, as if he could see it happening, as if he could see the blood on his own hands.

"So how can I hate you without hating myself?" he whispered, "And how can I hate myself more than I already do?"

A tear tracked down his cheek and it was more than Dwalin could bear. He took a step forward, heedless of the consequences, ready to face all his wrath, all his ire, any violence he might deem necessary, and took one of Nori's shaking hands, wrapping his fingers around the palm, letting the warmth fill him with the courage he had been lacking for so many years.

"I'm sorry," he rasped, because what else could he say? "I'm so sorry akmâthu kurdê."

A sob wracked Nori's chest and when Dwalin tugged him forward, he came without resistance, burying his face in his shoulder and muttering incoherent snatches of words.

"I just...can't ever…sorry...I...I love you…"

Dwalin shut his eyes and held him tighter. Whatever came next, whatever he had to do to make things right again, he would face it all with those words carved on his soul.

"I love you…I love you…"


Brie smiled as Dwalin enveloped Nori's sobbing shoulders in his arms, whispering softly in his ear. Bofur had disappeared back around the corner, looking oddly pleased with himself. Sneaky thing, she might have to scold him later. But not too harshly. Brie pulled back as well, thinking she might simply duck into the garden without being noticed. She turned at the entryway and caught Thorin smiling, not at her, but at Dwalin and Nori. It was a sad smile, tinged with regret and relief in equal measure. Brie thought perhaps the same smile had touched her face too.

...you will never feel worthy of him…

Before she could think better of it, Brie reached out and touched his arm. He jumped and looked down, as if he hadn't expected her to still be there. She put a finger to her lips and tugged on his sleeve, toward the garden gate and the wafting scent of flowers. With a bit of reluctance, Thorin followed her, the hinges of the gate making not even the tiniest sound as they swung open and then shut again with a soft click that Brie muffled with her fingers. She pulled her shawl a little closer and sighed, feeling a weight lift from her heart. Nori's unhappiness had weighed on her nearly as much as her own.

"Walk with me?" she asked, glancing up at Thorin.

He blinked and pulled back, almost as if he might flee back the way they had come.

"I…swore I would not disturb you here. I fear I have already broken my word."

Brie furrowed her brow. He seemed...nervous, unsure. It was a strange look on him.

"Don't be ridiculous," Brie said, "It is your garden, after all."

"No it isn't."

Brie blinked. Thorin dropped his eyes as if embarrassed.

"It...was a gift, Briallen."

...The garden is yours…

"Oh." Brie tried to catch her breath and collect her thoughts. "Well. Then I suppose you can consider this a formal invitation. I can't imagine your word could be broken by the person to whom you made the promise."

The shadow of a smile twitched at the corners of Thorin's lips and Brie was drawn again to the gray in his beard, far more pronounced than she remembered. Was her memory of him so flawed? Or had the mountain taken this toll on him, the weight and responsibility of rebuilding a kingdom, all on his own?

Brie turned and stepped out into the cavern before she lost her nerve. A beam of sunshine struck her right at the mouth of the tunnel and she turned her face into it, breathing deep of the primroses and digging her toes into the soil at the start of the path. A small breeze ruffled the hem of her skirt and she smiled.

"It really is the most magnificent thing," she said, sensing Thorin stepping up to her side, "It must have taken an army of dwarves to lay it all out."

There was a moment of silence.

"Just one dwarf," he murmured, "And a lot of time."

Brie turned to stare at him. He was looking down at his boots again, his hands clasped behind him. She had a flash of memory, of Thorin knelt before a cluster of flowers, his hands buried in the earth and humming absently to himself.

Purple pansies. You occupy my thoughts.

She looked around her and something tugged at the back of her mind. There was something here...something she was meant to see...

"What did you promise the elf?"

She flinched and reflexively tightened her grip on her shawl. Thorin was watching her now and it was Brie's turn to drop her gaze, studying her feet as she started taking deliberate steps up the walkway.

"It doesn't matter now," she said, "It was a long time ago."

"I do not like to think you are beholden to him."

"It isn't like that," she assured him, "He holds nothing over me. And it is a price I am more than willing to pay."

"Briallen—" Brie stopped walking, though she couldn't meet his eyes. "—what did you give him?"

She reached out and brushed her fingers over the purple blooms that lined this side of the path. Belladonna. Silence.

"My word," she said, "That I would never again speak of what happened beneath the dungeons of Mirkwood."

There was a long pause. Brie heard the echo of a wolf howl, felt the swirl of snowflakes against her cheek, and shivered, tugging her shawl more firmly about her.

"Why?" Thorin asked, "Why would you do that?"

Brie rolled her eyes and turned back to face him, hoping he could not see the shimmer of her tears.

"Because you were dying," she said, "And it was all I had left."

He stared at her. He stared at her for so long that Brie thought she would burn up from the fire of his eyes. Finally he looked away, his expression darkened.

"A'girilu agludab asti," he murmured, so low Brie almost didn't hear him.

...he will never deserve you, dearest...

She reached out and touched his arm.

"Sagladabîn 'uglakh."

He shuddered as she spoke and Brie pulled back, retreating into her shawl. Perhaps she had said it wrong. Or perhaps she had misunderstood him. She wasn't exactly fluent in Khuzdul, but she had thought...

"You shouldn't say such things," Thorin said sharply, beginning their walk again, "I have done nothing to earn it."

...love is not a thing you can earn…

"I never thanked you," she said, trying to drown out the words that echoed in her head.

Thorin looked down at her, his brow furrowed in confusion.

"For...Asgaron," she said, "If you hadn't been there…"

She trailed off. The truth was, if he hadn't been there she would have Faded long before Asgaron had finished with her. She had been so far gone. And yet here she was, walking among the yarrow and amaryllis and lavender, and she still didn't—

She stopped. The thing that had been tugging at the back of her mind came back, strong and insistent. There was something here, something she was missing, and if she could just put her finger on it...

Yarrow: war.

Amaryllis: distrust.

Lavender: pride.

A small voice, Ori's voice, came floating back to her from a memory that felt like a lifetime ago.

I've had to make copies...one's loaned out...

Her flower book. The dictionary she had given to the scribe to satisfy his curiosity. But he had made copies and given them to...who? She had never asked.

Thorin was saying something, but she barely heard him. She started walking again, past the fraxinella and dragonswort (fire and horror...she shuddered), past the stalks of purple motherwort (concealed love) and pink rosebushes (friendship and admiration). The scent of fresh, clean southernwood (bantering) gave her pause and she glimpsed a patch of sunny yellow to her left.

Oxeye.

They are a message, oh King Under the Mountain.

And what message would that be?

Patience.

She reached out with trembling fingers to touch the yellow petals, tall and waving in the breeze. She could see it now, the whole path laid out before her in her mind's eye.

Bright white clusters of sweet alison: worth beyond beauty.

You have a natural grace, more than any dwarf could dream of...

Pops of yellow bearded crepis: protection.

What did you mean, throwing your sword down like that?

They were going to kill you!

The thick leaves and fluffy buds of dew plant: a serenade.

Golden slumber kiss your eyes...

And on the far side of the cavern, among a tangle of everlasting pea (an appointed meeting) and St. John's Wort (animosity), lay the end of the path. Only...she had been looking at it the wrong way. The end of the path wasn't really the end...it was the beginning.

The beginning of everything.

"Nanginguh?" Thorin's voice drifted down into her thoughts. "Briallen, are you alright?"

...Ask him…

The echo of her father's voice brought her back, and she turned. Thorin was still there, watching her with a mixture of concern and apprehension.

"What does it mean?" she asked. Thorin's brow furrowed in confusion and Brie gathered her strength. "Nanginguh. What does it mean?"

Thorin flinched and dropped his eyes again, but Brie reached out and grabbed his arm, insistent, determined. She had to know. It was what her father had meant, what he had been trying to tell her at the end. It was everything she was afraid of and everything she needed if she wanted to keep living.

...Ask him what it means…

"Thorin…what does it mean?"

He shut his eyes and took a breath, as if gathering himself for the worst.

"My flower," he whispered, almost inaudibly, "It means 'my flower'."

And suddenly she knew. She had always known. It was as plain as the nose on her face, as Bungo might have said: the soft snatches of song tugging her free of nightmares; a primrose, carved upon a shield; steady hands and warm skin. And over all of it, one word spoken softly over and over:

Nanginguh. Nanginguh. Nanginguh.

But it didn't mean 'my flower'. Not really. In the same way that this garden was not really a garden. It was a story. It was their story. Told in soil and color and painstaking care. Brie's hand slipped until it touched Thorin's hand, clasped his warm, strong fingers in hers. She took a step closer, close enough to breathe him in, pipesmoke and metal and fresh-turned earth. She waited until he dared to look at her, to touch the blue fire of his eyes to hers. She smiled.

"I love you too."

Chapter Text

{One}

The intricacies of dwarven courting were a maze that Brie quickly realized she wasn't quite prepared to navigate. On the surface it appeared fairly simple. There were four gifts: khajamir-rathâkh (the hands-gift) khajamib-baraf (the clan-gift) khajamid-zailu (the mind-gift), and khajamik-kurdu (the heart-gift). Each party exchanged gifts (usually in order, but this wasn't as rigid as one might have expected) and when the exchanging of gifts was done, they were married. Simple enough.

Except that without Brie's realizing, Thorin had already presented her with her first gift.

"The garden?" she asked incredulously.

Bofur shrugged, stirring his tea. They were sitting together in the Ri's parlor, alone for now, as Bofur was the only one of her brothers not currently...struggling with her, admittedly unexpected, decision to allow Thorin's courting. Even Ori, usually the optimistic romantic, had furrowed his brow in concern. But Bofur seemed neither surprised, nor bothered by the sudden turn of events. As well he shouldn't be, since Brie had her suspicions that many of the circumstances leading up to this had been engineered by Bofur himself. The sneaky creature.

"It was made with his hands," Bofur said, sipping thoughtfully, "And he did specifically designate it a gift for you. Technically, that's khajamir-rathâkh."

Brie groaned and buried her head in her arms at the table.

"How on earth am I to come up with something like that?"

"Well, there's no use comparing your gifts before you've even begun," Bofur said firmly, "It sort of defeats the point. The point is to make something that is the truest representation of you."

"Of me?" Brie asked, "What in the world would that be?"

"Well, darling, that's really not for me to say," Bofur said, unhelpfully, "Most dwarves choose a gift of their omdit for these things. That's what I did."

"Your omdit?" Brie asked, "I never saw you give Bilbo any..."

She trailed off as realization dawned.

"Buttons," she said softly, "His forget-me-not buttons."

Bofur smiled sheepishly down into his tea. "It wasn't really fair, of course. I knew he didn't know what they meant. And that I wouldn't be getting anything in return. But..." His eyes glazed over for a moment, then he blinked it away and shrugged. "I guess I couldn't help but hope."

Brie smiled and reached out to cover his hand with her own.

"I'm glad you're here, Bofur," she said, "I don't know what we would have done without you."

Bofur's smile turned into a mischievous grin. "Nori and Bilbo would have torn each other apart in the first month."

Brie laughed.

"Most likely," she said, "It is nice, though, hearing them both agree on something for once."

"Even if they're both dead wrong," Bofur said, taking a sip of his tea.

Brie hesitated.

"Are they?" she asked, running a finger along the rim of her cup, "It's just...I wonder if maybe I'm...not seeing things clearly."

Bofur blinked at her and then set his teacup down on the table, his face set into a determined expression.

"I'm no expert, namad," he said firmly, "I've never claimed to be. And of course it could all go pear-shaped, and I'm sure Nori and Bilbo will murder me and bury me in the back garden if it does. But that is a risk I am willing to take, because I truly believe this is where you are meant to be."

He reached across the table and took her hand.

"I would give my life, twice over, to see you happy and whole even for a little while."

Brie could feel the strength of his conviction echo inside of her, and she smiled. He returned her smile and his expression of solemn gravity floated away, replaced by his more familiar joviality.

"So," he said, sitting back and picking up his cup again, "We're back to the problem of khajamir-rathâkh"

Brie sighed and sat back herself, staring into the parlor fire.

"And I have no omdit," she said, sullenly.

"'Course you don't," Bofur said sensibly, "You're thinking about it like a dwarf, but you aren't. You're a hobbit. So, what would you give him if we were back in the Shire?"

"Well, I…"

Brie trailed off. She knew exactly what she would give him if she were in the Shire. But it seemed silly now, considering what he had given her.

...there's no use comparing your gifts before you've even begun...make something that is the truest representation of you...

Bofur smiled knowingly at her over his tea cup.

"Best to get it over with, nadith," he said, "No second guesses."

Brie sat up and took a settling breath, then nodded decisively.


The next morning, Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain, opened his door to find a flower crown hanging on his door handle. Primroses. He took it carefully in his hands, turning it over and over as if he could not quite believe it was real. Then slowly, he began to smile.

He wore it all day, even to the meeting of the Guild heads. No one dared to question it, or the twinkle of a grin that colored his every expression.


{Two}

Brie might not have had a full understanding of dwarven courting customs, but the second gift was a phrase that she was painfully familiar with.

"I would have given it to you...my khajamib-baraf…"

She hadn't understood what it meant all those years ago on the wall. Not really. But now even the thought that Thorin might consider giving her...it turned her stomach. She nearly called the whole thing off. In fact, she was still considering it half an hour before she was meant to be at dinner, half an hour before they were meant to exchange gifts before their friends and families.

"You'll wear down the stone, you keep pacing like that."

Brie jumped and turned to Nori, who was leaning against the doorframe of her room with a forcibly neutral expression on his face.

"This is a terrible idea," Brie blurted out, going back to her pacing, "I don't even have anything of my family's to give. I would have to send for my things back in the Shire, and what would I give him anyway, my mother's doilies? At least the primroses meant something, I can't just… I don't…"

She couldn't breathe. Gasping, she sank down onto the bed and covered her face with her hands.

"This is a terrible idea," she repeated, her voice muffled and heavy with unshed tears, "I can't do this. I can't..."

For a long while there was only silence, filled with the sounds of her terrified breathing. Then she felt the bed sink down beside her and the warmth of Nori's presence at her side. She sniffed and dropped her hands to her lap, but didn't dare look at him. They hadn't really spoken much since Brie had given Thorin his flower crown. Though he put on the appearance of being resigned to the situation, Brie knew that he was still upset. She sometimes thought she knew Nori better than she knew herself. Kurdu-nadad—the brother of her heart.

"Do you know he threw that stone into the lake?"

Brie's breath caught and she looked up. Nori was scowling down at his clasped hands, elbows on his knees, not looking at her.

"What?"

Nori shut his eyes and let out a long breath through his nose.

"Ori told me," he said, "That time they came through the Shire. It was...part of his coronation ceremony."

Brie could only stare for a long moment.

"...it's gone?"

Nori shrugged. Brie felt as if a boulder had been lifted off her chest. She took a deep, cleansing breath and touched his shoulder.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

He opened his eyes and gave her a look. She already knew the answer. She dropped her hand. They were silent again for a long while.

"I'm scared, Briallen."

He was staring at his hands again, now open and palms up. They were shaking.

"I wish I were as strong as you," he whispered, "I wish I could just let it go, as easy as that, but…he hurt you, Brie. And I'm supposed to keep you safe. I know I've done a poor job of it thus far, but—"

Brie took both his hands in hers, cutting off his words.

"Never say that," she said sternly, "Never, nadad."

He looked up, his hazel eyes searching her face.

"You didn't mean it, did you?" he asked, though it was more of a statement than a question, "About it being a bad idea. You're still going through with it."

Brie felt a tiny smile tug at the corners of her lips. Perhaps Nori knew her just as well as she knew Nori.

"I suppose I am," she said, though the realization made her quake a little inside, "I...I love him, Nori. I really do."

Nori's lips twitched upward and he touched a finger gently to her nose.

"Stubborn mim ghivasha," he whispered. Then he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Fine. Then I have something you can give him."


The dinner was held in the chambers of Princess Dis, and the entire royal family, as well as the whole of the original Company were present. Though the food was excellent (prepared under Bombur's expert supervision), Brie could barely stomach any of it. She and Thorin had been seated at opposite ends of the table and when she caught Thorin's eye he smiled, but it was hesitant and tense. She almost wished she could not see him at all.

The meal finally ended and the party moved into the parlor. Without ceremony or delay, Thorin strode directly to the mantelpiece and took down a small parcel, wrapped in plain brown paper. Brie could see his hand trembling slightly as he handed it to her.

"It's...not so fine as you deserve," he said, "But it means a great deal to me."

Brie fumbled with the string a bit before she finally managed to unwrap the parcel. Cupped in her palm was a gold ring, set with a square cut ruby and intricately carved with runes that Brie could not quite make out. It was clearly too big for her finger and so had been strung with a fine gold chain.

"It was my father's," Thorin said, his voice tinged with warmth and sadness in equal measure, "And my grandfather's. And generations of Durin's line before him."

Brie ran her finger over the ruby's smooth surface and was surprised to find it warm to the touch.

"It's magic," Brie said, lifting it up and turning it into the firelight, "I can feel it."

"It's said that whoever holds it is granted a measure of protection," he said, "A touch of life, drawn from the fabric of the world."

Brie stared at him, the ring held suspended in her fingers. He was watching her carefully, his eyes flicking from the ring to her face. And she was suddenly, painfully aware of the fact that he would outlive her. Even if all went well—if peace was maintained and the Fading never returned to haunt her—Thorin's natural life span was years over hers. And he knew it. That was the real reason he had given her this gift, a desperate clinging hope that they might live together for as long as was possible. She blinked away tears and turned the ring over in her fingers, trying to think of something to say.

"Well," Ori piped up, breaking the heavy silence, "That makes our gift seem rather silly."

"Oi!" Nori exclaimed, crossing his arms, "I've a right mind to be offended. I am far better than some dusty, old trinket!"

Thorin raised an eyebrow and looked at Briallen.

"You're giving me...your brother?"

Brie straightened herself and clenched the ring in her fist, taking a strange comfort in its warmth.

"No, your majesty," she said haughtily, "I am giving you a spymaster."

She heard a choking sound from over by the mantel where Dwalin and Balin were standing. Nori stepped up to her side with his arms crossed, eyeing Thorin with a not-quite-glare. Thorin looked slightly intimidated, but held his ground.

"Heard you were needing one," Nori said curtly, "And as I appear to be in this thing for the long haul now, thought I might as well make myself useful."

"You're staying, then?"

Dwalin's gruff voice and stiff bearing were belied by the flickering of his eyes, searching the whole of Nori's face, as if waiting for the ruse to reveal itself. Nori glanced at him, and then away, down at his feet. He shrugged.

"Suppose I am."

There was a long beat of silence, but then Nori seemed to shake it off and resettle himself.

"The dwarves in these parts don't know my face as well as the others," he said, "I can reforge old contacts easily enough, especially with some of the old gang from Ered Luin, they'll get me in with the right sorts. So long as your guardsmen don't try to tell me how to conduct my business, it ought to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. You get a better eye on your kingdom...and I keep a better eye on you. For whatever reason I might need to."

He gave Thorin a very pointed look and Brie was about to touch his elbow, to draw him back, but Thorin put out his hand instead.

"We would be lucky to have you, Master Nori."

Nori stared him down for a moment or two longer, and then grudgingly accepted the hand.

"I'm only doing this for her, you know."

"Nori!" Brie exclaimed, but Thorin didn't even flinch.

"And I appreciate your diligence," the king said, "But I assure you, Master Nori, that I intend to spend the rest of my life not meeting your expectations."

Nori raised an eyebrow and, for the first time all evening, he smiled, though the expression was sharp and almost predatory.

"Good."

Brie buried her face in her hands.

"Green Mother preserve us," she murmured.

"And Mahal grant his help," Dis agreed, putting an arm around her shoulders, "Welcome to the life of a dwarrowdam, namad."

Brie only groaned in answer.


{Three}

After the agonizing deliberation of the first two gifts, Brie had been certain that the khajamid-zailu, the marriage contract,would be the easy part.

She had been mistaken.

"Don't be ridiculous, of course Fili is still the heir!"

Balin gave Thorin a knowing look, and the king dropped his eyes to the table.

"That is not generally how right of succession works," he mumbled.

"Well, I don't care two jots," Brie said, crossing her arms and stamping her foot, "He's been working for this his whole life. He deserves it!"

"No one is arguing his worth—"

"For goodness sake, he is your son!" Brie went on, outrage at the mere suggestion driving her on, "Anyone who doesn't see that is as blind as a mole rat! This shouldn't even be a discussion!"

"Unfortunately, there are a surprising amount of mole rats in Erebor, my dear," Balin said gently, "We simply must be explicit about these things or someone will find a way to manipulate the situation in the future. It has to be done."

Brie snorted and sat down hard in her chair.

"Fine, put it down," she said, "Fili, and then Kili, before anyone else."

Balin tucked away a smile and dutifully made a note on his parchment. Thorin had still not looked up from the table, but he made no objection.

"Now, let's see," Balin said, humming and reaching for another sheet of parchment, "There is the matter of your education and coronation ceremony—"

"My what?" Brie squeaked, sitting up.

Balin glanced up and raised one bushy eyebrow.

"Well, you'll need a bit of instruction before you can take up the mantel as the second half of our monarchy. You'll have to learn our laws and the histories behind them, you'll need to be schooled in proper Khuzdul—" Here he gave her a pointed look that made Brie blush a little and cross her feet under the table. "—and in the duties you'll be expected to perform, as well as our traditions and customs. Normally, this wouldn't be so much of an issue, as a dwarrowdam would already have this knowledge, but—"

Thorin growled and Balin gave him a stern look.

"We've discussed this, your majesty," the old dwarf said in a measured tone, "There will be opposition even if we take these measures. You know this."

"My choice is my choice," Thorin grumbled, staring at his hands gripping the edge of the table. His knuckles had gone white.

"And no one is disputing it," Balin agreed, "But you are attempting to bring an outsider into dwarven affairs of state. There will be protest."

Thorin shot him a glare that Balin met with only a raised eyebrow and crossed arms.

"Couldn't I just...be his wife?" Brie suggested tentatively, "Like a consort, instead of a queen? If it would make things easier—"

"You are not a latrûnayusth!" Thorin snapped, "I'll have none say it!"

Brie flinched and Thorin's glare vanished in a blink, replaced with wide-eyed dismay. He stood up and, for a moment, Brie thought he might flee the room, but instead he paced the floor, running his hands over his face a few times as if to scrub away the last remnants of a terrible nightmare. He finally settled with his hands resting on the back of his chair and let out a long breath through his nose.

"You're right, Balin," he said, nodding to him, "Forgive me, I...lost sight for a moment."

Balin relaxed in his own seat and gave Thorin a fond, understanding smile.

"No one is trying to take her from you, Thorin," he said, gently.

"Well, of course, they're not," Brie agreed, sitting up defiantly and crossing her arms, "After everything we've seen, you really think a few grouchy, old politicians are going to frighten me off?"

Thorin gave her a reluctant smile. "They are very grouchy."

"You haven't met my cousin, Lobelia."

Thorin chuckled and sank back down into his chair.

"I've heard stories," he said, with a glimmer in his eye, "I look forward to the introduction."

Brie felt a spark of wickedness touch her smile. "As a matter of fact, so do I."

"Excellent," Balin said, scratching something onto the parchment in front of him, "Of course, I am happy to volunteer myself as a tutor for our future queen, if she is amenable. I believe with your foundation of—"

"Wait," Brie said, blinking back to the present, "Are we still doing the coronation? I thought that we—"

"My dear," Balin cut in, giving her a skeptical look, "After that rousing display, you don't really expect us to believe you would be content sitting quietly in the parlor while your husband struggles daily with Erebor's mole rats, do you?"

Brie opened her mouth to protest...and then closed it again. She looked at Thorin, but he was only giving her a smug grin that was absolutely no help at all. She glared and sat back in her chair with a huff. Balin smirked and picked up his pen.

"As I was saying," the old dwarf continued, "I believe with your foundation of basic Khuzdul and customs taught by your brothers, we can safely schedule a coronation for the first year after the wedding. Until then you will simply be a...consort-in-training."

"Can't we find a better word?" Thorin grumbled.

Balin rolled his eyes.

"I know how much you hate it, your majesty, but there is no other word," he said, "If the two of you hadn't spent the last four years trying to kill yourselves through pure stubbornness, things might be simpler. As it is, you will simply have to make do."

Both Brie and Thorin retreated sheepishly, staring at their hands. Balin gave them both a sharp glance, then went back to his parchment.

"So," he said, primly, "Lessons daily, noon to two. Next order of business…"

Brie glanced up and caught Thorin's eye across the table. He was smirking at her, as if he had won some great argument. He looked entirely too smug for his own good, so Brie stuck out her tongue at him. Thorin laughed, and Brie felt much better for it, even under Balin's disapproving glare.


{Four}

The final gift, khajamik-kurdu turned out to be the easiest gift of all. There was a flurry of preparations and a great deal of traveling, but finally, on a fine spring morning almost a year to the day since they had left Bag End (for what she had thought would be the last time), Briallen Baggins found herself sitting on the bench beside the round green door of her family smial. The little garden that the Gamgees had started in their absence would flourish this year, without anyone to meddle and kill all the new growth. She smiled and shut her eyes. She could almost imagine her father there, kneeling in the earth with a trowel in his hand and his hat on his head. In her mind, he sat back on his heels, looked up at her and smiled.

"That's my girl..."

"Brie?"

She opened her eyes. Bilbo was standing in the open doorway, in his fine red waistcoat and lavender-ribboned hair, watching her anxiously. He had been like this for weeks now, constantly searching for any sign that there might be something amiss. But as much as Brie still had moments of doubt, as much as she still wondered about the wisdom of her choices, she could not deny that there were no black tendrils at the edges of her vision, no sinking feeling in her chest, no sign of the Fading at all. She felt light and free and nothing could be more right than that.

She moved over a little so Bilbo could sit beside her on the bench, their feet swinging in tandem.

"Are you nervous?" he asked.

"A bit," she admitted, "It's an awful lot of words."

"I managed it alright, and with far less practice than you've had," Bilbo said, "You'll do fine."

They sat another moment in silence.

"I'll miss you, Brie."

His breath caught on the words and Brie felt tears well up in her eyes. She blinked them back and took his hand in hers.

"Me too."

"Do you..." He paused and shifted in his seat. "Do you remember what you said to me? A long time ago, we were running for our lives, and I was so cross with myself that I had left you to face Azog alone. You said, 'Sometimes, Bilbo, being together doesn't mean side-by-side. It means—'"

"—that you are here," Brie said, pressing Bilbo's hand to her heart, "And I am here." She reached out and pressed her other hand to his chest.

"And that means we are never alone," Bilbo finished, "Even when we're apart."

Brie smiled. "Together or not at all."

He squeezed her hand. "Together or not at all."

The sound of a crash reverberated from the meadow below, followed by the sounds of raucous laughter, both dwarven and hobbit alike, drowning out the gentle music that had been drifting on the morning breeze.

Bilbo chuckled and wiped his eyes.

"We'd better get down there," he said, getting to his feet, "Or there might not be much of a party left."

Brie took his offered hand and let him pull her to her feet. She could see the party tree at the base of the hill, all decked in blue and gold and lavender. There was a crowd of hobbits and dwarves all waiting down there. Thorin was waiting. Waiting to give that final gift, the gift of words that would bind their hearts together.

Brie squeezed her brother's arm, and made her way down to meet him.


{Five}

-One Year Later-

Briallen paced the empty hallway, heavy robes swishing against the stone, muttering words and phrases under her breath. This was madness. It was all madness, everything, the coronation, the...

She pressed a hand to her middle and then dropped it again, twisting her fingers together. Nobody knew. She hadn't told anyone, had not even been to see Oin, but... She had always scoffed at hobbit housewives who talked about just knowing, but she thought she understood now. She just knew. And it did nothing but terrify her further.

"Stop that," Dis said, appearing around the corner and standing in the way with her hands on her hips, "You're going to wear a trough in the floor."

Brie stopped pacing and looked at her sister-in-law, feeling only a tinge of jealousy at how well her courtly robes fit her, how easily she seemed to command the space around her, how well suited she was for the job that Brie was about to succeed her in.

"I can't do this," she said, turning to press her back to the stone wall and burying her face in her hands, "I don't know why I ever thought I could. I'm not a queen! I'm not even a dwarf! I'll never be able to do this, never—"

"Well, you're going to have to," Dis said unapologetically, "Because whether or not you go through with the ceremony, I'm leaving for Ered Luin in two days, and Erebor needs a queen. Thorin is a very good king, but he is rubbish about trying to do everything on his own. And he's picked you, so..."

Dis shrugged, her arms crossed in what might have been a stern fashion to anyone that did not know her. In the year since Brie had come to live in Erebor, she had come to love Dis as much as any sister. She would miss her when she was gone. But the princess's heart still called for the Blue Mountains, and so Thorin had agreed to give them into her rule. She had an air of eager anticipation about her as the date of her impending departure neared, and Brie was happy for her. But she was right, of course. Erebor needed a queen. And Thorin had picked her. Which made Brie the only person in all of Middle-Earth qualified for the job, however badly qualified she might feel.

She pushed off the wall and straightened her robes, as Dis moved forward and fussed with the braids in her hair, rearranging the strings of sapphires and bits of silver.

"There," she said, "Now you look like a queen."

Brie smiled and took the other woman's hand, but before she could make a fool of herself with sentimental rubbish, one of the large stone doors behind them cracked open, letting loose a torrent of sound from the cavernous room on the other side. Ori poked his head out and gave Brie a tentative smile.

"We're ready."

Dis squeezed her hand and glided off to take her place at her brother's side, to hand over the mantel that she had worn for three long years. Brie felt the loss of her warmth keenly and pressed her hand to her stomach again.

"Nerves?" Ori asked, and Brie dropped her hand again.

"A little," she confessed.

Ori smiled brightly at her.

"Don't worry, namad," he said as he positioned her in front of the entrance and made a motion to the guards on either side, "They're going to love you."

Brie thought about the tiny life growing inside her and felt another twitch of uncertainty.

"I certainly hope so," she whispered, as the doors were pulled open and the fanfare began, drowning out the noise of thousands of dwarves that waited beyond, the dwarves of Erebor. Even though the dais seemed miles away, Brie thought she could detect the tiniest hint of a smile on Thorin's face, though the rest of his bearing was solemn and stately. It gave Brie the courage she needed to straighten her spine and make her way down the narrow walkway, to whatever fate waited for her.

Whatever came next, they would face it together.

The End